Into the World of High Fantasy

Everyone needs a break from reality now and then — in 2020, perhaps more than ever. Picking up a novel — whether it by science fiction, fantasy, or any other genre — is an excellent way to avoid the news for a bit, and the lessons and ideas put forward in these novels often shape the way we view our own world.

One of my favorite fantasy authors also happens to be a dear friend of mine. Brendan Patrick Walsh recently published his fourth novel, The Century’s Scribe. I sat down with Brendan to talk with him about his newest offering and why this novel means so much to him.

Scott Wagner: This novel is your first foray into high fantasy. How did you go about the process of creating the two worlds that make up The Century’s Scribe?

Brendan Walsh: Well, that’s a good question because I haven’t tried to create my own fantasy world before. Each of my books before took place in the real world. Even Immortale, which was a fantasy novel, had world-building in it.

I had a lot of help. Around the time I started thinking about this story, I was reading a lot more high fantasy. Prior to that I was really exclusively just an urban fantasy reader. I took a lot of notes from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. That was the first one I read that I really latched on to and really loved.

I started out slowly. Because I don’t usually outline. I write what I first think about, then I review what I write, then I think, “Oh, this might be a neat thing to add on to that.” I start with a blank template and just add things to the world. I like that power! As a writer, you don’t always need to justify yourself, I’ve found. You can sort of do what you want. I just kept writing and the world began to make sense for me—both of the worlds, I should say.

SW: Did you ever have instances where you had ideas that didn’t really fit together? Or did it flow pretty easily from one idea to the next?

BW: It flew semi-well. It was quite a while from when I wrote the prologue of this book to when I finished. I started writing it in October of 2017, and by the time I made it to Chapter 8 or 9 it was already April of 2019. I was taking it very slowly, so I had a lot of time to think about it. Which meant that I had subplots that I was introducing that proceeded to go absolutely nowhere because I dumped them. And, in editing I had to get rid of them.

But I think about half the time I was successful. I would bring up a new thing regarding one world, regarding one character, and in the other world I’d bring up something with the knowledge that I was eventually going to bring these two worlds together. I thought, “if I introduce this thing here then that’s less work for me in the future.” At that point, around maybe Chapter 4 or 5, things started to better connect with me.

SW: You brought up these two worlds, represented by the cities of Kroonsaed and Brunswald in the novel. How would you characterize those two worlds?

BW: Well, there’s quite a few differences. The world of Brunswald, which is the capital of Skaltbard, the country where most of the action takes place, is more similar to the real world. I imagine it kind of looks like Victorian England. That’s been my vision for it. As far as what technologically exists in it, it’s maybe 1880s, 1890s London. Kroonsaed is a little bit harder to place, and that’s kind of my intention. It could be Enlightenment era, maybe 1700s. It could be even be the Renaissance based on what we know exists there.

There’s an early scene in the book where characters see guns for the first time, and they don’t know what they are. That gives you a hint of the technological differences between the two of them. In Kroonsaed, which is where our three main protagonists hail from, there are two sort of prominent species that live in the society. There are humans, and there are avehos, which are a humanoid species of avians that seem, in actions and in psychology, pretty similar to humans.

SW: I’d love to dive into that a bit more. The relationship between humans and avehos seems to be a central current throughout this entire novel. How did you go about crafting that interspecies relationship?

BW: To reiterate something that I said earlier, I didn’t really plan out a lot of things. I introduced the first aveho, which is one of the main characters, in Chapter 2, and at that point I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just thought, “Okay, here’s an idea,” and then I just put it in there. And as I went on and realized what I wanted to do with the book, it got a little more complex.

SW: Complex how?

BW: One of the things that a reader might find strange that’s revealed at a certain point in the book is that despite the fact that the humans and avehos of Kroonsaed seem comparatively backwards, they’re aware of the theory of evolution. It’s mentioned a couple times by some of the characters. I created this in line with the evolutionary ideas of vertebrate development over the last millions of years. The evolutionary chain for vertebrates goes fish, amphibians, lizards, birds, mammals. And I thought, “What if there was a species of bird that came before humans? What if civilization predates humans? If there was this other species that beat them to it?” I wondered, “What would happen when these two species met for the first time?” Probably nothing too productive, if I understand people at all.

A lot more information comes out in the second book, but in this one it’s definitely hinted that things aren’t perfect between humans and avehos. I think that’s sort of one of the things that attracts the three main characters to Brunswald, because they have this idea that there isn’t this conflict there, that it’s purer in a way. As we read in the book, that’s far from the truth, but from their perspectives, they’re in positions to be freely ignorant of the realities of their situation.

SW: I love that phrase – “freely ignorant of the realities of their situation.” It captures something I was thinking about with this novel. For the three main characters of the story, it feels almost like a coming of age novel cloaked in the mantle of high fantasy. As a recent university student and now young author yourself, how much of your own experiences went into drawing the characters of Dreden, Chanin, and Gerrika?

BW: Inevitably, a lot of my own experiences came up. I think its impossible not to, because pretty much every character I’ve ever written is influenced by someone I’ve known. And I think that’s what makes me have so much fondness for them. It makes my ability to relate to them that much stronger and it gets me more invested in the story.

I think you raise a good point about it feeling kind of like a coming of age story in a high fantasy setting. Even though this book pretty much only takes over the course of a week, the characters do come of age quite a bit by the end. In writing this I think I’m reflecting some of my own experiences as a university student, some of my own anxieties that I had about what I would do when I graduated. I asked myself, “How am I going to be able to adapt well enough after this setting that I was so fond of for four years?” You definitely see that in Dreden. I think as you learn more about the driving force behind the protagonists’ decisions, and why they each want to escape the way they do, each of them is very relatable.

SW: One of the characters even takes an interest in becoming a writer.

BW: Yes, Gerrika. At the start, he’s never been extremely fond of the written word. Nothing has been able to grab his attention until he reads the plays of Winds Wilk, who I imagine to be a sort of Terry Pratchett-esque figure. He writes satire, and is supposed to be very funny and clever – probably a bit ridiculously silly at times, but that’s part of the fun. But Wilk isn’t regarded extremely highly. Like Terry Pratchett when he first became an author – some people liked him, the critics hated him.

SW: He was seen as a “popular” author, not high literature.

BW: It wasn’t until his eighth novel, Guards! Guards! when people finally admitted, “Oh, this is a very smart book, this guy is very good at what he does.” And someone who is that passionate about the world, who’s heart comes out in his work like Terry Pratchett’s does…what people can go through for their own writing sometimes is humbling.

Now, with Gerrika, he connects with these plays because he wants to be able to be a writer, and to create what he wants. And what he wants to create are things in the similar spirit of these plays by Winds Wilk. However, nobody seems to want that. And that’s definitely a complication for him.

SW: Speaking of complicating things, The Century’s Scribe was originally much longer – you ended up splitting the novel into two parts. How did you decide where to split the narrative, and how did that affect the editing process?

BW: Yeah, it was originally 160,000 words. My publisher felt that was a bit too long. If they published that, a paperback would be maybe $23, instead of $18.95. They recommended that I either cut a certain part of it, or divide it into two books. I didn’t want to cut things, because I liked it how it was. I thought, “Okay, if I cut it into two books, I don’t have to do as much work. And, in the future, I could get more money, because people are going to buy Book Two if they like Book One.” I cut it to about 86,000 words.

The place I cut it was the best place I could, I think, because—well, I won’t say exactly what’s revealed, but the place I cut it deals a blow to the Prime Minister of Skaltbard, who is one of the secondary protagonists.

SW: It does end on a cliffhanger – some of the mysteries of the novel are revealed, but we’re left as a reader thinking, “Hang on, what’s going to happen next?”

BW: Exactly. We end with our main characters beginning to piece things together themselves. They have a fraction of the answers, enough to realize, “Oh, God, we haven’t been taking this seriously, what do we need to do? We need to figure this out.” I think that’s the best way the book could end because it summarizes everything that they know to the reader. And when the story picks up again, my hope is that those final questions that the protagonists are asking themselves will still be fresh in the reader’s mind once the sequel comes around.

SW: Besides the enjoyment of a narrative well-written and a story well-read, what’s one thing that you hope your readers take away after reading the Century’s Scribe?

BW: I think more than my ability to create a good intriguing plot or to be able to have interesting world-building, my preference would be that they think I write good characters. My favorite thing to read in a review is that I write character relationships well, or that I have three-dimensional characters. And I think the reason why is because these characters seem very real to me. A lot of them are based on a conglomerate of people that I’ve known throughout my life in the last ten years. Sometimes you intend a certain thing for a character, and they take on a life of their own, and they become their own person. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are very real. To me these characters feel as real as actual humans in my life.

I’ve said this many times – I don’t necessarily think that I write fiction. If it’s true that there are an infinite number of universes out there, then what I write is fact somewhere out in the vast cosmos. And if that’s true, I’m not a storyteller. I don’t make things up. I’m simply somebody who has the privilege of telling you what’s happening in one of those universes.

I do like what I did with the world-building, I do like the plot, I think there are a lot of things that are relevant in there. One of my favorite things in fantasy is when fantasy worlds hit a post-industrial society, like Skaltbard – I just think that’s really cool. But more than anything, I would like my readers to like my characters. To be able to relate to them, and almost care more about how it’s going to be resolved for them personally than how the story is going to be resolved for the world they live in.

SW: I think that’s really the strength of good science fiction and high fantasy – being able to ground this fantastic world in the humanity of the characters. What can readers expect from the second part of The Century’s Scribe? And does the sequel have an official title yet?

BW: I am probably going to call it The Century’s Last Word. I don’t want the title to deviate from the title of The Century’s Scribe because I want to reinforce the idea that this is one story, that this is a direct continuation. It picks up right where The Century’s Scribe left off.

I’m currently going over it again and I’m doing some edits for my publisher before I send it to them. I’m going to add a couple new scenes before I do. I’m going to add a new Chapter One to catch the reader up on what has previously been revealed and what previously happened.

And what can they expect? They can expect things to start going downhill real quick. This second part is a lot more of a rapid fire, oh-crap kind of book than the previous one, because it’s completely building off and riffing off what has come before. A reader is going to be sucked in very quickly.

At the end of The Century’s Scribe, some characters aren’t in the greatest emotional state. We will see a sort of culmination of that and how each of the three protagonists deal with it afterwards. And we will see as things start to take a turn for the worst that help can come in some unexpected forms for them. That’s what they can expect.

The Century’s Scribe is available for purchase on Amazon now.

It’s Not Politics. It’s Humanity.

Note: This article originally appeared on Standing Room Only. It has been republished here in its entirety.

It was one of those days where I found myself constantly refreshing Twitter, constantly opening my phone to find the newest scrap of information, the most recent unenlightened shred of hot-takery the tempestuous maelstrom of the Internet had to offer.

Last Wednesday (August 26), the Orlando Magic took the court for Game 5 of their NBA playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Magic were warming up on their side of the court; the Bucks didn’t show. The starting lineups were announced; the Bucks were still in the locker room. Frazzled NBA execs rushed in and out of the locker room area like worker ants at a hill, frantically wondering what the hell was going on. The tip-off horn blared through the convention room as virtual fans moved in static synchronicity along the wall monitors. The event had all the pomp, but there was no circumstance. The Milwaukee Bucks were on strike.

They went on strike to draw attention to the plight of Jacob Blake, 29. He’s currently paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back 7 times by police officer Rusten Sheskey in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Just another chapter in the life of a Black man in white America.

We’ve seen this story before, far too many times. Most recently, the world watched appalled as George Floyd narrated his own death at the hands of Derek Chauvin.

“Mama…I can’t breathe…Get off me…I can’t breathe…Mama, help me.”

NBA players, like so many Americans, had had enough. They actively voiced their frustration, fear, and distress. They demanded action; they demanded change. The assault on Jacob Blake shows just how much work remains to be done.

