Barry’s Blog # 214: Paying Attention, Part Two of Two

Many indigenous societies believed that the dead were always close by at the times of the greatest celebrations. The festivals of mid-winter, as well as the November first celebrations in the Celtic world, looked forward to the annual restoration of the world that would come in springtime. But the elders taught that renewal would be unlikely unless due attention were paid to that which must die, as well as to those who had already died and become ancestors, and those – like Dionysus – who had died and been reborn.

Certainly in repressive and feudal systems the political and religious elites have often understood the importance of allowing the common people to let off a little steam for a few days once a year. Jervis notes that “the symbolic inversion revealed the absurdity of a real one.”

Modern culture has long since literalized carnival to its “toxic mimic:” the secular, consumer-oriented spectacles of Mardi Gras, Halloween, Las Vegas, “Spring Break”  and Superbowl weekend. But even today, the citizens of certain Greek towns such as Monoklissia celebrate a festival called the Gynaekokracia (“rule of the women”) in which the women and men trade their traditional roles for one day. Like all carnivals, it serves the two-fold purposes of releasing the tension produced by traditional repressive cultures and also re-affirming their rules, revitalizing the social order by reenacting its conception. Patricia Storace describes the scene: “The transvestism here is a social, even a political transvestism – the men are not just dressing like women, but being treated like women by women mocking men’s behavior.”

But the original carnival, the Anthesteria, was – or at it least recalled – something very significant from the more ancient past.  Most important, for our purposes, the basilinna, the wife of the religious king of the city, or archon bassileus, engaged in a highly publicized, ritual copulation with Dionysus. The conventional scholarly explanation of this holiday is that, in addition to maintaining the social order, it celebrated and recapitulated the original marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne and was a fertility ritual intended to ensure good crops.

This may be accurate on a sociological level, but it is also undoubtedly true that many of the citizens were consciously re-enacting the hieros gamos, a mythic union that had its roots in the pre-patriarchal Minoan era. Why is this ritual marriage so meaningful? Karl Kerenyi wrote that just as Dionysus was the embodiment of zoe, “the archetypal image of indestructible life,” so Ariadne was “the archetypal reality of the bestowal of soul, of what makes a living creature an individual.” The union of this divine pair thus represented the “eternal passage of zoe into and through the genesis of living creatures.”

It was the sacred marriage of goddess and consort, or the inner king and queen who met each other in the sea of the unconscious. It was a reminder of the ultimate unity of opposites that lies behind the mask and the apparent dualities of the world.

The indigenous knowledge was still barely alive in classical Athens: the proximity of fertility and decomposition, of the goddess Persephone and her husband Hades (who was known as Ploutos, or “wealth”) – and also of Dionysus in his many roles of divine child, mature initiator and, as the perpetual “Other,” threat to the social order. The polytheistic imagination could still hold such paradox, even as the age of the rationalist philosophers approached and religion declined into literalism.

We cannot know what occurred when the queen met Dionysus, or what meaning the citizens saw in it. Whether she lay down with the king himself or a priest of Dionysus, or if either man was dressed and masked as the god, or whether their union was consummated literally, does not really concern us. The important thing, according to classicist Richard Seaford, is that there was an “…invasion of the royal household by a publicly escorted stranger who symbolically destroys its potential autonomy by having sex with the king archons’s wife.”

Dionysus Lusios – the “Loosener”– suddenly appeared at the head of a great procession, announcing his presence at the palace of the archon to claim the Queen for his own!  And that night, all over Athens, men donned masks and impersonated the god at the doors of other men’s wives. For one night, everyone ignored the conventions of gender, class, fidelity and possessiveness. But soon after, in daylight, the citizens swept through the streets chasing the keres, the spirits of the dead, out of the city for another year.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we have here a partial record of an advanced urban civilization that recognized the absolute necessity of welcoming in the shadowy, wet, irrational, uncivilized stranger (xenos, the root of xenophobia, can mean both “stranger” and “guest”) along with the spirits of all those who had died unreconciled and ungrieved.

Perhaps the people hoped that their rituals might minimize the possibility of any violent eruption of the repressed energies that might topple the twin towers of religion and state. Perhaps they had reason to believe that, because of the ritual attention they paid to the Lord of the Darkness, there might not be an unintended, overwhelmingly destructive, literal return of the repressed, in the city or in their souls.

By the time of The Bacchae’s first performance (405 BC) Athens had been in a constant state of war with Sparta for over twenty-five years. Public life was characterized by rigid class and gender roles and the militaristic vigilance necessary to sustain an empire. Clearly, people felt deep tension and anxiety that institutions such as the Anthesteria and other occasional opportunities for release could only partially resolve.

Dionysus stood squarely at the center of this paradox, serving both the needs for release of the under-classes as well as pointing the way toward participation in the greater mysteries of the soul. And so, writes Arthur Evans, Dionysus represented the return of the repressed in several senses:

…return of the religious needs of the lower classes, return of the demands of the non-rational part of the self, and return of the (ancient) Minoan feeling for the living unity of nature.  And so in return he threatened several repressors: the aristocracy of well-to-do male citizens, the domination of intellect over emotion, the alienated ethos of the city-state.

Perhaps the subtle balance between citizen, psyche and city – the world’s first experiment with democracy – could not have been expected to survive for long in such a world of slavery, misogyny and constant warfare. Eventually the repressed would return in the form of barbarians from without as well as demons from within.

Like Athens, the U.S. has been at war – in Afghanistan – for sixteen years, with no letup in sight. A unrepentant misogynist is President, and our class and racial hierarchies are as rigid as they were in 1860. Millions are self-medicating with opioids, and Facists march in the streets in a twisted parody of the ancient processions.

But the communal ritual of invoking and welcoming the spirits of madness, ancestry and the irrational remains an alternative, imaginative model for our American culture that is based so deeply on the denial of both madness and death.

Reviving such festivals in all their paradox of chaotic ecstasy mixed with deep sadness – holding the tension of the opposites – could be a first step in drawing back our obsessive national projection of the Other from gays, women, terrorists and people of color. Paying attention to Dionysus could be a step in awakening white America from its four centuries-long fantasy of innocence.

