Category: Pulling the Goalie


A surprising contingency of people seems to have their knickers in a knot about the so-called mosque at Ground Zero. What once was a retail clothing store has been sitting abandoned for years prior to these plans being drawn up. And though the common-sense response to rehabilitation of urban blight would be hearty support, it’s become a political and social lightning rod.

As can be the case all too often with emotionally-charged debates, people don’t wait for the facts to get in the way of their already-entrenched opinions. So I’ll beg the indulgence of those who already know the following “fun facts” and go ahead and share what really should be common knowledge.

First off, the “Ground Zero mosque” moniker is misleading. The site is blocks away from the former location of the Twin Towers, with any number of liquor stores, adult video arcades and sex-toy shops between them. Given America’s tendency toward sexually puritanical thought, it’s a wonder that a place of worship raises more ire than a window full of dildos.

Next, there’s much noise about this being a mosque, but in reality, the worship space is but a small portion of what is meant to be the Muslim equivalent of a YMCA. The entire center is budgeted at $100 million, and will include a theater, restaurant, workout facilities and more. Proportionately, the mosque itself is a mere fraction of the larger plan.

The mosque actually has actively been functional since last year. Worshipers meet several times a day amid raw Sheetrock and plastic liners to pray on an unfinished concrete floor. So, while all the objections to the mosque being there seem to focus on future development, it’s really only a matter of sprucing up the joint.

Goes to show that it doesn’t take a fancy sanctuary and minaret to invoke the sacred. You listening, Oral Roberts?

Officials representing the mosque have offered as much assurance as is humanly reasonable that no anti-American or otherwise radical talk or behavior will be tolerated. And don’t you think that if a terrorist’s idea were to carry out a nefarious plan without getting caught, a mosque near the location of the 9/11 attacks, that’s the subject of national scrutiny, might not offer the sort of cover they’re looking for in a hideout?

So where is the fear coming from? Research on this has revealed a less-than-shocking correlation between the number of negative rumors people had heard and believed about the Muslim community center and their propensity for watching Fox News as a primary information resource.

Which brings me to another fun fact. There’s been much speculation that radical Islamic groups from the Middle East must be funding the community center’s construction, but actually the primary funder is an organization called the Kingdom Foundation, whose primary benefactor is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

Talal is a billionaire who, though it has been implied that he funds radical Islamists, is the second largest shareholder in a company called News Corp with more than $2 billion in holdings in the company. News Corp is a media juggernaut among whose holdings is – wait for it – Fox News.

Ironic, no?

I’ll admit I get some enjoyment out of the fact that the “news” station noted as the primary source for fear-mongering propaganda about the Islamic community center is owned in large part by the guy funding the center. As the now-obscure Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “America, what a country. I love it!”

My take on the center is not only that it should be allowed and tolerated, it should be encouraged by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Some opponents of the center say that until Islamic countries build Christian churches near their holy sites we should not have a mosque near Ground Zero, which some people have since labeled as hallowed.

Seems that, in trying to distinguish ourselves from our so-called enemies, we have become more like them.

Another perspective is that an Islamic center near Ground Zero personifies the American values of plurality and peaceful coexistence. The very fact that Taliban propagandists have celebrated the schisms caused by the conflict around the mosque would suggest, perhaps, that we should be working in the opposite direction.

When mainstream Islamic people and groups are welcomed as an integral part of our culture, the work of the fringes claiming the same faith becomes increasingly impotent. It is in the context of ignorance, fear and division that terrorism makes its most indelible mark. We erase such marks from our psyche one relationship and one act of reconciliation at a time.

Some who wish to see the East-West discord continue would like nothing better than to have the community center banned. Illogical as it may seem to some, the greatest counter-terrorism measure we can take against such ideology requires no weapons or troops, but rather an open heart and mind.

The problem is that we have to stop reacting out of fear of what might be long enough to see the simple truth in front of us. It’s an ideal realized easily enough, though maybe not for the most heavily-armed nation in the history of the world.

NewSpin: House of the Rising Stench
Written by Christian Piatt
December 2010

There’s a home down the street from us that’s affectionately known by neighbors – particularly those within smelling distance – as “The Toilet.” On warm days, the distinct smells of decaying garbage and slow-rotting feces waft through the air.

Gross, right? Try living by it.

The Toilet, which some might call a rental property, sits at 1724 N. Grand and is the bane of the block. In a neighborhood that has been designated “historic,” The Toilet stands alone as a monument to squalor. From the couch on the front porch to waist-high weeds and crumbling façade, the place looks like it should be condemned.

How can anyone live in such conditions? For most of the past decade no one has lived there, which is part of the problem.

The house, title to which is under the name of Robert P. Mourning, was consistently rented until mid-2003. After the last tenants moved out, the utilities were disconnected and the house sat vacant for the next six years. In the meantime, homeless people regularly broke in and made camp – bathroom included – inside the house, alongside wild animals that found shelter within the decaying walls.

