Sunday, November 2, 2014

Violent death, violent life and the ties that bind

This commentary was published by the Star Tribune newspaper, November 3, 1992. It was originally broadcast on KFAI FM in Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 1, 1992.

By Gary Peterson

Whatever Earl Craig and Jayme Starkey were looking for when their paths crossed on Hennepin Av. last January, it has turned into a terrible waste of two lives. One is dead and the other has been sentenced at age 19 to 25-1/2 years in prison. I can't help but wonder how and why these things keep happening.

I wonder, too, about the Minneapolis cop who was killed. Someone shot him in the back for no reason at all. He was shot in a pizza joint on Lake St. in Minneapolis, where cops have gathered for over 25 years and where they felt safe, because it was their place. They've been out looking for the guys that did it. 

While thinking about that, I remembered the summer when Joel Larson, John Chenoweth and Cord Draszt were shot. Larson and Chenoweth died. Jay Johnson pleaded guilty to all of it. The three were shot for no reason at all, and in places where gays have gathered for years. Gays felt fairly safe in those places because they were our places.

Other people get shot all the time, usually for no reason at all. I try to look for answers by listening to the stories of people I know and meet. I meet a lot of people: gay, straight, white and black. Most could never dream of pulling a trigger. At least, I hope that's true. 

I wonder how it is that we manage to be so violent to each other. And there are so many other ways we violate the bonds of our humanity.

In relationships, many of us beat each other up – for no real reason either. Often, in relying on the assumed kindness of family, friends, and strangers, we find ourselves verbally assaulted in the privacy of our homes, where we work, and out on the streets. 

We even assault ourselves and each other in the debate and discourse of our public life. We are told we must put up with negative political campaigns because candidates fear that they might lose something important if they don't get personal and dirty.

The dignity and civility that should inform our words and actions seems to be missing more often than not.

I regularly spend time at night walking around Fair Oaks Park near my house in Minneapolis. I use the walks as my thinking time and as my alone time. Usually, I am the only person in the park. Once in a while, I encounter another person.

I encountered a young man there one night last spring. He was black and he went out of his way to approach me.

He just wanted to talk. And so we did. Actually, he did most of the talking. Turns out he was homeless and lives on the streets.

While he was telling me his story, another young man approached. This second man, too, was black. This new person clearly did not want to talk to us, and gripped the pocket of his jacket as he sailed on by.

"Did you see that?" asked my conversation partner. "He's packing a gun."

I had seen it, and I was trying to pretend to myself that I hadn't.

"I could never carry a gun around with me," my new friend said. "'Cause man, I don't need to. I've got my own weapon right here," he said, tapping his pocket. "Here, let me show you."

About that time, I was asking myself why I was still standing there, but I didn't move. "That's all right," I told him. "I don't need to see your weapon."

"But I want to show you – here."

Out of his pocket he fished a small book. It was one of those New Testament Bibles. "This is all the weapon I need," he told me. "It gets me through a lot of stuff."

He talked about that. And he talked about what it's like living on the streets.

"You have no idea what it's like out here," he said. "It gets so tough. Sometimes, it all builds up inside, and I just don't know what to do. Man, I just don't know what to do. This might sound kinda weird, man, but can I cry on your shoulder – just for a minute? Can I cry on your shoulder?"

I thought, "You've got to be kidding." But he wasn't. And he did. 

I cannot tell you how humbling that was.

When we went our separate ways, I was wondering how these things happen. 

Since that time, I have had two other conversations in the park with black men. One of them guessed that I was gay without my telling him, and he observed that if he had a house and family, it would be nice if we could come over to each other's place for supper. I allowed as how that would be nice.

The third guy made me promise to do a favor before I went on my way. "Dude," he told me, "I may never get myself together enough to change anything in my life. And I don't know who you are and what you can do either. But I can tell by looking at you that you've got it all over me. If, sometime, you ever get a chance to just say a word – please – we're out here. Tell them."