The Milwaukee Bucks took it upon themselves to take the first step. After the Bucks went on strike, the players on the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, also scheduled to play that day, announced that they too would refuse to take the court. Soon all NBA games that day and the day after were postponed.

The strike jumped from the hardcourt to the diamond. The Milwaukee Brewers, who play their home games just an hour’s drive north of where Jacob Blake was shot, joined the Bucks and refused to take the field. The Seattle Mariners, who have a league-high ten Black players on their active roster, also sat out in protest. The Dodgers and Giants joined them, with the league’s most high-profile Black player Mookie Betts taking a stand for racial justice. Other individual players, including Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, and Matt Kemp sat out for their teams that night. Many teams that didn’t strike on Wednesday refused to play Thursday to stand in solidarity with their fellow athletes fighting for racial justice.

It was a provocative statement from the players of Major League Baseball. Collective action is rare among the players unless contracts are involved. It’s even more rare from an ownership group and commissioner that vaingloriously shrouds themselves in the mantle of Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues while refusing to put forward anything but the most sanitary statements on racial justice.

Unsurprisingly, criticism for the strike was as swift as it was absurd. Right-wing sports commentor Clay Travis claimed it was another example of the “get woke go broke” NBA — though the connection between marginally lower ratings and political activism is specious at best. Bots took to Twitter in force as numerous accounts used the exact same language to announce their departure from NBA fandom. Never one to ignore a good controversy, President Trump got in on the action, claiming that the infusion of politics into sports would “destroy basketball.

But what the hell is political about any of this?

It would be political if Lebron James showed up to a Zoom press conference wearing a “No Malarkey” campaign hat. It would be political if Trevor Bauer wrote #MAGA2020 on the mound before every start. It would be political if Joe Maddon waxed poetic for thirty minutes about the minutiae of the United States tax code instead of talking about the deplorable state of his franchise.

Politics is about the partisan vitriol that often overrides desires and efforts for real legislative change in this country. And that’s not what the players are doing here. They’re not writhing in the mud with Donald Trump, nor campaigning for Joe Biden. No, what they’re doing is so much more important.

This isn’t politics. This is humanity.

This is a cry to value Black lives and treat them as equal, valuable, and worthy of respect. This is a demand to stop the violence — to stop the senseless, repressive killing of Black men and women, and to stop the violence and looting that has gripped a small minority of the protests. This is a plea to be seen as more than athletes, and rolemodels, for all of us to see past the logo and the uniform and the fantasy points to see the human underneath.

You don’t have to agree with the agenda of the Black Lives Matter organization. You don’t have to agree to Defund the Police — perhaps you support the idea that increased training programs will improve our police forces, or perhaps you’re even more radical and want to launch a campaign to abolish the Second Amendment. These are all political questions, all debates to be had over policy and legislative directives.

But the very fact that Black lives matter, the simple God-given value of their human life — that is not political, nor is it fair game for some partisan vanity competition.

I hear you. You hate politics. You hate the insincerity, the bluster about grandiose values without any consideration of the trials and tribulations of everyday Americans who are hurting, God they are hurting. And sports, sweet blissful sports, are your escape. You lean back in your favorite leather recliner, cold beer cradled in your calloused hands as the poetry of physical motion taking place on your screen eases the existential dread that has made 2020 so oppressive. And when the players go on strike over something like this, you can’t help but feel that your peaceful oasis of sports has been seized by the hateful rhetoric of politics.

But step back for a moment. Remember that sports are a part of our society. Sean Doolittle even called them “the reward for a functioning society.” The problems of our society indelibly affect the sporting world. When 9/11 happened, the sports world became a beacon of hope, an affirming sanctuary of normalcy in a world turned upside down by terror. When natural disasters happen, sports are there to rally us, to unite communities in the face of unbelievable anguish.

Why, when our society faces a long-overdue reckoning on racial justice and systematic discrimination, would sports not be there to help us confront our original sins?

Maybe you’re still opposed to this idea. Maybe you sit back and demand that the athletes play, and score, and dance, all for your entertainment. Maybe you refuse to allow any discussion outside of X’s and O’s into your personal sports bubble — but sure, let’s keep the National Anthem, that great pump-up banger that gets athletes ready to perform at the highest levels of their abilities. That’s an essential component of sports.

Or maybe, just maybe, you can’t see the athletes for what they are. For all their incredible accomplishments, those transcendent moments where they take flight, defy the odds, and display seemingly supernatural gifts of athleticism, they are as human as you and me. They feel the pain in our society, and they feel an obligation to use their platform to enact a positive change in the world.

That, more than any home run, any three-pointer, any goal, turns them into the stars we make them out to be.

Situation Normal: All Trumped Up

What does it mean to be a Republican?

Does Republicanism refer to the characteristic mistrust of a strong federal government? Does it entail a strident defense of individual liberties, even at the expense of greater societal advancements? Is it centered on a unifying foreign policy vision, perhaps tying back to Reagan’s concept of “peace through strength“?

File:Photograph of President Reagan giving Campaign speech in Texas - NARA  - 198551.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Not anymore. Those are old values, dressed up and paraded about when convenient. The spectacle of the 2020 Republican National Convention has revealed the new central tenet of Republicanism in the United States: fealty. Fealty to President Donald Trump.

The 2020 Convention has been a carnival of Trumpism. Politicians accepting the party nomination — as Trump will do in a speech later tonight — typically only appear once during the four-day convention, usually as the keynote speaker on the final night. Trump has appeared almost every night. On Monday, he spoke for 54 minutes — more than double the length of Joe Biden’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last week.

But it hasn’t been a one-man show — the GOP wants to feature “everyday Americans whose stories are filled with hope and patriotism,” after all. We’ve heard speeches from such diverse figures as Melania Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, and Tiffany Trump, and tonight Ivanka Trump will be taking the stage as the warm-up act to Donald Trump. Everyday Americans, indeed.

All of these campaign events at the convention are undergirded by the party platform, typically a long, policy-forward document outlining an extensive wish-list of legislative and executive actions for the next four years. They aren’t pivotal campaign documents–how many voters actually read 50+ pages of dense economic policy?–but they offer a useful compass to understand the direction of the party.

The GOP compass is locked on Trump. Rather than updating their platform to accomodate the new crises of the coronavirus pandemic, economic collapse, and racial tensions, the Republican party opted for a one-page press release stating that the party will “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

But what is Trump’s “America-first” agenda? Even he can’t seem to say. When asked by Sean Hannity in June about his priorities for a second term, Trump pivoted to a rambling answer about experience, before launching into an attack on former National Security Adviser John Bolton.

A month later, Hannity gave Trump a second chance. This time, Trump talked about helping the US recover from the coronavirus pandemic. But how does he plan to do that? Is he going to work with scientists, hospitals, and laboratories to fund vaccine research? Is he going to use the federal government to organize distribution centers once a vaccine is ready? Is he going to promote mask-wearing and social distancing measures that nearly all medical experts agree are critical to preventing the spread of the coronavirus? He has not said.

The party platform would be the ideal place for Trump and the Republicans to lay out a positive vision of America’s future, to delineate their plans to address economic recovery, coronavirus prevention, and racial justice.

But they have no positive vision. What they have are misleading attacks and fearmongering rhetoric that paint Joe Biden as a bumbling oaf and the Democrats as anarchist sleeper agents devoted to Marxism and anti-Americanism.

In Joe Biden’s America, the economy will collapse and unemployment will skyrocket. In Joe Biden’s America, the pandemic will prevent you from enjoying your American dream. In Joe Biden’s America, protests for racial justice will shatter domestic tranquility and suburban security.

Yet all of these problems are happening right now in Donald Trump’s America. And his only response is flamboyant whataboutism, deflecting blame for his own failures by inciting fears of his opponent. He is an oppositional candidate leading an incumbent party.

File:George Floyd protests in Washington DC. H St. Lafayette Square on 30  May 2020 - RP1 3245.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

In that sense, Trump is a good fit for the modern Republican party: neither of them know how to lead, only to oppose. During President Obama’s two terms, the Republican Party railed against every action taken by the President, with special scorn reserved for Obamacare and Benghazi. Yet they offered no conservative alternative to address the woeful state of healthcare in the United States; they offered no conservative alternative to addressing climate change; they offered no conservative alternative to the frightening number of school shootings. They attacked, attacked, attacked, and had no position of their own to defend.

Amidst this crisis of conscience came a breakdown in party loyalty, as the populist Tea Party Movement motivated conservative voters with an anti-establishment, anti-government message. In 2016, Donald Trump played into this anti-establishment rhetoric while grafting messages of xenophobia and nativism onto a veneer of economic resurgence. Donald Trump did not destroy the Republican Party — he is the parasite attracted to the rot.

The parasite is now in control — and Republican Party members seem fine with that. They are passengers on the Trump bus. They’re along for the ride, and Trump is driving the bus wherever he wants it to go. The passengers can get off at any time, but if they do the bus isn’t coming back for them–unless the driver wants to reverse and run them over just out of spite. If the passengers see the bus driver veering off a cliff, they can convince him to hit the brakes and steer the bus back to safety — but they cannot pry his hands away from the wheel.

This much power concentrated in the hands of a single individual is not healthy for a liberal democracy. The free-flowing exchange of productive ideas is the engine that drives liberalism and ensures active participation in our political society.

Take the modern Democratic Party, caught in a battle between young progressives desirous for change and moderates watering down their progressivism with pragmatism. Both broad factions have their merits; both have their drawbacks. Though the moderate wing is in the ascendancy with the nomination of Joe Biden, progressive thinking holds considerable influence within the marketplace of Democratic ideas. Regardless of the result in November, the next four years will see numerous feuds within the Democratic Party regarding policy and purpose. Does this damage party unity? To a degree. But it also creates a vibrant outpouring of new initiatives and ideas.

The ideologies and beliefs of the Republican Party should be internally debated and vigorously questioned in the same way. American voters should have a positive conservative option for their future, one that addresses and attempts to solve the indisputable problems facing our country. You might not agree with these conservative solutions, and that is fine — that is the beauty of democracy and liberalism. But the American people deserve a choice between two respectable options. When both parties see a victory for their opponent as nothing less than apocalyptic, internal divisions widen, perhaps irreversibly.

The sorry state of the Trump-publican party is not permanent. Despite his tongue in cheek suggestions that he’ll serve for twelve more years, Donald Trump can only serve for two presidential terms. The Republican Party will eventually have to chart a course without Donald Trump at the head.

That course is far from certain. They could operate like a monarchy, appointing an heir-apparent to take on the role of party leader and lodestar. Donald Trump Jr. would seem to be a likely candidate for this position; he inherited at least some of his father’s magnetism, and has a strong rapport with the grassroots members of the GOP. Matthew Gaetz, the brash antagonistic Florida Congressman, is certain to throw his hat in the ring as well.

If Trump is soundly defeated in November, perhaps the Republicans will try to eradicate Trumpism from within the party and seek solace in the establishment. Former UN Representative Nikki Haley and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott would be likely players in this scenario, though Trumpism may be too fully laced into the cocktail of Republican ideology to truly repudiate it.

The most likely course if Trump loses in November is a balance, adopting some tenets of Trumpism while rejecting others. Mike Pence might be perfectly positioned for this. As Trump’s vice president, Pence can run on Trump’s record in much the same way that Biden is running on Obama’s. His evangelical credentials and experience in gubernatorial leadership should placate establishment figures concerned with a new Trumpist figure.

Pence’s position on the fence could backfire spectacularly, too. Establishment figures might want a clean break from everything associated with Donald Trump; his vice president would be the baby thrown out with the bathwater. While Mike Pence can speak to his time as Trump’s VP, he lacks the charisma and devil-may-care attitude that ingratiates Trump to the GOP base.

