I was caught by this week’s cover of Time magazine — a black and white photo of a young African American man being pursued by a large contingent of police in riot gear. The cover’s title reads: “America 1968″ with the “1968” struck through and replaced with “2015.” It was a snapshot that would probably make Richard Tarnas, astrologer and author of Cosmos and Pysche nod in rueful agreement.
For me, Time‘s cover was a reminder that no matter how far we’ve advanced economically and technologically, there has been little distance from the problems we faced almost 50 years ago.
Whether that young man was from Baltimore, Ferguson, New York or Oakland, the stories start looking alike, and there are way too many of them. Freddy Grey’s Baltimore, literally and figuratively, has been on fire a long time — since the late 20th century and the War on Poverty: blue collar industry collapse, income inequality, a disaffected African American community prey to drug wars and the War on Drugs. One wonders after all the unrest over this last year alone that someone, somewhere, could start making the correlation that the cause of America’s urban unrest is systemic.
And yet Washington, only 40 miles away, is so focused on ending gay marriage, starting a war with Iran and forcing full-term pregnancies on rape victims that it won’t smell the smoke. During an interview last week on CNN, Wolf Blitzer tried incessantly to position Baltimore community activist Deray McKesson into saying that Baltimore’s protests should stay peaceful, to which McKesson responded that Baltimore’s demonstrations are peaceful, it’s the police who are violent. McKesson then turned the tables on Blitzer, indicting both him and the society we live in by saying that “we care more about broken glass than broken spines.”
We need a moment of silence over those words to pause and think. We stand guilty of valuing property over people, so much so that it’s imbedded through our materialistic culture and our policies. Policies that deny basic rights such as access to drinking water for poorer residents in Detroit and Baltimore for non-payment of water bills.
We see it in the massive sell-off of ethnically diverse neighborhoods like the Mission District (largely Latino and working class) to property developers in San Francisco, who are looking to cash in on the cash-rich Millennial who can afford a $4 cup of coffee and a $4,000 studio. Development is also enfolding choice parts of Oakland, San Francisco’s neighbor to the east, “reclaiming” the largely African-American working class city for those who have more than enough money to live there. We are treating the poorer areas of our cities as the developing world.
Over the last fifty years, America’s poor and working class had nowhere to stay but in the cities where jobs were. Now these jobs have thinned — if not disappeared altogether — from factories and are slow to replace. Manufacturers have exported jobs overseas to increase the bottom line. With our amazing technological advances, fewer of us see an increased standard of living, while the rest of us here and around the world are under the wheel of progress. We know this already. Now we’re seeing the full price close to home.
Last week, in response to events in Baltimore, President Obama called upon the country to engage in soul searching:
If we really wanted to solve the problem we could. It would require everybody to say this is important, this is significant and that we just don’t pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, when a young man is shot or when his spine is snapped … investment is needed in the communities to bring economic opportunity, including resources for early childhood education and criminal justice reform that breaks the school-to-prison pipeline that is rendering young men in these communities unemployable … [We need] job training programs as well as school reforms. That’s hard. It takes a kind of political motivation we haven’t seen in quite some time.
What the president is talking about is political will to address the inequity. This column is not an answer to our urban crisis, but a call to deliberately reassess our own values as we observe this phase of our collective history. Where are we at? If we continue to focus on the looting, the fires, the stones thrown at police — the only thing the mainstream media wants us to know — we will miss the point and opportunity of this crisis, and will be looking at not only Baltimore, but other cities down the road.
Many of us have stood by as social inequities crystallized over time. And now these inequities give people no other recourse than to explode in anger: cars bursting into flame, shattering glass are the images we see on screen and print. How many more cities will need to erupt before we stop and examine our part in the play? How many airstrips in remote and beautiful places can hedge fund managers buy to escape the urban unrest of the ‘Fire Next Time’ in the chic urban area they call home?
What and who do we value most? How much money do we need before we can rid ourselves of that terrible nagging sense of social responsibility to the rest of the community and the world? It’s going to take more than a Kickstarter campaign to do it. The clock is ticking.
As of this writing, Maryland’s State Attorney Marilyn Mosby has brought murder charges against the six police officers implicated in Freddie Gray’s death. This provides a temporary Band-Aid and some hope to the people of Baltimore. But the road is longer ahead, because the national wound is much deeper: our collective loss of soul.
In the face of human suffering paid for by all this economic and technological advancement, we don’t seem to have the massive political will yet — like a vast anti-war movement prevalent in the 1960s — to change our present-day inequity. There are some glimpses of hope, especially amongst Millennials, that something has to change, and they are attempting to change it one community at a time. But until the rest of us do, the unrest that horrifies us with its terrible ‘property damage’ will not be over any time soon. We need to feel the horror from a deeper place. We knew this problem existed nearly fifty years ago. High time to change it for the better.