Friday, April 22, 2016

The new backlash

   I was only a toddler when the U.S Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. I have no memory of the ruling and its aftermath.  But I have long heard about the historic decision – among the most important in the court’s history – and the strong, sometimes violent reaction to it. 
   I learned about how there were loud protests in the South, about how black students were jeered and taunted and even attacked when they arrived on a “white” campus.  I heard and read about schools and communities trying to defy the new law, like school districts suddenly claiming to be private or just ceasing to exist.  I understood that school desegregation didn’t happen overnight, that it took years to implement and achieve.
   The same is happening more or less in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court’s ruling that said that gay marriage can’t be banned anywhere in the U.S.  This isn’t or shouldn’t be surprising.  What is perhaps surprising is how the angry, defiant reaction is more subtle and sneaky. 
   Yes, there has been a county clerk or two or three refusing to give marriage certificates to same-sex couples, but there haven’t been mobs blocking church doors and throwing rocks at gay newlyweds as they leave the church. 
   Perhaps there were more subtle reactions to the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that I’m overlooking or that I haven’t read about, but what we’re seeing in the wake of the gay marriage ruling is more along the lines of bakers refusing to bake cakes and photographers refusing to take pictures for same-sex weddings – or at least trying to. 
   And this is being done, we’re told, not as a protest against gay people but to protect religious rights, religious freedom. We are told that providing services at gay weddings and the like means that people have to do things that go against their beliefs and religion.  Laws are being enacted, as in North Carolina, that allow people to refuse to provide services that violate their religious beliefs. 
   This is tricky stuff.  Being able to act or not act on one’s religious beliefs – religious freedom – is really important.  As a Quaker, I cherish the ability not to take part or contribute to warfare.  But when I carry out this freedom, I’m not hurting anyone or denying the rights of others.  It is hard to think that these new state laws, which have been implemented in varying degrees of success and often resisted, including with boycotts, are not a sneaky way to deny gay people their rights. 
   All the more so when the new laws go out of the way to make a point of doing so.  For example, the North Carolina law prohibits local ordinances, such as one enacted in Charlotte, against anti-gay discrimination.  What’s more, these laws often encroach into areas that have nothing to do with gay marriage.  Many, including the one in North Carolina, even after some tweaking in response to public outcry and boycotts and that many LGBT advocates called insubstantial and the Democratic attorney general, Roy Cooper, labeled “a day late and a veto short,” require transgender people to use the public restrooms and locker rooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.
   This battle over bathrooms and which ones transgender people can use is particularly telling.  It’s as if the anti-LGBT folks said that if they can’t save marriage, they’ll go after bathrooms.  It is argued that these restroom laws are to protect privacy. 
   But I think a comment made by North Carolina Republican State Senate Leader Phil Berger reveals what the restroom laws and also the religious freedom laws are all about.  He criticized Atty. Gen. Cooper and the “left-wing political correctness mob…who will never stop trashing North Carolina until they achieve their goal of allowing any man into any women’s bathroom or locker room at any time simply by claiming to feel like a woman.”
  Yep, that’s an actual quote from a state senator.  Sure, these people would love to go out and block church doors and riot over same-sex newlyweds, but they’ve grown to be too sophisticated and smart for that.        

Friday, April 15, 2016

Fighting for breath

   “It creates enormous obstacles for anyone wanting to either expand a business or site a new business…”
   And so the business argument against environmental safeguards goes on.  But at least this sentiment, expressed by Bill La Marr, executive director of the California Small Business Alliance,  didn’t stop the Los Angeles City Council from adopting new rules, dubbed Clean Up Green Up, that will ease air pollution is some of the area’s poorest communities.  This comes after decades of complaints about unhealthy air and its effects, and the rules will include, among other things, more buffers between factories and homes and high quality air filters in new housing within 1000 feet of freeways. 
   These days, unfortunately, this isn’t often the case.  As I explored in a column in the Claremont Courier last month, it seems that businesses and developers are getting the upper hand. 