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Barry’s Blog # 213: Paying Attention, Part One of Two

Spiritual and mystical literature often speaks of the need to pay full attention, to be present moment to moment. In addition, what we might call “soul-work” asks us to focus our awareness of both the outer and the inner worlds with a detached, witnessing perspective, even while, as Joseph Campbell wrote, “participat(ing) joyfully in the sorrows of the world.”

A large part of the self is normally hidden from us. Indeed, cognitive linguist George Lakoff claims that only five percent of our thinking is conscious. So paying attention (attention: from the Latin, “to stretch”) forces us into the awareness of infinite complexity and mystery. Resisting the temptation to resolve the big questions of life into simple, black-white dualities – the legacy of monotheistic thinking – we hold the tension of the opposites. Otherwise, we risk a disruptive return of the repressed.

Most people throughout history have not become yogis meditating in caves. Far more have chosen the way of the indigenous, creative imagination: turning life’s tragic contradictions and impossible choices into the images of art.

But what about social groups? Is it necessary or even possible for an entire society to hold that kind of attention, if only for a brief but intense period of time, to acknowledge the presence of its own shadow? Communities cannot enter psychotherapeutic relationships; they can only approach the unconscious through communal ritual within a broad mythic container.

In highly structured societies, such as classical Athens, that emphasize logic and rational thinking, the shadow is the unreasonable, violent and uncontrollable force of natural life. Like the ivy plant in a garden, it continually threatens to creep stealthily across the carefully contrived boundaries of the social role or mask – the persona – that we show to the world.

For the Athenians the mythic image that expressed the irrational, the paradoxical and the mysterious was Dionysus, the god of the extremes of both ecstasy and madness. In his inebriated yet exalted state, he could bring joyous celebration as well as chaos and violence. He was paradox: the only god to suffer and die, and yet to always return. For a few centuries Greek myth and ritual struggled to hold the tension, the mystery and the tragedy of life that he represented. Classicist E. R. Dodds acknowledged that the rationalist elders of Athens “were deeply and imaginatively aware of the power, the wonder, and the peril of the Irrational.”

Ancient wisdom had told of the price that the psyche – and the community – paid for ignoring the mad god and his passions. Many of his myths told of the destructive vengeance he visited upon those mortals who denied the truth of reality – his reality. In story after story, Dionysus arrived from afar with his retinue of dancing maenads (related to mania) The_Maenads and drunken satyrs, only to be rejected by such mythic figures as Lykourgos, Minyas, Proetus, Eleuther, Perseus, and most famously in Thebes by Pentheus (in The Bacchae by Euripides.)

And time after time, Dionysus punished the unbelievers or their kin with madness. We are not talking about neurosis or depression. We are talking about madness so extreme, so severe that it caused them to unknowingly slaughter their own children.

Consider the three daughters of King Proetus of Tiryns. They refused to join Dionysus in his wild revels; in response he struck them mad. They infected the other women with their insanity, and all left their families. Some wandered as nymphomaniacs; others killed and ate their own children. One of the daughters died before the others were purified. Similarly, the women of Thebes who had rejected the God (including his own relatives) went violently mad.

The Athenians themselves told an old story: once in the dim past they did not receive the statue of Dionysus with appropriate respect when it was first brought to the city. Angered, the god sent an affliction on the genitals of the men. They were cured only when they duly honored him by fashioning great phalluses for use in his worship. After that education in proper respect the Athenian empire required its colonies to send phalluses (along with tribute) as part of the annual celebrations of the City Dionysia.

Scholars call these legends “myths of arrival,” implying that they explain the spread of a new cult. We, however, are looking for the archetypal implications. Why does the gentle and effeminate god of ecstasy arrive so often with such ferocity? Like alcohol itself, he loosens inhibitions. He was known as Lusios, the “Loosener.” James Hillman points out that the word is connected to lysis, the last half of the word analysis, which means “loosening, setting free, deliverance, dissolution, collapse, breaking bonds and laws, and the final unraveling as of a plot in tragedy.” A catalyst is an agent, chemical or otherwise, that precipitates a process or event, without being changed by the consequences.

What lies below the surface has great power because, like a diamond, it has been compressed by time. Like all of the “Others” of the world, the god has experienced the shame of having been cast out of the city, beyond the pale, among the barbarians, into the underworld, to lick his wounds and nurse his resentment. Are we really surprised that when he is invoked unconsciously, passively, or literally (by consuming spirits!) he is as likely to bring rage as he is to bring ecstasy? It would seem that when he comes back – and he always does, like ivy – the psyche experiences his arrival as the violent return of the repressed. But it need not always be this way. Psychologist Nor Hall comments on the daughters of Proteus:

Their bodies become covered with white splotches, and they are set out upon the hills to wander like cows in heat. Only now are they fitting partners for the God in bull form. Had they joined the Dionysian company willingly they would have enacted this state of wild abandon within a protective circle.

Indigenous ritual seeks to retrieve a state of balance that has been lost. To do so, it may involve – within such a protective circle – the symbolic enactment and emotional experience of our deepest conflicts and irreconcilable opposites, with the intention that such discord might not have to erupt – and disrupt – literally.

The Athenian religious and political leaders were faced with the question of how to pay attention to Dionysus – something they would rather not have done. How could they consciously invite this mad, unreasonable god of vengeance and wild emotional extremes – the “Other” – into the center of the city in the hope that he wouldn’t take vengeance? One way they accomplished this was in the Dionysia, the annual productions of tragic drama in March, 241564a88cf4b06c0312bd72973292c8where the entire city endured the tension of holding irreconcilable opposites together, as enacted onstage. These productions, by the way, were traditionally held in the Theater of Dionysus. The mad god was the patron saint, so to speak, of the Greeks’ highest art.

Another method was to celebrate a late winter (the previous month, in early- to mid-February) festival called the Anthesteria – the festival of flowers – during which the new wine was opened. The city invoked Dionysus “as a purifier, not as a destroyer,” writes Charles Segal. The God arrived “bringing the life-enhancing benefits of viticulture and the drinking of wine.”
The Anthesteria was one of the earliest European all-souls’ festivals, in which the citizens annually welcomed the spirits of the dead, and along with them, Dionysus, back into the city for three days of drinking and merry-making. But, difficult as it may seem to modern consciousness, historians tell us that the joy alternated with deep somberness, even grief. Apparently, the people retained a memory of the ancient knowledge that it was impossible to invoke one extreme of experience without also accepting the presence of its opposite.  

