Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Down goes Chief Wahoo

I was in Cleveland last summer to catch a pair of games, Cleveland Indians vs. the Boston Red Sox. And because I needed a change of wardrobe.

I bought a new Indians cap. The one with the block C. To replace the handful of Chief Wahoo caps I’ve collected over the years.

The Indians and Major League Baseball announced on Monday that Chief Wahoo, an undeniably racist caricature of Native Americans, would no longer appear on the team’s uniforms. That’s been coming for a while, just one step in a long evolution. Indians fans who can’t give up on Chief Wahoo will still be able to buy plenty of souvenirs adorned with the smirking red face. It’s a tough job, eliminating Chief Wahoo, because he’s been a successful marketing figure in the baseball world for decades.

I myself own three jackets featuring Chief Wahoo including one, even more offensive than the modern image, worn on the uniforms of the 1948 World Series champion Indians. I’ve quietly retired two of the jackets, but I guess I’m guilty of evolving a little slowly myself. The third jacket is a beautiful leather coat. With a Chief Wahoo the size of a champion pumpkin on the back. A coat that’s perfect for this winter, as I sit in my house, looking out the window, watching the snow falling outside. Thinking:

I can’t give that up… It was a Christmas present. And it’s my warmest coat. This spring, I’ll put it away for good…

I’ve been reading comments from Indians fans who are dismayed that Chief Wahoo will no longer take the field with the team. These people seem decent enough, they don’t sound like racists. Chief Wahoo is tradition they say, he’s a friend, he’s been a part of the community for as long as most people can remember.

No. It’s as simple as this: A people’s culture is not to be belittled as a mascot. And after we put away Chief Wahoo, we go to work on the most-racist marketing opportunity in American sports, the nickname of the NFL team from Washington.

Twenty-four hours after my longtime favorite baseball team was stripped of its mascot, I can tell you: It didn’t hurt at all.

What about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish? That’s a culture as mascot. And perhaps a question for another day, while we evolve as a community. Yet it’s a question we’ll eventually have to ask. The urgency maybe isn’t there because Irish Americans, who were once a denigrated sector of immigrants, aren’t facing the same kind of discrimination today as Native Americans do.

You don’t think that’s the case?

Here’s what happened a few days ago in Phoenix, Arizona. Armed protestors waving American flags and Trump flags confronted people at the state’s Capitol building. They singled out dark-skinned people – lawmakers, state employees on their lunch break, and even children – calling them illegal and telling them to go home. Some were of Mexican heritage, some Native American. Light-skinned people were merely questioned if they supported “illegal immigration.”

In a video of the confrontation uploaded onto YouTube, a woman is heard shouting, “Those guys are illegal … They do not have any rights here. It is not their time. This is our time. Our nation. Our laws. Our streets.”

Rep. César Chávez, who was brought from Mexico to the United States as a child, said a female Trump supporter asked who he was and who he represents. “I’m an undocumented legislator,” Chávez replied. As he later explained to the Arizona Capitol Times, which covers politics in the state, he wanted the protesters “to understand that in this country, through a process, you, too, can be a part of a nation that provides opportunity to everybody. I wanted them to understand that an individual who came to this country undocumented at the age of three is now a member of the Arizona State Legislature.”

While defending a young student who was being harassed, Rep. Eric Descheenie said he was confronted by Trump supporters who asked if he was in the United States illegally. “I’m indigenous to these lands,” said Descheenie, who is Navajo. “My ancestors fought and died on these lands.”

When Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs later asked why no authorities were present to defend people who were clearly feeling harassed, she said she was told by an officer that law enforcement was instructed to stand down while the Trump supporters exercised their First Amendment rights.

That’s America today. And it’s getting worse, as we watch government agents breaking up families. Just this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a Palestinian man – a tax-paying, well-respected businessman in his Ohio community – who had been in this country for 39 years. “There are violent criminals walking the streets,” said Rep. Tim  Ryan, “yet our government wasted our precious resources incarcerating him.”

