The Britney Box, essay by Teresa Smith

The Britney Box

by Teresa Smith

CW: mentions of police brutality, school shootings, anti-queer violence, murder of Indigenous people, workplace sexual harassment, racist bullshit, violence against homeless people, suicidal thoughts, big 90s mood; includes a scary description of a mass arrest, as well as multiple brief but unsettling descriptions of bigoted behaviors 

It looks like Britney Spears is becoming synecdochic for my generation again. As a nerdy AFAB close in age to Britney, I always felt like she (or her public persona, at least) was deeply smothering.  I was fourteen in 1999 when Britney Spears was catapulted into every teen’s view. There was just no looking away from her. Or was she looking into us? It sometimes felt like it.

Years later, Derrick Barry, a professional Britney Spears impersonator, would be eliminated from Ru Paul’s Drag Race because he couldn’t seem to do anything other than impersonate her. “You have to get out of the Britney Box,” judge Michelle Visage kept urging him. But there was just no escaping it. He was born around the same time I was. During an interview on All Stars Season 5, just before his elimination, Darrick Barry broke down into tears: “People are always saying, ‘I want to see the real you.’ Well, you’re looking at it.”

Maybe Britney was more like a tuning fork. How could all of us not resonate, even just a little, with the way she seemed to beg to be struck?

The final months of the 1990s were a strange time. We had the internet, but YouTube wouldn’t be invented for another six years. There was no way to stream music videos yet. Cellphones didn’t display pictures and the only “music” they played were shrill MIDI ringtones. The iPod was still two years away. If you wanted new music, you had to physically go to a store to buy a CD.

As a teenager, I lived in a suburb known for its forty-minute commute to Seattle. This place didn’t have bike lanes, and many of the streets lacked sidewalks. There was no suitable public transit to get around town. If you wanted to do anything, you had to convince your parents to drive you.  Or in my case, parent. Having just one parent made accessibility that much harder.

I witnessed my first mass arrest in late 1999. In January of that year, Britney Spears released her debut album, Baby one more time… and over the next many months it would linger at or close to the #1 position on the charts.

In April, Columbine happened. For the next several weeks, you’d see kids crying at high school, right in the middle of class. We all felt it. We didn’t know yet that this would become a thing.  Millennials are the first generation to have had a school shooting occur while we were in K-12. More than any other part of our material reality, this sets us aside from the U.S. generations born before us. In 1999, we didn’t have “active shooter drills” yet, nor armed security guards in high schools, nor bullet-proof automatically-locking classroom doors, nor any of the other remedial practice that would eventually be developed to try and mitigate the anxiety of it all. In 1999, we didn’t have the term “school shooting” yet. There was was just one tragic event, like the sinking of the Titanic. “Never again,” our politicians promised.  It was something so terrible, you couldn’t imagine it happening twice.

I turned fifteen two weeks after Columbine, and I spent much of my birthday hiding in the woods, nursing a bloody lip.

My mother couldn’t understand why I didn’t act like other girls she admired in movies. Why did she keep having to remind me to shave my legs? Sometimes should would sort of “let go” while violently assaulting me. It was like it was therapeutic for her, beating me. Like there was some part of herself she was trying to cleanse through it. Afterwards, she’d get this smile on her lips, like she’d achieved something. Like she’d worked something out.

Abuse never comes from a place of true power. Abusive people are weak, and they hurt others to try and make themselves feel strong.  I hadn’t reached this understanding yet, though, at the age of fifteen. I was sure there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. If only I could find the secret sauce. But even if I remembered to shave the legs, I’d forget the eyebrows, or act too confident while shaking someone’s had, or whatever it was. No matter what I did, it was in the wrong register for her.

That day, my fifteenth birthday, I thought for the first time about killing myself.  I even found a tree.

In June, Britney Spears would begin her debut tour.

To understand what Britney Spears’ visibility meant in 1999, you have to understand the other things that weren’t invisible at that time.

We didn’t have queer celebrities, not like we do now. It was as if Elton John and Freddy Mercury had been banished to another dimension, not to be retrieved until Our Lady of Gaga came around in 2008. In 1999, there had been just one gay person on TV in recent memory, and after she came out, her show was promptly cancelled. I remember a friend’s dad saying something along the lines of, (TW: bigotry): “Gay people are all pedophiles, if you support them onscreen you are supporting pedophilia.”

Gender fluid people like me—people who have a hard time staying in the box of a single gender or gender framework—we had to be very, very careful in 1990s. There wasn’t a single out queer kid at my high school. One wrong move could get you or your friends kidnapped and taken to a gay conversation camp, exercised in a church base, or flat out killed—not that these danger have gone away, but back then, in the burbs, they were the only visible outcomes. You had to be a secret agent about being queer. We had to find icons that the adults couldn’t detect—and that the shaming voices we’d internalized couldn’t detect either.

In early November 1999, the first Pokémon movie had its US theatre debut. And there, at the premiere, as if we’d suddenly landed in Oz the color had been turned on, many suburban queer kids found each other. Only we weren’t “gay” or “queer”—we certainly never would have used those terms for ourselves. We were “cosplayers.”