Dionysus, played by one of his priests, ceremonially returned from his annual sojourn in Persephone’s palace in Hades. dionysus-mosaic They towed him, wearing a bearded, two-faced mask, into the city on a ship on wheels that was crowned with vine tendrils and pulled by panthers. The citizens welcomed the god together with his wife Ariadne, the two of them returned from the sea, that universal symbol of the collective unconscious. We recall how Ariadne had helped save the hero Theseus from the Minotaur, the dreadful monster of the labyrinth; how Theseus had returned the favor by abandoning her on an island; and how Dionysus had saved her and married her. To celebrate their sacred marriage – the hieros gamos – Dionysus gave her a jeweled crown, which he later placed in the heavens as the constellation Corona Borealis.

Dionysus is also the source of the tradition of wearing masks in these processions. As Walter Otto wrote:

Because it is his nature to appear suddenly and with overwhelming might before mankind, the mask serves as his symbol and his incarnation in cult…(the mask) is linked with the eternal enigmas of duality and paradox.

The Greek word for mask was persona, and the mask reminded everyone of the untamed forces of nature that lay just below the surface of appearances. And yes, our modern words person and personality derive from that same source.

Similar festivals were held in mid-winter in Egypt and Rome. In Later centuries Christian Europe celebrated carnival during this same season, despite the disapproval of the church, and to this day masked revelers often tow the carnival King and Queen through the streets, just like Dionysus and Ariadne, on a ship on wheels.

Traditional European carnival was a time out of time, emphasizing both the liminal betwixt-and-between state as well as the cyclic nature of existence. It was a period of humor, paradox, wild behavior and a temporary inversion of the social order with a breaking of taboos that bordered on subversion. Anthropologist John Jervis writes that the people celebrated the body “… in all its messy materiality: eating, drinking, copulating, defecating, procreating, dying…” To an extent almost unimaginable today, entire communities participated – briefly – as equals, with little distinction between performers and audience, many of whom wore death masks. Amid the merriment, one can still observe the ancient theme of welcoming the spirits of the dead back to the world of the living for a few days.

But now, in the Christian context, the joy precedes the austerities of Lent, which is itself followed by more celebration. And the people invoke a different god of suffering and love – a spiritual god who is utterly disconnected from his dark, physical twin. And that twin remains in the underworld plotting his revenge. In the Protestant, Jewish and Moslem worlds, he is disconnected – unlike Dionysus – from his mother as well.





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Barry’s Blog # 212: The Dionysian Moment. Trump Lets the Dogs Out, Part Seven of Seven

Part Seven: Dionysus, and a Worm

I’m going to stick with one of the themes of my book – the return of the repressed – and my most compelling image: Dionysus, the Loosener.

 What is the knocking?
 What is the knocking at the door in the night?

It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels. 
Admit them, admit them.

– D. H. Lawrence

I am pregnant with murder.

The pains are coming faster now,

and not all your anesthetics

nor even my own screams

can stop them.

                  – Robin Morgan

From Chapter Four of my book:

The god is angry because he has been dishonored. The longer something has been repressed, the more insistent it is, the greater the resistance by centers of power (ruling elites) or of consciousness (the ego). This is why Dionysus has cast his spell on the women, why Pentheus fights him so absolutely, and why his destruction is so savage…Like Pentheus, we can ignore the appearance of an archetype. But it never totally disappears. It returns, charged with more energy, but manifesting in a more primitive way. What was a human impulse can become monstrous. Repressed diversity ultimately reappears as psychopathology, as madness at the gates.

And who is the agent of this return of the repressed? Dionysus, of course. In his literal form as alcohol he is Lusios, the Loosener, “destroyer of the household.” Lusios is related to analysis, which means setting free. A catalyst is a chemical agent that precipitates a process without itself being changed. The destruction of Pentheus’ palace represents Lusios shaking the foundations of identity (personal or collective).

Every night, every tavern and most dance venues are places where people go with the express intention, conscious or unconscious, of receiving permission from the God of madness and ecstasy to let go and let it all out. It can come out as joining the crowd at the ubiquitous TV set and cheering for the home team. More rarely, it can come out as truth-telling, spoken by those who otherwise cannot ignore their inhibitions.

Or it can come out in the release of pent-up violence. For some, the knowledge that others will likely intervene and “break up” a fight before it gets out of hand is part of the expectation that even the letting go can happen in a certain kind of safe or ritualized context.

Why is this “loosening” so tempting? Why do we crave release? Classicist E.R. Dodds explained that Dionysus “…enables you for a short time to stop being yourself…” He could lift the burden of individual responsibility from his devotees. In the process, their sense of being isolated egos dissolved.

The ecstatic mode of spirituality is both ancient and widespread. All Greek initiation festivals included dancing. Indigenous worship everywhere was bodily celebration, a dance of the entire community. In many African languages, the words for music and dance are identical. A Haitian proverb says, “White people go to church to speak about God. We dance in the temple and become God.”


If this need was so strong in pre-Classical Greece, how much more so in our day when religious fundamentalism, political fear mongering and the constraints of the corporate work environment herd us toward a mind-numbing conformism that we all know? No wonder we crave regular access to the local tavern as well as those occasional escapes to New Orleans, Las Vegas and Spring Break party towns.

Here I must confess to a certain naiveté. In much of my writing I’ve tended to see the return of the repressed as a good thing, as in liberated sexuality, as the return of the Goddess or as political revolution. And I still think that way – in the long run. But perhaps I’ve been ignoring my own text: What was a human impulse can become monstrous.

And one of the most welcome – and most dangerous – characteristics of demagogues from Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler to Reagan to the architects of the Rwandan and Armenian holocausts to Trump has been their ability to “lift the burden of individual responsibility” from their followers, to dissolve their isolated egos. It is to grant them permission to let out the dogs of their most repressed, violent fantasies that had previously been held in control by superficial notions such as goodness, fair play, tolerance, rationality, justice – and democracy.