And there’s another, more troubling scenario. Should Trump lose in 2020, he would be eligible to run again in 2024. Even if he abstains, the fanatical support he receives from the base means he will be an influential figure in the party for years to come.

The Republicans have invited a parasite into their home. They’re about to find out just how hard it is to exterminate it.

“It’s Not About You, It’s About The Kid”

What were you doing when the world started to fall apart?

When coronavirus shut down American sports leagues, then the entire nation? When our lives devolved into endless PSAs promoting social distancing, flattening the curve, and sheltering-in-place? Where were you when the tsunami made landfall on the beach?

I was in the middle of driving across the country, as I wrote about at Standing Room Only. But many Americans were at work, wondering how their jobs would be affected by the coming pandemic. Some wondered if they would even have jobs to come back to once this was all over.

America’s teachers were doing what they do best; providing the best education they can for each and every one of their students. A monumental and crucial service, to be sure, but one that is too often underpaid, underappreciated, and under-supported.

The challenges posed to the fragile education system by the coronavirus pandemic have been monumental. Teachers have had to transition to educating students through online worksheets and Zoom lectures rather than in-person instruction. Grading scales, class structures, and standardized tests were jettisoned as attempts to shift over to distance learning were sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster. Above it all hangs the threat of funding cuts, the blade of the guillotine poised to clatter down with shuddering finality.

I spoke with four teachers across the Midwest about their experiences transitioning to distance learning; the challenges they and their students have faced; and the extent to which they’ve felt supported by their administrators and their district officials. I granted them anonymity so that they would feel comfortable speaking freely and, if need be, negatively, about their districts. Some aspects of the transition have been handled admirably, and many of the problems have been the result of the unprecedented situation more than administrative error. But across the board, as is so often the case in our education system, more can be done to support the teachers that give so much of themselves to support their students.

“That moment was the freakiest thing I’ve had to do…”

One of the most frightening aspects of the coronavirus pandemic was how fast the United States went from apathy to code-red. At the start of the work week on Monday, March 9th, there were severe outbreaks of coronavirus in Seattle, New York City, and a few cities in California, but for most Americans it was just a news story. That was happening over there, not here in our small towns.

By Friday, March 13th, President Donald Trump had declared a nationwide state of emergency; public gatherings had been cancelled with unprecedented alacrity; and schools around the country were hastening to develop a plan of action.

“For the staff, for the students, for the administration, it was all within less than twelve hours of, wow, this is getting serious, what’s going to happen, to: start preparing, we’re shutting down for a month,” said Rachel (not her real name), a special educator in an urban district in Wisconsin.

Steven (not his real name), a band director in a rural district in Michigan, also serves as the advisor for his school’s Drama Club. He and his students were preparing for an upcoming production of Willy Wonka as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. “I knew we were going to go have to cancel. I came up with a reschedule date, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

“Having to have that last rehearsal with [my students] on March 12th was just heartbreaking. Especially the seniors, who were not going to perform on that stage again…But, having talked to them on March 12th and in my heart knowing that that was it, it just broke me.”

By Friday, March 13th, most state governors had announced a temporary shutdown of schools to begin the forthcoming Monday. But while everyone knew they wouldn’t be going to school after the weekend, no one knew exactly what they would be doing.

“I was approaching classes of students who were asking me, ‘what’s going on? When are we coming back? What are we doing while we’re off?'” says Laura (not her real name), a math teacher at a suburban district in Michigan. “And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m a younger teacher anyway, but nobody knew. This is unprecedented.”

Questions abounded, and answers were scant. Would classes be taught online? How would distance learning affect students’ grades? What about classes like music, art, or gym that don’t lend themselves to online instruction? Will students still advance in grade level next year? What about all the fun, frivolous things that make high school tolerable–the proms, the sporting events, the fundraisers, even commencement ceremonies? What was school going to look like?

As Laura told me, “It was just all these huge, big things that nobody knew the answer to.”

“…Everybody’s doing it different.”

When state governors made the decision to close schools for the remainder of the year, districts were forced to reinvent the wheel. How were they going to take a system, imperfectly crafted over years of in-person instruction and assessment, and recreate it in a virtual environment? What emerged was an ad hoc system that often left teachers with more questions than answers.

The first major hurdle was access; classes were going to be available online, so to ensure an equitable education system every student had to have access to the internet. Darren (not his real name), a high school history teacher in a rural district in Ohio, says his district looked at technological access immediately. “When we went on this break, one of the things we were required to do as teachers was call our first period classes, and we had to do a wellness check and analysis.”

The analysis consisted of a survey of four questions for the parents. The first two questions: “Do you have access to technology at home? Do you have access to internet at home?”

While access to the internet has proliferated enormously over the past twenty years, accessibility is not universal. In 2019, Pew Research Center found that roughly seventy-five percent of Americans had access to broadband internet at home. That number drops, however, in urban and, more significantly, in rural areas. Three of the four teachers I spoke with said that internet accessibility was a problem in their district; only the teacher at the suburban district encountered no challenges.

Bandwidth also posed a problem, particularly in Steven’s district. “There are some families that really can’t even get on the internet because their mom or dad works, and they’re working from home. Or they have brothers and sisters who are in high school — you can’t have everybody on these devices all at the same time.”

Internet access is one thing; having a device with which to access it is another. Many of the teachers I spoke to have access to Google Chromebooks in their classrooms, allowing them to integrate online learning into their standard curricula. When schools transitioned to online learning, most districts distributed their Chromebooks to students who lacked devices of their own at home, meaning (in theory) that every student should have access to the internet and a device with which to access it.

Another major concern for district officials was ensuring continued access to free and reduced lunch for students in need. According to the School Nutrition Organization, schools across the United States provided some 20 million free lunches to students every day. Each teacher I spoke with said that their district continued to provide free and reduced lunches to students throughout the pandemic, for which districts and their support staff should be commended.

While district officials focused on providing internet access and nourishment to students during the closure, teachers were responsible for designing the structure of their online classes. That distribution of responsibility was intentional; one of the best parts of being a teacher, Laura tells me, is the independence that the job offers.

“A big perk of the job is the amount of freedom teachers have to set up their classroom the way they want, and as long as the students are learning the curriculum assigned, you have the freedom to do that however you choose.”

That independence comes with a potential downside; there can be a wide variance of educational methods across classes. During normal in-person instruction, that variety is refreshing; when applied to online learning, it can be confusing. Some teachers are relying on Zoom lectures; others are posting worksheets for students to complete. Students adjusting to new methods of learning have to come to grips with multiple models at one time. “It’s very sporadic,” Laura says.

The bigger problem is not a lack of consistency, but a lack of unity in educational purpose. What are students expected to learn in each of their classes? Normally those objectives are clearly defined by district and state curriculum guidelines. But to what extent have those guidelines been discarded during the pandemic? Are students still supposed to be learning new material? Or are these online assignments just enrichment activities meant to keep students engaged?

“My whole career is project-based learning. Every concert is a project,” Steven tells me. “So it’s ironic to me that now we have all these ‘enrichment projects’ which to me really aren’t projects at all, they’re just something to say alright, we tried to present some curriculum for you.”

Clarity was even harder to come by for special educators. “I wasn’t really given any instruction,” Rachel says. “We were just trying to get them to pass their classes and not overwhelm them with more work.” Her and her colleagues focused on holding meetings with their students mandated by the students’ IEPs (individual education plans), but the material covered wasn’t in service of specific educational goals. “It was just supposed to be enrichment work,” Rachel says.

When district officials did step in to make decisions, they sometimes flew in the face of ad hoc measures adopted by teachers at the point of crisis. When Darren’s school shifted to online learning, the history teachers at his school agreed to create a Google classroom for all the history students. “The theory was that all of us can monitor it to answer kids’ questions, so the kid could get rapid feedback,” he says

A few weeks later, the district decided to use a different educational platform–Schoology–as the primary platform throughout the district. The entire history department would have to shift over and retrain themselves on Schoology.

“We didn’t have any direction,” Darren told me. “There was nobody telling us this is the platform you need to use [at the beginning].”

District officials focused all their efforts on making sure that students had equitable access to education. These are important concerns, to be sure. But too little guidance was provided to teachers on what type of education the students were going to have access to. Left with no answers, teachers developed their own solutions, leading to divergent methods of online instruction and–more problematically–different learning goals.

“They just dropped off the face of the Earth. I don’t know what’s going on.”

When schools shifted to distance learning, local districts and state governments alike wanted to ensure that students would not be unfairly penalized during the transition. Online learning is challenging; students would be in an environment often unconducive to learning, and technical difficulties were going to be unavoidable. It would not be fair for a student’s grade to suffer due to the educational and personal challenges presented by the pandemic.

The solution? Do away with grades.

Every teacher I spoke to adopted a version of a pass/fail grading system. GPAs would be locked; whatever grade the student was receiving at the time of the shutdown would be the grade they received for the remainder of the year. Students who were failing classes at the time of the shutdown needed to complete the online work to raise their grade to a pass.

Students who were already passing, though? They were guaranteed to pass. And with GPAs locked (at least at the high school level), they had no incentive to complete any of the work.

“There’s not really a carrot that we can offer them,” Laura told me. “Some of [my students] have just said, ‘I’m not planning on doing the work,’ and I’ve said, ‘Okay. I can’t make you.'”

Laura is lucky. In her math courses, she’s seen around 90 percent of her students participate. She’s also managed to make contact with all but one of her students.

Other teachers haven’t been as fortunate. Rachel was able to work with just half of her students. “The kids who are passing just reached out and said ‘I’m good, thank you, I’m doing okay,'” she said. “But the kids who were failing were extremely, extremely difficult to get a hold of.” I could hear the frustration in her voice as she told me that. Teachers devote so much of their time to students, trying to inspire them, educate them, and help them succeed; it’s demoralizing when the students who need the most help aren’t even in the classroom.

“We can’t force them to do the work,” Steven says. As a music teacher, so much of his instruction is based on in-class participation. He set up a Google Classroom for his ensembles–choir, concert band, and jazz band. “I got probably sixty percent that actually accepted the invitation, but then once I got that I’ve been getting about twenty-five percent of the work. You’re talking about maybe fifteen kids in concert band, out of sixty.

Deadlines can be a powerful motivator, as Darren found out. Ohio adopted a slightly different structure; they still opted for a pass/fail system, but students who did not complete enough online assignments would receive a grade of “incomplete;” if the work remains unsubmitted by September 30, the grade will change to a fail.

“I wasn’t getting any of the assignments until the deadline. They were just procrastinating,” Darren told me. “I had eighteen or nineteen percent completion two days before the quarter ended and it jumped about twenty percent because all of a sudden kids just started logging in.”

“The last two days of school I had one hundred and fifty-eight assignments turned in.”

The adoption of the pass/fail grading system was a smart accommodation in the midst of an unprecedented crisis in education. Most states eliminated standardized testing for the upcoming year, and public universities including California State announced that standardized test score requirements would be suspended for forthcoming application cycles. Such changes may signal a much-needed shift in emphasis away from grades and test scores as primary evaluators of student potential and mark the start of a more equitable and holistic means of assessing a student’s learning ability.

However, teachers and students alike need some sort of incentive structure. “They’re having a really hard time being motivated,” Steven says. Encouraging students to learn can feel like a fruitless, thankless task. The adoption of a pass/fail grading system removes both the carrot and the stick that teachers can use as a motivator for students, making their jobs even more challenging.

“I feel like I’m working more than I ever have when I was standing on the podium…”

The coronavirus pandemic has forced all of our houses to become more than homes. They have become our offices, our conferences rooms, our gyms. For teachers and students alike, their houses have become classrooms. It is a role they were never meant to play.

Online learning is hard in the best of circumstances. The lack of structure and guidance requires students to become self-disciplinary, and if any questions arise teachers are not readily available to provide assistance. Online learning while at home multiplies the difficulty. Daily structure disintegrates like moist cotton candy, and distractions cry their siren songs to students disinterested in another droll worksheet. The absence of the little social interactions that provide a break from the monotony make those distractions all the more alluring.