For years, neighbors would occasionally mow the lawn and pick up trash left by homeless visitors in an effort to keep the place from looking even worse. The owner was nowhere to be found, and would not return messages.

When some renters finally moved in, the carpet, which by now was drenched in sewage from a backup in the lines, was tossed into the backyard along with animal excrement, garbage and other goodies. What wasn’t thrown into the yard or the garage was burned in the fireplace, creating a noxious stench that caused several neighbors to call everyone from the sheriff to the health department in an effort to get the place cleaned up.

Oh, and although the new family moved into the place, they did so without reconnecting any utilities, including water. So they used candles to light the space despite the many clear code violations. When regional building staff finally deemed the home uninhabitable until utilities were turned back on, the family simply tore down all warnings and camped inside until the sheriff’s department threatened them with serious consequences if they were found on the grounds except to clean it during the day.

More than a month later, the utilities were reinstated and the young family moved back in, along with at least eight cats and a dog. There seemed to be a revolving door on the house, with various newcomers crashing there from one night to the next. Meanwhile, the animal excrement was tossed into the backyard to mingle with the carpet and other garbage.

You get the picture.

A number of complaints were filed with the health department, and a few times Mr. Mourning was ticketed. But there were a couple of problems with the system. First, the fines cost significantly less than any of the repairs would have been to remedy the issue. Second, no one with any authority followed up to enforce the violations.

Instead, Mourning’s paid a few hundred dollars to satisfy citations over the past decade, and the festering heap of a house continues to decay before the community’s eyes and noses.

When challenged by neighbors of such properties about the relatively impotent code enforcement power the city and county seem to have in such cases, officials balked, saying that their hands are tied by state regulations. This, however, is false, since local communities can establish their own codes and consequences, so long as they are at least as strict as the state’s.

It would be bad enough if this was an isolated incident, but Mourning himself owns more than a dozen properties around town, many of which are in similar shape – or worse. If he were the only culprit, a handful of run-down homes wouldn’t be enough to create a larger negative perception of our city. But he’s not.

So, if slumlords have little incentive to change their ways, and our local officials hedge at giving more teeth or funding to the anemic code enforcement we currently have, what’s a resident to do? For one local citizen, the answer is to take the cause online.

Lori Winner started a Facebook page called Pueblo Houseofshame, inviting people to post photos of decrepit properties with the hope that community pressure would push owners and residents to clean up their act. One can also email photos taken from the street (please, no trespassing) to pueblohouseofshame@yahoo.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , along with the address and details about the condition of the site, and Lori will post it for all to see. [See sidebar.]

We all know that Pueblo struggles with an image problem with many tourists and residents from the north. But until we become more proactive about making the change ourselves, and unless regional building officials and other code-enforcement bodies get serious about making it painful for owners to let blight continue, whom can we really blame for the bad rap we have, other than ourselves?

An Update

Over the weekend prior to publication, Lori Winner, moderator of the Pueblo Houseofshame page on Facebook, posted that she had received a “proverbial shot over the bough” and was considering shutting the page down.

In response to P.U.L.P.’s inquiry, Ms. Winner said she had received word from her husband – Jay Winner, Executive Director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District – that Pueblo police captain Troy Davenport wanted to speak to her. Though her husband gave Davenport her number, Ms. Winner claims he didn’t call her.

The week of November 20th, Ms. Winner wrote to me, stating, “[My husband] Jay’s board member told Jay on Tuesday that Davenport said that ‘police were laughing because they are going to drive by her houses.’ On Friday I [received] 3 citations on 3 different rental properties,” though she claims her properties all are “nice” and that, “The violations are ridiculous, and easily fixed at no cost.” She added, “however I am seeing this as a warning shot.”

Following her husband’s call to one of the board members who had heard the conversation noted above, Ms. Winner received a call from Capt. Davenport, who denied that her properties were being targeted in retaliation for her publicity against run-down properties and the lack of enforcement by local officials.

Davenport told P.U.L.P. that the reason he originally intended to call Ms. Winner was to invite her and her husband to observe how the code-enforcement process works in person. However, when seeking permission for this, other officials from the city told him the Winners already had been offered such an opportunity, so Davenport saw no point in calling her.

Davenport also said that he has no recollection of any such comments being made at any meeting where he was present. He also clarified that the three items issued to Ms Winner’s properties were notices of violation, and not citations, which means the property owner has ten days to remedy the violation without further action.

Davenport said that it is the policy of the code enforcement department to respond to any citizen complaint, including the cases involving Ms. Winner. He also noted that, since all complaints are allowed to remain anonymous, he had no way of knowing who had lodged the complains against Ms. Winner’s properties.

Newspin
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

By the time this goes to press, political satirists John Stewart and Stephen Colbert will have conducted their “March to Restore Sanity” and the “Rally to Keep Fear Alive,” respectively, in Washington, D.C. Seen by many as a direct response to Glenn Beck’s rally in the same city on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Stewart explained in a recent interview on National Public Radio, such a mindset gives Beck too much credit.