For four hundred years, white American males have attempted to cover up the continual, massive evidence of their detached, racialized, genocidal violence with the story of their own goodness and innocence. Elites have always managed to keep the lid on the worst of our lesser natures, except of course for our regular wars on foreign ground and the race riots that inevitably follow them at home.

This gambit has generally worked, at least for the winners and those who identified with them.

But sometime around 1975, and accelerating through the next generation, the jobs that gave them the good life and a sense of belonging disappeared. Credit, two-income families, fundamentalism and the vicarious thrills of celebrity culture and militarism carried them for one more generation until the credit maxed out. By the Obama years, it became increasingly difficult to conceal the fact that fewer and fewer white people (let alone people of color) could claim membership in the tribe. And we remember that in American mythology and theology, we hold to the crazy assumption that our suffering is our own fault, not that of a capitalistic system, that the only alternative to the winner/hero is the loser/victim.

The opioid epidemic controlled – and killed – millions of them in this generation. The rest were ready to explode, to turn their self-hatred upon some localized scapegoats. Their patience and their sense of self-control had been stretched as far as possible, and they yearned for the advent of a loosener who would grant them permission to dump it all out, to let slip the dogs of domestic war.

The dogs of international war will almost certainly follow.

I really regret that this seems to be the most relevant mythic image right now. We recall that Pentheus’ own mother and aunts lead the crazed maenads in murdering and dismembering him. PentheusWallPtgPompeii With that image in mind, we note that 53% of white women voted for Trump, despite (or perhaps because of) his crude misogyny, and that, ironically, the most common targets of the public hated he let loose have been veiled women, the very image of repression.

The madness will dissipate; such eruptions always do. That is, until the pressure builds up again, or, as in Germany, the resulting destruction overwhelms even national mythologies of exceptionalism. Otherwise, myths do take a long time to change.

And what does this mean for those of us who aspire to being elders who might prepare younger people to step up and become leaders after this society crashes and burns? Are attempts at initiation rituals ultimately meaningless if they don’t involve the risk of showing the young their darkest potentials along with their brightest?

Meade suggests that we view Trump not simply as the problem, but more as a symptom of a greater illness and reminds us that the word crisis comes from a Greek word that refers to a turning point in a disease.

Thus, a genuine crisis signifies a change for better or for worse…The national crisis created by…a pathological presidency can become an opportunity to grow the character of the country and bring a deeper sense of human decency and national integrity.

Trump is a provocateur. But Jung said that the soul is teleological, always moving toward integration. Back to The Bacchae: We carelessly leave the gates unlocked for the Mystery to enter and do its destructive – and perhaps reconstructive – work. We see this when Pentheus orders his henchmen to find Dionysus:

Go, someone, this instant,

to the place where this prophet prophesies.

Pry it up with crowbars, heave it over,

upside down; demolish everything you see…

That will provoke him more than anything.

“Provoke” (from vocare, to call) is marvelously appropriate. At some level Pentheus can choose. He can invoke or evoke his own Dionysian nature, or he can innocently project it outwards, provoking its expression somewhere else. Dionysus says:

If I were you, I would offer him (myself, actually) a sacrifice, not rage and kick against necessity…Friend, you can still save the situation.

“If I were you,” indeed. The two cousins represent mirror opposites within the psyche. Pentheus, in his desperate machismo, speaks his last line before the spell is cast:

Bring my armor, someone.

And you (Dionysus) stop talking.

Now he has provoked the god, called him out, and declared his willingness to engage the mystery. Here a break in the poetic meter of the text occurs that emphasizes the significance of Pentheus’ fateful statement. When Dionysus responds with: “Ahhh…Wait! …Would you like to see their revels…?” he provokes Pentheus’ unconscious sexual voyeurism. Dionysus, masked as a priest, will send Pentheus to his destruction masked as a Maenad. After loosening the gates of the city, he loosens the boundaries of Pentheus’ sanity.

The repressed energies turn deadly. Pentheus might have humbled himself before this immense natural force that was willing to meet him halfway. The Loosener, who – if invited – would have helped his cousin drop his armor and relax, who would rather lie drunk among his maidens, now appears as the Lord of Death. Dionysus had come to refute lies told by his two aunts. Now they and Pentheus’ own mother destroy him. The three sisters, universal symbols of the Great Mother – her again – reveal her deadly features instead of her nurturing face.

What does it mean to be an archetypal story? One thing it means is that it lives in potential within each of us, and that each of us – each nation – may potentially enact it. But our contemporary loosener/provocateur can only permit us to show our worst potentials, not our better angels.

For the present, this means fully accepting the nauseating truth that Trump is us – that he embodies the dark side of a toxic, national mythology that exists in the psyche of every American, just as the Teutonic darkness dwelt in every German in 1933. And this brings me to a final, Nordic myth, the Lindworm.

The king and queen want a child, but cannot produce one. An old wise woman tells the queen that in order to conceive she must breathe her desires into a glass and place it on the ground. From that ground, two flowers will grow: one red, one white. The queen must eat the white flower; under no circumstances must she eat the red one. Then she will bear a healthy child. Of course, she eats the red flower too. She duly becomes pregnant, but gives birth to a black serpent, which she immediately flings in horror through the window and into the forest. 3bd98617d485334a25a726452d87da2d

People act as if nothing has happened, and a healthy baby boy is soon born. But when the prince becomes a man, he meets his serpent brother again in the wood, and the huge black snake comes back into the kingdom to wreak terrible damage.

This strange and disturbing story suggests that what you exile will come back to bite you, three times as big and twice as angry. What you push away will eventually return, and you will have to deal with the consequences. But this version of return of the repressed offers a way out that The Bacchae doesn’t.