There was a James cosplayer from two suburbs over who was particularly stunning. Two years later, he would be the first AFAB I would ever kiss. He had to kiss without our eyelashes because lips were dangerous. I still get fear-rushes when I think about those kisses. (Writing this is hard, painful.) The fear of being caught was palpable, we weren’t just scared of being caught by his parents. Yes, I snuck in through the basement window at night at night, and we had to be extremely quite, but the bigger fear was that we would catch ourselves in the act.

The year I was born, 1984, a terrible plague was sweeping through the United States. The federal government refused to acknowledge that it was even happening until 1987, and by then, it had killed an entire gender-non-conforming adults. We lost philosophers, rock stars, grocers, bus drivers, teachers. Icons and ordinary people, all gone. It would take an entire generation for queerness to re-emerge, and in the late 90s, that hadn’t happened yet. We were scared of putting words to what we were doing. Because we were told that those words turned you into a monster, that your life was unsalvageable if it was associated with those words.

Earlier in the 1990s, other decisive cultural battles had been lost, battles associated with the names Anita Hill and Rodney King. As a populace, we had been taught that those who tried to resist workplace harassment, that those who had tried to push back against anti-Black police violence were liars and criminals. In the early 1990s, certain people were made examples of publicly humiliated in televised tribunals, and arrested and given exorbitantly long prison sentences. This led to new heavy forms of silence that were joined by the lingering silence that rolled over following the inhumane government response to the epidemic from the decade before.

He used to wear his make-up like Britney, when he wasn’t cosplaying. She was part of a limited constellation of corporate, heteronormative goo that suburban youth were expected to use to make ourselves recognizable to each other. Faux cis-heterosexuality was like a type of armor. We had to muscle through spaces pretending to be something we weren’t. His glitter kept him safe. I got it all over me that time we kissed. But then I made the mistake of calling him by his name. By his real name. We had been cosplaying as two space cowboys, and then I’d made the mistake of trying to go of character, and he became catatonic. I knew I had fucked up. I shouldn’t have used his real name. There was no talking him out of it. He curled into a ball, refusing or unable to speak. It felt like my presence was hurting him, so I quietly let myself out. When we saw each other later, we didn’t talk about it. So that was that.

When I hear Britney’s music from that time, I become queasy.  It’s impossible for me to separate it from the violence that mediated every interaction between two Americans at that time. At least, every interaction that we were able to come up with in the burbs.

In late November of 1999, I was fifteen, and I was catching a ride into Seattle to see what the what was happening. Fifty thousand protestors had come to town. They came to warn us. Some very bad things were afoot. Some very dangerous math. But the defenders of this math were brutalizing them. The mayor declared a 50-block swath of the city to be a “no protest zone.” You couldn’t walk anywhere without risk of being arrested, tear gassed, pelted with rubber bullets. I met a man whose ribs got broken by police rubber bullets. His friends were urging him to go to the hospital. But he didn’t have insurance. The police riots lasted for days.

The mass arrest I witnessed happened in front of Westlake Mall. Hundreds of people were lined up into neat rows in the rain, and the police bound their hands with what looked like plastic zip-ties. 

Zip-ties, I remember thinking.

Zip-ties.

“Just a bunch of wackos,” my friend’s dad was saying a the next day. They were homeschooler friends, and I knew they were political, and thought they would want to hear about what was going on: our democracy had been dismantled.  Millionaires and billionaires were meeting behind closed doors to set policy. We didn’t elect these people. They were making serial killer decisions. The consent of the people was being bypassed. Every living being on the planet was in very real danger. We needed to listen to these protestors.

“They look like just a bunch of thugs to me,” the dad said.

We were looking at the news report, and the images on TV weren’t matching anything that I had just seen hours before. The news channels were playing images on loop of a small group of people in what looked like TV bank robber costumes—black ski masks—smashing windows. I had seen and spoken with nuns, construction workers in hard hats, cheese farmers who had flown in from France. I’d watched a relative of Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech in the middle of an intersection near the Westin Hotel. There were people from all walks of life. How strange it seemed to me at the time that the news had taken a ten-second clip of people in ski masks some unknown, seemingly unaffiliated people breaking windows, and played it on repeat.

When I tried to explain my friends—or anyone from the burbs—that things had been different, they didn’t believe me. Who were they going to believe, some fifteen year old kid or the news?

During the mass arrest, I remember seeing news trucks nearby with those big periscope cameras. But they weren’t using them. It was like they were on break. Why weren’t they filming? Years later I would learn that this is a common practice for the corporate media of both flavors, red and blue alike. They tended to keep their cameras off until the police told them to turn them on. Wouldn’t want to catch anything on camera that made the police look bad.

It wouldn’t be until May of the following year—Y2K as it was celebrated—that Britney would release her second album, Oops!…I did it again, securing her place as the best-selling teenage artist of all time.