“The high schoolers can adjust a little more, because they’re already on social media, they’ve got devices,” Steven told me. “But the younger kids who don’t have phones and don’t have all that access, it’s got to be tough for them. You’re stunting their social growth right now by not being able to interact with anybody.”

Laura has similar concerns. “They don’t know what to do, they’re feeling lost, their parents are asking them to do things, they don’t have any energy. And it’s not them. It’s a very social age.”

“I don’t think they connect the dots to it, but I think at least in some of them that’s kind of a sign of depression.”

The teachers I’ve spoken with have been doing their best to reach out to students, conduct wellness checks, and ensure that their students are at least staying healthy, if not happy. “Obviously in person you can be a little more goofy or a little bit more sarcastic,” Rachel told me, “whereas over the phone or in email especially, you don’t want to cross that boundary. It’s just like any other relationship or friendship: in person is always better.”

It is wonderful that teachers are checking up on the students; but who is checking up on the teachers? According to Darren, no one.

“I never got asked once by an administrator, ‘Oh, how are you doing during this time? How’s your family? How are you coping? Are you getting to the store okay?’ Not once.”

With the shift to online learning, teachers had to completely reimagine how to perform their jobs. Younger teachers grew up with access to technology and exposure to early initiatives towards online learning, making the transition a bit easier, though certainly not seamless. Older teachers, however, have been teaching with pen and paper for years. What professional development these teachers have done was meant to use technology as an augmentation to their standard curricula, not as a replacement.

Overnight, teachers were expected to become proficient in online learning platforms. Such a steep learning curve is a tall ask even for the best of teachers. “The teacher is supposed to be the expert,” Laura told me, “and their kids would be coming to them with all these questions and they wouldn’t know the answers.”

The switch to online instruction has foisted added stress onto special educators. They are, by law, required to meet the proscripts of each of their students’ IEPs. In a standard school day those requirements are manageable; trying to track down multiple students during a pandemic to fulfill their IEPs, however, requires added diligence. “They actually added more paperwork for us to do, of course,” Rachel told me. If students don’t meet the educational requirements enumerated in their IEPs, their families can sue for compensatory services. Nothing like a lawsuit to add panic to a stressful situation.

Other teachers have struggled to adapt to the structure of online instruction. Teachers are used to working in the classroom from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. In the evenings, they often have to grade assignments. Some also advise extracurricular activities like athletic teams and arts groups. The line between work and personal life was always a bit blurry; now, it’s evaporated entirely.

“The hardest thing has been the kids aren’t working during the school day,” Darren told me. “I would log off for the day at 3, and then right around dinner time I would be getting messages and emails from kids and parents wanting help from me on their work.

“It was an ethical dilemma: I need to help them, but I also need to be done for the day so I can get my mind off work.”

Laura had a similar experience. “It’s not our normal routine,” she told me. “When are we supposed to be working? When are we supposed to be responding to emails?”

Pressure mounted when emails from parents went unanswered. As Darren explained, “A parent or a kid would email me around 9pm, and I wasn’t checking my email; I was asleep. And I would wake up the next morning to an email from the guidance department saying that this parent says you didn’t contact them back.

“There’s this expectation, this idea that we’re going to be helping them at all hours of the day, all hours of the night.”

Amidst all the pressures and the added stress, the feeling that came through across all my interviews was how much the teachers miss their students. “There’s no live interaction with these kids,” Steven said. “And when you’re in a medium that’s entertainment, and you can’t be in front of those kids…it’s very challenging.”

He went on to share a story of two of his high school trumpet players. The annual Memorial Day parade in town had been cancelled, but they wanted to perform Taps at the local cemetery to honor America’s fallen soldiers. They went out of their way to contact the Village Council and conduct a ceremony, while still respecting social distancing regulations. “That just…you know…that just made me so proud.

“It’s those kinds of little things that I really miss. I miss giving out all the awards, I miss hearing those kids play for the last time, I’ve missed recruiting for fifth grade band…So, yeah, I guess the word I would say is its heartbreaking.”

The best part of teaching–working with the students day in and day out–has been taken away from educators. In its place is added paperwork, endless technical difficulties, and angry late-night emails from parents wondering why their teacher isn’t awake at two in the morning. One of the hardest jobs in the world has only gotten harder.

“…I don’t know if we’re going to be completely free of cuts.”

The economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has taken a machete to government budgets. Revenue streams have gone dry, and requests for bail-outs and relief funding have drained the rainy-day funds. Teachers know that education cuts are almost certain.

“If you talk to the administrative side,” Steven told me, “they’re very doom and gloom. ‘District’s going to burn down, can’t pay anybody’ — same old dance.”

In Michigan, where Steven works, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been supportive of educators. Their salaries were guaranteed through the remainder of the school year, and they’ve worked hard to avoid massive cuts to education. However, some of the decision is out of their control; unless the federal government provides an additional stimulus package to the states earmarked for education relief, some downsizing in the budget seems inevitable. Dire projections could see state funding per pupil fall from $8,000 to as low as $5,600.

Whitmer protected the school’s budget for this year. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine took a different route, slashing $300 million from the K-12 budget. Importantly, the cuts applied to this year’s budget; school districts like Darren’s had to scramble to find ways to cut money that they had already allocated. Further cuts to next year’s education funding are expected.

Education funding has long been a political hot-potato. The benefits of a good education system aren’t often felt until long after the politicians responsible for the decisions have retired or been voted out. That short-termism coupled with years of conservative governance inspired by Tea Party ideologies has left education gutted in many states. There are no more easy cuts to make; we’ve long since trimmed the fat, and are now hewing straight to the bone. The threat of the coronavirus to both educational structure and funding may rattle American education to its very core.

“Do what you have to do to survive.”

June is often a celebratory time in the academic calendar. This year, though, it rings hollow with the ghosts of graduation parties not held, commencement ceremonies not celebrated, and goodbyes unsaid. Teachers are decompressing from a stressful end to the semester, each of them wondering: what is this going to look like in the fall?

Unfortunately, they receive few answers there either. It is hard to say how coronavirus will progress over the coming months. Every state has started to reopen in some form, though coronavirus cases have risen at an alarming rate since stay-at-home orders were lifted. States have put together task forces of bureaucrats, administrators, and–thankfully–teachers to develop plans to address the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Three plans are in circulation: one calls for a full return to in-person learning, though with social distancing protocols; one calls for a hybrid system, where students would be in class two days a week, and engage in distance learning the remaining three days; and the final calls for a continuation of full-time distance learning.

But as with so many issues in the era of coronavirus, the solutions are almost more problematic than the original dilemma. Take the proposal to return to in-person learning. That would remove the challenges of online learning, to be sure, but it would raise a host of questions related to social distancing. The teachers I spoke to expressed myriad concerns related to a return to normalcy.

“There’s no guarantee that we’re going to have enough cleaning supplies, toilet paper for the bathrooms,” Darren told me. “How are kids going to move through the hallways to ensure social distancing? How are we going to let kids go get a drink from a community drinking fountain?

“There’s just so many little things.”

Laura had similar concerns. “Gym class, you can’t do team sports because you’re sharing equipment; choir, you’re projecting your germs; band, they share instruments. They’re talking about the hallways, if kids can use their lockers, because they’re so close to everybody else.”

And what of communal lunches? What of shared desks? What of enforcing social distancing in classrooms, in hallways, in bathrooms?

“When you start thinking about it,” Laura said, “you think, it’s never going to happen. But then, in reality, it needs to happen. It’s just when, and how safe is it going to be.”

Hanging over it all is the spectre of disease; what if there’s a coronavirus outbreak in the building? Will schools get shut down again? How will students be kept safe? How will teachers?

The hybrid plan offers its own challenges. Splitting the student body into two groups would solve problems of social distancing in classrooms and ease the burden of social distancing in common areas. But they create additional educational challenges, for which the burden always falls upon the teacher.

As a band director, Steven has a unique dilemma. “I probably can’t have the whole ensemble together at any given time,” he predicted. “And who knows if they’re going to let me perform? Who knows how many kids they’re going to let perform at a time? So maybe I have a Band A and a Band B, I have no idea.”

Splitting up core classes seems more realistic than splitting up a concert band, but that suggestion puts an massive increase on the workload for teachers. “Say you have three different classes,” Laura explains, “you now have three different classes in person, and three different classes sitting at home that same day. So, somebody that taught three different classes, in a way, teaches six.”

And what would be gained from this hybrid system? Not a whole lot, Darren suggests. “I can’t do a group project. I can’t do pair-and-share, talk to your neighbor. All I can do is videos, lecture, independent work.” Teaching methods, in short, that are already available in online formats.

Which leads back to the beginning: online distance learning. More Google Classrooms, more Zoom meetings, more late-night emails from irate parents. Teachers might have to endure more distance learning, but it shouldn’t mean they have to endure a system that doesn’t give them the support they need.

“It’s not about you, it’s about the kid.”

Education systems weren’t built with global pandemics in mind. The fact that districts across the country rapidly shifted to online learning, worked to ensure equitable access for students, and provided at least some form of curricular activity should be applauded. That does not, however, mean the ad hoc systems instituted in this panicked state of unrest should become the standard forms of education. Too often, teachers bore the brunt of the crisis without receiving an adequate amount of support.

Administrators should ensure that their teachers remain healthy and secure in their roles. They should communicate clear educational goals so that teachers have a roadmap for designing their own curricula. A grading system should be reinstituted, one that ensures fairness for the student yet gives teachers a motivating incentive in their assignments. Most importantly, teachers need to be a part of the conversation in constructing a new online educational system.

Unfortunately, in Darren’s district, that does not appear to be happening. “The [teacher’s] union has not been engaged on any of those conversations,” he told me. “We don’t know if the grading policy is going to be the same, we don’t know what the load is going to be, we don’t know what any of this is going to be, we have not been approached.”

Special educators, too, need to be brought in from the cold. “SPED is rarely mentioned in staff meetings, SPED is often not taken into consideration for professional development,” Rachel says. “I didn’t really expect them to prioritize SPED, because SPED is never…”

She trailed off in frustration, before continuing. “It just really brought to light how little the district really wants to see their most challenged students thrive.”

“I know they want to make changes on the teacher’s side,” Laura told me. “But if they add too much, I don’t know if a lot of our teachers can sustain a lot more put on us.”

Darren told me a story from a district near him, about an interaction between a teacher and an administrator. The teacher raised concerns about having to migrate all of their work from the online platform into paper formats for students who needed to attend summer school. The administrator responded to the complaint curtly, “It’s not about you, it’s about the kid.”

Education is about the kid — that is the main purpose of a healthy and strong education system, to inspire students with knowledge and give them the tools to become thoughtful and engaged members of our future society.

But isn’t one of the best ways to do that to support the teachers who give so much of themselves to support the students? Think back to your time in school. Remember that teacher, or coach, or advisor, who pushed you to do your best? Who inspired you? Who you could turn to when you needed advice, who helped you grow up and become the person you are today?

A viable education system needs equitable access; it needs students who are in class, whether that class be in the school or in their own homes. But a great education system, an education system that produces thoughtful and engaged students–that requires good teachers. Teachers are the best asset a district has; it’s time we support them as such.

Turning Protesters Into Activists

In the modern era, the satirical news website The Onion can feel more accurate than The New York Times. There’s an article they repost after every mass shooting in the United States where the headline reads: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

The headline refers to the ubiquity of mass shootings in the United States, but it could just as well refers to acts of police violence against minorities and, in particular, black Americans. How many names do you remember?

George Floyd, forced to the ground by Office Derek Chauvin and pinned there, Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, and begged for help from his recently-deceased mother. Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

Breanna Taylor, woken in her sleep by police officers breaking into her Louisville home in the dead of night. She was shot eight times. In her own home. March 13, 2020.

