Discomfort and Enclosure

The Seattle Times recently ran an article about the kind of mundane racism that seems to be a matter of course for people of color in our country.

Air Force veteran Byron Ragland was doing his job as a court-appointed special advocate and visitation supervisor, sitting at a table at Menchie’s frozen yogurt shop supervising an outing between a mother and her 12-year-old son. As he was working, two police officers approached him, checked his ID and asked him to leave.

It turns out two employees at the store were uncomfortable with Ragland because he hadn't purchased anything. The employees complained to their boss—an Asian-American man—who called the police. Though Ragland explained he was working and accompanied the mother and son, the trio ended up leaving the store.

The Seattle Police department has since apologized to Ragland for asking him to leave.

A topic that goes unmentioned in the article is the ongoing enclosure of public spaces in this country. More and more, any indoor space has a required price of admission. Practically the only free, public, indoor space available is the library. Even outdoor spaces are increasingly enclosed, regulated, fenced, and patrolled. If you can't pay the fee or don't fit the profile of someone allowed to exist in public, you're asked to move along. People of color feel the effects of this enclosure more frequently than whites and with greater consequences.

It is also highly concerning that the employees either did not feel comfortable asking Ragland what was going on, in which case he could have explained his presence at the shop, or were not empowered to do so.

This story reveals an increasing breakdown in our ability to relate to each other on a basic level. If we cannot have a preliminary interpersonal encounter without involving the police, then frankly we don't have much of a society. If the way we relate to each other in this diminished society is primarily with fear, then I cannot see how we begin the work to rebuild it.

Logan's Failure of Imagination

I have been trying to figure out more to say about Mike who was restrained by Denver Sheriffs and sent to the hospital where he would later die.

What I’ve written so far feels entirely too small. But the situation makes me feel small. The enormity of the mechanism that generates these incidents of injustice is impossible for me to comprehend. My imagination isn't good enough. I'm reduced to doing small things and writing small thoughts.

Words about sin, justice, homelessness, race, responsibility, and reconciliation feel like empty placeholders or feeble attempts at meaning-making. When language fails, what are we left with but to lie down and die or get up and keep going? For too many people, language has utterly failed. All but a very few get up and keep going.

Network Coffeehouse can be hard sometimes, but Mike always made me feel like I was doing good work, and doing it well, and that I could keep going.

Hebdo Technique

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Previous ComicNext Comic | Original art for this comic is available in our store.

Mark here: Charlie Hebdo made news again this week, running two cartoons that played off the image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee toddler photographed drowned on the shore. As you would expect, the reaction was swift and fierce. Many felt that the cartoons were outright mocking an innocent child, dead through no fault of his, or his family’s, own. As with previous controversies, Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons under the banner of dense irony, made in a political framework and supported by untethered free speech. Supporters of the most recent cartoons are backing them on this point now as they did before; though interestingly, we’re not seeing a flurry of “Je suis Charlie” right now.

Why? Well, for one, the last incident led to an attack on the paper and the tragic deaths of twelve people, which compelled many to take their stand for free speech in the face of a radicalized attempt at suppression. This situation isn’t that one.

But let’s look at the cartoons themselves. I read them. I get them. I get the point they’re trying to make. Both are jabs at Europe, one for its soulless embrace of capitalism and the other for its self-righteous moral superiority that folds in the face of actual moral issues (in this case, Europe’s half-assed response to the Syrian refugee crisis). These are subjects that social commentary, of which comedy is a part, should explore in multiple ways. These are topics ready to be ripped apart with razor-sharp jokes.

Yet while I believe all subjects are open to comedy (a principle I know some don’t agree with), I also believe that how you make the joke is just as important, maybe more important, than the joke itself. You can make a joke, but you need a vehicle to get there. Nobody likes just the punchline. In this case, Charlie Hebdo made Aylan the vehicle, and their goal was lost in that moment. Because this child isn’t a vehicle. He’s not a means to an end. He never was, or will be. Humans, as beings, just aren’t less than ends in and of themselves. This is the sin of Hebdo: they thought a dead toddler, a very real one, was their ticket to the punchline, a punchline which could have been reached in a number of other ways.

And if you’re reading this, fuming that I’m not uplifting some unnuanced version of free speech, let’s talk pure comedy. The jokes weren’t good. I got them, but they weren’t good. I don’t even live in Europe and I feel like I could pull off a more clever commentary than that. It said nothing new, nothing that hasn’t been said ad nauseum about the modern West. Political cartoons are supposed to point to more than the obvious; they’re supposed to be subversive to the end of changing minds. And if you want your work to actually change anything, to actually mean something…it’d better be good work.

Instead, they traded on the humanity of a kid to tell a shitty joke, which wasn’t funny. And if your joke isn’t funny, it’s nothing at all.

Encountering Homelessness

Check out the rest of Logan's series on friendship.

Working at Network Coffeehouse, the goal is to be friendly. Christians being friendly; that’s what Network is. That’s what we do.

Sounds pretty simple, but oddly this makes answering questions about what you do a little challenging. The never-ending question that follows after I’ve explained this is, “Do you have success getting people off the street?” or “What do you do to help people get off the street?” or “How many people get off the street there?”

People want to hear about goals and a narrative of meeting those goals. Numbers tell a surface-level story that is easily accessed, digested, and understood.[^1] Goals and mission statements are a narrative about what an organization will do. It’s a pitch. We then act within that story to conform to the pre-constructed narrative.

But Network is about encounter. Narrative—our attempt to construct meaning—only occurs after encounter has already taken place.[^2] John Hicks, the guy who founded Network, says, “We are friends with real-life poor people.” Friendship takes encountering another person and opening yourself up enough to be encountered by someone else.

The second part, opening your heart to another, is the really hard part. Ryan Taylor, the co-director of Network, has been saying for a few months that a major part of coming to Network as staff or a volunteer is encountering the beggar within you. When you serve the poor, especially at a place like Network where the distracting varnish of goals and pre-set narrative is nonexistent, you will encounter parts of yourself you otherwise try to ignore: racism, prejudice, anger, sadness, loss, loneliness. Every shift I run at Network I meet myself at my very best and my most callous, passionless worst—sometimes in the exact same interaction.

In a nutshell, I found myself saying this at a professional networking event last night. Let me tell you, people looked at me like I was a crazy person. This, too, reveals our poverty. Our unwillingness or inability to encounter a person beyond a narrow narrative constrained by success and failure is a kind of societal violence we participate in without even thinking about it. We minimize each other and ourselves when we fail to encounter each other fully.

Pay attention. It’s the only currency that matters.

  • [^1]: Kierkegaard calls this “glittering externality.”
  • [^2]: Narrative often (always?) functions as a way to gain power over our experiences or the experiences and actions of others.