Saturday, May 22, 2004

Attended a meeting this day for the Just Cause Initiative ...

being sponsored by a coalition of community groups that came into being about five years ago as Richmond Vision-2000. As field rep for State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, I'd been a member of the original steering committee. Have continued to participate, but over the past several months -- since leaving my position as a member of her successor's staff -- have dropped away. It seemed important to give my successor (field rep) space to create her own identity in this important group. It was interesting to climb back into the saddle again. Felt the old excitement at being among creative dedicated thinkers. I'm always energized by activists, and these are the best.

While driving to the center of town I noticed a group of young Latino youth huddled together on a street corner and recalled the day when I lost the fear of youthful loiterers and reclaimed territory in South Berkeley.

Summer 1978-80:

It was a warm Saturday mid-morning. I was on the return trip from the bank where I'd gone to pick up change for the weekend. The distance is but a short ten blocks through a residential area and a drive past a school soon to be named named Malcolm X Elementary. As I was passing the school, a pack of about a dozen young black youth were suddenly thundering down upon me in the middle of the street -- on a collision course with my car! Some were bare to the waist, some wearing head rags. I caught it all as an impression since there was time for little else. Fully expecting a hail of bullets to spray my car in the next instant, I caught sight of an intersection just ahead and instinctively wheeled about crazily to get out of their way and my certain death! Just as I was screeching around the turn, out of the corner of my eye I caught the sight of a football streaking through the air and a hand reaching up to catch it! I stopped -- hitting the curb and some bushes clumsily and -- as I did so -- in a cold sweat heard myself laughing crazily! I'd bought it all. I'd been had by the media. These were kids, kids like my own. And this is what they were first of all. That they might also be gang members or drug dealers or anything else came second. I'd allowed my reality to be defined by images on television. This day I knew that the right to define reality was mine alone, and that it was within my power to do so. I, alone, would define my world.

Some weeks later, on a very hot summer day, I arrived from my daily visit to Music People in Emeryville where I'd done my wholesale buying for the weekend. I noticed the five or six dealers who'd taken up my corner and who occupied the bus bench that was so precariously sitting 18 inches from my 8' plate glass windows (this was before I was successful in getting it removed). I was tired and annoyed that I had to park illegally (no loading zone), carry the heavy cartons into the store in dribbles because I couldn't handle much weight. Because of their presence, it was necessary to lock my car with each trip and then repeat the process over and over again until all had been delivered inside. Energized by PMS(!) this was the day that I walked up to the gang, pointed to the corner across the street, and with hands on hips and honest outrage screamed, "y'all just get yourselves away from here. Now!!! This instant!" "This is MY corner!" To my utter surprise the obvious leader of the group dropped his head and said, "Yes Maam." And off they went, never to darken my corner again.

When I got inside, Rick, who'd watched the skirmish from just inside the store said, "Mom, how could you? Those kids are surely armed. That's crazy!" Then, with obvious admiration he added, "good show!" With mission accomplished and the memory of that football vignette, it occurred to me these youngsters (no longer thought of as drug dealers) knew how to handle cops and parole officers, but they didn't have a clue about what to do with an angry Momma! I'd declared turf and they could respect that. From that day forward, I took the time to greet them on the street and ask about those who might be missing from on any given day. Learned to not ask names, but to identify each in my own way, "...where's Red Pants today?" In this way we began to establish ties. They would talk with me easily about someone who may have been picked up by the police over the weekend, and I would send greetings. I learned much later that I, too, had a street name -- but I never learned what it was. That's probably just as well.

I can recall attending community meetings (regularly held when election time was nearing) where the police would invite discussions about the drug problems. One day I stood up and said, " know, those guys you know as the "Kingpin," or "Street Warriors" and "Perps" I know as "Mother Johnson's grandson" or "Ms. Jackson's son-in-law." I remember telling them that these were OUR children, and not some invading outside force, and that I couldn't understand why resources weren't being provided for them beside jail cells. I knew that a youngster I'd been watching grow up far too fast -- had been pushed out of the nest when his mother could no longer collect money for his support through welfare. This, in order to have enough resources to support his younger siblings. He was by then living in an old car out on the Berkeley Marina and selling drugs in order to survive. They lived next door to my store and were a part of my 500 ft. territory now, and mine to care about.

There was a bus stop directly across the broad street from our shop. As the days began to grow dark, I could see those young men move into position -- near the bus stop -- and watch over me and my store until it was time to close up. It was not out of the ordinary to have one or two cross over to walk me to my car. There was rarely if ever any sign of graffiti to be seen on my building and when there was, it was pretty clear that someone from outside the community was the culprit. I kept a gallon can of matching paint behind my counter and would immediately paint over any markings myself, within plain view of everyone on the street. On more than one occasion, some youngster would cross over -- take the brush from my hand and complete the job.

The day came some years later when two of these same young men were registering voters at a table in my stairwell. I'd asked them to do this and was amazed to see them arrived at ten o'clock on that morning dressed neatly in slacks, white shirts with ties, to man a registration table. Their respect for the process was touching. They remained in the stairwell for most of the morning, but eventually took to walking up and the down the streets in the latter part of the day. When they came to turn in their clipboards there were scarcely a dozen forms attached. I'd seen how easily they'd approached others, and had no idea of why this would be. There also were no cards for the two of them. The explanation was soon obvious. Neither could vote because they'd been disenfranchised by felony convictions involving drug violations. This was true of a high percentage of people in this community. A few ounces of crack cocaine could bring a felony conviction (the drug of choice for African Americans). A bagful of powdered coke has rarely if ever brought a felony conviction for a White user/abuser. Congress has failed in every attempt at equalizing justice on this issue, and the prisons are bursting with non-white offenders unlucky enough to be caught and convicted.

My naivete was embarrassing. It was a lesson learned that I've never forgotten. The Black Vote was disappearing through clever use of inequitable sentencing practices involving crack and powdered cocaine. That was at least 30 years ago. The corrections have never been made. I once asked online if anyone could tell me what percentage of non-whites in this country were no longer able to vote for these reasons. An answer came back from someone who'd been researching the problem. "The number is now equivalent to the population of Scotland." That was about ten years ago, long before the happenings that accompanied the Bush rise to power through manipulation of the Florida electoral process.

Stopped by the shop the other day, (son, David, is now sole proprietor). He told me that Charles, one of the street kids of those years, dropped by to say hello. He's since traveled to and lived in many places in the world and is a total success story in mainstream American. He's a business man with pride and stability. His family must still have a home in the Hood. Wish I'd had a chance to see him. Many of those kids are undoubtedly long since dead or incarcerated, but there are the Charles's who survived and were able to sustain enough of an existence to overcome and to become contributing members of society. Those survivors have great stories to tell.

Wish I knew some of their tales to share. Most such stories are now only available to us through the poetry of the times, but if you listen closely -- they're being clearly and dramatically sung and danced and rapped wherever young people congregate.

They're there to be witnessed, by those sensitive enough, open enough, and willing enough to hear ... .

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