Tuesday, June 21, 2005


I've spent the entire morning in tears. This is the worst kind of depression. I hadn't the foggiest notion of why I've been so down over the past week. Couldn't write. Could hardly make it through the days without the most awesome panic attacks. Not that there wasn't good reason, of course. The headlines are enough to bury the best of us in hopelessness. My inability to get myself out of bed each morning -- except for the most urgent of reasons -- should have been the tip off. It wasn't.

I've been blaming my dark moods on the fact that Dorian will be leaving around August 1st and that this will bring many changes into my life -- not all of which are good. There will be economic implications since I bought this condo only two years ago and have little equity to claim should I sell it. And, sell it I must because it I could only afford it based upon our plan for shared living expenses. The thought of moving again opens up the possibility of relocating out of the area and into a place where I feel more secure; safer. We both receive SSA and I have some very modest investment dividends and retirement checks to bolster that. Now that must change. Reason enough, maybe. But not enough.

The death count in Richmond has climbed so rapidly that there have been 6 bodies to add to the count over the past weekend. One killing happened within a few blocks of our apartment. We heard the gunshots. Reason enough, again, only maybe. We've been here before. These are the drug wars that have now taken over our lives.

It couldn't have been the headlines that have caused this dive into panic since I cut off newspaper delivery over a year ago in favor of getting all of my news through the Internet. My video viewing is pretty well covered by West Wing reruns and CSPAN with occasional PBS programs from time to time. And -- wouldn't miss Jon Stewart and the Daily Show crazies or the outrageous Reno 911 that is funny enough to blast me out of any blue funk that I may fall into from the sounds of our crumbling institutions. I've given up on trying to make sense of our foreign or even domestic policy decisions. I've also given up on the notion that there is anything I can do about any of it; except to just ride out my remaining years and hope for the best for my children and theirs.

But ...

Something is beginning to surface that both gives me hope and brings further despair. It has to do with the killing spree that has turned this city upon itself in pockets of hopelessness and fear. It has given rise to defiance in some and terror in others. No one is untouched. And there is a familiarity to it. It is the 3000 block of Sacramento Street in Berkeley in the year 1978; the year that I returned to take over our failing small business in the heart of the drug trade. The fear that I'm feeling is no longer just below the surface but is now washing over me in waves. The enormous victory over the environmental changes that I experienced some 7 years later now seems unreal. It's as if only the images of a young man with his face shot off -- lying within 100 ft. of my building is the only one left in my head. I didn't know him. I was told at the time that he was 22 and was the fourth I'd witnessed as the result of drive-bys over less than ten days.

In the early days I was still far too fearful to even look up into the faces of those youngsters each day as I walked from my car into my store. They were invading my space and destroying my ability to survive economically. I saw them as the enemy and wanted them gone!
  • That was long before I'd learned to speak to the streets through my use of "talking windows" that carried bulletins and information about things that mattered to me and should have to them.
  • That was before I'd used those windows to talk about who I would vote for in the upcoming elections, and where I posted a huge facsimile of my ballot with explanations for what I would do and who I would endorse for office.
  • That was before Fred Stripp (veteran of Pearl Harbor and a wino) began to arrive each morning with his worn down broom to voluntarily sweep the sidewalks in front of my doorway on each day of sobriety.
  • And, before Touche began to stop by to add plants from his little garden to the little sidewalk flower boxes that bracketed the entry to the store.
  • That was before I'd learned to stash a gallon paint mixed to match my exterior walls to immediately cover the tiniest sign of grafitti, and before the drug dealers took over the responsibility of seeing to it that the building was not touched by anyone.
  • That was before I'd claimed "turf."
  • That was before I learned that -- on the street -- I had a name and that with it came the protection of those who haunted the corners. And that those kids stationed themselves at the bus stop immediately across the street to watch over me at night.
  • That was before "Red Pants" started popping in at closing time each night to walk me to my car in the dark -- so that I'd be safe.
  • That was before I realized that the little store had become -- over many years -- a neighborhood institution and that I ran it with the consent and blessing of the community.
  • That it was safe to bring in papers that looked important to be read and interpreted.
  • and where kids stopped by on their way home from the elementary school two blocks away on the day when report cards were passed out -- to share their marks and pick up a token prize for those with the greatest signs of improvement.
  • This was the place to announce a job has been secured or acceptance into a program of some sort.
  • It had become a place where grief was shared over the loss of someone dear.
  • And, I learned it on the day that I stood in front of my store alone and laughed aloud at the sight of drug dealers making sales right in front of a huge billboard that advertised (of all things) cigarette papers!
A little more than a week ago I stood up at the Richmond Summit on Street Crime and spoke passionately about the need to give up battling the negative and begin to dream new dreams of a new reality for this city and its people. I spoke of how I'd had to do that many years ago in an area that had seen 25% of the city's homicides in the year that I'd taken over our business. I'd taken credit for the success of that effort and crowed about how - in the year 1995 I'd been honored before the California State Legislature for having accomplished the redevelopment of that area and brought peace to that community. I was wrong.