Ahmaud Arbery, murdered while jogging by two white vigilantes. They hunted him down in their pickup truck, blew him away at close range with a shotgun blast, then whined that it was an act of self-defense. February 23, 2020.

Philando Castile, pulled over by Officer Jeronimo Yanez during a routine traffic stop. Yanez shot Castile five times at point-blank range. Castile was only reaching for his driver’s license. July 6, 2016.

Tamir Rice, shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann while playing in a park. Rice had a toy gun; Loehmann saw a deadly weapon, and fired before issuing any warning. Rice was a child. He was just twelve years old. November 22, 2014.

Eric Garner, a father of six, murdered by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in a confrontation that was caught on video. Garner’s last words as he was locked in Pantaleo’s chokehold reverberated across a wounded nation: I Can’t Breathe. July 17, 2014.

Michael Brown, 18 years old, shot in the streets of Ferguson, MO by Officer Darren Wilson. After being fired upon, Brown put up his hands, the universal sign of surrender. Wilson fired again, and again, and again. Brown’s body was left in the street for hours. August 9, 2014.

Trayvon Martin, 17 years old, shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, despite the fact that an individual–presumably Martin–was crying for help on 911 recordings of the incident, before his cries were silenced by the blast of a gunshot. February 26, 2012.

How many names do you remember? How many more have you forgotten? How many instances of racial violence, of police brutality, have gone unnoticed, unwatched, unanswered?

How many more before this ends?

This moment feels different. Previous protests, like those that occurred after the shooting of Michael Brown, took place in areas with large populations of black Americans. Even the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was concentrated in the South, where segregation and Jim Crow were twin tyrants of injustice. Now, protests are forming organically all across the United States, as this interactive from Al-Jazeera demonstrates. Protests have occurred in Boise (2.12% black American) and Salt Lake City (1.94% black American). Near me, in the town of La Crescenta-Montrose, there was a small Black Lives Matter gathering on Wednesday. Just 0.19% of the town identifies as black American.

I am not insinuating that white voices matter more than black voices, or that white voices are more important on this issue. What I am arguing is that black Americans crying out for injustice are finally being heard. When black Americans first began saying “Black Lives Matter,” many whites responded with the pollyanna admonition that “all lives matter.” The shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement had enough ambiguity that centrist whites could meekly ride the fence of bothsideism.

Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd has no ambiguity. Cellphone videos have cut through the doubt to expose the hate. Chauvin’s knee was on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The knee of oppression has been on the neck of black Americans for far longer than that. Black Americans have been saying that they can’t breathe. White Americans are starting to understand why.

It is in many respects a perfect storm. The murder of George Floyd follows closely on the heels of high-profile cases of racialized violence including the murders of Breanna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. President Donald Trump’s hateful and divisive rhetoric has stoked preexisting racial animosities extant in America. His actions are the lighter fluid on a pyre constructed over 400 years of slavery and white supremacy. 2020 has been an oppressive year for all Americans as the spread of coronavirus has forced many into unemployment and informal house arrest. With the murder of George Floyd, the tinderbox blazed into an inferno.

But while the moment feels different, the movement has been slow. We finally recognize the fire. We finally realize that the world is alight because we constructed our house out of rotten wood. But we have done little more than come to the conclusion that the fire is a problem.

Take the plethora of statements issued by businesses, sports teams, and celebrities alike. A select few have been thoughtful and incisive. The statement released by ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s recognized that the unrest “was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy.” Most, however, took a course of action like Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. He tweeted his favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. quote and accompanied it with a milquetoast platitude that justice is good and racism is bad.

Other corporate statements have been so poorly constructed as to be farcical. The Washington Redskins tweeted a black square in support of Blackout Tuesday, but as many internet commenters remarked, the more effective statement would have been blacking out their racist logo. The National Football League was one of the first organizations to tweet out a statement, but the statement did not include a single mention of police brutality or–more shockingly–racism. Colin Kaepernick, eat your heart out.

Remember: corporations are not moral. The people who run them may well be, and aspects of businesses may come to adopt the moralities of their founders, but corporations exist solely to make money. All their actions, all their statements, are to facilitate a successful, profitable business, or at the very least do no harm to that business. It is striking, then, that where few corporations spoke out after the murder of Michael Brown, every corporation feels obligated to issue some sort of statement today. They fear that their businesses will be negatively tarred as enablers and tacit supporters of racial violence if they don’t come out–even in the weakest terms–against racism. They feel like they have to say something that says nothing, rather than say nothing at all.

The protests are saying more. They are marching for racial justice and against police brutality. They are taking a firm stance that the behavior of officers like Derek Chauvin cannot be tolerated anymore; that the prejudices inherent in the American policing system must be eradicated. Their actions have forced us all to listen, and prompted many of us to join them and act.

But to a degree, their actions too have been short of substance. They demand racial justice. They demand an end to racialized police brutality. How, exactly, are those demands going to be met? How are those changes going to be actualized?

That is the central weakness of such a diffuse movement. Black Lives Matter and the wider initiatives for racial justice are true grassroots movements, emerging from the combined efforts of concerned citizens. But their lack of leadership and centralized oragnization limits their ability to enact change at the policy level. A similar problem hampered the Occupy Wall Street movement in the early 2010s. While they had a broad issue they were protesting against–in their case, economic inequality–they struggled to enunciate specific reforms they were protesting for.

Some proposed reforms are starting to enter the public conversation. Three lawyers representing the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and George Floyd have called for congressional hearings on police brutality and a national task force to investigate cases of police misconduct. Civil rights activists in Dallas County sent a list of demands to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. The ten demands include explicit suggestions to reallocate resources to communal support programs rather than law enforcement efforts and advocates adoption of more stringent regulations meant to improve police accountability.

Calls for defunding police forces across the United States are also gaining traction. In 2017, more than $100 billion was spent on police forces across the United States. During the War on Terror in the 2000s, police forces spent millions on purchasing new equipment to improve their domestic counterterrorism responses. These high-powered weapons have far too frequently been deployed during standard policing patrols, the proverbial M-16s at the knife fights. Activists want a reallocation of government funds towards social programs meant to increase communal prosperity and engagement. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed a $250 million fund redistribution across the city’s budget to emphasize “jobs, and health and education and healing.” Between $100 and $150 million of the changes will come from the police budget, though both the cuts and the proposed new programs are in the early stages of development.

For real change to emerge from this moment, protesters must become activists. It is not enough to be against something; the mayonnaise corporate statements demonstrate that we can all link arms to condemn racism. We must take our righteous anger and direct it towards productive ends. We must be for something.

We must research and find productive solutions to solve police brutality and the unequal treatment of black Americans in the criminal justice system. We must develop concrete proposals to create the changes we want to enact. We must work with local, state, and federal officials to convince them that our ideas will end the oppressive injustices that stalk black Americans throughout their daily lives. And we must–yes, we must–work with law enforcement officials to pass reforms that lionize their role as servants of the community, rather than protectors.

No reform, not even a series of reforms, will eradicate the scourge of racism from our societies. That requires changes in our everyday lives. That requires dismantling the racist structures present in our societies, from unequal pay for black workers to segregated housing districts in urban areas. That requires hard conversations with our neighbors on everday social interactions and comments. That requires harder conversations with ourselves to analyze the assumptions that we cling to and the privileges we have inherited merely because of the color of our skin.

All of those reforms, though, require substance. It is not enough to be against police brutality; it is not enough to wish that no other black American has to endure what George Floyd endured. We have to be for something.

We have realized the problems we have to solve. Now, we have to figure out how to solve them. As former President Barack Obama wrote in his remarks on the protests: “Let’s get to work.”

Some Thoughts

I didn’t intend to write anything today. I’ve been ensconced in a couple of different research projects that have taken up most of my waking hours of late. But the events of the past week have demanded that I lift my head up from researching the past and pay attention to the injustices of the present. I am a writer; the very least I can do is lend my voice to the concerns of the oppressed.

Words, right now, mean little. Spilled ink does not reverse spilled blood. No words can bring back George Floyd. None can now bring back Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and so many others whose lives have been senselessly cut short. All I can think as I watch the news of the protests in Minneapolis, and the protests that have spread across the country, is that this has happened before, and that this will happen again.

And every time, the narrative becomes clouded. Violence mars the protest – doesn’t it always? – and storylines focus on that violence and the corresponding vandalism rather than the reasons for the protests. We seem to care more about the lighting of a fire than the extinguishing of a life. The injustice of racism is pushed to the margins. God forbid we take the time to write about meaningful and relevant issues when we could write about looters bastardizing a Target.

Racism. It’s always racism in this country. It’s become common parlance to call racism—and the system of slavery that entrenched it—America’s original sin. While Native Americans would rightly claim to be the first victims of European colonization in the Americas, the point is academic; racial othering and the injustices it breeds hold a powerful place in the history of the Americas.

America is a convoluted, complicated concept. When I lived abroad, I told people that Donald Trump was not representative of the United States. I still believe that. The ideals of the American experiment can be used for more productive ends than divisive hatemongering, pernicious xenophobia, and childish isolationism. We have done better; we can do better; we will do better.

The images of burning buildings, of a people so violated that they cannot take any more; the image of a white man kneeling over a black man like a hunter over his kill. That, sadly, is the United States. The country was in part built on the backs of enslaved black bodies. From its inception, the American republic proffered liberty to its people. Enslaved persons, Native Americans, and other outsider groups were not considered part of that people. The liberty espoused by the republic did not belong to them, for they were never viewed as part of the republic.

While laws have changed and social attitudes have undoubtedly improved over the decades, that original othering continues as a lodestar in the American story. To study American history is to study racism; the two are intimate dance partners, maliciously intertwined in imaginatively destructive ways.

No policy proscriptions can solve this problem. No new elections, no legal reform, no political movement can cut through the problem like Alexander’s blade through the Gordian Knot. A fundamental reform of social values is required. Is it even possible to separate the American experiment from the racism endemic to its creation?

I don’t know. My heart hurts right now. And if this is how I, a white man, feel, then I cannot imagine the pain, the suffering, and the fear that black Americans feel every moment of their lives.

Listen to them. Listen to their stories. Hear their words, and heed their actions. Because black voices matter. Black experiences matter. And, yes, Black Lives Matter.

A Fairway To The New Normal

Green. That’s all I see in front of me. Pure green, of varying shades; the deep green of the rough, the foreboding green of the trees, and there, in the middle, safety; the friendly light green of the wide open fairway.

I look down. Amidst the green is a round dot of white. My golf ball, teed up and ready for action. I close my eyes. I take a deep breath. I tighten my grip. And I swing.

For the first time in 2020, golf is back.

Two weeks ago, Los Angeles County opened golf courses for public use. Despite the host of restrictions meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, courses have been running a brisk business ever since. California has moved more cautiously in its reopening than other states; golf represents one of the few opportunities for organized physical activity at present.

Luckily for me, it’s my favorite form of physical activity. It is not hyperbole to say that golf is as much a part of my identity as my name. As soon as I conquered gravity and learned to stand on two legs, my dad put a golf club in my hand. I’ve owned a set of golf clubs ever since.

So many memories of my life are tied directly to golf. When I returned home from a life-changing study abroad excursion in 2015, I went straight from the airport to the golf course, jetlag be damned. When I turned in my senior thesis, I celebrated with a round of golf; when I turned in my master’s thesis, I did the same. I’ve met some of the dearest friends I’ll ever have in this life on the golf course. Foremost among them is my dad. Golf is our shared bond. We’ve spent countless hours together on the golf course. We would take a day to ourselves every family vacation and sneak out for a round. We would play almost every Saturday in the fall – the course was bound to be empty, as college football is king in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We would play late into the evening in those long summer days, our shadows growing long and then fading in the twilight as we putt out on eighteen, the sky a serene backdrop of purple and orange. Every time I hit a good shot on the golf course, I still think to myself, “Damn, I wish Dad could have seen that.”