Rodney King beat by police

To my knowledge, there was not a single Black, Latino, or Indigenous student in my graduating class—Issaquah High School, class of 2002. We also didn’t have any teachers or local leaders who weren’t white.

In 1997, the year before my freshman year, around sixty juniors and seniors from my high school drove to another city and destroyed a sacred Indigenous artifact. It was a totem poled created by a member of the Snoqualmie Tribe, and it was slated to be a cite of an upcoming celebration for the tribe having finally received federal recognition. It has been a decades long ordeal, and the totem pole had just been finished to commemorate it. But prior to the planed celebration, a group of sixty or so Issaquah High School students, led by the school football team, chopped the totem pole down and set it on fire.  The local newspapers tended to use the term “peep rally” to refer to the incident, rather than naming it as the hate crime that clearly it was. The local newspapers also liked to emphasize the fact the totem pole’s main creator was an “adopted” member of the tribe, as if the Snoqualmie nation didn’t have the sovereignty to welcome new members, as if the act destroying this artifact didn’t count because it’s “artist” was “adopted.”

Our high school mascot at the time was “The Indians.” This would not be changed until 2003. There are still hundreds of schools around the country with racist mascots.

“We’ve been the Issaquah Indians since 1917,” I recall a white woman from the historical society ranting one day, “What do these out-of-town liberals know? This is our heritage!”

In middle school, I started volunteering every other weekend at the town museum, and I continued volunteering there for nearly two years until one day I stumbled across some records about the name who the museum was named after. This man, credited as our town founder, was famous for murdering so many members of the Snoqualmie and Sammamish people that once that, according to various sources, he and is family began pulling the nails out of their own home so they could load them into shot guns so they could keep shooting Indigenous people.

In the suburbs, we didn’t have community. We had white men with guns. Every weekend in Issaquah, you could hear the old white men shooting at the rifle range. It was as if they were trying to hold something in place. The gunshots bellowed through the valley, the sound echoing off the hills. There wasn’t anywhere you could go in town to escape it. Bang! Bang! Bang! Every weekend. For hours.

In most parts of the country, I pass as white. But not there. Not in Issaquah.  I remember how the old ladies at the historical society used to grill me about where I was from, trying to get to the bottom of it, like I was an interloper, a mystery to be solved. Years later, a genetic test would reveal that I have less than 5% non-European ancestry. Even friend from Europe see me as white. It took until I was twenty-six to finally get out of that region, and to learn was it was like to not be treated like I didn’t have to present to be was somebody’s sidekick all the time.

Years later, I would be applying for food stamps in the bigger, safer city where I began living.  I worked full time, but rent was taking up nearly all of my paycheck. The social worker became angry when she found where I was from. “What are you doing draining our social services here?” she snapped, “You don’t belong here—Go back home.”

The year before, I had gone back to Issaquah to visit, to feel things out. While I was in town, I tried to leave few copies of a brightly colored activist newspaper, Slingshot, on a café newsstand. “Get out of here with that gay trash,” the café owner suddenly snapped at me. “Issaquah doesn’t need people like you—go back to Capitol Hill.” I wanted to tell him I was an Issaquite, I grew up here, I probably used to deliver his paper, that I belonged.  But then I saw him reaching for something, and I ran out of there before there was time to find out if what he was reaching for was a broom or a gun. 

There aren’t people like me in Issaquah. And there are reasons for that.

Britney Spears will forever be associated in my mind with the suburbs, with this racist fantasy that was dumped on a lot kids of my generation whose parents moved us out of the cities in an attempt to hide us from the reality of race in America. It was like our parents had created an alternate reality for us without any flaws. Only, to them, “flaws” were people.

Many suburban Millennials would later defy our parents by moving to cities, “excavating” the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement, embracing queer identities, exhaling as if for the first time. But during the time Britney reigned supreme, white teachers and local leaders told us that all those “imperfections” had ended. MLK had died for the white’s sins, and racism was no more. As for gay people, “what gay people?” And Native Americans had casinos now, and, “They should be grateful.”

Meanwhile, the gunshots in the hills droned on.

We’re all learning now that Britney Spears herself was a prisoner. And, no tea, no shade—what happened to Britney was horrific. No one should lose their autonomy like that, no one should lose their voice. But I can’t help but think about all of the time and attention that has been lavished upon just this one person. A sociologist friend once told me that he estimated my generation has had the highest rate of homelessness of any in living memory. Something like 7-10% of Millennials experienced some form of homelessness between 2008-2018.

When the Long Recession hit, many of us couldn’t become “boomerang kids”—we didn’t have safe homes to go back to. Nor did we have vast online networks of fans looking out for our wellbeing.

Six years ago, I was lowkey sleeping in front of a boarded-up Blockbuster Video in Glendale.