Sure, he’s great fodder for comedy, says Stewart, but Beck’s rhetoric really lacks any more substance than the comedy shows that parody him, though it’s arguable that Beck isn’t in on the joke.

For those who see the emergence of more vocal conservative pundits and politicians as distressing, figures like Beck, Sarah Palin and the like as fodder for derision and even fear, it seems that the tea ,party movement is giving such people a platform that is bending the public’s ear, and for some, the prospect of someone who listens to Fox News as a legitimate source of “fair and balanced” information is nothing short of terrifying.

Not so, argues Stewart. He suggests that the worry about a Palin presidency or the like actually is overblown. If we can survive a civil war among other things, he says, we can live through a less-than-capable conservative presidency.

Sounds strangely familiar, in a way, actually.

In fact, there’s a case to be made that electing someone like Palin or Delaware’s GOP senate candidate Christine O’Donnell might actually be good medicine. If moderates and progressives already are asleep at the wheel after only two years to the point that they’ll let more extreme leaders win political office, perhaps the wakeup call of the 2000-08 Bush presidency wasn’t harsh enough.

All of this begs the question: Why do the media and those who consume their product seem content to reduce political figures to little more than caricatures, and to establish fear and contempt as the baseline emotions upon which our political system operates?

Because it’s easier than taking the time and effort to learn about issues of any real importance and substance.

Who wants to read about the latest arbitration over water rights when we can follow the developing story about O’Donnell’s dalliances with witchcraft or her positions, so to speak, on masturbation? Why debate the appropriateness of NAFTA or how to tackle immigration reform when it’s so much more fun to speculate about Barack Obama’s birth certificate or read an e-il about how he’s a closet Muslim?

This dumbing down of the American voter would be easy to blame either on politics or the media, but I’d argue it’s only a viable market because we, the end-user, have created such a demand.

In a culture where People Magazine outsells The New Yorker four-to-one and there are two Maxim subscribers for every U.S. News & World Report reader, it’s easier to put analysis and critical thought into its proper perspective. And while the emotional tide of good feeling that helped usher Obama into the White House was heartening in many ways, it’s also discouraging to see how quickly such fickle emotion can fade.

And, yes, this is an entirely appropriate time to point out the irony of my observations in the pages of an alt-monthly that also contains columns on sex, nightlife and the related fluff that accompanies them. No more ironic, I suppose, than the fact that some of our most poignant contemporary political commentary comes from 30-minute shows on Comedy Central that sandwich their wry observations between fart jokes and hyperbole.

John Adams, James Madison and other of our political progenitors are no doubt turning in their graves over the dim-witted offspring their revolutionary system of governance, based upon the nobility of human integrity and the value of rigorous intellectual debate, have now produced.

In a culture where substance takes at least second chair to sensational rhetoric and character assassination, those who shout loudest garner the brightest spotlight. Politics has entered the compressed news cycle as one more distraction to be picked from an ever-running stream of detritus when we have a moment. The winners in such a context are those shiny morsels that grab our attention, which helps explain why every political speech now sounds like a string of unrelated sound bytes.

Sometimes, we have to laugh to keep from crying, which is why I’m grateful for people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Love or hate their take on issues, it’s hopeful to have a pair of comedians who have the nerve to point out that the political emperor has no clothes, or, in this case, no substance.

Do we even need religion any more?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

It’s no secret that organized religion in America has slipped dramatically in the public eye during the past several decades. Though just as many people claim to have some sort of faith in a higher power, since the 1970s we’ve witnessed a steady decline in church attendance.

This isn’t exactly the case across the board. Large churches, with membership over 500 people, are still pretty strong overall, and the more conservative evangelical churches tend to maintain their bases of folks more than the moderate, so-called
“mainline” churches.

There are a handful of reasons why this downward trend has continued for nearly two generations. First, an increasingly mobile population, held together more by technology than by geography, has dissolved many of the physical, social centers that helped make up communities in the past. After all, why go through the painstaking effort of getting the whole family out of bed and dressed when you can just hit folks up on Facebook, or Skype grandma, who now lives more than a thousand miles away?

Second, there’s been a pervasive suspicion of all things institutional that took hold particularly around the Watergate/Vietnam era. Prior to this, most people held something of an inherent trust of the systems of governance and authority, assuming they had the best interests of the general public at heart. But with the scandals, protests and violence of the ’60s and early ’70 came a cynicism about powerful institutions that we’ve never shaken since, and, perhaps, with good reason.

Add to this the breakneck speed of the distribution of information and the lack of filters to contain and/or verify what’s true and what’s garbage before it reaches consumers. On one hand, this explosion of the information age has democratized the information-sharing process; on the other, it’s created more opportunities for gossip, scandal exposes and even outright slander.