Baseball fans who love Chief Wahoo are not inherently racist. Yet circumstances in this country indicate they have to think a little harder about the larger issue. Whether it’s Trump fans expressing First Amendment rights, or baseball fans supporting their team, the difference may be one of degrees, but both groups are setting fires that must be extinguished.

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A part of the uniform, or a sign of a sick society?

The World Series is special. That awesome Game 5, with the vast pendulum swings of lead changes. And Game 7, with starting pitchers thrown into relief roles as if there’s no tomorrow, which there isn’t. We even had one of the victorious Houston Astros ending his post-series television interview by asking his girlfriend to marry him.

And at the opening ceremony of the final game, we were presented with a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Except why were those officers wearing sidearms? And I tweeted out that question. Then, on with the game.

And this morning, I’m thinking I’m bothered by more than just the hypocrisy of armed police officers creating beautiful music. It’s a piece of a much-larger picture.

If I were in the position of needing a gun for self defense, I’m sure I’d be happy to have it. But few difficult questions have just one answer. There are usually 30,000 gun deaths in the United States each year. Very few of those victims were criminals shot while committing a home invasion. Most committed suicide, were killed in an accident or were murdered, either by a stranger or, more likely, someone they knew.

Thirty-thousand deaths is an epidemic.

Guns are not only tools for killing people, they are political tools. Politicians use fear to move forward their agendas. We have one such politician/carnival barker in the White House right now. We’re being encouraged to fear anyone who is not a white Christian American. Left unsaid: Trust only straight, rich men. That’s also a part of their equation. Everyone else is either a potential terrorist or someone who wants a free ride on your tax dollars. And the answer is point a gun at them, or build a wall.

It’s a fact that, in this country, most victims of terror attacks were killed by a socially disconnected white American male with a pile of automatic rifles on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel (58 dead), or who invaded a Connecticut elementary school (26 dead), or brought a gun to Bible study in a Charleston church (nine dead) or parked a truck rigged as a fertilizer bomb in front of an Oklahoma City federal building (168 dead).

Any threat, be it terrorism or the faulty maintenance of amusement-park rides, should be taken seriously. But fear is used to cloud perspective. One of seven Americans will die of heart disease. It’s the same numbers for cancer. Those numbers are of no concern to Congress or the president  as they work to disembowel the Affordable Care Act.

Nor do our leaders react to a list being compiled by The Washington Post, which says 813 citizens have been killed this year by police. Killedbypolice.net places the number at 994. The National Safety Council, The National Center For Health Statistics and the Cato Institute calculate that over your lifetime you have a one in 8,359 chance of dying in an incident involving a police officer. But those odds can go up, depending on circumstances. The most-frequent victims are white males armed with a gun or some other weapon. One in four people killed are mentally ill. Black males represent one-fourth of the people killed each year.

Of that average of 1,000 people killed each year in recent years by police, how many were unarmed? The Washington Post says it was about one in 10 in 2015. That percentage has dropped slightly each of the last two years. So we’re getting better? It depends on your reaction to one of those videos where it appears clear that a pissed-off cop executed an unarmed black man.

Numbers are easy to dismiss. Those same charts also reveal that over our lifetime, we have a one in 1,600,000 chance of dying from an asteroid hitting the Earth. I’ve never even heard of anyone being killed by a space rock. That number is simply an actuarial calculation based on the knowledge that humongous meteors are out there and the planet has been struck in the past. And if one the size that wiped out the dinosaurs hits us again, civilization is done.

Unlike meteor strikes, we see terrorist attacks frequently. Yet the Cato Institute calculates your chance of dying at the hands of a foreign-born terrorist as one in 3.6 million, and that includes the 3,000 people who died in 9/11.

