This week marks the 26th celebration of Catholic World Youth Day. Though discussions of condoms do not appear to be on the official agenda for the week, a group of youth advocates from around the world hopes to make sure attendees hear their message: “Good Catholics Use Condoms.”
This week marks the 26th celebration of Catholic World Youth Day – a misnomer as the event which began in 1985 is no longer confined to just one day. Though registration was lower than expected this year, the six-day event should draw close to one million young people to its host city of Madrid. Events include teaching sessions around the city each day and a youth festival each night designed for young people ages 18 to 35. Tonight, attendees will be able to watch “Stations of the Cross,” a reenactment of the last few hours of Jesus’s life, and tomorrow night they can sleep out under the stars after an evening vigil with the Pope. The celebration culminates with a Mass on Sunday led by Pope Benedict XVI.
Though discussions of condoms do not appear to be on the official agenda for the week, Catholics for Choice and its Condoms4Life campaign has sent a group of youth advocates from around the world to make sure attendees hear its message: “Good Catholics Use Condoms.” As Marissa Valeri, a lead organizer of the youth coalition explains:
“The young people in our coalition came from all over the world to proclaim at Catholic World Youth Day that good Catholics use condoms. HIV and AIDS are realities in the lives of young people and we know that in good conscience Catholics can use condoms to protect those we care about.”
The group also wants to remind people of comments made by Pope Benedict XVI that seemed to soften the Vatican’s stance on condoms. Valeri explained in a press release:
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“We welcome that the pope has come out to say that condoms can prevent HIV transmission. We now want him to go further in publicly backing condom use and facing down Vatican conservatives because lives can be saved with a more realistic and compassionate view of condoms and sexuality in our church.”
She was referring to comments that Pope Benedict XVI made in November 2010 during an interview with a German author for the book Light of the World. In the interview, Benedict said condoms were not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, which “can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he added that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.” Though the Vatican has repeatedly tried to back away from these statements, many advocates are hopeful that they represent the beginning of a change in Church policy.
Catholics for Choice had planned a major media campaign about condoms to run during the event “but at the last minute municipal authorities and Publimedia (a local media company) withdrew permission for the campaign messages to appear on billboards, buses, and bus shelters in downtown Madrid, claiming that the ads could be ‘offensive.’” The controversy, however, has brought a lot of attention to the issue. Jon O’Brien, the organization’s president, explained: “As a result of the ban, that ad has appeared all over Spain. Did the people of Spain see the ad? Certainly they did.”
Instead of the ads, the coalition of young people who are attending the event will spread its messages about condoms by putting up posters, distributing wrist bands, and conducting street performances, as well as other ‘guerilla practices.’
In truth, however, condoms may get far less attention at the event than advocates had hoped as other controversies are brewing. Most notably, debate over the price tag of the event which is said to cost Spain $85 million. On Wednesday, police clashed violently with protestors who argued that the country could not afford to spend this kind of money at time when so many of its citizens are facing financial hardship. In fact, a coalition priests from Madrid’s poorest parishes is also protesting the celebration saying the money should be used to help the poor and unemployed.
On Wednesday, thousands of college students carried mattresses across more than 100 campuses around the country to demand better support from their institutions for survivors of sexual assault. But those who gathered in honor of the Carry That Weight Day of Action events didn’t only seek to hold administrators accountable for keeping students safe; they also wanted to elevate conversations about sexual and domestic violence into the public sphere. And in turn, this confirmed the importance of teaching young people about healthy relationships long before they reach their late teens.
The national Day of Action was inspired by Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student and artist who has carried a mattress around campus for two months and says she will continue to do so as long as her rapist is allowed to stay enrolled. As the policy and research associate at Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC), I was honored to speak at the Columbia rally alongside student activists, including Sulkowicz, who shared their stories in the fight for change.
Too often, we confine frank discussions about violence against women to the private sphere of dorm rooms or households. We at PPNYC know that this puts the onus on survivors to demand action themselves, which ignores the need for collective support.