The all-seeing eye of the interconnected world misses little these days, and there few things that it loves than watching the mighty fall, especially when there’s also sex involved. So when ministers are caught getting a massage with benefits or predatory priests are found to be molesting boys, it’s sure to make headlines.

Some folks assume that early Christianity was all about establishing churches, but the institution we now see as organized religion didn’t come along until much later. Jesus himself didn’t spend much time in the synagogues, opting instead for small gatherings in homes and traveling the countryside to talk with whomever he came across.
It wasn’t until three centuries later when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of the empire that the community of believers began to seriously get both organized and powerful. Though Constantine’s motives for converting to Christianity are arguable, most historians believe the move was more about consolidating power than it was about his faith.

Over the following centuries, the powerful combination of church and state helped spread Christianity to all corners of the world – often at the point of a sword – while the church willingly sanctioned the conquest of nations by rulers who claimed fidelity to the church. It was a convenient, if unsavory, marriage.

So, given the fact that the earliest church was more of a movement than an institution, and considering that, later, the real strength of the institutional church was built upon the backs of millions it forced into claiming loyalty, perhaps the institutional church as it stands actually is a bastardized version of what an otherwise peaceful and life-giving community of faith had to offer.

What if, after all the time, money and effort that’s gone into propping up our religious institutions, it’s actually those very institutions that are keeping communities of faith from doing the real work of positive social change to which they’re called?

In the end, every faith community has to continually take its own pulse, asking if the effort and resources being expended are primarily intent on keeping a building or power structure in place, or if those institutions and systems are, as they ideally should be, simply a means to a greater end.

Meanwhile, house churches and loosely networked faith groups continue to spring up, much like the seeds of early Christianity before religious barons ever thought about buildings, polity, conquest or empire. Many would see the collapse of the institutional church as we now know it as a failure of faith and humanity. But what if, after all the dust settled, we were left with something more genuinely focused on mission rather than on institutionality?

It’s hard to comprehend now, but perhaps we’re witnessing an evolution of human faith, shedding one older, rigid skin for a more pliable, adaptable one. Regardless, humanity’s resolve to maintain belief in something greater than itself has endured far worse than a weakened system of authority and some crumbling buildings. We’ll continue to seek an understanding of the divine, with or without the church.

NewSpin
Privacy, partisanship and political punditry
(Originally published in PULP)

I love my privacy.

In an era with more information coming at each of us in a month than previous generations experienced in a lifetime, we have to be vigilant about our mental and physical personal space. Whereas we began as hunters and foragers, now we expend a similar amount of energy holding things at arms’ length.

I have three different spam filters on my e-mail accounts, siphoning out nearly all of the junk from my e-mail box before it lands on my laptop. I’m on every do-not-call and do-not-mail list I can find, and the absence of clutter that results is nothing short of blissful.

Then comes election season.

For years I identified myself as a progressive independent, reserving my fidelity to a case-by-case assessment of the candidates available. This varied widely, by the way, as I lived everywhere from Chicago to Seattle and several points in between; it seemed to make more sense to stay neutral until someone provided me with enough motivation to pick a side.

It wasn’t until I ran for Pueblo school board several years ago that I saw the inherent advantage of being a part of a political party. Registering as a Democrat for me was almost like finally taking the plunge with a longtime girlfriend and popping the question. Our values had largely aligned for long enough; now we were official.

My fellow Democrat activists did their part to support my candidacy, for which I remain grateful, despite my loss. But since then I continue to question my affiliation with a major party once again, given the blizzard of mailings, robo-calls and TV advertising that we get buried under for months around every election.

There’s a fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed or even coerced. Though I believe the major parties act more or less above board and in accordance with election laws, I can’t help but feel that I’m just barely surviving every election cycle. What’s more, having been a candidate, I know that many political rainmakers actually can ascertain whether you voted or not. I can’t help but feel like someone — Big Brother? The godfather? — is watching me.

Finally, My biggest concern remains the continuation of a broken, two-party system. It seems we’re caught in a loop where the Republicans take the majority, then suffer ignominious loss under the white-hot microscope of modern media, being exposed and then leaving the door open for the Democrats to claim the next cycle. The Dems, in turn, get beaten up for similar allegations of fiscal impropriety, scandal or, more likely, just routine ineffectiveness. And on and on it goes.

So the balance shifts back and forth every two, four, six or eight years, rendering the whole system somewhat impotent as more and more time, money and energy go into which party has 50 percent plus one, and thus is able to subjugate the other almost-half to its will.

I’m starting to believe that the only solution is for a third party (or maybe more) to gain enough of a foothold that neither major party can expect to hold the majority. I’m no friend of the teabaggers — excuse me, tea partiers — but I certainly understand their discontent. As a Democrat, I’m actually encouraged by the potential effect they’ll have on the Republican base, but it’s only a matter of time before the greens or some other progressive group kicks the donkeys in the proverbial rump.