Golf is also my oasis. Anytime I’m struggling—be it a major life change, a romantic breakup, or just a bad day, I flee to the golf course. It is a safety blanket of rolling hills and tree-lined fairways. I am not necessarily relaxed at the golf course—I hit far too many slices for that—but I am at peace there. The rest of the world fades to black, and all that matters is the green, the fairway, the direction of the wind, and the yardage to the pin.

All that to say, living for weeks in the California sunshine and not being able to enjoy it on the golf course was a special form of torment.

Now, of course, the moratorium has been lifted; the gates have been opened and we reemerge into the world. But like everything in the time of COVID-19, the Renaissance painting we left has morphed into a surrealist remake. Everything is recognizable, yet everything is ever so slightly askew, like a pair of out-of-date eyeglasses.

Golf is still golf, to be sure, but the little changes serve as a constant reminder of the world beyond the course. Masks are required around the clubhouse and common areas, no exceptions. Only one individual is allowed in the pro shop to check in at any time. Social distancing is the dogma of the day.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the social aspects of the game. Every round begins with introductions and handshakes. It is rote muscle memory. “Hi, I’m Scott, pleased to meet you,” I say as I extend my hand. But now I say my introductions from afar, with a slight head nod, hands at my sides like actors with no roles, no lines in this stage play.

Golf is a social game; if you’re spending four hours in one place with a person, you naturally look for some way to enjoy their company. For all their utility in preventing the spread of disease, facemasks make that hard. The masks obscure smiles, smirks, little facial ticks that imbue an individual with personality and character. They are eyes without a face. Our faces are vibrant reminders of our shared humanity; our facemasks obstruct that bond.

Normally socialization begins on the walk down the first fairway. It starts as simple small talk. “How long have you been playing golf for?” “Do you live in this area?” “What do you do for work?” Trite conversations, perhaps, but the Pyramids started as small blocks before becoming towering monuments.

Now, my walk down the first fairway is done in silence. We all walk (or ride) in our own bubble, so ingrained is the practice of social distancing. We walk with a collective sense of shared trauma. It is not the sharp stab of pain brought on by the loss of a loved one—though far too many have felt that particular form of anguish lately. It is a dull ache at all that has been lost, all that has changed in a heartbeat. It is the niggling insecurity, the omnipresent understanding that we currently live in a dangerous world; that any activity outside of the confines of our house, even one as safe and benign as a round of golf, comes with the risk of disease, infection, and death.

Is this what every interaction will look like in the wake of this virus? Living our lives with a pernicious storm cloud of disease hanging over every breath, every word, every activity? Is there even a normal left to return to?

But humanity finds a way. We do not make a conscious decision to eschew fear for normality, but we grow comfortable with the new normal. We settle into old habits, old routines. Soon conversation seeps back into the round. The coronavirus inevitably comes up as a topic of discussion—how can it not, so pervasive is it in our everyday lives—but it is an abstract, a threat that is out there, not in here, not on this golf course. The masks come off, proverbially and literally. We all maintain proper social distancing, and plenty of research has demonstrated that the risks of spreading the virus are far lower in outdoor environments. By the back nine, the surreal has faded into the background; for a little while, we have escaped. Everything feels normal again.

The round concludes. The last putt is holed on the eighteenth. And it is time for handshakes, cordialities, and farewells. Only now there are no handshakes, and the cordialities feel stilted and uncoordinated, like a dance move we still don’t know how to perform. Our oasis has dried up; time to return to the world we left, the one stricken by a novel coronavirus, the one where paranoia, misinformation, and insecurity pervade our daily lives. As we depart, I accompany my farewells with a now-common refrain: “Stay safe.”

“Normal” as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore. The virus wiped that away. But the new normal does not have to be a world of fear. We learn to live with it. We learn to adapt, and adopt new measures to live the closest representation of our former lives while minimizing the risks of our new circumstances.

Golf is back, though it has its surrealities. Everything will, for a time. But as we adapt, the fear becomes normalized and fades to grey. What remains is the vibrant and unbridled joy we feel in participating in the activities we love. The new normal doesn’t have to be so dreadful after all.

Demons in Black, Demons in White

Content warning: Article contains reference to and descriptions of sexual violence.

Look at this photo.

No. Really look at it. Absorb it. Let your eyes gather every part of that image. Every tattoo. Every shaved head. Try and count the number of prisoners. Try to imagine what that would feel like, jammed together like boxes in an overcrowded closet, close enough to feel the breath of the person behind you tickling the bare skin of your back.

Have you looked at it long enough? Can you no longer bear to look at it anymore?

Then think about this: that photo is not leaked. That photo was released, publicized, broadcast triumphantly to the world, by President Nayib Bukele and the government of El Salvador to demonstrate their treatment of imprisoned gang members.

77 people were murdered in the small Central American nation between 24 April and 27 April. Bukele claimed that the killings were orchestrated by gang members currently incarcerated in the country’s overburdened penal system. In response, he took to Twitter to demand a “maximum emergency in every detention facility holding gang members,” and called for an “absolute lockdown” on imprisoned mareros. The Deputy Prime Minister and prisons director, Osiris Luna, backed up his boss by declaring that “not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells.”

The new standard of prisoner treatment in El Salvador is in direct violation of UN resolutions regarding humane treatment of prisoners. There are 38,000 prisoners in El Salvador; the prisons only have a capacity of 18,051. Cramped conditions have facilitated the spread of tuberculosis and contributed to a rise in mental health issues. The measures come into effect at a time when El Salvador, like the rest of the world, is combatting the spread of the novel coronavirus. Any outbreak in the Salvadoran prisons is likely to prove catastrophic.

And the government is proud of what they’ve done.

There is a demon in El Salvador, and his name is Violence. The demon must be a he, for the way he acts is deeply imbued with masculinity, power, and oppression. He is endemic, ubiquitous, omnipresent. He has been there for centuries. He was there when the Spaniards introduced cold steel to the Mesoamerican peoples by demonstrating its brutal power at the end of a sword. He was likely there even before that, when the gods demanded blood in exchange for goodwill and protection.

He is cunning, this demon. He knows we recognize him as a demon when he dresses in black. He knows we see the violence of the Salvadoran gangs; he knows we recoil at the brutality and disregard for human life and demand answers, reforms, punishment. So he comes to our aid as a demon dressed in white, telling us that the violence of the government will end the violence of the gangs. He dies so that he may yet live again.

The demon has died once before, at the end of the Salvadoran Civil War. 75,000 people lost their lives in that conflict; over half a million fled the country. Right-wing death squads–some funded by the United States–stalked the urban streets. Left-wing guerrillas patrolled the jungles. Both sides committed atrocities including rape, torture, and mass killings. It seemed like Violence’s grand finale. In 1992, the two sides came together to sign the Chapultepec Peace Accords. The left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) transitioned from a guerrilla movement to a legitimate political party, ushering in a period of political stability that has largely remained intact.

But our demon was smart; he laid the seeds of his own rebirth in the civil war. Many Salvadoran refugees settled in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s, where they were targeted by other ethnic groups and gangs in the city. They formed gangs of their own to help protect themselves from rival ethnic communities and local law enforcement. Two of the strongest were Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. Exposure to street gang culture and the US penal system turned many Salvadoran refugees into hardened criminals.

After the signing of the peace accords, the United States began deporting Salvadorans with criminal records. Members of MS-13 and Barrio 18 arrived back home to find a country broken by war. Economic opportunities were nonexistent; security forces were undermanned and underfunded; and bonds between and within local communities had decayed and collapsed. In this vacuum, the gangs began to grow in numbers and in strength. The demon in black was born.

Now, he is everywhere. Journalist Tariq Zaidi estimates that there are 60,000 gang members in El Salvador. A report by the International Crisis Group states that the gangs are active in 94 per cent of El Salvadoran municipalities. News correspondent Miguel Patricio reports that some 600,000 Salvadorans live off the proceeds of gang activity — a number amounting to some ten per cent of the population.

But it is not much of a living. Salvadoran community leader Reverend Gerardo Mendez told NPR that gang members “still live in the same neighborhood, they still go hungry, they have no luxuries.” Most gang members live on less than $250 per month. Nor are the gangs motivated by any sense of political ideology. Gangs have taken money from both ARENA and FMLN, the two major political parties in El Salvador, in exchange for votes in presidential elections.

Rev. Mendez told NPR that the gangs fight for identity above all else. MS-13 and Barrio 18 have long been rivals; the hatred between the two is so strong that members of MS-13 won’t deign to say the number eighteen. But there is little difference between the two gangs in ideology or practice. Barrio 18 is more transnational, with members in nearly every Central American country, but within El Salvador both gangs are predominately Salvadoran.

The gangs don’t fight over their identity; the fight is their identity. The violence exists as a rationale unto itself. It is not a tool of the gangs; it is their purpose. Every action is taken in order to perpetuate violence. The demon must be fed.

The violence permeates every facet of life. Many gang members come from abusive families; they meet the demon at an early age. Even for those with healthy home lives, the violence is unavoidable. In 2015, El Salvador averaged more than seventeen murders per day. A survey conducted by the UN Refugee Agency from the same year found that 62 per cent of female refugees directly witnessed violent activity. The same percentage reported seeing dead bodies; some claimed to see them on a weekly basis.

Gangs are petty tyrants, controlling their destitute neighborhoods with a bloody fist. They are obsessively territorial; visitors often have to flash their car lights to indicate allegiance to the gang in control of that neighborhood before entering. In 2015, a 15-year old girl named Marcela was shot and killed at close range because she sold tortillas in one neighborhood, but lived in another. Dead at fifteen, all because she was on the wrong side of the street.

The gangs are the poor robbing the poor. It is not about acquisition of wealth; it is about the feeling of power, of control, of total dominance, that only violence can provide. The extortion rackets run by both MS-13 and Barrio 18 are not tools to create profit, but a means to rationlize their violence.

Rita, a Salvadoran woman, sold pupusas out of her house in Chalatenango. Soon after she began, members of Barrio 18 arrived. “First they came and demanded two dollars, and I was afraid to say no,” Rita said. “Within a week they were back and said I had to pay $10 a day.” Rita refused to pay. In retaliation, eight men from Barrio 18 raped her daughter. She had just left the house to collect water from the nearby water pump.

Sexual violence is pervasive. Women don’t leave the house alone at night. Most go without makeup for fear of catching the eye of one of the gang members. For the mareros, “women are objects to be used and discarded,” says Rev. Mendez. “A gang member can kill his woman for the smallest detail or suspicion. He can easily beat her to death and pick another girl.”

No one is safe from the depredations of the demon. Norma, the wife of a police officer in El Salvador, was extorted by MS-13. When she refused to pay, she was attacked by four mareros. “Three of the four of them raped me,” she told UNHRC. “They took their turns…they tied me by the hands. They stuffed my mouth so I would not scream. They took off my clothing. They then threw me in the trash.”

Norma and her husband filed an official report. It did little good. Few Salvadorans trust the police. Some see them as incompetent and unable to offer protection from the gangs. Others believe the incompetence is purposeful. “The police and the maras work together,” one Salvadoran woman told UNHRC. “It’s useless to go to the police. They let everyone go after 48 hours. If you call the police, you just get into more problems.”

The demon in black is winning. Gang violence has broken Salvadoran society. There is no trust between citizen and government. There are few communities that feel wholesome and secure. They live in fear of violence; it is all they know.

But it does not have to be this way. The demon can be defeated. Both gangs have at one time offered ceasefires to the Salvadoran government. A survey of 1,200 Salvadoran gang members conducted by Florida International University found that almost every marero thought of leaving the gang at some point. There is a way forward. It will not be easy–exorcisms never are–but El Salvador does not have to remain locked in this cycle of violence.