I've been thinking about those young black men. Black men in Minneapolis are feeling a lot of fear and anger as police search for the murderers of Officer Jerry Haaf. The cops are feeling angry and unsafe too. Some who have had less-than-ideal interactions with cops might be tempted to say, "It's about time, they deserve to feel fearful." But I don't think so. Cops are people, too. And they have their own stories.

My brother-in-law is a cop.

Five years ago, when he married my baby sister, my partner, James, and I attended the ceremony up in Fridley. It was kind of a hurried affair for James and me. After church we were driving to the airport to fly down to Washington for a gay rights march.

While we were at the church, it came time to do the thing with family pictures. James and I had already settled the picture and other issues with his family, and I had been in three family photos taken at weddings in his hometown church. But for my people, it was a new deal, and everyone felt awkward and silent as we lined up for the photographer, with James standing across the room from us.

I felt like I should say something, but I didn't know what to say or whom to say it to. And I didn't want to mar the occasion.

It was Steve, the cop, who broke the ice and called to James to come over to our side of the room where he belonged for the photo. It was the cop who found his voice when the rest of us did not.

We might remember the big things in life better, but it's the little things that really matter.

Like the day we sat in a high school assembly back in 1968, and it was announced that a former classmate had been killed in Vietnam. I thought about him when they were dedicating the Vietnam memorial in St. Paul.

James and I looked his name up on the Wall when we were in Washington five years ago. We had had a great time at the march and the speeches were all wonderful. And the AIDS Quilt, which was unrolled for the first time, left us wondering how this could happen and when it would end.

As the day wore on, it got cloudy and very cold, when we found his name. And as I stood crying in front of the Wall and thinking about that damn war and how much trouble it had caused, I wondered how all this could happen.

I didn't know then, and I still don't know now.

I'm carrying on about all this because, somehow, it all feels connected.

We're all in this mess of a life together. Sometimes, you wouldn't know it when we see or read about what awful things we say and do to each other. And I wonder how it happens, and what it all means.

And, sometimes, I just have to tell it all to a friend, and hope the friend will hear it, and hope that they'll somehow understand it and make sense of it. And hope that the telling might somehow make it better.

Gary Peterson is producer and host of "Fresh Fruit," a radio program serving the Twin Cities gay community, and broadcast Thursdays, 7pm, on KFAI-FM.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Where the trouble is" in race, class, and culture

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Today is a gorgeous, balmy day. One to be savored while reflecting about urban life, race, class, and culture.

Riding the Metro Transit Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to the University of Minnesota this morning, I sat behind two, retired white matrons from Edina. They had come downtown and were on an adventure to downtown St. Paul. One of them observed that she once came downtown for an interesting walk around a few blocks during the farmers' market.

Perfectly pleasant folks.

As the train approached the mammoth construction of the new Vikings stadium, one wondered, "What apartment buildings are they putting up now?"

"Did you see that Edina has more than 6,000 apartment units?"

"Yes, and there was that hearing last night about that place they want to build for wayward youth. I didn't go over, but I watched it on television. It started at 7pm and was still going on at 12:30am."

"One is for it and another is against it?"

"Pretty much."

"So, what is this thing here?"

I leaned forward and told them it is the new Vikings stadium. 

"Well look at that. This where that is. Just huge. Thank you for telling us."

Rounding a bend a few blocks further on, both women pointed to the towers of the Cedar Riverside apartment complex. I lived there years ago.

"Look, there. That's where all the trouble is. The Somalis."

"Yes. Shootings, killings, murders. And they put them all together!"

"We are really seeing a lot, and we still have a long way to go."

My stop was next. I exited, fighting tears. My heart does not want to bleed anymore. It is amazing how much insight one can gain from less than five minutes of overheard conversation. 

I suppose these people have a right to shelter themselves and their world views, but I do not understand it. 

