Schooling an intelligence: acting in the wake of Orlando

James Santelle

When, on June 13, a handful of Democratic Congressmen and Congresswomen walked off the floor of the House of Representatives and several others remained to challenge vocally the failure of the Congress to consider and enact firearms-related legislation, they ignited much more than a collateral skirmish in America about the meaning, the solemnity, and the purpose of moments of silence. To be sure, their actions animated, at least in part, the legislative goings-on of the following days — including the 14-hour filibuster on the June 15 and 16, initiated by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, on the floor of the other deliberative chamber on Capitol Hill, and the 26-hour sit-in, led by Georgia Congressman John Lewis back in the House on the June 22 and 23 — all organized to rally the spirit of America in movement toward that day when rational, balanced, and effective federal laws are codified among other common sense mechanisms to reduce if not stop outright the types of cataclysmic violence that most recently and savagely ripped 49 of us from our national life and brutally injured hundreds of others, both physically and emotionally, in the common pursuit of livelihood.

But in his public explanation of why he chose to leave the People’s House during the moment of silence on June 13, Rep. Jim Himes, D-Connecticut, was on to something much more: Among other unsettling aspects of the impotence that infects the work of the women and the men we send to Washington, Himes bemoaned the “torrent of hate, threats and anger worthy of Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell (directed) toward elected officials who speak out for reform.” Understanding and articulating the indivisible connections between the hearts and the minds of men and women of all times, it was the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri who told us that “(t)he hottest places … are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” It is thus in this abiding time of pain and trouble and suffering that our hearts must school our intelligence — away from the inertia, the indifference, and, yes, the neutrality of inaction and toward an aggressive, targeted set of behaviors that genuinely mean something, that generate forward industry, and that change practically the life and the livelihood of our nation.

So what precisely is it that thoughtful, caring, and engaged Wisconsinites — including but not limited to those who proudly count themselves among the cherished and valued members of our LGBT community — should be about in the wake of Orlando, in pursuit of the finest, most genuine memorial to those who were martyred at the Pulse nightclub? There are, of course, the often-touted recommendations, frequently advanced because they do, in fact, make sense: Among them is advocacy for the candidacies of those people who understand that, while legislation and the enforcement of those laws is not a panacea, things like universal background checks in all venues and all exchanges, prohibitions on sales to persons with convictions for violent misdemeanors, judicial processes for protective orders restraining lethally violent family members, and measured changes in the coverage and the penalties of laws prohibiting so-called “straw” purchasing and preventing certain categories of offenders like those convicted of domestic violence from obtaining concealed carried permits — all of these and other reasonable proposals would make cognizable differences — for, yes, the LGBT community and also for the partnered communities of every race and national origin, each faith and religious affiliation, and all abilities and disabilities.

Recognition of that sisterhood and brotherhood among our neighbors in Wisconsin and throughout the country should also prompt a renewed and reinvigorated engagement by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender men and women in the leadership and policy-making, the programming and presentations, the education and training, and the public events and gatherings of our area’s many, diverse associations, councils, alliances, and coalitions — both formal and informal, public and private — that are committed to addressing the civil rights issues and wrestle with the human dignity challenges that affect all of us. Consistent with this commission (already pursued activity and effectively by many), members of the Milwaukee-based LGBT community will find their welcoming places and invest resourceful time in the human rights and other life-affirming initiatives of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, of Independence First and Disability Rights Wisconsin, of the Milwaukee Urban League and the Milwaukee Chapter of the NAACP, of El Centro Hispano and Voces de la Frontera, of the Running Rebels and Urban Underground, of the Boys and Girls Clubs and COA Youth & Family Centers, of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, MICAH, Pastors United, and virtually all venues of our faith congregations — an illustrative (and wildly incomplete) list of civic invitations.