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For me, this issue is deeply personal. My mother faced partner abuse when I was young, and yet I didn’t think it was my job to say something. I was uneasy and uncomfortable, like so many of us are in these situations, and stayed silent. I regret it to this day. Because as bystanders, it is always our job to speak up. And as supporters and staff of organizations committed to fighting for gender equity, we all need to speak up, or we’ll perpetuate the systems of oppression that we claim to challenge.
Bringing the existence of sexual and domestic violence into the forefront of the public consciousness by sharing our stories and speaking out is critical, but it is only one part of enacting wide-ranging change. We must also ask why students are not taught about consent or what a healthy relationship looks like, and why they aren’t given adequate resources to prevent and respond to gender-based assault. Instead, they’re taught that sexual responsibility lies on the shoulders of only one gender.
As a result, sexual violence is rampant. The statistics are staggering—nearly one in five college women have experienced rape, and one in four have faced unwanted sexual contact. And those numbers are not going down fast enough. The fight to end sexual assault must include efforts to improve sexual health education, starting many years before students even think about going to college.
Comprehensive sexual education in every school, for every student K-12, could help decrease incidents of assault and abuse. In New York City, for example, despite efforts to improve sexual education, gaps still exist when it comes to communication, healthy relationships, and support for LGBTQ students. These causes are interrelated—until we are able to talk about what meaningful consent and cultural competency look like, and how the patriarchy hurts all of us, any policies we pass will fail to achieve their stated purposes.
A recent survey sponsored by Connect 2 Protect Bronx, a National Institutes of Health-funded project led locally by Montefiore Medical Center, found that only 47 percent of participating high school students in the Bronx reported learning about condom negotiation. A little more than half said they were taught about healthy relationships, and just 37 percent learned communication skills when it comes to sex. Even fewer—26 percent—learned about supportive LGBTQ measures in school.
When schools fail to adequately teach these lessons, youths enter into relationships without learning how to talk about consent. And that has devastating effects on all young people of every gender.
As providers of health education and services, we at PPNYC know that the gaps that remain in New York City’s sexual health education have a significant impact on young people’s health and well-being. As the largest metropolitan area in the United States, New York City can and must do better to combat assault and become a leader in comprehensive sexual education that teaches not just the basic prevention lessons, but also provides students the skills to build healthy relationships and caring communities, and empowers students to make the best decisions that are right for them.
In addition to comprehensive sexual education, we need better resources on college campuses, including mandatory consent policies, bystander intervention education, and more support for survivors of assault and violence to ensure the resources everyone needs are accessible.
Until this happens, students in colleges across the city and elsewhere will continue to be forced to carry the weight.
It’s been a little over a week since Michael Brown was killed in broad daylight for, basically, jaywalking, in Ferguson, Missouri. Later, police tried to justify his death by changing the subject to shoplifting. It made me think of that campy Jane’s Addiction song, “Been Caught Stealing,” with its even more campy music video about white people shoplifting in grocery stores. It always seemed funny to me before, but this last week it has seemed like a testament to the way white people are rarely seen as a threat in popular culture—a view that’s ridiculous given that white people commit more crimes than anyone else.
When that song came out, I was just a couple years away from working a series of minimum wage jobs in low- to middle-income, mostly white communities. I worked at a music and video store, for instance. Our almost entirely white clientele stole things, yes they did. Nearly every night that I worked the video counter at closing, I’d find half-eaten candy packages in the impulse-buy rack. In the music section, when we did store inventory, we’d find seemingly closed CD packaging with the jewel cases removed. White people would come in to “return” CDs they’d purchased, and act shocked if we opened the cases to find a junk CD instead of the new one that was supposed to be in the package.
I don’t think a single police report was ever filed.
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Later, I worked at a sandwich shop. As I recall, everyone on staff was white. We made minimum wage, or nearly, at part-time jobs with terrible hours. Everyone ate extra food—by which I mean we stole. In our defense, we were hungry. Our salary-to-sandwich ratio worked out to about 20-30 footlong subs a week and they always made you work late, for free, if the whole store wasn’t clean within an hour or so of closing. The managers were feared and hated, and they treated us like scum, but the hostilities never rose to the level of police intervention.