These two reside in one of our most affluent suburbs. Traditionally, no more than a few apartment buildings were welcomed there, so it can be a bit of culture shock for many of them to find 6,000 in their midst.

The project they referenced which was the subject of last night's public hearing is not for "wayward" youth but "homeless" youth. There is much more than a semantic, dime's worth of difference between the two for anyone who has an interest in asking a few questions. The reason the project is proposed for Edina is because that's where the homeless youth are – these are their children, and there is nothing wrong with most of them.

For all its visibility and the complaints about the public cost of the Vikings stadium, one of the most expensive public projects in state history, these two individuals did now know where it was located. 

However, they definitely thought they knew "where all the trouble is."

Because they have become able to ignore the violence that happens behind closed doors and even on the streets of Edina that does not get reported. I could give voice to numerous, ugly stereotypes about Edina and the "kind" of people who live there, but life is too short. 

I can imagine how their conversation probably continued as they passed through an even more diverse set of communities stretched out along the length of the Green Line, but life is too short.

I hope they had a nice lunch in St. Paul.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Minneapolis artists, others: Vote for Rep. Phyllis Kahn in August 12 primary election

Minneapolis, Minnesota

A shibboleth of politics that also applies to life, business, and love holds that “You dance with the ones that brought you.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, center, with Rep. Karen Clark, left.
Minneapolis voters in Legislative District 60B have an interesting choice in the DFL Party primary election, August 12. Interesting, but clear. Voters – particularly artists – should mark their ballots for Phyllis Kahn.

Kahn has organized the dance, engaged the orchestra, mailed the invitations, and beat the bushes to make sure folks attend the party. Born in Brooklyn, New York, educated at Cornell, Yale, and Harvard, and now living on Nicollet Island, she has led with intellectual vigor, political savvy, and fierce engagement on the district's major issues since her first election in 1972.

In 1974, during her campaign for re-election, she could be found at the campaign office of Wes Skoglund, a candidate for the Minnesota Legislature whose opponent was the former mayor, Charlie Stenvig. On one occasion, we were stuffing envelopes together when she told me "Either smoke that cigarette or put it out!" I quickly took a final drag and snuffed it out.

Kahn and Skoglund both won that year and, in 1975, she served successfully as chief author of the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act that restricted smoking in public places.

Since then, she has shepherded laws into existence to protect the environment; promote rights and opportunities for women, the dispossessed, and the marginalized; prohibit discrimination based on age and disability; establish gender equity in athletics; and much more.

In 1983, my roommates – Larry Mathias and Jon Hove – and I hosted a canvassing event for Brian Coyle's campaign for the Minneapolis City Council from our 23rd floor apartment in the West Bank neighborhood. Kahn organized and showed up with food to feed the political foot soldiers who went door-to-door delivering campaign literature. Coyle won his first of three terms that year, becoming the council's first openly gay member.

Among other committee assignments, Kahn chairs the House Legacy Committee, providing oversight and maintaining enabling legislation for the constitutional amendment passed by Minnesota voters in 2008 to fund arts and culture, the environment and natural resources, clean water, outdoor heritage, and parks and trails.

Her support for the arts has been second to none among her legislative peers. Personally, she and her family have patronized the Walker Art Center, Weisman Museum, Mixed Blood Theater, "and many more." The many more include long-standing patronage of The Southern Theater and its artists in the Seven Corners District of the West Bank neighborhood.

In 2011, when I served as the Southern's director amid a financial meltdown resulting from years of mismanagement, some of the Southern's friends ducked for cover while others spit tacks of blame. Phyllis and Donald Kahn stood by us strongly, asking only how they could help. They responded promptly and generously, as they had before that crisis and as they have since.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn
I do not need newcomers telling me that Phyllis Kahn is out of touch or ineffective. They simply do not know what they are talking about. Her legislative seniority alone provides more power for progressive minded people – and the issues important to them – than do all of her opponent's good intentions to hit the ground running if elected.

