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The Rapists Among Us

“Were you ever raped?”

It was a terrible thing to shout from the back of the middle-school auditorium to the beleaguered spokeswoman trying to calm a frightened and angry crowd, assembled in response to the notification that “sexually violent predator” Christopher Lawyer has been released back into Boulder.  But the question touched on an emotional reality missing from the various official efforts to reassure us that his current residence at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless is the least bad option available.  Under the fear, dancing like electricity down the crowded aisles, breathed something heavier: some members of the audience themselves survived sexual assault. 

I’m one of them.  One summer afternoon in 1966, I was raped by a man who worked for my family.  Hurt, scared, and ashamed, I never told my parents. The man quickly disappeared and was never confronted or caught.  I can only assume he assaulted other kids.  I was five. 

That day privately but profoundly configured parts of my life, as the experience of rape at any age will do. 

Thus, the label “sexually violent predator” gets my attention.  But the work I’ve done to reconstruct my own history and heal my own trauma makes me especially aware that Mr. Lawyer is not simply a “predator”. He is a human being. Certainly complex — probably damaged, probably ill, hopefully struggling with remorse for a crime beyond cruelty. Assuming the best of him, he is no longer a rapist-in-waiting, but a man wanting a chance to begin anew.  Assuming the worst, he will always be, as his label declares, a violent predator.  The State of Colorado has put him through a process indicating the former.  The community fears the latter.  Like many, I do not understand his release.

Where do we go from here?  The hard choice is the right one: we should accept him.  By accept, I do not mean to forgive, or condone, or consider him “OK”.  I do mean that we should realize, or remember, a few things.

First, beyond the danger he may individually pose, Mr. Lawyer’s presence among us symbolizes a more diffuse monstrosity that no public meeting can expel.  The urge to rape blights the souls of men in many stations of society.  It may stem from their own victimization, from mental illness, or from something else we helplessly call “evil’.  Some rapists are sociopaths and perpetrate without qualm or remorse.  Others battle against their secret selves with outward achievement and selflessness.  Some rapists are homeless.  Others are Ralphie-handlers, choirboys, star athletes, teachers or priests, whose cases we find “inexplicable.”  Almost none announce in advance that they are “predators.”  We can try to cast Mr. Lawyer and his label from our midst.  But the rapists among us – and the sicknesses they carry — remain.

Second, the presenters at the community meeting were right: it is better to have Mr. Lawyer in a known location, with his ankle-monitor charged and his check-in bed established, than it is to have him calling in every night from a payphone at an intersection, only to vanish.  That’s what one of Boulder’s two other sexually violent predators currently does.  Yes, we do have two others, and one of them is homeless, location unknown.  I find that scarier than Mr. Lawyer’s situation, and yet there’s no uproar about it at all.

Third, he is a human being, and he has a legal right to exist. Each of us has the right to decide, based on our own history, how we feel about him today.  But personal feelings should not dictate whom we include within our legal community.  Christopher Lawyer is from here, and the law decrees that upon his release from custody he be returned here.  A person whom the state has granted liberty has the right to exercise it, and a community that respects human rights should respect the rights of all.  All means all.

I consider how I will feel, having published this, if Mr. Lawyer rapes again.  The thought sickens me.  I think of people who work in law enforcement and criminal justice, who face such prospects every day.  In Mr. Lawyer’s mugshot, he is smiling.  Perhaps it’s the vacant grin of a sociopath.  Perhaps he’s hoping that a smile will persuade us that he’s committed to no longer being the person his label proclaims.  Either way, he’s embarked on a journey back into the world.  For all our sakes, I wish him success.

— John, Boulder Daily Camera guest editorial, May 17, 2017

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The Art of Storytelling

For Boulder filmmakers, last Monday was New Years’ Day — the day after the biggest and best celebration of the year, hosted by impresarios extraordinaires Robin and Kathy Beeck.  This year’s Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) was their latest annual triumph, turning Boulder into an ever-enlarging red dot on the world filmmaking map (disclosure: I edited one of the documentaries screened).  BIFF’s roster served a delicious elixir of cosmopolitan entertainment and social awareness. We all got smashed.

Hopefully it’s not amiss, as we nurse our happy hangovers, to reflect on the stories we tell and consume at such festivals.  We believe, as makers and watchers, that film is an agent for social change.  Films flagged as “call2action” at BIFF featured talkbacks at which local activists brainstormed with the audience to translate message into movement.  At several such gatherings, a participant would ask: how can we get Trump to watch this film?  As if the simple act of watching would change his mind. 