So a story’s not told simply in numbers. In the just-completed World Series, was the excellence of the games, and the home-run record, a matter of great hitting or lousy pitching? It’s your perspective. We cheer when Air Force fighter jets fly low over a sports stadium. If you’re a shepherd in Afghanistan and you see a low-flying jet, you run. At a football game, people stand for the National Anthem. But when athletes kneel in protest of police violence against black people, outrage follows. Both are political messages. But one is allowed, one frowned upon.

One respondent to my pre-game tweet about the LA police quartet insisted guns are “part of the uniform.”

No, comfortable trousers are a part of the uniform. Guns are a whole other, and very ill-fitting, accessory in civil society.

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St. Louis at Washington: Racism as the Game of the Week

The St. Louis Rams protest: "Hands up. Don't shoot."

The St. Louis Rams protest: “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

As five of the St. Louis Rams ran onto the field for the start of the game last Sunday, they paused for a moment to raise their hands in the air. A now-familiar sign of protest from Ferguson, Mo. “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

As we’ve all been trained to understand, there is nothing more important in the world on a Sunday than an NFL game. So it’s not surprising that complaints followed. I expect that from the intractable folks who see nothing wrong with the team from Washington embracing a blatantly racist nickname. Or the hardcore fans who seem disinterested in the NFL’s obvious complicity in enabling its players to beat up women. Nothing should interrupt the sanctity of the game, as young men prepare to deliver concussions to each other that will, in a few years’ time, leave many of them unable to remember where they’d parked their cars.

But I don’t welcome the protests about the protests that came from public officials. The authorities who represent the people.

We have a serious race issue in this country. And a lot of people think the best answer is to walk away from the story of a white cop shooting an unarmed 18-year-old black man and now isn’t going to stand trial for his actions. a lot of people think we should walk away from the cause of the riots that surrounded the event. Just like we walked away from the 26 dead women and children at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Because these problems take care of themselves, right?

Cops aren’t the problem. They have a tough job, we all know it. The problem is the institutions that police our citizens. Institutions that are increasingly equipped to wage war on citizens. We’ve been seeing it for years. Police using tear gas on citizens, police beating up citizens, police arresting citizens. Citizens who are doing nothing more than utilizing their American right to protest. The individual cops didn’t make the decision to fire tear gas into a crowd. They were told to do so.

No one was going to fire a round of tear gas at the five St. Louis Rams with their hands in the air. This was a deeply important game between two teams with losing records. But the next morning, the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded that the five Rams be disciplined, and that the team and the NFL should issue a public apology.

According to the SLPOA, “now that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson’s account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eye-witness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again.”

Well, a whole lot of citizens are not buying the narrative put forth by the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office that allowed the cop who did the killing to get away without a trial. And it’s not just the hoodlums setting fires, but lawyers and experts in the law who have expressed that opinion.

Hence, the protests.

The Rams and the NFL – for once, after a long string of public-relations failures – are doing the right thing by not disciplining the players. It’s called free speech, the first Amendment in the Constitution that our law enforcement agencies are hired to defend.

The authorities are never holier than thou. We’ve seen that too many times. The actions of the people who represent us, and defend our laws, should be under constant scrutiny. The attitude I’ve heard raised repeatedly by law enforcement after the Ferguson killing – and let’s not forget that we’ve witnessed a string of unarmed black men killed by police – is, “You’re either with us or against us.”

No questions asked. That’s a little too arrogant for today’s atmosphere of distrust. The police are not supposed to be a separate class of citizens with separate rights. They’re supposed to be one of us.

It seems they need a reminder. Perhaps this Sunday. I see that the Rams are playing that team from Washington with the blatantly racist nickname. FedExField would make a fine public forum for a discussion on race. We could start it with all of Rams running out onto the field and raising their hands. Then all of the players from Washington, that team with the blatantly racist nickname, could run out onto the field and raise their hands. Then everyone in the stadium could stand and raise their hands.

Now that would be the NFL Game of the Week.

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