There is much to like about her opponent, Mohamud Noor. A native of Somalia who arrived in Minneapolis 15 years ago, Noor set about earning a degree in computer science from Metropolitan State University and resides with his family, currently, in the Seward neighborhood. 

He serves as interim executive director of the Confederation of Somalia Community in Minnesota, located in the West Bank's Brian Coyle Community Center, and gained his first foothold in public office by appointment to fill a vacancy on the Minneapolis School Board only last December. 

I do not live or have a vote in District 60B, and would welcome an opportunity to vote for Mr. Noor for another office in days to come.

That said, the best candidate to represent the DFL Party in November's general election is Phyllis Kahn. The primary election happens Tuesday, August 12, at the polls. No-excuse-absentee-voting is happening now. People can register online or by mail. Find more information here.

If you live in District 60B, vote for the one who brought you: Phyllis Kahn. If you do not live there, pass the word to your friends who do.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Déjà vu in Twin Cities' Southwest LRT debate

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Discussion and drama surrounding the routing of the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line in the Twin Cities reminds me of the freeway that was proposed for Minneapolis' Hiawatha Avenue in the 1960s, the increased resistance of the south side neighborhoods to the depressed ditch in which such a freeway would have been laid out and constructed, and the emergent support for a boulevard-and-LRT alternative.

Then, as now, experts, interest groups, and politicians at the city, county, state, and federal levels had studied, run their numbers, and shaped the terms of the debate for years. It was not a strong suit of these folks back then to hear and incorporate input from the people who would be impacted most by any construction. Nor did they exhibit any propensity to imagine or consider meaningful alternatives.

At a point in 1975, when most of the skids appeared to have been greased and the possibilities for alternatives seemed lost, the southern neighborhoods sent busloads of people to downtown Minneapolis late on a winter's night to meet with Congressman Donald Fraser in a late effort to obtain any kind of intervention on behalf of city residents. The time and place for that meeting were the only ones that bureaucrats insisted could be found for a meeting with the congressman.

Eventually, the congressional appropriation for a freeway-only option on Hiawatha was stopped or ameliorated, and additional years of study and carrying on at all levels finally resulted in completion of a boulevard-and-LRT alternative when the Hiawatha LRT line opened in 2005. At 40 years, it was possibly the most-planned project in Minnesota history. For at least 25 of those years, we were warned repeatedly that the federal funds in support of any project along the Hiawatha corridor were going to go away. They possibly did, several times.

If we need to delay the Southwest LRT line by five-to-10 more years in order to get it right, the world will not end. Nor will federal funding disappear forever and all time.

The line should be routed and run where the people are, and not where we hope they might be someday. We should build the line south from downtown on Nicollet Mall/Avenue to Lake Street, then west to Uptown, and thence southwest to Eden Prairie.

Couple this construction with the forever-taking-proposals to rid the civic landscape of the K-Mart store at Nicollet and Lake that has closed off one of our major thoroughfares since the 1970s. That would allow for the future possibility of an LRT line that continued down Nicollet and across the Minnesota River to Burnsville and Lakeville.

Alternatively, route a Southwest LRT line south to Eden Prairie from somewhere on West Lake Street. Then, if the presently proposed streetcars prove to be all that hot-n-tot, they can be used to connect the Southwest line at West Lake to the downtown portions that run on the Hiawatha, Central, and (proposed) Bottineau corridors. 

We really don't need to screw up the ecosystem of the Minneapolis lakes along the presently proposed Kenilworth Corridor with either deep or shallow tunnels. Plus, the folks who live around those lakes pay some of the highest property taxes in town to Minneapolis and Hennepin County, and we need all of their money to run those units of government.

It took 40 years to change our collective group think and intellectual infrastructure about freeways and LRT. We have not devoted, and it will not take, anything near 40 years to think through the newer challenges posed by the Southwest LRT line and get them right.