So what’s the solution? Do I break away and support a third party, hoping it will someday lead to consensus-building, but also knowing it may hurt the cause of those candidates with similar ideals to mine? Or do I toe the party line, helping continue to feed a political beast I am afraid is actually doing more harm than good to representative democracy?

With November looming, it’s only a matter of months — maybe days — after that until we start talking presidential politics and the 2012 showdown. It seems there’s so much at stake, both in the short and long terms, that neither solution presents a satisfying outcome.

On the upside, these political pamphlets and flyers are going to make one hell of a bonfire, come winter.

Going out of the way to be uncomfortable (Smells Like Spirit column)
(Originally published in PULP)

I’m a sucker for nearly any reality show in which participants undergo a radical transformation. I love the big payoff at the end of the Biggest Loser season; I watch American Idol like a tweenie fan; and I’m man enough to admit I’m a total sucker for a makeover.

That’s why, when Morgan Spurlock, creator and star of the documentary film Super Size Me, started a new TV series called 30 Days, I was hooked before I even saw the pilot.

The show follows the same sort of immersive, autobiographical documentary style as his film, placing people in situations unlike their typical environment for a month and watching how they respond, generally with some thread of social commentary at the core. In the first show, he and his girlfriend got minimum wage jobs and tried to live below the poverty line, with very sobering results.

But we pulled up on Netflix two more recent shows from the first season, both of which I think should be required viewing in all Christian churches. The first placed a traditional evangelical in Dearborn, Mich., to live with a Muslim family in a heavily Muslim neighborhood for 30 days. The second sent a good ol’ boy from the Nebraska farmland to live in the Castro district in San Francisco, commonly known as “the gayest place on the planet.”

In both cases, the men came in with strong preconceptions about — or against — the groups with which they were to cohabitate, judgments generally originating from the media, popular stereotypes in culture and of course, their churches. By the end, both men, though not divested of their original faith, were radically reoriented in the way they thought about people they thought they understood.

No, the farm boy didn’t come home in leather chaps or with a suitcase full of sex toys, and the evangelical didn’t toss out his Bible to make room for his Quran (but he did put them on the shelf next to each other). Both seemed to fear as much would happen, simply by opening themselves up to a different experience.

What the show demonstrates most importantly is twofold: Most of the most painful divisions between us as individuals and groups originate in fear, and direct personal relationship is bigger than that same fear in most cases.

So how do we go about allowing for such important transformation to take place out front in front of a camera? It seems that we have to go out of our way to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Not a natural inclination, and certainly not a popular angle for churches desperate to fill their pews and coffers with happy congregants, but if we’re seriously about the business of social healing and reconciliation, what other choice do we have?

Sure, lots of churches offer mission trips to help out in places unlike our home towns, but, often, those sorts of service projects – where we feel we have something of value to bring to those we’re helping, and not the other way around – are an inherent setup for an imbalance of power.

Also, the sort of change we’re talking about doesn’t seem to take place in a weekend, or even in a weeklong trip. It’s been said that it takes doing something 21 times in a new way before old habits are broken. So maybe a minimum of three weeks is required.

Of course few, if any, of us has three weeks to give up in order to travel somewhere with the explicit goal of being changed. It’s against our nature to seek unfamiliarity and to consciously look for things to challenge our worldview, let alone using every bit of vacation we have to do it. So yeah, I’m a bit of an idealist, and there’s potential in the idea.

Every community has its share of diversity, be it economic, cultural, sexual or otherwise. Part of the whole intent is not just to be more willing to seek out direct engagement with different types of people, but to do so in the spirit of openness, acknowledging that perhaps our views could actually benefit from being stretched a little.

Consider yourself a little homophobic? Sit in on a few Equality Alliance or PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meetings, or grab a cold one at the Pirate’s Cove, Pueblo’s only openly gay bar (that I know of, anyway).

Consider yourself to be agnostic or atheist? Go to church for a few months, not to become un-atheist, but to learn more about the thing you supposedly don’t believe in. Love your evangelical church? Check out a pagan festival or a Wiccan gathering, if there’s one open to the public.

The key question is: What can it hurt? Worst case, your preconceptions and objections are confirmed. Best case, you learn something, and maybe so do the folks with whom you engage. And if you’re really so worried about the potential change that may take place in yourself, maybe it’s worth wondering what the basis of your beliefs is in the first place.

After all, if a few encounters with the unfamiliar can bring your house of cards crashing down, it sounds like the raw material may not have had the soundest integrity to begin with.

NewSpin
Noise Pollution, Tax Solutions and a New Infusion

By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

In a knee-jerk decision, Pueblo City Council established a new sound ordinance based on a woman’s complaint about a neighbor’s garage band practicing nearby. The gist of the ordinance is that, if your neighbors can hear you, it’s too loud.