This morning it dawned on me that what had really happened was that those young men (and a few desparate young women) who had no dreams of their own had bought into mine. It was with their gradual buy-in that I was able to succeed. Those kids moved in and out of jails and prisons over that seven year period of struggle but they gradually became my cohorts over time. A few of them helped to register voters toward the end -- though there were few in the community who had not lost the franchise due to felonies on their records. I recall two young men who walked into the store one day day to pick up their clipboards dressed in suits and ties (I'd put out a call from my talking windows) -- neither could add their names to the forms that were attached. I recall how ironic it was to me at the time, and of how proud I was of them both for spending an entire day walking the streets trying to get others to come up to my store to read my window sample ballots and mark to their own.

I woke this morning feeling fearful -- and frustrated to be so certain that there are answers and that I'd innocently happened upon some of them during those years. I knew better than to ever ask their names but gave them names of my own (as they had for me) and would look around as I climbed out of my car each morning -- asking, "...where is Red Pants this morning?" And would feel real concern when told that he had been picked up the night before by the police. I learned to walk out of my store and join other bystanders when the police were performing a raid -- I'd be silent but the kids would know that I was watching so that nothing cruel would happen to them. They knew that I was respected by the police and that my presence might prevent unnecessary roughness.

I believed in my own dream of bringing positive change to that little community. I believed that it could be done. Over time those kids bought into those dreams and -- together -- we made it happen. A couple of them still drop in from time to time. My son and the current Reid proprietor, David, passes along their greetings. I've since learned some real names -- and when I recognize a face or two in the newspapers under the title "Drug King Pin" I say, "...oh, that's Mrs. So-and-So's nephew!" One would think that after many years of community policing, the police would evolve an attitude in the same way and that justice would then become more humane and compassionate. But then most members of the police department do not live in the communities that they police but are seen by the kids as an occupying force from outside. This must change.

Somehow we have to provide dreams big and strong enough for kids to buy into. We have to believe so strongly in the possibility of change that our visions overpower their despair and hopelessness. No small thing, of course, but surely possible. I've lived it and survived.

If only I could convince this city that is in such fear at the moment to put all of their resources -- not into new high tech surveillance cameras or to place new police officers on the streets -- but instead to open the now-closed sports facilities, afterschool programs, and locked community centers. It might not change the kids we've lost to violence, but such moves will go a long way toward changing the reality for those youngsters coming up behind them.

We need to set resources aside with which to build new dreams for ourselves that our kids can buy into until they can gain enough education, knowledge, experience, and compassion, to create their own. That's a tall order and depends upon the ability and willingness of the greater society to contribute, but it's still possible. This, is the place for the dropping in of reparations for past history.

This is the living prophecy of Lorraine Hansberry. This is the Raisin in the Sun in the process of festering.

This, I know is true.

I've lived it.

Change is inevitable. The shape of that change is the only thing in question.

Photo #1: Gospel singer, Vanessa Bell Armstrong with her manager on a visit to Reid's, our store on Sacramento Street. I'm the booted one on her left.

Photo #2: Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock and City Councilmember Ann Chandler - the press, and me -- as we performed the groundbreaking for 43 units of new housing in a development that replaced the city's small slum area, across the street from Reid's -- the little family store that we established in June of 1945. It was then that I learned that beauty was as contagious as blight and the community has continued to bloom.

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