Paul Kingsnorth suggests that 2016 was

…the year the exiled serpent returned. Many things that were banned from the public conversation – many feelings, ideas and worldviews which were pushed under, thrown into the forest, deemed taboo, cast out of the public realm – have slithered back into the castle, angry at their rejection. Some people thought they were dead, but it doesn’t work like that. Dark twins can’t be destroyed; terms must be met, agreements made. The serpent must be accommodated…2016, from a small, localised perspective here in the wealthy democracies of the Western hemisphere, can look like the year that everything changed. But it isn’t, not really. This is not the year that the queen gave birth to the serpent, and it certainly isn’t the year that she first ate the flower. That happened a long time ago. This is the year that the serpent came back out of the forest and into the kingdom, and we got a look at its face. This is the year when we were finally forced to acknowledge what we have exiled…Our stories are cracking: the things we have pretended to believe about the world have turned out not to be true. And the serpent has a lot more damage to do yet…

What Kingsnorth is calling “the year of the snake” I’m calling the Dionysian Moment. The snakes – or the dogs, if you prefer – have heard the news. It’s open hunting season on all of America’s favorite scapegoats, and you don’t need a license.

In the story of the Lindworm, who saves the realm? Neither the King nor the Queen nor a macho hero. The worm (or dragon) demands to be wed before his royal younger brother can be married. Several noble maidens are offered as brides, but the worm eats them all. Finally, a shepherd’s daughter is given to the worm in marriage, seemingly yet another sacrifice, and what a sad ceremony they have. But the crone – that Great Mother again – has trained her, and she arrives wearing ten dresses in layers and carrying a curious collection of milk, lye and a whip.

In the bedroom, the worm tells her to remove her dress, but she insists he shed a skin for each dress she takes off. Eventually, nine Lindworm skins are lying on the floor, each covered with a dress. 385492b235828eda8745270a0c421913--norse-mythology-dragon-art Nothing is left of him but an ugly mass of flesh. Then the girl seizes the whip, dips it in the lye, and whips him repeatedly. When he is finally cleansed she bathes him in the fresh milk, drags him onto the bed and embraces him and they fall asleep.

Next morning, the King and his courtiers enter the room, expecting to see the usual carnage. Instead, they discover the girl, fresh and rosy. Beside her lies not the Lindworm, but a handsome prince. They marry a second time, in a much grander fashion, a real celebration, and the younger brother also finds a royal bride. The Realm has been restored. Kingsnorth writes:

It is a young woman from the margin of the woods, who brings new weapons, and new cunning, into the court, and does the job which the owners of the kingdom had no idea how to do. But she does not kill the serpent. Instead, she reveals its true nature, and in doing so she changes it and everything around it. She forces the court to confront its past, and as a result, the serpent is enfolded again back into the kingdom.

A young woman.

What needs to be folded back into our kingdom? How many worms will crawl out from the sewers and shadows knowing they have permission to speak – and act out – the violence that the myth of American innocence refuses to acknowledge? How many demagogues need to arise before we listen to what they are saying? How many times do they need to up the ante until, exhausted, defenses down, we finally welcome them in, call upon the wisdom of the young and the feminine, offer to remove our own skins and submit to the inevitable chemical washing that might just trump the hatred?

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Barry’s Blog # 211: The Dionysian Moment. Trump Lets the Dogs Out, Part Six

Part Six: Mythological Speculations

What the hell is going on? One thing is clear: conventional political analysis can take us only so far. We need to think mythologically.

Vera de Chalambert articulates some popular mythopoetic thinking. In August, 2015, well before Trump’s ascension, artists had projected the image of Kali – the Dark Mother, Hindu “goddess of spiritual death, destruction and resurrection” – onto the Empire State Building, “New York’s brightest and most recognizable symbol and capitalism’s earliest totem…” makaliprojectingchangeempirestatebuildingracingextinctionandroidjones01-e1463110709892

“If you are not heartbroken, you are not paying attention!” this project seems to scream from its illustrious rooftop…Fierce protectress of truth, she tells it like it is, she beckons us to dive into the dark, to face the stark reality of the global ecological crisis upon us, and to let heartbreak be the ground from which we awaken and serve…In our bones we all recognize, we are in the death pangs of the old world, and that we make it through is anything but certain…what is needed now is the fierceness of Ma Kali. A holy oracle of change, her medicine is darkness, her initiation is by fire — she calls upon us to rise from our own ashes, to speak truth to power, take on all our shadows and take up the arms that we have, our own, to hold, serve and protect all life as we would our own child…I think that this moment gives us an opportunity for reckoning only if instead of running for the light, we let ourselves go fully into the dark…Receptivity is the great quality of darkness; darkness hosts everything without exception…Climate change is here, whether we believe in it or not. Politically, with the election of Donald Trump, our country and the world have entered a dark night of the soul. We might still live in a culture of shine, greed, glam and white supremacy, but the Dark Feminine has now reemerged into this cycle, and heaven has no fury like the Great Mother scorned.

My colleague Hari Meyers reminds us that one image of Kali is of her dancing on the supine body of the great God Shiva himself.  But she does not mean to destroy him, only to awaken him. The frightening scene is meant to awaken us, to resurrect our higher consciousness. “Sometimes,” says Hari, “you cannot awaken from a dream until it turns into a nightmare.”

De Chalambert’s  article went viral. Astrologer Safron Rossi’s reaction was typical:  “What moved me with de Chalambert’s piece was her validation of the falling apart many of us feel and placing it in a much larger and meaningful frame.” KaliImWithHer

I applaud her insights. But we need to go deeper. This is not the first time that someone, moved by a great disaster, suggested that Kali was speaking to the world. After 9/11/2001, some writers suggested that the attacks on the twin towers were a “wake-up call from the Dark Feminine.” But as I wrote in 2009 in Chapter Nine of my book,

The Dark Mother, however, had already been calling on September 10th, when 35,000 children died of malnutrition, as they do every day. With all due respect to the victims of the attack, it is characteristic American narcissism to imply that 9/11 had more personal meaning than the carnage going on in any of the forty-odd wars being waged across the globe.

Eight years later, it seems plain to me that it is also characteristic American innocence to have been in denial for so long. The Great Mother has always been crying for our attention.

Perhaps there are other mythic motifs that can help. One is Pandora’s box. In Greek myth, when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus took vengeance by presenting Pandora, the first woman, “the all-gifted”, to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora opened a box (actually a jar) containing death and many other evils which were then released into the world. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped except for one thing that lay at the bottom – hope.

It’s a useful metaphor. Mark Potok, previously quoted, says, “I think what has happened is that the Trump campaign, in many ways, has kind of ripped the lid off Pandora’s Box, and all of these different kinds of hatreds have escaped, and it’s pretty damn near impossible to get them back into the box.”