Years later, when the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out, one season’s subplot centered around a major character with a shoplifting habit. She stole, per the show, hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise from her workplace and the local mall. She was white, too, and maybe that’s why it didn’t seem weird that she never faced much in the way of consequences beyond paying restitution to the stores.
I can’t even tell you how many times I or friends of mine have jaywalked. Scofflaws!
I’ve copied personal documents on my employers’ photocopiers before. You? Because that’s theft. Don’t tell me you’ve never taken so much as a paper clip home from the supply cupboard. I’d know you were lying. Don’t tell me it wasn’t wrong because no one cared. Of course no one cared. Exactly.
I, and dozens of white people I’ve known through the years, have smoked marijuana. Add in other illegal drugs, either done in my presence or by direct admission, and we’re probably talking about 150 people directly known to me. Sometimes there were minors present, or partaking. Sometimes state lines were crossed. I was on a college trip once where nearly my entire mostly white class gathered after dark in a state park and passed a joint around. I was at a friend’s house once, with a group of other young white professionals, and another white person from the neighborhood popped in, cooked some party drug on the stove, offered it around, and then left when no one was interested. I lived in a college community for a fancy private and mostly white school where you can just walk down the street and smell weed most evenings. White people do a lot of drugs, like everybody else.
Destruction of property? I heard via my then boyfriend, a few months after the fact, about multiple groups of white teenage boys who drove around our north Los Angeles County community shooting out car windows with pellet guns when I was in high school. They hit cars in front of my house twice as retaliation against my parents for disliking my boyfriend, who was their friend. It’s possible one or two individuals may have been caught over what was apparently tens of thousands of dollars in damage, but I had other things going on in my life and I didn’t give a damn about broken windows.
I can’t imagine a scenario in which one of these petty crimes was responded to by a police killing of an unarmed person. I don’t know anyone who would have felt safe in their community after that. Everyone would have completely lost it, me included.
I’m not naming names, and I think statutes of limitation are long past, but I have witnessed hundreds of individual criminal acts of the type I’ve seen white people in America say are exculpatory of the unjustified killing of a Black person. I personally witnessed hundreds of misdemeanors and felonies, state and federal, committed by white people before I turned 30. I’m no Hunter S. Thompson, either, because while that sounds like a lot of stuff going down, it was mostly from a handful of parties, a smaller handful of friends, and two exes. And I know, like, four people who’ve ever gone to jail for a lick of it. People mostly sympathized with our parents’ efforts to get us back on track so we could grow out of that phase and settle down.
No one ever suggested, or ever would, that any of us deserved to get shot on sight for any of that. Even my neighbor who once told me he’d turned someone in for growing marijuana, in retaliation for loud music, didn’t seem to think anyone deserved to die over it.
But I got called a fascist the other day for saying that I thought Officer Darren Wilson should turn himself over to the criminal justice system after shooting an unarmed teenager. Because apparently it’s fascist to want accountability when the police shoot unarmed civilians of oppressed minority groups while they’re trying to surrender. Fascism doesn’t mean what it used to, I guess.
Numerous people discussing #Ferguson on Twitter have pointed out that white Bundy Ranch protesters pointed sniper rifles at federal agents and didn’t even get arrested. The white Penn State students who rioted after Joe Paterno’s firing were treated like unruly pranksters in spite of causing significant property destruction. None of them got indiscriminately tear gassed. No one rolled out LRAD sound cannons. Pretty much everyone involved was going to just walk away, because it was clearly the goal of law enforcement that the situations not seriously escalate into physical violence: Get your anger out and then everybody go back to your regular lives. It almost even worked.