It is incredible how quickly you can fall through the cracks when you’re a former foster kid. You can go from working full time, thinking you’re fine, thinking, “I have a Master’s Degree, so I must be safe,” to suddenly having nowhere to sleep. It all happens so fast—

First you’re nursing the trauma of being sexually assaulted by your boss-landlord, then everyone you know is mad at you for speaking up about—“He is a beloved member of the community!”—and then you just need a place to cry, to let it all out, and your body keeps flushing red, but no one has space for that, the #MeToo movement isn’t due for another two years, and no one has space on their couch in 2015 for someone who’s shaky because she’s just lived the un-hear-able.

Each tale of how someone finds themselves sleeping on the streets is unique, but the harm it causes is ubiquitous. The PTSD from even just a few weeks of homelessness is enough to keep you in pain for the rest of your life.

I still wake myself up in the middle of the night, my heart throwing punches. 

Homeless in America, 1990 NYT cover

I live in Bellingham now, renting a small attic apartment with a hotplate instead of a stove, working on Zoom because of the pandemic, and I know I’m lucky that my job isn’t on the frontlines. But I’m also exhausted, Zoom fatigue is real, and as I’ve fallen weeks behind on everything. I’m acutely aware, even in my sleep, that I’m a paycheck away from being homeless again.

Just a few streets down from where I live, a violent, militarized, “sweep” of a homeless camp has just occurred.

Many of my friends and neighbors had been bringing food to the homeless camp. Now everything is traumatized, brutalized.

Snipers, a bearcat mini-tank, and four policing agencies—including what looked like soldiers in full combat fatigues armed with big rifles—descended upon the camp, arresting five, and destroying the belongings of many people who lived there.

Myself and other sympathetic locals have been scrambling to get the word out. We don’t need militarized raids of homeless camps: We need emergency housing.

There are enough houses being held empty off market right now to house every homeless person six times over.  Everything that the protestors in Seattle in 1999 tried to warn us about has come to pass—the changing of the climate, the acceleration of war, the virtual disappearance of the middle class.

Now, as violent, militarized “sweeps” of homeless camps are happening across the country, posts about Britney—celebrating her victory in court—have been getting thousands of likes, comments, and shares. Meanwhile, posts about the homeless “sweeps” are averaging a dozen shares, tops. I can’t blame people, I guess. Britney is just so easy to look at. The rest of us, we are just swaths of population, data points in somebody else’s algorithm. Our lives don’t scale.

No tea, no shade, no pink lemonade, but if Britney is to be our princess-turned-comrade, I need to see more evidence of her doing things for people other than herself. So far, I’ve seen no indication, now that she’s free, that she intends to keep fighting to abolish the laws that robbed her of her freedom—laws that continue to rob disabled people around the country of their autonomy. Britney is separated from the rest of us by 100 million views. She could do so much more with her platform.

Contemporary political philosophers have identified a phenomenon called “colonial unknowing.” It is a type of mass ignorance, a mindset in which looking away is normalized. We are trained to look away when people are brutalized, robbed of their homes by settlers or bankers, forced onto the streets. This cycle keeps happening, but those who benefit from it keep looking away as if by cultivating ignorance they can maintain innocence. You’re innocent as long as you can claim you didn’t know it was happening, right? But maybe we’re not that innocent.

When I think about what is happening here now, I think about landless, disenfranchised people of Rome. “What landless, disenfranchised people?” Historians of Rome like to present that the “Fall of Rome” is some sort of mystery, and they like to focus the attention on the Britney’s and Justin’s of the time. They direct our gaze away from the huge swaths of landless people who were forced into escalating cycles of debt and disenfranchisement, while as power and attention kept getting consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, as Centurion cops were called in to assassinate anyone who seemed to have good ideas about how to do things differently (Rest in Power Cicero and Chairman Fred), and you can only do this shit to a populace for so long before they rise up and burn every institution to the ground.

We can only remember what we are willing to perceive.

History will remember Britney Spears. How can it not at this point? The rest of us may as well have been invisible, as everyone’s attention is hoarded and directed away as we are swept from sight.

Synchronized Chaos March 2021: Harmonious Ekphrasis

By Synchronized Chaos Co-Editor Kahlil Crawford

This month’s issue of Synchronized Chaos is anchored in ekphrasis.

I first learned of ekphrastic poetry from one of our contributors, Neil Ellman. According to him,  “It sounds more intellectual than it is. It is no more than writing a poem expressing one’s reaction to a work of art.” Ekphrasis, however, is not limited to poetry. Often analogous, ekphrasis prompts a painter to interpret a poem, a photographer to portray a song, and so on.  Neil says, “One very common way of explaining it is that ekphrasis involves a “conversation” between two forms of art.” Therefore, it is safe to say that ekphrasis epitomizes the conceptual harmony of “art-on-art”. 

Katya Shubova and Mark Blickley start things off with The Biology of Courage – a self-biographical peek into the grittier aspects of Cartagena life and death while celebrating Colombia’s more heroic moments. A screenplay, adapted from a book by Chimezie Ihekuna, transports us into the depths of crime-filled Santiago; as the protagonist transcends his corrupted lineage through a nature-induced transformation for the better.