Michael Meade also uses the image: “Trump has now opened a Pandora’s Box of personal and political problems that have become a national fiasco and a growing international dilemma.”

It’s all now out of the box, like an explosion of gases from the belly of a bloated, rotting whale, and we really don’t know if hope remains inside.

I’m rummaging through world mythology because perhaps we need as many images as possible now. Another one is the Tower.

It had obvious relevance in 2001, and now with Kali’s image on the Empire State Building and Trump’s association with towers, it maintains that imaginal significance. I wrote about it in Chapter Nine:

Many mythologies share the theme of cataclysm (“wash down”) or catastrophe (“turn down”) and tell of disasters such as earthquakes, floods and eruptions. The Judeo-Christian tradition perceives such events as divine punishment resulting from sexual transgressions and reversions to Paganism. The Greeks saw these events as retribution (nemesis) for excessive arrogance and pride (hubris), which is symbolized as towers that reach toward heaven in Egyptian, Mexican, Assamese, Burmese and Native American myths.

The Tower card appears in the European Tarot Deck as a medieval castle, a Babylonian ziggurat, a skyscraper, a prison — or the White House. It collapses in flames from an earthquake or lightning bolt. Sometimes human bodies fall from it, or pieces of it strike the king. Psychologically, it represents the ego defenses that hide our incomplete selves. The Tower, writes Shanti Fader, is a place of “fear and jealous, possessive pride, designed to keep out love…” Recall Pentheus (in The Bacchae) bellowing, “I shall order every gate in every tower to be bolted tight.”…It also represents knowledge swollen out of control, like the Tower of Babel.

Feder sees the Tarot’s destruction of the Tower as “clearing away…outmoded ideas and patterns…which may well have served a purpose at one time.” The Tower is like the Hero, who produces and achieves in the first half of life, but must die into something greater in the second half. Dionysus concludes The Bacchae implying that if uninitiated boy-kings awaken, they might “have an ally…in the son of Zeus.”

Next: Two more mythic images.

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Barry’s Blog # 210: The Dionysian Moment. Trump Lets the Dogs Out, Part Five

The Local Level: Policing in America

Let’s clear up one issue quickly. If mental illness (you know, the old “single shooter” trope) were the sole cause of these actions, people from all over the political spectrum would be committing them. Instead, it is the radical right that consistently enacts them. And we should also acknowledge that people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent acts.

Crazies got to be crazy. But as merely unofficial enforcers of the new madness, some of these loonies risked occasionally getting caught and punished. Their sense of permissiveness was not (yet) entirely sanctioned by law – as, we should note, it had been for generations during slavery and Jim Crow. The real work of enacting what I have described as ritual sacrifice fell, as usual, to local police departments, which, we recall, began as Southern slave patrols.

Indeed, the sacrifice of American Dionysus saw a new upsurge, ranging from the sadly ridiculous, such as Police at the National Mall handcuffing three Black teens for selling water on a hot day, Water-Arrest or a Jacksonville, Florida cop ticketing a Black man for crossing a street without identification, to the fully tragic, such as Arkansas’ announcement that it would execute seven people in eleven days.

The fully tragic. The number of fatal shootings by police officers in the first half of 2017 is nearly identical to the number of shootings recorded during the same time period in 2016 and 2015. That number? 492 people. Police killings are set to reach approximately 1,000 for the third year in a row. The authors of the report write: “These numbers show us that officer-involved shootings are constant over time” (not realizing that in saying this they are indicting Barack Obama as much as Trump).

Another researcher, however, argues that police killings of unarmed people of color increased in Trump’s first six months and names many of the victims: Desmond Phillips, Nana Adomako, Chad Robertson, Raynard Burton, Alteria Woods, etc.

The police had always had basic immunity in the inner city. Ebony Slaughter-Johnson explains:


The outcomes of these stories might offer the impression that paid administrative leave is the dominant form of punishment for fatally shooting unarmed people…the prosecution of law enforcement officers is exceedingly rare, due to the fact that they are empowered by law to exercise a wide degree of latitude in using force. Those who are prosecuted need only utter five words that amount to a get-out-of-jail card: “I feared for my life.”

In his new book Mumia Abu-Jamal questions what types of violence are considered hate crimes. He notes the obvious fact that police violence against Black and Brown people is never placed in that category, even as multiple states (over a dozen since the election) have passed “Blue Lives Matter” laws that define the assault or killing of police as hate crimes. Meanwhile, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the state’s hate crime law does not cover anti-gay assaults or any crime committed on the basis of sexual orientation.

In the streets, of course, there has been massive popular reaction to the crimes of the Trump administration, almost all of it limited to trashing of businesses by so-called “anarchists” (many of whom are undoubtedly police provocateurs). According to DHS, however, anger over Trump’s election is a driving force in “domestic terrorist violence.”

Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states introduced or voted on legislation to curb mass protests. Oklahoma passed a new law imposing a minimum $10,000 fine on protesters who might “inhibit” the operations of oil pipelines. It also implicates any organization “found to be a conspirator” with the trespasser, threatening collaborator groups with a fine “ten times” that imposed on the intruder — as much as $1 million.

In this context we should also note that 19 states have enacted laws that penalize the free-speech of those who would support the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel, and that some 43 Senators (including 14 Democrats) led by Chuck Schumer have co-sponsored a bill that would make it a felony for any American to support this international boycott.

But back to the streets. Jeff Session’s clear lack of interest in investigating alleged crimes and shootings by local police let many municipalities, especially Chicago, off the hook. Emboldened, the Baton Rouge police chief refused his own mayor’s request to fire the officer who had killed Alton Sterling, despite an impending lawsuit by Sterling’s family. Indeed, in countless situations such lawsuits were proving to be the only recourse for aggrieved families, and as we all know, few police shooters are ever found guilty.

Most citizens would probably be surprised to learn that armed white males are the category of people that cops kill most often. However, black men (6 percent of the population) make up about a quarter of police shooting victims. They are three times more likely to be fatally shot by officers than white people.