Our recent history of devastating violence in places like Charleston, Roseburg, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Binghamton, Newtown, Blacksburg, Killeen, Columbine, and Oak Creek, among many others, confirms both the chilling ferocity and the complex animation of people who — as human “cocktails” of hate, disaffection, anger, delusion, failure, and malice — wage devastating wars on all of us. The sanguine lesson of each of those venues is equally clear: Not only must we address a society in which firearms are increasingly used as the mechanisms for conflict resolution but we need also, desperately, to confront the voices, the instruction, the encouragement of those who fail or simply refuse to understand the abundant benefits and transcendent values in diversity — of color, creed, homeland, heritage, capacity, ability, orientation, and identity — in education, housing, public access, commerce, the arts, religion, employment, transportation, voting, neighborhood, and family.

And the initiatives and programs, existing and forthcoming, to accomplish all of that must be designed and implemented cross-community — invoking the vested intelligence, the practical experience, and the animated spirit of every interest group and individual body in ways and means that are operationally coordinated in vision, in communication, and in action with each other. The interests and challenges, the needs and aspirations of the LGBT community are those of every community of women and men in Wisconsin and throughout our nation that is similarly committed to fair treatment, equal protection, just administration of the law, and lives lived with dignity, compassion, nobility, and pride in what it means to be human.

That can and will be accomplished when the boards of directors, the executive leadership, the active members, the volunteer staff, and the served constituents of all of our civil rights leagues are populated with representation by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women and men — along with equally invested men and committed women of every race, nationality, disability, ability, religion, and faith affiliation who are straight. Human rights to jobs, to schooling, to accommodations, to movement — in short, to be free from bias and discrimination in all of the adventures of our lives — are rights shared across communities, and the successes routinely witnessed when LGBT voices and energies are embedded in the missions of anti-violence, faith, youth opportunity, business, disability rights, arts, voting rights, charitable, and neighborhood safety groups, for instance, are many and borderline miraculous.

Finally, those same area voices and local energies must be re-committed, not only in the immediate aftermath of Orlando but for all time, to ensure that instances of hate crimes, from the unmistakable to the uncertain, are fully and timely reported to law enforcement. In Milwaukee, in the surrounding communities, and in virtually every region of our state, we benefit from an educated, sensitive, responsive, and professional cadre of police officers and leaders who genuinely “get this” — that is, that physical violence visited on our residents and motivated by actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability is in violation of the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by the President in October of 2009. The civil rights units of the Federal Bureau of Investigation throughout Wisconsin and every other state are not only committed to investigate hate crimes and to present the results of those inquiries for possible prosecution but are also commissioned to record, maintain, track, and report on hate crimes in all categories of offense so that law enforcement resources may be appropriately allocated and, arguably just as important, to ensure that the Congress and all United States citizens appreciate the nature, the frequency, the location, and the severity of the conduct — along with the remedial actions of law enforcement to it.

The hate crime committed against the patrons of the Pulse night club on June 12 now takes its rightful but hideous place in those annals of law enforcement, of Congressional reporting, and, most significantly, of the wounds to our nation’s spirit and enduring history. In abiding honor and vested memory of those who died, those who were injured, and those who will similarly suffer throughout their lives from the terror of that early morning, all residents of Wisconsin and of our country—not only members of our LGBT family — are suitably prompted to identity perceived hate crimes, to facilitate timely communications to first responders, to support victims and witnesses in difficult but critical investigations, and to educate fellow citizens on their obligations under the law and on the delivery of justice and resurrection to survivors of hate.

As we observe and celebrate the 240th year of our glorious American nation, we also pause in contemplative acknowledgment that our history includes pains and troubles — times and places, indeed, where our hearts have suffered in a thousand and diverse ways. But it is from the hornbooks of our hearts, from the terrible experiences of this month and many others, that we grow in our intelligence, that we take our true identity, and that we reveal our soul in peace, in fellowship, and in aspiration.

James L. Santelle is the immediate past presidentially-appointed United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, in which capacity he also served on the Civil Rights component of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee. He has been a regular supporter of area LGBT organizations, including Fair Wisconsin, Diverse & Resilient, the Cream City Foundation, and the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center.