Sandra Rogers-Hare channels Black rage and discontent in the wake of the massacre of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake. She gives us people prose – epitomizing Black history and personal anecdotes from a “woke” mixed-race perspective. Michael Robinson traces the roots of white supremacist hatred and violence from Emmett Till’s murder to the recent riots at the U.S. Capitol.

Teresa Smith comments on the resurgence of interest in 1990s pop singer Britney Spears and suggests we turn our attention to other neglected people from the period who continue to experience injustice today.

Egyptian diplomat H.E. Moushira Khattab, interviewed by Federico Wardal, emphasizes education as a means of combating human injustice in the midst of national revolutions. She highlights the importance of her involvement in child welfare organizations as an extension of her human rights initiatives.

K.C. Fontaine considers contemporary design and classical modernism to ponder the true meaning of art. Brenda Clews’ spatialist poetics interpret the classical works of Glenn Gould and Sophia Gubaidulina. She repaints their sonic portraits with abstract lines to form new meanings.

Eva Petropolou Lianoy examines the meaning of Contact as it relates to a midday coffee, memorial roses, and a Roman candle. As a recovering Roman Catholic, amongst other things, Judge Santiago Burdon narrates his varied existence and motivation for his “retirement”.

John Edward Culp illuminates the power of rest and the subconscious, unforced inspiration that can come when we take the time to wait for it.

Mark Young has the innate ability to guide us through not only the art, but potentially the mind of Magritte. Each detail within every artwork seems to speak to our common human experience. In kind, Patricia Doyne poetically dissects the intentions of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and ushers us through the dynamic depths of The Great Wave Of Kanegawa.

Poet Robert Ronnow’s ekphrasis reimagines movies The Shootist starring John Wayne and The Terminator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. He details the dimensions of human suffering via Old West gunplay as a metaphor for Bronx reality, and laments humanity’s reckless termination of our natural world. Poet John Culp then takes us on a vertical trip through his kite-like mind.

Mahmoud Sami Ramadan’s series of love letters reveals the ebbs, flows, and revelations of his heart; as Jon Bennett’s San Francisco’s street adventures portray a celestial visitation as well as the twin monstrosities of love and loneliness. Meanwhile, Ahmad Al-Khatat imparts serene wisdom and balance to his love interest via meditative thinking and positive support.

Michael Lee Johnston likens coronavirus to the crucifixion – the irony of the crown. He then goes on to examine change and movement through the holiness of the Roman god Mercury. Poet Hongri Yuan expands our worldly awareness with bodily translucence and chronological truth. His multisensory lines heighten our self-understanding and existential potential.

Bangladeshi poet Mahbub offers a sextet of poems that provide a glimpse into the multiple facets of our human journey. From the tomb to the sky, he narrates our innermost thoughts, feelings, and intentions; even as Jack Galmitz envisions and reflects on death to suggest that he might be next.

Thank you very much for reading Synchronized Chaos! We encourage you to leave comments for our contributors, they appreciate feedback and discussion.

Poetry from John Culp

THIS ARDENT REST




      This ardent rest breeds continuity 
 Allowing a passionate insight before
 the beginning.


     I imagine sight as lost yet the eyes 
 were open while lids were closed.


    The paralysis that never happened as
 inspiration marches the sightless draw
 in joyful repute.
 
     My song pulls from within. Vibration 
 requires no host only the Love that
 begins all things.


     I knew you were there all the time,
           Before time ever existing,
 As before finds no home in our past.


The magnitude
     As options build excitement
         Rest again, 
            For strength is found in the moment.


The process never left us behind


    Taste and smell, the hands speak,
       As ultra trillions sing a single stand
           Lifting to open skies.





Essay from Michael Robinson

The Mob    

April 4, 1968   

Elderly white woman in a blue dress next to an older middle aged Black man in a striped tee shirt, hugging in a pool lounge area.
Michael Robinson, right, with fellow contributor Joan Beebe

Emmett Till, a 14-year-old young black male was beaten, mutilated, and lynched, and shot in the head. He was tied down to a cotton gin-fan and thrown in the Tallahassee River near Money, Mississippi. His crime was that he was accused of flirting with a white woman in a family grocery store. He was abducted four days later. Emmett Till was murdered on August 28, 1955. The lynching of black people (men and women) by the Ku Klux Klan is a great part of America’s history. The lynching of Emmett Till brought lynching to the forefront in America’s national conscience. What has provoked such resentment towards nonwhite races? Issues of injustice, racism, and violence have always been directed towards black Americans. Yet, many black Americans, fought, suffered, and died, for the honor to be an American citizen.  The country learning of Emmett’s fate was outraged. If one is lynched, then no American is safe. Over the years people forgot about the difficulty of the Black Americans.

I was ten years old at the time. The fear and the tightness in my stomach caused me to vomit violently. The mob prowled the city with taunts of “Burn this motherfucker down, burn baby burn!” was the rallying cry, in addition, they repeated “if you don’t have “soul brother” on your door, we’ll burn your house down.” It was April 14, 1968, Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Days later blacks looted and set fire throughout neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. The police and national guards watched the mob devastate the community. The mob set out to destroy and threaten to kill other blacks. My foster father frantically used one sheet of my notebook paper and wrote the words with black shoe polish. “Soul brother” taping it to the front door. Like in the capital riots the mob menaced everyone in the capital that day. 