And what about Black women? Glen Ford writes:


…although Black women and girls make up only 13 percent of the U.S. female population, they account for 33 percent of all women killed by police. In raw numbers, white women outnumber Black women by five to one, but police kill nearly as many Black females as they do white females…U.S. police kill more Black women (my italics) every year than the total of all civilians killed annually by their counterparts in western Europe’s largest countries: the UK, France, and Germany.

While the FBI technically tracks fatal police shootings, its database relies on voluntary reports from police departments and only covers cases of officers shooting alleged felons. Last October, James Comey called the FBI’s system of tracking fatal police shootings “embarrassing and ridiculous”. Rachel Glickhouse writes:

There are a few questions for which answers continue to elude us: How many hate crimes happen each year, and why is the record keeping so inadequate? The FBI, which is required to track hate crimes, counts between 5,000 and 6,000 of them annually. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the total is closer to 250,000. One explanation for the gap is that many victims — more than half, according to a recent estimate — don’t report what happened to them to police. Even if they do, law enforcement agencies aren’t all required to report to the FBI, meaning their reports might never make it into the national tally. The federal government is hardly a model of best practices; many federal agencies don’t report their data, either — even though they’re legally required to do so.

In October 2016, the Department of Justice said it planned to collect more comprehensive data about police shootings. But Sessions, as noted, has called consent decrees a hindrance to law enforcement efforts, and he is most unlikely to follow through on the earlier promise.

Not only has the number of people fatally shot by police remained about the same as in previous years, so has the number of officers indicted for fatal shootings. From 2005 to 2015, just 54 officers were charged, though their brethren killed many thousands during that period, and most were acquitted of all charges. They are agents of a culture of cruelty. Chuck Mertz writes:

As civic culture collapses under the weight of a ruthless mix of casino capitalism and a flight from moral responsibility, crimes against humanity now become normalized in a rush of legislation that produces massive amounts of human suffering and misery while widening the scope of those considered disposable. What is new about the culture of cruelty is that its blend of hate, suffering and spectacle has become normalized. Matters of life and death are now being determined by a neo-fascist government that relies increasingly on punishing apparatuses such as the criminal justice system and budgetary policies that bear down ruthlessly on the poor, undocumented immigrants, Muslims and Black youth.

For more detail on this subject, read Henry Giroux’s article. You might also want to review the issue of the militarization of the police, which has certainly increased under Trump.

Former Black police officer Redditt Hudson writes:

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

Our concern here is with that second fifteen percent of cops. Who are they, and why are they hired? How does the vetting process, with its sophisticated psychological testing, not identify them early on as sociopaths? Such an inquiry would have to begin with my earlier contention that policing in America began in the South as organized slave patrols. It would end in the present with the new sense of permission since the election.

In late July of this year, almost exactly six months after the inauguration, a Cincinnati judge, after two mistrials, dismissed charges against a white police officer for killing an unarmed black motorist. The story is tragic enough, if common. But what we need to know for this discussion, is that the cop, Ray Tensing, who killed Sam DuBose was wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt under his uniform. A month before, the Hollywood, Florida police department defended a cop who took a selfie as fullsizerender_1_ he hugged pro-Confederate protestors in the street.

In between the history of slave patrols and the new permissiveness our inquiry would have to acknowledge that white supremacist groups have been infiltrating police departments (as well as the military) for years. Alice Speri of The Intercept quotes from a classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide from April 2015:

…domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.

No centralized recruitment process or set of national standards exists for the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. In 2006 the FBI become aware of the term “ghost skins,” used among white supremacists to describe “those who avoid overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.” At least one skinhead group had encouraged ghost skins to seek employment with law enforcement agencies.

That report appeared after a series of scandals involving local police and sheriff’s departments. In Los Angeles in 1991 members of a local sheriff’s department had formed a neo-Nazi gang and habitually terrorized black and Latino residents. In Chicago, a police detective and rumored KKK member was fired, and eventually prosecuted over charges relating to the torture of at least 120 black men during his decades long career. In Cleveland, a number of police officers had scrawled “racist or Nazi graffiti” throughout their department’s locker rooms. In Texas, two police officers were fired when it was discovered they were Klansmen.

The situation got much worse after Obama’s election, and conservative pressure forced his administration to largely dismantle a DHS unit investigating right-wing extremism. In 2014, the Department of Justice re-established its Domestic Terrorism Task Force, a unit that was created following the Oklahoma City bombing. But for the most part, its efforts focused on homegrown extremists radicalized by foreign groups, rather than on white extremists. Trump further emasculated such efforts.

Crazies get to be crazy, especially when they wear badges, and especially now that Trump and Sessions have encouraged them. The dogs are out, in the streets and in the patrol cars.

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Barry’s Blog # 209: The Dionysian Moment. Trump Lets the Dogs Out, Part Four

Government Actions – and Inactions

This behavior, of course, did not occur in a vacuum. The federal government and several state governments, sometimes quietly and more often quite publicly, were actively broadcasting the new state of permission and removing the doors from the white supremacy dog kennel. Trump’s attempts at banning Muslim immigration, even unsuccessful, served to keep the issue of race – the Other – in the news and remained wildly popular among his base supporters, the very population that had been waiting for this new state of permission to enact the most brutal fantasies. Of course, not all of his people are overt racists. But if you still think that “the Russians” or “the economy” rather than racial animosity and fear was the primary factor in the election, please read here or see my Blog series on the election.

– In May, the Brennan Center For Justice summarized actions on the state level since the election:

Five states have already enacted bills to cut back on voting access, and one more is on the verge of doing so. By comparison, three states enacted voting restrictions in 2015 and 2016 combined. Overall, however, more bills to expand access to voting were introduced this year than bills that would restrict voting access. Still, of the legislation making the most substantial impact on voting access, more legislation to limit participation is advancing toward passage. Moreover, governors in Nebraska and Nevada have vetoed the bills that would expand access to the franchise… Overall, at least 99 bills to restrict access to registration and voting have been introduced in 31 states. Thirty-Five such bills saw significant legislative action (meaning they have at least been approved at the committee level or beyond) in 17 states.