Of course, we know it wouldn’t.  But beyond a little healthy reality-check, it’s appropriate to ask: what is the power of our craft?  Is there a trade-off between telling stories that open others’ eyes and ones that simply make ourselves feel more righteous?  Are the objectives of persuasion and entertainment aligned or in tension?  I worry that it’s the latter – that if our narratives entertain by congratulating us and preaching to others, instead of challenging us and connecting with others, we end up diminishing our power to accomplish the social change to which our projects aspire. 

Take for example the festival’s runaway favorite film, “Chasing Coral” — a vitally important movie that won the Audience Award at Sundance as well as three awards at BIFF.  It follows a team of filmmakers racing to document, through time-lapse videography, a cataclysmic “mass bleaching” event in 2016 that killed 22% of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef due to rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change.  The images they took, shown in the last fifteen minutes of the film, devastate the viewer.  The scope of this silent catastrophe is beyond words, and the “Chasing Coral” team has done an inestimable service in capturing it.

Yet the 75 preceding minutes focus heavily on the exploits of attractive, white Boulderites building gadgets, making witty repartee, jetting to exotic locales and strapping on adventure gear.  It’s “The Amazing Race” for the Patagonia set.  Of course Sundancers and BIFFers love it, because it’s all about us, or who we fancy ourselves to be.        

And we, almost to a person, already understand and agree with the film’s central thesis that climate change is killing corals worldwide.  Indeed, the film pretty much assumes this viewer knowledge and orientation from the opening frame.  The first character it introduces is a former advertising executive who has been a scuba diver for many years (i.e., a very wealthy person) and who has decided to leave corporate advertising and dedicate himself to publicizing the plight of climate-caused coral death. The film assumes viewers will cheer this choice without question or exploration.

It is only at the end of the film, after the devastating time-lapse images, that the film lays out the science of CO2 loading of the atmosphere that causes warming of the oceans, and makes the connection to fossil fuels.  And it does so through a montage of talking-head scientists who lecture nearly to the point of scolding.

Let’s rewind for a minute.  Place yourself in the shoes of a person who is not from Boulder and does not particularly like Boulderites or Sundancers.  A person, more importantly, who thinks the theory of fossil fuel-induced climate change may be a hoax, and that ocean warming may be the result of natural cycles.  Does “Chasing Coral” change your mind?  My worry is that you are so alienated by the assumed politics and liberal cultural markers of the first half-hour that you will never get to the denouement.   You will turn away, just as I do when I try to watch a documentary by Dinesh D’Souza or a debate on Fox News.  If I were watching a documentary on abortion that opened on a group of filmmakers on a mission to “expose abortionists”, I’d have a hard time not immediately turning the channel, even if the film had more nuanced content later on.   I can’t abide the cover, so I never read the book. 

It’s not just a problem for filmmakers.  We all struggle to persuade others across political and cultural divides.  We often try to do so by pointing at ourselves – our superior style, education, numerosity, power.   In bygone days, we could efface ourselves and “let the facts speak for themselves” – that is, back when facts were, well, facts.  Now, it’s undeniably harder.  I still believe in the power of an honestly-told story – but sometimes the teller needs to get out of the way.  

John, Boulder Daily Camera guest editorial

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Posted by John on

Travel Bug

Travel Bug

They’ve spruced this concourse
say si bon big bowl and tapas bar
mall you into sharpened nooks
spaces hard and private

But I am sick
to see codes of color in every crack
every wheelchair driver black
every kitchen worker brown
asian every gadget seller
only the bartenders white
we fliers an iced decaf grande
skinny vanilla mocha-shot pinoccio

Still the palette’s nothing new
what poisoned me is getting here
how coding isn’t just in stores
now it rules the checkpoints
my pale queue gliding
past the darker grinding line
our shoes comfortably tied
their bags splayed for dissection

Perhaps I’ve got it backwards
and was just stoned before
because three months ago
these colors merely blended
the lines looked mostly safe
the vestibule I’d glimpsed
at my pre-clearance interview   
seemed more haunted house than gulag
maybe I was just popping rainbow pills
that if the guy in charge was brown
I didn’t have to see the rest

No more.
The hangover pounds my brain
and on the on the train from terminal to C
no brown-to-blue eyes met
my health-conscious love avoided the grab-bars
but I held the cool metal
seeking the traces
of things in common like a cold
to inoculate the deeper virus
for which we have no mask

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Posted by John on

Cinequest Premiere

Cinequest Premiere

We had a lovely evening showing of Sauti in San Jose. The highlight for me was the presence of Joshua and Favourite, two of the refugees featured in the film. They got to meet other directors, see themselves on the big screen, and tour Stanford campus that afternoon.