The Mob    

January 6th, 2021   

“Hang Mike Pence!” they hollered repeatedly. A mob of white supremacists and white nationalists. All of them sent to the nation’s capital by former president Donald J. Trump. The violence and racism have grown in America under the presidency of Donald Trump. Now not only nonwhite races but our government leaders are targets of aggression.   

The white mob erected a gallows on the capitol grounds, while they continued to search the capital looking for Vice president Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to murder them both. Lawmakers were also sought by the intruders in the capital that dreadful day. No one was safe from certain death. This coup led by Donald Trump to maintain power as he was voted out of the presidency in the November elections of 2020. The white mob attacked law enforcement officers on the capitol grounds leaving one officer killed and many severely injured all in the name of white nationalism.   

Adolf Hitler told the German people the lie that it was the Jewish people who were responsible for the predicament of the German nation. Six-million Jews died in concentration camps known as death camps. Adolf Hitler used this hate of the Jewish people to be a dictator. Donald Trump uses the dogma that other races are the enemy. Fear and hate are used by Trump to usurp our democracy. Trump uses deception, hatred, and dread to be a clone of Adolf Hitler.    

 I remember hiding from the black mob in 1968 was a horrific experience. Hearing the story of those lawmakers and staff and others in the capital on January 6th and their recounting the “booming” sounds of glass breaking and banging on the doors by a rabid mob of the crazed white supremacists. Many said that they called their love one to say a final goodbye.

The trauma of facing death as a mob searched for them while destroying everything in their path. It is this violence that never resends in one’s memories. It is sadness and anger that I feel for all those that had to endure such an event in their lives. I walked through the rubble of the riots in a state of shock for years to come. Life seemed surreal to me and death was intimate at that time.  My world had been ravaged by the mob like those in the capital on January 6th.    

The white supremacist destroyed many irreplaceable artworks in the house of the people. Leaving urine and feces on the walls and floors and artwork as reported. Reminding me of the night that the black mob ravaged my neighborhood. Recalling the shouts “Burn this motherfucker down!” Those words echoed in my thoughts for many decades. The insurrectionist shouted for what seemed like an eternity to hang Mike Pence. Hunting our elected officials to hang or execute them is the action of barbarians to commit atrocities against Americans. Led by a psychopathic and sociopathic, and egomaniac racist Donald J. Trump. It does not take courage to be a racist it takes valor to uphold the virtues of being a patriotic American.    

It was revealed that a black capital police officer broke down and wept after the melee said, “Is this America?” Men and women of the capitol police and metropolitan police braved the onslaught of a “murderous” mob of violent white extremists.  Three officers ended up dead from that day. Many survived because of the heroism of those officers protecting them and our capital and democracy.  This “Is America.” An America where courage and dedication to protecting our democratic way of life. The insurrection on January 6th, 2021 will remain one of America’s harrowing moments.   

      Note: Black Americans have lived through the nightmare of being murdered for decades. Black Americans’ pleas have gone unheard. Martin Niemöller wrote, “First they came for the Socialist, and I did not speak out….”     Black Americans have been speaking out for decades and now that the violence has come to the capital of the nation. People now realize that white supremacist are a menace to our nation. Martin Niemöller continued, ‘…when they came for me there was no one left to speak out.”      

Humanitarian activist and actor Federico Wardal interviews Egyptian human rights leader Moushira Khattab

Young Italian man with glasses next to a darkened theater stage next to a light-skinned woman with lipstick and shoulder-length light brown hair. She appears to be speaking.
Count Federico Wardal, Italian actor and human rights activist, Her Excellency Moushira Khattab

Her Excellency Moushira Khattab, an Egyptian and global human rights leader, gets the attention of more than one million watchers worldwide through “What’s your Right?” a San Francisco TV program. What she does to defend human rights is educate people to be aware what their rights are, first of all.

H.E. Moushira Khattab was honored in San Francisco at the War Memorial Veterans Building, (the site of the 1965 signing of the U.N. Charter), for “The Universal Children’s Day”, an event in San Francisco organized by Hon. Mary Steiner, focused on ending female genital mutilation and child marriage.

Khattab is the first leader in the world to have written a law against FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). This law took effect in Egypt and Khattab supports extending it to rest of the African continent. But this horrible practice, rooted in tradition rather than religion, is still practiced in other continents and even in the USA!

One of Khattab’s mottos is: “give people the educational means so that they are aware of and defend their rights.”

Here is my interview with Her Excellency Moushira Khattab:

Wardal: Your Excellency Moushira Khattab, what are the best strategies that each country should take to raise awareness of human rights?
Khattab: Thank you, Count, for asking me about human rights. Educating the people is the priority in raising awareness of human rights.