– Trump’s nomination of the unrepentantly racist thug Jeff Sessions as the highest cop in the land – and his unanimous defense by the Republican Senate (some of whom had joined the Democrats in refusing him a federal judgeship in 1986) – was the clearest of messages, both to people of color and to the haters. Sessions’ entire life had been devoted to excluding more and more people from the lists of the saved. In 2000, he had brayed that protecting the rights of disabled students might be “…the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.”

“We have a lot of bad leaders around the world that operate in ways we would never tolerate in the United States.” – Jeff Sessions

But much else was happening. Chris Hedges refers to these the early actions as “The Return of American Race Laws:”

Racial profiling. Random police stops. Raids at homes and businesses. People of color pulled from vehicles at checkpoints. Seizures of individuals with no criminal records or who never committed a serious crime. Imprisonment without trial. Expedited deportation hearings and removal proceedings that violate human rights. The arrest of a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Daniel Ramirez Medina, 23, who along with the program’s other 750,000 successful applicants had revealed all personal history to the government in applying for DACA status. Parents separated, perhaps forever, from their children. The hunted going underground. The end of the rule of law. The abandonment of the common good…White Europeans who are undocumented are not being targeted. The executive orders of President Trump are directed against people of color.

– The Department of Justice civil rights division issued verbal instructions through the ranks to seek settlements without consent decrees — which would result in no continuing court oversight. Other Federal departments (Labor, Education and the EPA) scaled back the power of their internal divisions that monitor racialized abuse.

– Sessions fired the dozens of Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys who still remained on the job. A month later, none of them, nor the 47 who had already left, had been replaced.  Sending another clear message to people of color, he called for reviving the war on drugs,  and Trump withdrew Obama-era protections for transgender students.

– In July, Sessions gave a closed-door address to a hate group. Then he announced a plan to boost the controversial practice of asset forfeiture, yet another policy that targets people of color.

– Sessions’ nominee to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Eric Dreiband, was best known for defending Big Business against discrimination lawsuits.

– The Department of Homeland Security withheld grants it had previously awarded to groups countering white supremacist violence.

– Emboldened by Trump, U.S. border officials were lying to asylum seekers and illegally turning them away.

– Outraged that New Orleans was removing Confederate Monuments, Alabama officials made such actions illegal in their state.

– Montana Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte slammed a journalist into the ground and was elected anyway.

– Alaska state senator David Wilson slapped a black reporter.

– West Virginia state police arrested a reporter for repeatedly questioning Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Capitol police arrested a professional photographer who was recording the protests at Trump’s inauguration. As of May 1st, he was facing a potential seventy years in prison for rioting.

– Over half of 2000 elementary and high school teachers surveyed reported increased racial and ethnic slurs and general hostility among students.

Next: The Local Level: Policing in America

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Barry’s Blog # 208: The Dionysian Moment. Trump Lets the Dogs Out, Part Three

Specific Acts of Hate:

Demagogues understand that they don’t have to exhort their followers directly to violence. They are masters of the art of innuendo and coded messages – and of American mythology. Chip Berlet says:

…history tells us that if this message is repeated vividly enough, loudly enough, often enough, and long enough…it is only a matter of time before the bodies from the named scapegoated groups start to turn up.

Granted, during any six-month period in the Internet era, simple research would discover large numbers of hate acts in America. This list for the first half of 2017, however, is for Trump’s first six months, and it is by no means comprehensive.

A white man attacked a black man with a machete in California.

– Another California white man, an admitted Trump supporter – murdered a black man after a political argument.

– A white man attacked a black woman in Virginia.

– Vandals attacked a memorial to Anne Frank in Idaho.

At least fifteen trans persons of color were murdered in these six months, four in one week, and at least four trans community centers were vandalized.


Black Trans Man Demarkis Stansberry Killed in Louisiana

A white man beat a Muslim woman unconscious In Ohio:

Vandals burned four American mosques in January and February. mosque1-e1485681133897

– Two people in Georgia were convicted for terrorizing black children at a birthday party with a shotgun:


– A white Oregon Driver, shouting racial slurs, backed his car over two Native American men, killing one.

– Jewish Defense League thugs brutally attacked a Palestinian-American outside an AIPAC conference in Washington, DC –

– In Washington, D.C., President Erdogan of Turkey watched as his bodyguards beat up non-violent protestors.  Local police did not charge them with any crime for over three weeks:

– A Brooklyn man beat a woman unconscious during an anti-gay subway attack.

– A white man shot a Sikh man in Washington, and two other Indian immigrants were shot and killed in Kansas and South Carolina.

– A Texas lawmaker threatened to “put a bullet in (the) head” of another lawmaker.

– A Black Army sergeant found “Die Nigger” spray-painted on his car in Texas.

– Vandals desecrated dozens of headstones in a St. Louis Jewish cemetery. 2017_0303cemetaries

– A Muslim teen was found hanged in woods near Seattle.

– A white supremacist traveled from Maryland to New York City with the express purpose of killing a black man, which he did upon arriving. The New York Daily News smeared the victim as a “career criminal.” NYPostStabbing

– The District of Columbia logged 22 unsolved cases of missing juveniles, most of them black or Latino girls, in the first three months of the year.

– United Airlines apologized for the forcible removal of a paying passenger, a man of color, from one of its flights.

An African-American judge was shot dead outside of his Chicago home:

An African-American judge was found dead in New York.

– Anti-Asian hate crimes in Los Angeles surged:

– A member of a racist group stabbed a Black ROTC cadet to death in Maryland.

– Two white men were stabbed to death in Portland while trying to stop Anti-Muslim harassment.


Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, murdered while trying to protect a Muslim woman from a white nationalist

– Two Black Men were murdered in Jackson, Mississippi. One was found hanged in his own yard. Two weeks later, a second was found decapitated and burned.

A Muslim teen was murdered by a white man outside a Virginia mosque in a road rage incident. Friends built a memorial shrine to her, and vandals set fire to it.

– A Portland white man followed a Muslim couple in his car, shouting threats for 20 blocks and attempting to ram them.

– A Los Angeles Airbnb host canceled a reservation after learning that her guest would be Asian.

– In a road rage incident in Pennsylvania, a white man shot and killed a black teen girl.


– A pregnant black woman was killed by the Seattle police – after calling them to her house.


Charleena Lyles








Next: Government Actions – and Inactions

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