   It used to be “Beware the Ides of March.” Perhaps now it be the Spring Equinox, coming Sunday, that we should beware. 
   After all, “having jobs [is] just as important for a person’s health, for a family’s health, as having clean air.” That’s what Larry McCallon, the mayor of Highland in San Bernardino County and a newly appointed board member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, thinks. And it looks like he and the other new Republican members of the panel of 13 charged with adopting pollution control regulations to protect the health of the 17 million people here in Southern California are doing what they can to put oil refineries and other heavy industries first. 
   That Winter is ending may not mean much for us in Claremont, all the more so when the monster El Nino has been pretty much a no-show here.  With days and weeks of warm, clear weather since early February, the first day of Spring, March 20, is merely a date on the calendar. Even so, I’ve always had a soft spot for Winter in Claremont. 
   This is because, although it may be warm and dry, it has always been clear, refreshingly clear, here in Winter.  There have always been clear skies, with little or no smog, during the Winter months.  This was when we had those iconic, heavenly views of snow-capped mountains with trees loaded with giant, bright oranges in the foreground.  The old joke was that this is when the colleges hired their new professors starting in August. 
   But this has been changing.  Not only are there no more orange trees, so to speak, and not only has there been not so much snow on Mt.  Baldy and the other peaks in recent years, the Winter months haven’t been the only clear, smog-free or less smoggy, period in Claremont. 
   In the last five years or so, I have noticed that the warmer days of Spring doesn’t always mean that we can’t see Mt. Baldy. Even in summer, it’s not so hot and smoggy.  Or it may very well be hot, but it is definitely not so smoggy, and there are days we can see our local mountains.  Perhaps this just makes it feel not so hot.  Last Summer, I wrote about being able to find a pleasant spot under a tree to read on a afternoon in July and August.  I couldn’t do this when I was growing up here and even ten or twenty years ago. 
   This isn’t wishful thinking or seeing things through rose-colored sunglasses.  According to the Los Angeles Times, since Barry Wallerstein became the executive officer of the AQMD in 1997, “pollution diminished sharply across the region.” This is significant, in that the agency’s jurisdiction, covering Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, has long been known to have the nation’s worst air. 
   With the coming of Spring and Summer this year, I wonder if this happy trend will continue and if we’ll be able to see Mt.  Baldy during the warmer months in future years. There has been another change, and, this time, it isn’t for the better. 
   Two weeks ago, in a closed-door session during its meeting in Diamond Bar, the AQMD board, with its new Republican members, voted to fire Wallerstein as its chief executive. The 7-6 vote was a repudiation of the long-time director’s tightening of air pollution rules which lead to the clearer skies here in recent years. 
  The board also reaffirmed new smog rules backed by oil refineries and other major polluters.  This vote revisited the one made in December, going against what Wallerstein and his staff recommended. The new rules will cut nitrogen oxide pollution by 12 tons a day instead of 14 tons a day, as was recommended, and will be less expensive for industry to implement. 
   These actions were taken despite desperate pleas during the public comment period.  Syvia Betancourt of the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma told the panelists, “Your names will be etched on the lungs of our community members.”  Former AQMD Chairman Henry W. Wedaa wrote to the board expressing “grave concerns” about the move to oust Wallerstein – a move taken without public explanation. 
   According to the Los Angeles Times, the firing and the new rules “are expected to delay Southern California’s progress toward [meeting federal standards} by allowing industry to avoid costly air quality improvements.” The California Air Resource Board has taken the unusual step of criticizing the board decision, saying it violates state and federal laws and will harm public health, and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee has asked the board to reconsider its decision. 
   In addition, California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon said he will introduce legislation to add three new members to the board, and a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have filed a lawsuit to prevent the implementation of the new rules. 
   Maybe this and all the outcry will better the situation – clear the air again, so to speak. It will be interesting to see.  The AQMD board’s move wasn’t unlike the California’s Coastal Commission’s decision in January to oust its long-time, respected executive director, Charles Lester.  The vote, also taken behind closed doors after hours of public testimony in favor of Mr.  Lester, is seen to favor developers who want to build projects along the state’s spectacular coastline. 
   This isn’t the first time the air quality board has been questioned recently.  It has been in the spotlight over its handling of years of dangerous lead and arsenic emissions from the now-closed Exide battery plant into communities of southeast Los Angeles County, its response to the massive gas leak near Porter Ranch and restrictions targeting smoke from beach bonfire pits in Orange County. 
   The board members who voted to fire Mr.  Wallerstein and not to reconsider the weakened smog rules insist that they are simply putting environmental needs and business needs more in balance. They would no doubt agree that their decisions merely reflect what David Englin, the executive vice president of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, says: “Children deserve to breathe clean air and they deserve the healthy homes that result when a parent has a good-paying job.”
   Yes, I agree that having a good-paying job is “healthy,” but I wonder if Mr. Englin, Mayor McCallon of Highland and others on the AQMD board have considered that having a good-paying job does no good if one can’t do the job because of asthma or other breathing problems caused by chronic smog. Or because of having to constantly take care of a child with a breathing ailment due to air pollution. 
   This is the question.  Even more than whether we can see the mountains for more than a few months during the year – although it would be nice if we can keep doing that. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

When pride won't come out

   I go to Casa Colina Hospital near here in Pomona twice a week to work out.  Casa Colina is a rehabilitation hospital, catering primarily to people who have become disabled, helping them learn to live with their disabilities, and it has a program for disabled people from the community to use its gym.  When I’m there, I work with weights on my upper body and use a hand bike.  There are usually staff members or volunteers to help me with setting up the weights or tie my hands to the bike. 
   Anyway, when I was there the other day, there was a new volunteer, a young woman who seemed cool, with the sides of her head shaved.  As she was helping me, trying to figure out how to strap a sandbag weight on my arm, how to reattach my speech device to my wheelchair, I noticed she was wearing a gay pride bracelet.  I thought this was way cool – it made me happy – and I wanted her to see my rainbow bracelet, to let her know that I understood, that she had company.  And, okay, I wanted her to see I’m not just a patient, a disabled person that needs help; I wanted her to see that I have a life, a life like her. 
   The problem was that I was wearing long sleeves, and my rainbow bracelet, along with a friendship bracelet, was way up my arm, under the sleeve.  I tried to get the sleeve up and the pride bracelet out.  I kept rubbing my arm on my leg, hoping the sleeve would ride up.  (My other arm, as frequently happens, wasn’t being cooperative.) But to no avail. 
   No.  Nothing doing.  I was stuck, like I was back in the closet, and the door was locked.  There was no pride, no being out, today. I do rainbow laces on my Docs, but I wasn’t sure if the young woman saw them - they’re more subtle perhaps, not really out there, not like the bracelet. 
   Before I left, I almost tried to tell her that I like her bracelet, but a staff member came over, and I didn’t want to make an awkward scene. 
   I left, frustrated, but figuring that I’ll see the volunteer again and that she’ll eventually see my bracelet, especially when it gets warm and I start going shirtless in my overalls.  I also thought once again about getting a rainbow sticker and putting it on the front of the cup holder on my wheelchair.  That way, I will always, always be out and never stuck back in the closet.