Though the reaction was particular to bands, some folks are hoping that this will create a blanket under which barking dogs and raucous parties will be included too. But why stop there? Consider some other potential noise pollution we could stanch while we’re at it.

More or less every morning, I’m awakened by a muscled-up diesel truck from down the street that leaves for a construction site not long after the sun creeps up. Guess he’ll be walking from now on, as will all the “crotch rocket” offenders who rev their imported motorcycles to eleventy-seven million RPMs. Oh, and of course there are the choppers and hot rods; I don’t want to leave them out.

And talk about noise – the playground right across the street fills the air with squeaks and squeals I can hear in my living room with the doors and windows closed. Sorry kids, but looks like we’ll be shutting you down too.

Apologies in advance to both the Pride City band, which practices down the street in Mineral Palace Park every summer, and to the church across the street whose bells chime three times a day, seeping insidiously into nearby residences. Things just won’t be the same without you, but hey, at least they’ll be quiet.

My point isn’t necessarily that all homeowners just need to buck up and live with any level of noise, but here’s a mind-blower: Consider going over and talking to your neighbor face-to-face instead of complaining to the government to fix your personal problems.

And as for city council, such a narrow-minded and impulsive reaction certainly will have more negative consequences than anyone took the time to consider. What, do they assume, these young people will do with their free time instead of pouring their energy into music? Should they spend more time on the streets, looking for something quiet to do? And how about the impact on the local culture? Sure, the lady next door may not like Sonic Vomit or whatever band the local musicians are into, but without such freedom to explore, a community’s artistic voice becomes homogenized at best, and at worst, it dries up and moves on.

Further, did anyone consider the economic impact of this ordinance? It’s easy enough to look at young musicians as penniless moochers, siphoning off their parents (I was one of them too), but eventually, we fine-tune our skills to the point that some of us start picking up gigs, maybe drop an album or hit the road for a tour. If nothing else, we buy plenty of new musical equipment and recordings when we have those few precious pennies to rub together. If we are allowed to actually use them, that is.

Time and again, communities that have made a concerted effort to create space for art and music to flourish are rewarded by the fruits of such cultural roots. Consider Santa Fe Street in Denver, Deep Ellum in Dallas, and on and on goes the list in hundreds of forward-thinking cities that understand that original art is the heartbeat of a community’s culture.

As for Pueblo, we pour money into maintaining decaying buildings in every part of town, while telling local bands we have no use for them. But hey, at least the woman who complained can watch “Jeopardy” and do her Sudoku in peace.

On a more positive note, kudos to Pueblo City School’s board for its recent selection of a new interim superintendent, Dr. Margarita Lopez, as Kathy West moves over to manage the growing and successful magnet program at Fountain, Corwin, East High and other schools.

Lopez served most recently as assistant superintendent for learning services in Academy School District 20 just to the north.

“For most of us, this was our third search in five years,” says board president Stephanie Garcia. “This search was for an interim and it is our hope that we can take some time to get to know one another and later make a decision about making the position permanent.”

Given our bi-cultural community, it’s a hopeful sign in itself that we now have someone who is bilingual at the helm of the district. “Dr. Lopez … is a native Spanish-speaker and grew up in a bilingual and bicultural world,” says Garcia. “When she arrived in this country there were no English as a Second Language programs. She credits great teachers for helping her to learn English and learn about the American culture. Her educational experiences were the impetus for her success. Her passion for education is inspirational for all.”

To have someone who not only understands the nuances of bicultural education, but who also has the opportunity to serve as a role model for one of our most at-risk groups of kids – Hispanic girls – speaks more to the board’s current vision for the district than even her training and educational experience.

It’s also a relief that we’re looking locally for talent, with significant cost savings at that, rather than assuming our qualified leadership must come from somewhere else. Here’s hoping the “permanent relationship” Garcia and her colleagues seek becomes a reality.

Finally, there’s the matter of some logic-challenged tax cut proposals being put to a public vote during the forthcoming election cycle. Though on the surface, everyone loves the idea of a tax break, Amendments 60, 60 and Proposition 101 would effectively dismantle – I would argue intentionally and with malice of forethought – many services most of us consider essential.

Amendment 60 proposes to halve our already relatively low property tax . The biggest loser in this case would be our public schools. “Pueblo City Schools may be considering school closures if K-12 funding continues to decline,” says Garcia. “Amendment 60 would make this inevitable.”

The more benign-sounding Amendment 61 champions the Tea Party ethos of eliminating government borrowing. But what many don’t consider is that this removes the ability even to issue government bonds. Because public revenue streams don’t make room for things like capital construction and improvements in most cases, we’d be left with the schools and other buildings we have, hoping nothing happens that would precipitate a facility closure.

Finally, Proposition 101 proposes reducing vehicle registration taxes to their lowest level in 90 years, amounting to around $2.5 million more in cuts to Pueblo City Schools.