“I’m starving,” I said, after the screening, as we repaired to a celebratory dinner of steak and sashimi, chicken piccata and champagne.
“What do they eat in the camp?” One of our companions asked over the main course. “I suppose it’s only chicken and rice.”
“Oh no. No chicken. No rice. We eat posho. It’s a white corn meal. We eat that. And some beans.”
“What about protein?”
“What is protein?  We just fill our belly to the next day, that is all.”
Earlier in the day, Joshua had mentioned to me receiving a text from a friend in the camp that things are very bad right now, that there is no food. “You know, it is sometimes hard to really enjoy what you have when your friends are starving.”
Two worlds, connected by the synapse of media, still thousands of miles apart.

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“Sauti (Voice)” Premiere Screenings

“Sauti (Voice)” Premiere Screenings

Sauti’s US premiere will be in San Jose, CA, at the Cinequest Film Festival, on March 3, 2017.  Click here for tickets!

Its Colorado premiere will be at the Boulder International Film Festival, on March 5, 2017.  Click here for more info!

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“Sauti (Voice)” gains early recognition

Sauti (Voice) has received several accolades and awards before its official premiere:

-Best Woman Filmmaker from the Canadian Diversity Film Festival

-Award of Excellence from Impact Docs

-Award of Merit from Accolade Global Film Competition


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Posted by John on

Trump Diaries, Chapter 1: Voices of Inauguration Day


“The imperialist-minded businessman, whom the stars annoyed because he could not annex them, realized that power organized for its own sake would beget more power.”  — Hannah Arendt

Paige and I watched President Trump’s Inauguration Speech, then packed up the camera and headed to downtown Denver to talk with someone more sensible.  Which turned out to be pretty much everybody.  Here are the voices of some of the people we met.

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Posted by John on

No on Betsey DeVos

Next Tuesday, the Senate will vote on Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  You doubtless read about her privatization of Michigan’s charter schools.  You probably also read that she “may have confused” the fact that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a requirement of federal, not state, law.  But for students with disabilities, it gets worse.

IDEA is a federal law implemented at the local level.  Congress has never appropriated more than a small fraction of the dollars necessary to fulfill the law’s requirement of a “free appropriate public education” for all students, regardless of disability. If congressional Oscars were awarded for each year’s “most egregiously unfunded mandate,” IDEA’s budget would be Meryl Streep.  In 2016, Congress put up only 16% of the money necessary to implement the law it requires the states to follow.

The federal requirements are also broad, and open to interpretation.  One key issue: how much progress should a disabled student be expected to make from year to year in order for it to be “adequate” under the law? 

This year, the Supreme Court is deciding a case from Colorado that will determine whether students must make “substantial” progress, “more than de minimis” progress, or some other level of progress to be defined.  This question is crucial for schools and families, because it determines the kind and level of services kids get in schools, and how much those services cost. 

Once the Court decides the legal standard for adequate progress, then the US Department of Education will be responsible for enforcing it, in two ways.  The Department writes new federal regulations, which tend to get copied or incorporated by reference in state regulations, which set school policy.  And the Office of Civil Rights enforces education discrimination laws by investigating parent complaints. 

Betsy DeVos will be taking over the Department of Education at a pivotal moment in the history of special education law.  The new Supreme Court decision may have a profound impact on how states, and schools, provide services for disabled kids nationwide.  If we have an Education Secretary who believes the states should decide these matters, then the federal regulatory enforcement role, the federal enforcement role, and the federal funding role, could all go from twilight into full eclipse.  States with robust special education funding and strong state lobbies, like California and New York, would continue to serve their disabled student populations.  States with weaker funding streams and less commitment would fail these students entirely.  Levels of discrimination, unequal treatment, and denial of basic rights would increase.

These days there’s so much to oppose, and so much action to take, it makes your head spin and you stomach turn.  But here’s another one.  One note of “optimism” to consider: disability crosses party lines.  Coalitions on this issue are possible where other battles are more firmly entrenched.  Your Senator’s position may surprise you.  The link for more info, with a list of HELP Senate committee members, is below.  The deadline is Tuesday.


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The Work Now

I took Trump’s inaugural speech like a punch to the gut.   Some consider his nationalism little different from Reagan’s, applaud his patriotic appeals, celebrate his invocation of God.  But Reagan rallied Americans against a distant menace; for Trump, the enemies are in our midst.  Previous Republicans believed that the tide of world prosperity would lift all boats; Trump will oppose the world’s gain, for he considers it our loss.  Former leaders appealed to the outstretched hands of a merciful God.  Trump’s deity carries a shield to protect us and a sword to “eradicate” our enemies “from the face of the Earth.”

I marched in Denver last Saturday seeking a better vision of ourselves.  I found it.  Progressive women have long counterbalanced the harshness of American individualism and moderated capitalism’s excesses.  From abolitionists to suffragettes, labor crusaders to rainbow pride, women articulate a communitarian core of the American idea.    Their fundamental concerns necessarily include reproductive rights and evolving concepts of gender, ideals that now form the next segments in Martin Luther King’s arc of history, bending towards justice, grounded in love.  They champion freedom of the body, counterpoint to freedom of the sky. 