To educate all the people, with special care towards the most vulnerable and the poor, is the duty of each state which is legally committed to protect human rights without any discrimination. This includes educating people about the right to equally dignified treatment without any discrimination among rich and poor, males and females, Christians, Jews, Muslims, believers in any other religion, atheists, able-bodied, able-minded or disabled people, different races or sexual or gender orientations. In order to make people aware of their rights, empowering people is not a favor but a duty, a legal obligation for nations.

Light-skinned middle aged woman with brown shoulder-length hair sits on a white couch in a living room with windows and green plants outside. She's wearing a white scarf and patterned blue and white top. Nelson Mandela, a white haired Black man, sits next to her and is in a blue and black and white patterned collared shirt.
Her Excellency Moushira Khattab and Nelson Mandela

Wardal: Many planned human rights initiatives and institutions remain inactive and often disband when there is a change of head of state.  How can we avoid such tragic suspension or even cancellation of such activities?  How to make action to promote human rights independent of the changing winds of politics?
Khattab: Thank you very much for this further important question. I repeat, the people are the strongest pillar of any state.  When the people are educated about the rights, they will fight for their rights. When people know their rights they do not fall into oppression by the rich and powerful.

The civil society organizations are very close to the people in Egypt. I am so proud to have coordinated, initiated and led many movements to defend  women and children against FGM, child marriages, human trafficking, and all forms of violence against children. We have seen two revolutions in Egypt: the 2011 Arab Spring and the more recent June 30 revolution. And thank God, the law that I have engineered about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is still intact. It is the pride of Egyptian society because it was drafted by the people . 

I spent five years educating the people, parliamentarians, the judiciary, and legislators about FGM and the rights of our children, and I talked about that issue globally as well.  One of the first actions that the Muslim Brotherhood took in 2012 was to try to revoke the FGM law, but the people defended it and the civil society organizations defended it. They said, ‘This is our law, we made this law’ and now this law is intact and thank God, children have more rights,  women have more rights, because people know about the their rights. Political leaders – the head of the state, the judiciary, legislators, executive branch leaders, must be committed to the rights of the people, but the strongest link of this chain is the people themselves.


Wardal: Your Excellency is the first vice chairman of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and you are a member of the International Board of Trustees of the African Child Policy Forum. The president is H.E. Graça Machel, widow of Nelson Mandela. She is an icon. What are the national and international programs led by these organizations?

Light skinned, brown haired woman standing in front of a large painting in a gold frame. She's wearing a necklace and a green and white top that looks like tie-dye.
Her Excellency Moushira Khattab

Khattab: I am happy to be part of these organizations. The Rights of African Children is a committee established by the African Charter of the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which is composed of experts with the purpose of assisting member states to fulfill their commitments to the rights of their children. States present periodical reports to the committee and the committee reviews the reports and makes recommendations to delegations of states and to civil society in order to help them advance the rights of children.

The committee looks to see if the states have solid laws that guarantee the rights of children, if the states have a national plan of action, if the states have allocated sufficient financial funds and human resources towards the implementation of plans enhancing children’s rights. They check to see if the government is working in partnership with civil society groups to make people aware of the rights of the child and if children themselves are aware of their rights.

The committee makes recommendations to the delegation of states and civil society representatives on how to improve the conditions of children and enforce their rights in cooperation with the African Union and the United Nations. The committee of experts is selected by the nation’s representatives to the African Union. The African Child Policy Forum is a very solid civil society organization that works for the rights of African children through providing knowledge and dialogue and advocacy for improvement. 

The African Policy Forum works to make sure that African governments are continually fulfilling their child rights obligations and legal responsibilities and putting in place policies and legal protection for the wellbeing of all children. These include vulnerable children, poor children, children separated from their families, refugee children, internally displaced children due to armed conflicts. Issues of concern to us include child and human trafficking, child soldiers, child marriage, and child labor.

Flyer announcing Her Excellency Moushira Khattab's appearance at San Francisco's Universal Children's Day event.
Announcement for the event in San Francisco where Her Excellency Moushira Khattab spoke

Wardal: Excellency, climate change is making it increasingly harder to sustain life on our planet. We are all weaker and it is more difficult to control the proliferation of viruses and epidemics.  

Khattab: Thank you for this connection you made between climate change and Covid!

The economies and societies of most countries, rich or poor, are set up to function under normal conditions. So when special and emergency conditions such as Covid occur, these systems collapse into chaos, resulting in health and economic catastrophes. Climate change, demographic explosions and wide-ranging damage from conflicts are not taken into account. Political will is insufficient to address this crisis, where peace and security need to be strongly promoted. We need the political will to enable the UN to deal with such a crisis. The UN’ s member states need to review its charter to enable the security counsel to meet its responsibilities. When COVID 19 erupted, Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke up on March 23, 2020 and invited world leaders to put their guns down and fight Covid-19. A strong food program was successfully implemented to face the COVID emergency during the state of chaos in which humanity had fallen.