So, if the goal is to cut taxes to the point that services like public education, transportation, health care, prevention programs and perhaps even law enforcement cave in upon themselves, I suppose these proposals offer one efficient way to do that. Personally, I find the effort to dismantle state and local governments from the inside out by putting forward obtuse, yet seemingly harmless, cost savings for taxpayers to be disingenuous, bordering on insane.

If you value the basic services our communities depend on for a decent quality of life, you’ll do what you can to ensure these initiatives go nowhere.

Doing nothing does something
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)
I picked up a book recently by Walter Wink, one of my preferred theologians when it comes to putting action behind the rhetoric of faith. I have yet to read anything by Wink that has not rocked my world and caused me to reevaluate pretty much everything from my beliefs to the way I express them in daily life.

His book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, was no exception.

Deceptively small at a compact 64 pages, every paragraph presents a compelling challenge not only to many common takes on Jesus’ approach to authority, but also to anyone who claims to be a champion of the oppressed, marginalized and neglected.

First, Wink quickly goes about dismantling the myth that Jesus was a pacifist. Far from it, actually. Things like turning the other cheek and walking the second mile, in the context of Wink’s nonviolent activist engagement, take on unexpected power, much like a black belt in aikido uses the energy of his attacker to overthrow them.

For example, it was legal in the Roman Empire for occupying centurions to force locals to carry their packs up to one mile along the road, but no further. Though taking the soldier’s pack a second mile might seem a meek and nice thing to do, he argues it’s actually a nonviolent act of insurrection. The soldier actually could be jailed or otherwise punished for violating the law banning exploitation of the local people, but how ridiculous does he end up looking, begging for his pack back from a lowly peasant? And if you insist on carrying the burden further, he also runs the risk of appearing weak, empowering yourself with the very weight he once placed upon you as a symbol of his power and authority.

The great deception, says Wink, is that we Western-minded folks have bought the idea that we have two choices when faced with violence, injustice or oppression: fight back in kind or do nothing. What is required, he says, is a third option, as modeled by Jesus, one that too often Christians and other people of faith mistake as a call for non-involvement.

As Wink claims, doing nothing in response to injustice is to implicitly support the violence already being done.

Such creative nonviolent activism is certainly not limited to Christianity, either. Though Martin Luther King is the greatest modern example of this kind of engagement for Christians, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and others have practiced such world-changing commitment to nonviolence over the centuries.

Wink also effectively dispels the myth that violence, in any instance, has ever been a more effective tool than a nonviolent response. Ultimately more blood is shed and more people die, even if it’s in our nature to want an eye for an eye.

Sound absurd? Hard to imagine? Wink expects that. As he points out, many of us can’t think of the way he understands the teaching and life of Jesus as really a possibility for us. But ultimately, it depends on how you measure success. If we consider the end of Jesus’ ministry to be his moment of crucifixion, alone, vulnerable and betrayed by those he continued to love, then his life’s mission was a failure.

If, however, we believe that one life – perhaps even our own – is worth giving up for a change that brings hope to thousands or millions of others, many of whom we may never meet, then Jesus’ third way begins to look like a path worth exploring.

NewSpin
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

A couple of months ago I wrote about an investigation I’d done on a case in which Betty Joyce Kuykendall ran a stop sign, collided with a car, and crash that led to the death of the male driver in the other car.

Because of the timing of various steps of the investigation, the only charge brought against Kuykendall was a stop-sign violation, for which she promptly paid a $100 fine. (See the NewSpin column in the May 20 P.U.L/P., online at www.pueblopulp.com, for more about the case).

One reason the case for vehicular manslaughter or any other criminal charges could not be brought against Kuykendall was because St. Mary-Corwin hospital reported that all injuries related to the accident were not serious, even though they ultimately led to William Dorough’s death.

So I wrote to District Attorney Bill Thiebaut, asking whether or not the hospital could be held legally responsible for the death in any way. The following includes excerpts from his response:

“The case is closed,” writes Thiebaut. “The hospital or its medical staff will not be charged. However, a civil action may be filed against the hospital or its medical staff, or other persons or entities.”

“It has been said: There is no crime, there is no punishment, without law (Nullen crimen, nulla poena, sine lege).

“Every crime involves a wrongful act (actus reus) specifically prohibited by the criminal law. In most cases, the law requires that the wrongful act be accompanied by criminal intent (mens rea).

“The actus reus may take the form of an omission or failure to perform an act obliged by law, but the act or duty to act must be specifically required by law; it must have been possible for the person to have performed, and, in some cases, the person must have been aware of his duty to act.

“The mens rea or culpable state of mind accompanying the actus reus can include criminal negligence …. This state of mind is generally sufficient only where there is a conscious disregard of a substantial risk of which a reasonable man would have been aware.

“Finally, there must be a causal relationship between the act and the harm or loss suffered. The act must be both actually and legally the cause of the harm. Actual causation can use the ‘but-for’ test. In other words, would the harm have occurred whether or not the accused had acted? The legal causation is determined by a number of tests. For example, the cause must have played a substantial factor in bringing about the results.”