Three major steps need to be taken. First, police forces at the local and federal level need to rebuild trust with their communities. Salvadorans need to know that they can go to the police to help solve their problems and address their grievances, particularly those related to gang violence. Police forces must be able to ensure safety to anyone filing a complaint or an official report. Citizens will not report a crime if they fear retribution at the hands of the mareros.

Buidling a more demonstrably effective police force is a good place to start. According to La Prensa Gráfica, impunity rates for homicides reached 95 per cent in 2014. Bringing criminals to justice will show communities that the police are there to serve and protect the people, not the gangs. It should go without saying that such measures only work if arrests are accurate and evincible; the people arrested must actually be guilty of the crimes at hand.

Second, the government must improve rehabilitation programs to offer a path back into society for gang members. Most incarcerated gang members lack employable skills. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, 80 per cent of gang members have never held formal employment, and 94 per cent have no secondary education. Prisons should be viewed as centers of rehabilitation rather than punishment; incarcerated gang members should partake in training programs and employability courses so that they can earn a living outside of the mara upon their release.

Rehabilitation programs must focus on reforming the man, not the worker. There is a strong stigma in El Salvador associated with gang membership. Many of the gang members had troubled upbringings; nearly all have had traumatic experiences while involved in the maras. The gangs are social networks as much as they are criminal enterprises. Reformed gang members must have the skills necessary to succeed socially as well as professionally upon their release.

Finally, and crucially, local and federal officials must work to address the underlying causes that feed the maelstrom of gang violence. They must invest in improving local communities. Maras largely operate in poorer sections of El Salvador, where job prospects are grim and poverty rates are depressingly high. The bare necessities of food, shelter, and clean drinking water sometimes go unfulfilled here. In these dire situations, membership in a gang can seem the only reasonable way to provide for one’s family. Alternatives must be put forward; young people must be able to earn wages and provide the necessities for their families without resorting to crime. Investment in infrastructure and small business-friendly loans, coupled with effective security strategies to protect those investments from the gangs, is a good place to start.

Investment of a different sort must be made in restoring social cohesion to local communities. Communities with stronger kinship networks are less likely to become hotbeds of gang activity. There is an intriguing inverse correlation between gang activity today and guerrilla activity during the civil war. Guerrilla movements rely on close social cohesion to operate effectively; that cohesion seems to remain today. Areas where the guerrillas were more active in the civil war have lower homicide rates and less gang violence on average than places controlled by government forces during the war. Local community leaders, particularly religious leaders, should emphasize stronger ties within communities as a way to cut off oxygen to the fire of gang violence.

Image from https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/central-america/el-salvador/64-el-salvadors-politics-perpetual-violence.

Investing in education and protecting schools from the depredations of gang violence are the single best way to improve local communities, both socially and economically. In 2017, some 25 per cent of Salvadorans between the ages of 15 and 24 were neither working nor studying. Education provides building blocks for future growth intellectually and professionally, and schools offer safe and productive opportunities for socialization. Schools allow children the opportunity to create healthy social relationships today and acquire the skills to succeed tomorrow. They are the nearest thing to a silver bullet that El Salvador has.

But successive governments have demonstrated their fondness for steel bullets rather than silver ones. In 2011, 44 per cent of the security budget was invested in the police and justice ministry. 31 per cent was invested in the judiciary. Just one per cent was invested in crime prevention and rehabilitation. The purpose of fighting crime, according to the Salvadoran government, is not to fight crime. It is to fight.

Sound familiar? It should. You’ve met this demon before. You’ve seen him in black; now, he appears in white. Salvadoran governments promise to end gang violence through mano dura (iron fist) policies, but in doing so they promote destructive practices of state violence. The cycle continues. The demon dies, so that he may yet live again.

Mano dura has been the standard operating procedure for Salvadoran governments since President Francisco Flores announced the plan in 2003. Despite the stark ideological differences between the two parties, mano dura is the primary anti-gang platform for both ARENA and FMLN. They say it is the only way to fight the gangs. But it’s been in place for seventeen years, and the gangs are still here. One official admitted that the government was “fighting a war they cannot win.”

But still they fight. Arrests run into the thousands, often without evidence. Young people living in gang-infested territories are frequently beaten and detained despite having no gang affiliation. The grander the violence, the better. In recent years Salvadoran police forces have launched more armed raids on gang territories, leading to direct firefights between the police and the gangs. If an innocent bystander catches a stray bullet, well, the demon must be fed.

Sometimes the gangs are given a fighting chance; sometimes they aren’t. In 2016, reported firefights between police and gangs saw 96 per cent of the casualties on the side of the gangs; just one per cent were police officers. James Cavallaro, a commissioner of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, says that number cannot be accurate. “The truth is that the proportion of people killed – when it comes to real confrontations – can be more or less two or three times more civilians than police, depending on the training that is supposed to be higher when it comes to a police officer.” In El Salvador, the ratio is 59 civilians to one police officer.

Extrajudicial killings are on the rise. According to a US State Department report, there was one potential extrajudicial killing by police officers in 2013. There were 41 in 2016 alone. An exposé by Revista Factum uncovered private conversations among forty police officers regarding extortion, torture, and execution of suspected gang members. Ten per cent of the women interviewed by UNHCR said that police officers or other security forces “were the direct source of their harm.”

It is unclear whether these inhumane violations are products of their own initiative, or directives from higher levels of government. What is clear is that the government is under no pressure to change their ways. Mano dura is popular. In a 2017 survey, 40 per cent of Salvadorans approved of torture as a crime fighting technique. 34 per cent said the same of extrajudicial killing. Governments see no reason to address the root causes of gang violence with unpopular policies that may not prove effective in the short term. They prefer instead to give a free hand to security forces to combat the gangs, bask in the adoration of the people, and silence critics who complain about human rights and atrocities of violence.

That is clearly the strategy of the current president, Nayib Bukele. He promised to improve security in the country upon his election to the office in June 2019. He threatened military action against the Assembly after the legislative body moved lethargically on a $109-million loan for enhanced security programs. Bukele later backed down, claiming that God “asked him to be patient with the politicians.”

Bukele is flexing his authoritarian muscles. He has pushed through aggressive measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic–measures which have been called unconstitutional by numerous observers. He has been warned about human rights violations by both Amnesty International and the World Organization Against Torture. Bukele does not care, claiming that human rights defenders want “the death of Salvadorans.” Observers are growing concerned. A recent editorial in El Faro claimed that “it has become common for the Nayib Bukele government to try and silence any truth that contradicts it and blames others for its inability and mistakes.”

“These days,” the author continued, “it’s evident the citizens fear the arbitrariness of the Police more than the risk of contagion.”

Fear. The demon of violence loves fear, whether he’s dressed in black or white.

Scroll back to the top of this page. Look at that photo again. See there, in the foreground, our demon of violence, dressed in black. Shoulders slumped, head down, incarcerated, he fears his time is near an end. That is something to be celebrated.

But wait. Look beyond that. See those blurry figures in the back, guns at the ready? Our demon of violence, dressed in white. He is poised for a rebirth, violence extinguished becoming violence reborn. He might be dying; but he might yet live again.

Getting Through COVID-19: Lessons From A Motivational Speaker

Getting an education at the College of Wooster is a gauntlet, and exam week is the final boss. Hours of research, study, and essay writing culminate in a week-long torrent of presentations, projects, and examinations, all undertaken by overcaffeinated and overstressed college students gasping just to reach the finish line.

But during my time at Wooster, there was one thing that made exam week more tolerable, something that helped so many students through the stress and chaos. Every day, my classmate and friend Bobby Berg would get up early and post a motivational status on his Facebook page. He would remind us of the hard work we had done to get here, and all of the wonderful things we were going to do after we finished our degrees. He told us he believed in us, and he meant it. For me, and for so many other students at Wooster, that gave us the spark we needed to get out of bed and get our asses in gear.

After graduating from Wooster, Berg joined the US Army Band, where he currently holds the rank of Specialist and is stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. In addition to serving in the Armed Forces and practicing his musical craft, Berg has begun a career as a motivational speaker.

“Everyone’s had that moment before where you’re really…stuck,” Berg explains. “My job is to come in and help you look at the ground and go, ‘Wait a second…It’s because you’re spinning your wheels in mud. How about turning your wheel to the left a little bit where there’s a little bit of gravel, and that’ll get you started moving?'”

Right now we are all–quite literally–stuck. Many of us have been in quarantine for over a month. Some have lost their jobs; others have lost family members and loved ones. It is an unprecedented scientific and economic catastrophe, but its psychological impact cannot be understated. I spoke with Berg at length to try and find that little bit of gravel to help all of us get through this pandemic.

“I want you to write down why you’re pushing through when everything’s going crazy. What makes you get up in the morning? When things get tough, what makes you go, ‘Alright, I know this is awful, I know I hate this as much as everyone else, but, I have to keep pushing.'”

For Berg, everything begins with accountability. “If you don’t have accountability you also lack discipline in a lot of areas of your life, and for most people, that’s the key to your success. It’s your discipline, it’s the fact that most people aren’t disciplined enough to stick to what they want.”

But don’t get the wrong impression here; Berg is not recommending some Spartan lifestyle of “me against the world,” where discipline and rigidity represent the paragons of virtue. Life is often about doing the best with what you’re given.

“Something we’re taught in the Army very early on is you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. There have been times where we’re given a task and we look around at the equipment we have and we say, ‘There’s literally no way for us to do this.’ And we sit back and we take about ten minutes and say, ‘Okay. This isn’t going to be perfect, it’s not going to be what they want, but listen: we’re going to get as close to that as we possibly can with what we have.'”

A key part of accountability is understanding what you have control over, and what factors are out of your hands. Berg primarily works with “at-risk students” in inner city school districts, where the challenges facing young learners can seem insurmountable. Before the pandemic, he would travel to schools across the continental US to speak to students; now, during the pandemic, he meets with them online to check in on them.

“Oftentimes students in the inner city don’t have the same materials as a more affluent neighborhood, they don’t have the same type of care, they don’t have the same type of education,” Berg tells me. “And I want to help fix that, because these students are brilliant! I’ve talked to kids where I think, ‘you are one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered, however you don’t see it because you’re not looking at what you’re doing.'”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for some students. Some have troubled home lives, whether due to an absent father or a mother who works three jobs just to provide for the family. Others, sadly, face abusive relationships and emotional trauma at home. With shelter-in-place orders still in affect around the country, students have no escape.

“These kids loved being at school, not just because they got to learn but because they weren’t home…Because home is not a safe place for them. And…it hurts, man.”

Berg stopped for a moment to collect himself, and continued. “These kids don’t deserve to be in the position they’re in, but they are. And it’s really hard watching them, watching their mental state deteriorate as they’re home. They’re finding out ways to get through class, they’re finding out ways to stay out of trouble, but it still gets to them.”

The conversation turned back to the students’ accomplishments. Berg’s mood perked up noticeably; the words began to come out of his mouth a mile a minute. His excitement was infectious. He shared a story about a student who had to design an app on his iPad, but the device was too old to download the proper software. The student designed it on his iPhone instead. “The next morning,” Berg tells me, “the project was finished. It wasn’t due for three weeks.

“People underestimate how wildly intelligent people are. You just have to give them a reason to try.”

That’s what Berg means when he speaks about accountability. It’s about finding the reason to try, no matter what chaos is going on in the world or what obstacles life decides to throw at you. Berg has found that in his students. As much as he motivates them, they motivate him.

“I want you to write down three goals that you want to get done…either during this quarantine or once the shelter-in-place ban lifts. And after that, I want you to write down two more things. I want you to write down two goals that scare you in this life.”