Middle aged Black woman with glasses, short curly cropped black hair, lipstick and an aqua, white and purple sweater.
Graca Machel

Wardal: The Nobel Prize-winning genius Marconi, inventor of the radio and telegraph, said, ‘My inventions are for the benefit of humanity and not to be used for its destruction.” On the other hand, there is no such control on the scientific research on viruses.

Khattab: We need international transparency and information sharing in the age of Covid. No nation should hold onto medical information, but should share it instead to protect human beings from falling sick.

This should also apply to the Covid vaccines. Poor people have the right to be protected from the virus as well. The UN has to deal with the distribution of the vaccine and is making decisions right now on who gets the vaccines first and how to make them available to those who cannot pay.

International transparency on this aspect is absolutely necessary in order not to lose further human lives.

Wardal: Excellency, you are always welcome as a guest on my San Francisco television show! I also encourage you to write a book about your immense knowledge of civil and human rights. I know you are busy with vital political activity, but maybe, step by step, you could start to write a book, chapter by chapter. I would be especially happy helping you.

Khattab: Thanks. My children and my friends constantly encourage me to write a book about my long and continuing work to improve living conditions and to guarantee respect, equality, and dignity. I will see. At the moment my life doesn’t leave me this possibility.

Poetry from Jon Bennett

Soles 

There’s a new oddball in town 

I see him on 6th, 

the Tenderloin, the Marina, all over 

This man has made enormous shoes  

out of garbage: 

inner tubes, rags, 

plastic bags, pieces of foam and bark 

These foot rafts 

are up to a yard long 

causing him to walk with visible strain 

sweat on his brow 

But sometimes the shoes shrink 

and he flies along  

at a near sprint 

Down at Chrissy Field 

I finally asked him, 

“What’s the deal with the shoes?” 

He paused, smiled at me, and said, 

“The greater the surface area 

attaching me to your planet 

the less likely I am 

to float  

away.” 

Someone Likes You 

I deleted the dating profile 

then rewrote it  

added some links  

and deleted it again 

Now that it’s blank 

I get these messages, 

“Someone Likes You!” 

and a picture of a ballerina 

or a pole vaulter 

a picture of Farrah Fawcett 

a picture of an alien vampire goddess 

or an irresistible succubus 

selling me  

false hope 

false hope 

false hope 

until I take to the streets

I am Igor,

hunched, hungry 

begging the dealers 

the aqua lung-ed bung squatters 

the remains of pigeons, dogs and televisions 

on my beloved San Francisco sidewalks 

“Do you like me?  

Does anyone?  

Could anyone? 

And, if so, how much 

would it cost?”

The Echo Chamber of My Heart 

“You say you don’t 

have a girlfriend because you’re fat 

but that 

is not the reason! 

Women like 

someone sweet.” 

She’s right, and in this pandemic 

I’ve come to realize 

nothing much has changed for me 

The same longing  

rattles around 

in the echo chamber of my heart 

I could say the heart hardened 

but no, the longing 

is what changed 

only a low buzz now, 

like tinnitus, 

an annoyance rather 

than a plague. 

Ekphrastic Poetry from Mark Young

Representation II

The orchestra under the cypress

tree kicks into life. A few bars;

& then the scene we’re watching

on the small screen is replicated

on a larger canvas that still permits

the original viewing platform to

be included in the corner, picture-

within-picture style, framed by

the only thing that might be a

goal were it not for the pawn on

top. Or maybe it was the other

way around & downsizing has

occurred. No spectators to see

the “world game” shrunk to three

a-side. The château now a simple

manor house. A lone pianola.

Rene Magritte, Representation II, 1962

L’esprit et la forme (1928)

There is much to

sing about here.

The glass of water.

The fish out of it

but still swimming

happily around. The

pawn, token of a

game she has just

learnt but is much

taken by. Which she

has natural advant-

ages in since she can

float above it & read

the play as easily as

she can read the myst-

eries of the sea floor.

René Magritte, L’esprit et la forme , 1961

Tous Les Jours

Up here in the mountains

it is an everyday thing

to come across vestiges of

earlier climbers &/or the oc-

casional earlier painting.

They may present as tracks

in the earth or discarded

equipment. Sometimes as

ghosts or holograms. Stare

at the latter for long enough

& they sometimes become

embarrassed, begin to speak.

In a thin voice that still 

sparks echoes, this one says:

“I was once the star of The

Age of Enlightenment. Now

the world has forgotten

me. Am I not still beautiful?”

René Magritte, Tous les jours, 1966

La Marchande de Sable

Legerdemain & sympathetic

magic are not confined only

to my paintings. Sometimes

I moonlight as the sandman,

tell stories that throw sand

into the listeners’ eyes to

foster dreams that render the

invisible visible. Georgette is

happy just to watch me work;

but on occasion, when I wish

to explain more fully what is

beneath, behind, the current

painting, I sprinkle sand into

her eyes to make her sleep. She

smiles at my explanations; &

at the pipe I leave beside her to

remind her where we’ve been.

René Magritte, la marchande de sable , 1936