Within these legal limits, the hospital has not been found to be legally liable for the death. Did they screw up? It seems so, but not with any intent to do harm as outlined above. Did the accident, caused by Kuykendall, lead to Dorough’s death? Most everyone involved seems to be in agreement that it did. However, because of double jeopardy, and since Kuykendall paid the fine for the initial ticket for running the stop sign before charges could be adjusted, she can’t be charged for anything else related to the incident.

So what recourse, if any, does Dorough’s family have?

“A civil wrong…is dealt with under different standards” explains Thiebaut, “and seeks to make whole the injured or aggrieved party through appropriate remedies, including money damages.”

In short, the family can sue everyone from the hospital to Kuykendall herself, provided they have the motivation and resources to do so. And of course, even if they win a civil case (or cases), appeals can drag on for years, costing tens of thousands of dollars in court costs and lawyer fees.

Ultimately, nothing will bring William Dorough back. He’s gone, and no doubt, Ms. Kuykendall grieves the accidental death along with Dorough’s family. Justice, whether it takes the form of civil damages or jail time, are cold comfort for those who have lost someone they love.

Little, if any, legal recourse can bring families the peace and resolution that they seek in such cases. However, when left with nothing other than personal civil suits to seek restitution or some sense of justice, it’s a symptom of a legal system that has failed its people.

It’s not about you
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

My wife, Amy, and I were driving southbound on Interstate 25 recently when a figure ran across the road, right at the edge of one of the overpasses near downtown Pueblo. Though my first instinct was to slam on the brakes, I slowed down enough to notice it was a police officer whose car was parked on the other side of the highway.

At first, we assumed he was in pursuit of a bad guy, but then Amy notice a little boy, no more than four years old, standing on the outside of the guardrail of the bridge. The point on the overpass where he was had to be at least thirty feet above ground; more than enough to inflict serious – if not fatal – damage if he fell.

The boy wandered along the four-inch ledge, which was the only thing between him and possible death, all the while apparently oblivious to the danger he was in. My first thought was, my God, this kid is going to die.

The officer who ran out into the highway traffic, however, was set on a different outcome to the story. Without regard for his own safety, he sprinted across the lanes of oncoming traffic toward the child, leaning over the guardrail and scooping the boy up tightly in his arms.

I didn’t notice any mention of the officer’s act of bravery in the paper or on the news in the coming days, and of course, that’s not why he did what he did. But for all of the bad press – some well-deserved – that officers of the law get, this guy on this particular day put the life of someone else before his own and did something truly heroic.

So what does this have to do with religion or faith? After all, I have no idea if the officer was a Christian, Pagan, Atheist or whatever. For me, the lesson is that, although organized religion often sets out to impart moral lessons to the greater culture, sometimes there are acts of humanity all around us that could teach religion a thing or two about better living into their claimed missions.

It’s no headline-worthy news these days that many institutions of faith are struggling to keep their doors open. Though at one time, churches, mosques or synagogues may have been the social hubs of their communities, a more distributed, mobile and, frankly, preoccupied American culture finds their sense of community elsewhere, more often than not.

In response, some faith communities have resorted to trying harder to reflect the culture around them, installing coffee houses in their buildings, adding more entertaining activities to their roster of programs, and sometimes even telling people what they want to hear, whether it’s theologically well-founded or not.

Enter phenomena like the best-selling book, The Secret, gospel distortions focusing on prosperity and other “God wants you to be rich” theologies. Implicitly, and in some cases, explicitly, the message becomes, “yes, it really is all about you.”

The problem is, it’s not all about you.

We live in a consumer-driven economy that relies on excess spending on things we can’t afford, let alone need, to fuel the fiscal engine. And now more than ever, targeted media marketing can tell you exactly what you want to hear, and practically custom-design products and services that will not only free you of a few bucks, but will also help confirm the sneaking suspicion that you are, in fact, at the center of the universe.

At its best, faith communities work against such fallacies, helping people get over themselves, deconstructing the narcissism that causes us too often to turn in on our own world rather than noticing that there’s a whole planet of other people out there.

Every major world religion has stories in its history of its leaders getting beyond the trappings of “self” to a more enlightened, liberated and compassionate worldview. Unfortunately sometimes we within the institutions of religion grasp desperately at the next new thing to try and maintain the legacies we’ve inherited from previous generations.

One of my favorite sayings is that true faith means planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit. But that’s an uncomfortable, sometimes difficult place to be. It’s counter-cultural to work without expectation of reward in kind, and to labor harder for the welfare of others than for our own comfort.

For that one officer in a moment of pure instinct, I saw through a window to the best of what humanity can be. Now, if we can only get the rest of our faith communities to see through that same window, we might actually change the world in ways far greater than we imagine when worried so much about our own survival.