Aligned, America’s countervailing forces of individualistic liberty and communitarian justice have spawned our greatest national achievements.  Now our national polarity has become an agonizing spasm, triggered by our mirrored fears.   The cure is not some illusion of victory; it is a deeper love. Love of liberty, love of land, love of each other.   This is the work now.

Boulder Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board contribution, January 28, 2017

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Posted by John on

“Tiene Medicaid”

“Tiene Medicaid.”  She has Medicaid.

My work as a domestic relations mediator teaches me every day about life for low income families.  The details of individual cases are confidential, but let’s say a divorced mom makes about $1900 a month cleaning houses.  Her ex makes $2750 a month in landscaping.  In winter, neither of them gets enough hours of work to earn even those amounts on a steady basis.  He’s ordered to pay $633 in child support for their two kids, which he has a hard time coming up with at times.   Their divided households live on that, here in Boulder County.  

One conversation sticks with me. The mom — I’ll call her Octavia — stoical, uneducated but smart, scarred but not bitter, had warily agreed to give her the dad more parenting time, and we were discussing the reality that her child support payments were likely to shrink.  Her youngest child had special needs requiring extra medical care.  I remember asking, in Spanish, how she paid for this.  “Tiene Medicaid,” Octavia replied, smiled — and broke down in tears.

The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid in Colorado in 2013.  Before that, life for parents like Octavia was one long medical and financial nightmare.  But the ACA enabled thousands of Colorado kids – with disabilities and without — to obtain government health insurance for the first time.  Medicaid expansion enabled the 20 provider members of the Colorado Community Health Network to expand their facilities, so that there are now 195 clinic sites statewide.  In Boulder County, Clínica Family Health (now celebrating its 40th anniversary) is expanding its facilities in Lafayette and Westminster to serve more patients like Octavia and her daughter.  Clínica alone has added 10,000 new patients since the Medicaid expansion.  Expanding Medicaid cut the number of uninsured kids in Colorado from 7% to 2.5% – and it cut the cost of uncompensated care by over 50% as well.

Clínica’s mission has always been to serve patients regardless of ability to pay.  But for families with more complex medical needs, such as children who require specialty referrals, Medicaid eligibility is essential.  Medicaid has also provided access to quality dental care.  And Medicaid funding has allowed Clínica to partner with other county agencies to take a broader approach to social determinants of health into account — like housing, mental health, and other needs.  

Families like Octavia’s are never far from financial catastrophe.  But a disabled child whose medical needs are well supported can more successfully attend school – and that means her mom can work enough hours to support herself and her kids.   Healthy families are productive families, holding jobs, staying in school, requiring less public assistance, contributing to our society.  More broadly, when we invest in preventive care, we invest in the social capital of our citizens.  According to the Colorado Health Foundation, Medicaid expansion has generated over 31,000 jobs, increased Colorado’s economic activity by over $3.8 billion, and raised annual household earnings by $600.  The Foundation predicts that the economic activity spurred by Medicaid expansion will generate enough General Fund revenues to offset any new state government Medicaid expenses.

But now Medicaid funding is under threat, as the new Congress and President Trump consider ways to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.  Simon Smith, the CEO of Clínica, is urging folks not to panic, stressing that their doors will always be open to patients as they always have been regardless of ability to pay.  But he does worry about patients’ access to specialty referrals outside Clínica’s areas of expertise.  More broadly, he worries about the prospect of Congress simply draining money out of the Medicaid system and forcing states to make the hard choices on their own.  Then the Feds would not be throwing patients off Medicaid directly; they’d just be providing so little money that the states would have to restrict income eligibility limits, cut benefits, or both.   He worries about the future of all of the broad-based health and wellness programs underway, about how to hold onto the progress that’s been made.

And despite Simon’s urge to keep calm and carry on, a pall of uncertainty has descended – over the providers, over the insurers.  And soon, inevitably, over moms like Octavia.  Of course, given the uncertainties women like her face every day, they have to be tougher than most of us. 

But a low-income mom of a kid with special needs has her hands full.  Many others of us have the time, and voice, and responsibility, to take action.  In Colorado, over 100 groups from across the political spectrum — from the Chambers of Commerce on down — have gathered to form the “Colorado Health Policy Coalition.”  They’re mobilizing for a comprehensive, non-partisan approach to health care reform.   Whatever your political stripe, there’s a place to stand.  It’s not just the uninsured – the health of every one of us is on the line.

-Boulder Daily Camera guest editoral

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