In the financial crisis of 2008, large financial institutions were revealed to be thieves. Mortgage lenders stole entire houses. Stole. Houses. None of them got treated like Michael Brown. None of them got treated like the millions of stop-and-frisk targets in New York City alone. When Occupy Wall Street protesters assembled in opposition to their thefts, police protected the thieves and roughed up the protesters. White people were surprised to see the police act like that, while Black people had been expecting it all along because that’s their normal.
Way back when, white people stole the whole damn continent. White people once stole the entire value of the life’s work of millions of enslaved Africans, and the descendants of those white people sometimes call the descendants of those formerly enslaved persons lazy. It boggles the mind.
In white communities, Child Protective Services usually only steps in during obvious tragedy. Like the police, white people see CPS rarely and usually in a capacity of protecting and serving. In Native communities and other communities of color where the state definition of “neglect” can be as simple as poverty, CPS’s behavior is more like mass child theft, which is a recognized form of genocide. Researchers have found Black children being taken from their families at twice the rate of white children.
Meanwhile, I think my white predecessors have been beating their kids since they got off the boats from Europe, and they were quite poor at times. No one in those past generations of my family ever had their children taken away by the state. I was whipped with belts and wooden spoons as a child, and no social worker ever came to our house. White people in conservative Christian churches still today share child abuse tips and actively seek out advice on how to get away with beating children in the name of Biblical discipline, and yet there is no stolen generation of white Christian children in America.
Would it be better if more people got harassed, arrested, jailed, shot dead in the street, had their families broken up, or lost family members in response to a constant parade of flawed humanity not living up to our legal ideals? No. I don’t think more brutality will ever convince people that brutality is wrong. White people need to be renouncing violence, not expanding it.
There does need to be a civilian peacekeeping force in our communities. There needs to be some kind of accountability that keeps our transgressions against each other from getting out of hand, without clamping down so tightly that the police will show up for spitting out your gum on the sidewalk. But what we need is not a new kind of war on crime run by police officers who consider excessive force an inalienable prerogative of their jobs. Stop with the wars, already.
The United States instead needs to make peace with Black people, as well as other people of color, and people living in poverty.
Because it would not be too much of a stretch to say that the so-called war on drugs has mostly been a war on Black people, with plenty of other people of color and white people too poor to spring for a good attorney thrown in for good measure. But mostly, a war on Black people.
What needs to happen now is that we must stop measuring our commitment to public safety by racking up arrests, prosecutions, probations, and incarcerations, because there aren’t enough armored cars in the world to make that work. Real public safety comes from friendship, trust, and people looking out for each other’s well being; but you can forget about any of that when someone gets arrested, beaten, and then charged with a crime for allegedly bleeding on people.
But if white people want to put racial discrimination in the past like we keep claiming, that discrimination must first come to an end. We need to declare peace in America and then put in the work to make it happen.
The widely reported police declaration that Ferguson was a “war zone” in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing was telling. The police don’t have the power to declare war. And they didn’t. The war that raged, and continues to rage, in Ferguson was there before those police were born, before there was press around to cover it—it’s a war local police forces have been waging against Black people for as long as there have been police in the United States. Where else besides a war do you see a dead body in the street and instead of treating it like a crime scene, the authorities point to the killer’s commendable service record, armor up, and come back itching for a bigger fight?
When someone shoots a white person, even if any given suspect is innocent until proven guilty, the killing itself is considered a crime until proven otherwise because the dead person is presumed innocent of having deserved such a fate. Dead Black person? Well, people were scared, they might have been on drugs, I think I saw a gang sign, check out those clothes…
Stop with the excuses.
White people, there’s already been a race war in the United States. White people won. You can walk outside anywhere in this country or turn on any media outlet and find evidence that this is true. Enough. It’s time for peace, and here’s one way we can start:
It must be considered a crime until proven otherwise to kill a Black person in America.
A serious crime. Not like smoking a joint in the woods, shoplifting small consumer goods, or any of a hundred other stupid things white people do with the reasonable expectation that there will usually be no consequences even though there’s a statute against it somewhere. Because only when it is considered, in practice, a crime to kill a Black person will it be possible to have peace in the United States.