When Berg is working with a new student one-on-one, he starts by focusing on their goals. The kids he works with “have tons of answers,” he tells me. “A lot of people have this misconception that these kids are gangbangers, and they don’t care about anything except being on the street. [But] these kids have really big goals; they just have no idea how to get there.”

The more specific you can be, the better, according to Berg. “It’s like looking at a map and saying, ‘Oh, cool, I have Google Maps up, and it’s just the state view, and I’m trying to get to around here.’ That doesn’t help you. What do you do? You type in the exact address, and hit ‘directions’ and it tells you exactly how to get there.”

Too often, though, goals are like dreams. They’re easy to imagine in our subconscious as we lie in slumber. But wake up, try to grasp them, try to bring that image forward in your mind and fill it with color and detail and vivacity, and it fades away.

Taking it as a process can help. “Think of your life in your perfect world,” Berg explains, “where money’s no object, everything you could ever want is handed to you, you have food, shelter, your family’s taken care of, there’s no immediate stress of ‘Oh my goodness’ in your life. What would you do?

“Once you know what you really want, then you can start getting into how to get there.”

Easier said than done, of course. Delving into one’s own soul is a daunting task. It’s walking into a hall of mirrors and finding only distortions and illusions when what we came for were answers. It’s a process that takes intense introspection, and a lot of time.

Lucky for us, we have plenty of the latter. “This is historically different,” Berg says. “We’ve never had this happen where this many people have had this much time to themselves, ever.” The excuses we once provided as reasons for not focusing on our goals are no longer salient. The shutdowns of our societies and our economies have given us the chance to slow down and devote a moment or two to introspection.

“Take time with this,” Berg recommends, “As much time as you need. If you need to go out into the woods and sit down and meditate and just be away from society, whatever you need, do it. But I want you to write down those goals that you’re afraid to succeed at. And I want you to focus on those for the next 365 days. Because those goals are what you really want out of life. Sorry. Welcome to school. This is it.”

“What can you do every day to really help change someone else’s life for the better? It doesn’t have to be anything big…Reaching out to an old friend and saying ‘Hey man, I hope everything’s going well with you, I miss you, I hope you’re doing great, hang in there.’ How quick does it take to send that text message? Seconds? Maybe a minute if you really think about it? But that could change their entire attitude about life.”

“Kindness is a very big thing for me,” Berg told me. “You need to be a kind person. I don’t care how rough your day has been, I don’t care how aggressive things have been at home. Your life is never so hard that you can’t be kind to a stranger.”

It’s an issue Berg sees in his students time and again. So often the problem is not in their ability to learn, or even their motivation for improving themselves. It’s that they lack a close connection with positive role models. In search of that connection, they find it by joining gangs.

“No one’s taught them that they have value, no one’s shown them that if they don’t want to be around this person, they don’t have to. You need to be around people that you appreciate and that you want to be around.”

For Berg, though, it’s so much more important than finding positive connections; it’s about sharing them. “As you’re going through this journey,” Berg tells me, “I want you to be taking people with you. I want you to pass this knowledge on. As you’re getting these good vibes and this good knowledge and this really powerful information, I want you to give it to someone else without expecting anything back.

“It’s cool if you and I are learning something, and I say, ‘Here’s this key to success, boom, go do it.’ And you go do it, and all of a sudden you and I catch up in a year and you’ve built a $400,000 business. That’s awesome. But did you teach anybody else how to get to where you’re at? Because if you didn’t, that knowledge is just wasted.”

That, at his core, is who Bobby Berg is. He is kind.

Why does he do all this? Why does he fly thousands of miles from Anchorage to Georgia, to California, to anywhere in the continental United States, just to speak to students? It’s not the money–sure, he gets paid, but we all need to eat, and the US Army isn’t exactly known for its magnanimous pay scale. It’s because he is kind. It’s because he knows that his words can make a huge difference, even if only for one student in his audience. It’s because he knows that what matters in life isn’t how far you rise; it’s how many people you take with you on the way up.

Motivational speakers can be easy targets of scorn and mockery. They can talk in platitudes and soliloquoys of self-betterment and improvement, but their words sometimes ring hollow. To succeed as a motivational speaker, you have to be genuine. You have to be kind. Your tips for success and–more importantly–your belief that anyone can achieve it, must be heartfelt.

Bobby Berg is the real deal. Not because he knows all the right words, or has all the right answers, though his advice is certainly worthwhile. It is because he is genuine. It is because he is kind. It is because when he tells students that they can do it, that they can achieve everything they every dreamed of, they believe him. Because he believes in them.

At the end of our interview, I asked Berg what advice he would give to people struggling with their motivation or their outlook during the current pandemic. Many of the quotes throughout this story, including the headings, come from that answer. At the end, he emphasized the importance of remaining upbeat, even in these challenging times.

“If this virus spreads aggressively, that’s cool. But guess what else can spread that quickly? Your positivity. Don’t ever lose sight of that, y’all. Ever.”

You can keep up to date with Bobby Berg’s work on his Instagram page.

Schrödinger’s Dictator

On 15 April, the high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) gathered at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to celebrate the birthday of the country’s first leader, Kim Il-Sung. The event marks the beginning of the new year in North Korea, and is traditionally the most important holiday on the country’s calendar. Odd, then, that the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Un was nowhere to be found.

A torrent of speculation followed. Daily NK, an outlet based in South Korea, published a story that the North Korean leader had underwent a cardiovascular procedure and was recovering at his villa in Mount Myohyang. Not so, said CNN – they quoted an unnamed Washington source saying that Kim was in “grave danger” following the surgery. A few days later, satellite images showed Kim’s private train at the seaside resort of Wonsan – perhaps the leader was merely taking a few days out of the city, or entering isolation to avoid catching the coronavirus?

Kim Jong-Un has become Schrödinger’s Dictator; he seems to be both alive and dead at the same time. Reports out of North Korea are notoriously unreliable. Media outlets in Japan and South Korea erroneously killed Kim’s father, Kim Jong-Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, numerous times before their eventual demises. Kim Jong-Un himself had been declared deceased when he disappeared for six weeks in 2014, only to return from the dead grinning boastfully and walking with a cane after a surgery to remove a cyst on his ankle. Where some outlets have reported panic-buying in the capital of Pyongyang, other intelligence sources have found no evidence to suggest concern among the highest levels of government.

The only thing policymakers can do now is wait…and hope that Kim is alive. Reprehensible and deplorable as his regime is, a power struggle in a nascent nuclear state during a global pandemic would be worse than a continuation of the status quo.

The North Korean regime is already anomalous in its longevity. According to research conducted by Oriana Skylar Mastro, family dictatorships since World War II last an average of 32 years. The Kim regime in North Korea has been in place since the 1940s, and shows no signs of faltering so long as Kim Jong-Un remains healthy. “The very building blocks of opposition are lacking” in North Korea, as Daniel Byman and Jennifer Lind write for the Belfer Center. There is no independent middle class, no independent ownership of property, and—thanks to the strict regulation of information by government agencies and state media—seemingly no independent thought. Informants are ubiquitous, and state security agencies hold influence over all facets of North Korean life. Dissenters and subversives are brutally punished, sent either to “reeducation” camps or coldly executed. The stain of dissension lasts beyond their death; for serious crimes, the perpetrator’s children and grandchildren—including those yet to be born—will be born in prison camps.

The intense repression campaign is coupled with a robust propaganda machine which has built a cult of personality around the Kim family for generations. Kim Il-Sung is heralded as a national hero who led a guerrilla campaign against Japanese invaders around Mount Paektu—this despite the fact that Kim Il-Sung primarily fought in Manchuria, not North Korea, and he spent most of the war attached to the Soviet army rather than leading a band of North Korean guerrillas. The elder Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Il, was reportedly born on Mount Paektu—again, this claim is verifiable false. This past winter, Kim Jong-Un was photographed riding a noble white steed as he “recollected the bloody history of the guerrillas who recorded dignity on the first page of the history of the Korean Revolution,” according to North Korean state media. The connection with Mount Paektu is a crucial one; the imposing volcano has long been revered as the mythical birthplace of the Korean people. By connecting the Kim family to the sacred site, the regime draws an inseparable line between its brand of fervent nationalism and an unfaltering loyalty to the Kim regime. Love of one’s country become loves of one family: the Kims.

That cult of personality has eased the previous two changes of power in the regime, but at present provides more of a complication. Kim Jong-Un is believed to have a son—so great is the power of censorship in North Korea that we cannot know for sure—but he is believed to be far too young to seize power in the event of his father’s death. Kim Jong Il’s half-brother Kim Pyong-Il is still alive, but he has spent most of the past few decades in Europe and lacks the relationships with ranking political figures in North Korea to make a bid for power. In 2017, Kim Jong-Un had his half brother Kim Jong-Nam assassinated in the Kuala Lumpur airport, removing a potential challenger to his authority but also eliminating a potential successor. That leaves only one member of the Kim family who could reasonably take power: Kim Yo-Jong, Kim Jong-Un’s sister.

Kim Yo-Jong already has a public role in her brother’s administration. She runs the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the WPK and is also a member of the Politburo. Kim Yo-Jong has often been seen alongside her brother in public, leading to speculation that she is her brother’s closest confidante. She has the necessary ties to the Kim bloodline, and no small degree of political acumen. But there is one overriding problem: she’s a woman. North Korean society is overwhelming patriarchal and Confucian, placing immense value on age and gender. For all her skill, Kim Yo-Jong is still a young woman. It seems highly unlikely—though not impossible—that she could marshal enough support within the political and military circles of North Korean high command to rule as anything other than a figurehead. As Anna Fifield writes for the Washington Post, “I can’t see how Kim Yo-Jong could become the leader. But I also can’t see how she could not become the leader. There’s no one else.”

Given the intense policing of the North Korean people and the idolatry of the Kim family, a succession crisis seems to be the only occurrence that could bring down the Kim regime. In normal times, that could be a positive. The fall of the regime would no doubt bring about a certain degree of chaos and instability, but the continuation of that regime will prolong the intense suffering of the North Korean people. However, we are not living in normal times. If the Kim regime falls this year, it is far more likely to end in tragedy than salvation.

The current coronavirus pandemic is a black hole, engulfing all elements of policy, statecraft, and governance. Every world leader is looking to their own domestic situations, negotiating with public health experts and lower-level officials to organize an effective pandemic response strategy. The world economy has taken a nose-dive with businesses shuttered in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. It is hard to imagine any public appetite for intervention in North Korea, even if the situation demands it. People would—rightly—demand that those efforts and funds be diverted to domestic COVID-19 relief instead of foreign excursions. Additionally, the challenge of operating a military campaign while maintaining six feet of social distance at all times is nothing less than farcical.

The coronavirus pandemic has also led to a downturn in US-China relations. President Donald Trump accuses the Chinese of covering up information related to the coronavirus (with some credibility) and has repeatedly suggested that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon deployed to harm his presidential campaign (with no credibility). Trump is seeking to demonize the Chinese and blame them for the coronavirus to deflect from his own administration’s poor response to the pandemic. While it may prove to be a successful strategy domestically, it complicates US interests abroad, particularly in the Pacific. Any change in North Korea—whether it be regime change or total collapse—will require close cooperation between the United States and China, not least to secure and inventory North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. China will not allow the United States and its allies a free hand to shape North Korea’s future after the fall of the Kim dictatorship; South Korea will not want to give China the chance to set up another puppet state right on its doorstep. Forging a new future for North Korea after the fall of the Kim regime would require careful diplomacy and tact, attributes that are sorely lacking in US-China relations at present.

Kim Jong-Un might be dead. He might be lying in bed, inept and inert. Or he might just be sunbathing on the beach in Wonsan, laughing at the Western media reports that killed him—again. As regrettable a stance as it is, we should all be hoping for the latter. With no clear successor in place, his death would almost certainly lead to a power struggle that threatens to engulf the entire regime, and perhaps the world’s two superpowers with it. The world can only handle so many crises at once.