Sunday, November 06, 2005


Was startled out of sleep this morning. It was another of those moments of knowing; and it was suddenly all-of-a-piece; the last several seemingly unrelated entries plus some bits and pieces lived off-screen and away from this keyboard -- pieces that fell into place in a mosaic of clarity:
  • Life in South Berkeley as a full-fledged struggling black merchant,
  • The years of being radicalized by the contrasts inposed by my double life as female merchant while simultaneously living as an empowered faculty wife at the university.
  • Being privileged by having my life in the cauldron of the innercity balanced by the ability to return every evening to a lovely home at the topmost ridge of Berkeley, above the university and on the edge of the pastoral wilderness of Tilden Park ...
  • while those I faced from behind the counter remained each night to be impacted by the sounds of gunshots, fear, police sirens, poverty and crime, in daily lives lived against impossible odds.
  • New talk of a curfew for youth in Richmond, and
  • The pending execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.
Crazy melange? You're right. I'm not even sure I can get it unsnarled in a few words ... .

Yesterday I was about to drive out to meet Tom in Walnut Creek when I discovered that my wallet was missing. Recalled that it was probably left on my desk at work on Friday and detoured from the Hilltop area through downtown to pick it up. The drive took me down Macdonald Avenue past Fourth Street park with its usual number of mostly scruffy-looking men "chinnin'" as Papa George would say. Grinned to myself in realizing that -- were I driving past Pete's Coffee or Starbucks in a white neighborhood I'd have seen men socializing. Here, I saw men loitering. I drew to the stop sign at the corner of Fourth and Nevin and noted that the men on two of the corners leaning against the store windows were clearly younger and far more animated; playful. But my CNN-conditioned mind easily translated the scene into one of drug-dealing. An easy trap. Was reminded of South Berkeley in the Seventies, and of how differently my mind read such scenes then -- when looking from inside the belly of the beast and not as an outside observer. Here, I was not a member of the community of the Iron Triangle. These were not youngsters whom I knew or cared about except in the abstract. What else was different? The element of fear. I'd grown past that in those life-changing years in South Berkeley. As that thought surfaced my hand automatically reached toward the door lock.

On the drive to Walnut Creek -- out San Pablo Dam Road past the reservoir -- through the brilliant red, gold, deep greens riot of colors of autumn, my mind locked on the contrasts almost as automatically as my fingers had on the lock button only moments before. Wasn't I only minutes away from upscale Orinda where my friend, Felix Polk's, life had been smothered out by Susan (also a child of privilege), and where that wealthy 16-year-old Goth had savagely murdered the attorney's wife in a fit of fury? Why had the fear not followed me here? Was it because here those awful crimes were seen as an anomaly; against logic. Why was that? Was it because as a society we've set up the conditions in both places that predicted outcomes. If so, the solutions to the problems should be as predictable, shouldn't they? Why were they not?

That handsome 16 year-old enjoyed a disproportionate share of resources, an SUV, the best schools, a room of his own, every gadget technology can offer, books, travel, summer camps, parents with the strong educational backgrounds, professional achievement. They had the time, the energy, and the financial resources to satisfy not only their children's needs but wants as well. Where on earth could that reservoir of disembodied rage have found a place from which to grow? How could this be? We have every right to wonder. Even though he was clearly a juvenile, his name was released to the press but there was no mention of his family connections. Protective attorneys? On the very first report of his arrest the newcaster mentioned that "his sister had been tragically killed not too long ago," as if to explain his actions and give him an excuse for unspeakably tragic outburst of rage. Only later was his mother identified and implicated but only because she'd been arrested for aiding and abetting in her effort to protect her child. This is clearly a child of privilege. There were the usual explanations from neighbors and friends of "...this is such a peaceful community. How could this possibly have happened here?" And in a way they're right. It's a complete mystery.

On the other hand, we have an African American youngster from whom health care, parental guidance; recreational resources, school counseling; from streets that crackle with potential violence; with halfway houses and methodone clinics to pass on the way to and from school; with drug dealers to sidle past; and, often without enough food, or money, or attention; and too much responsibility for younger siblings; and often without anyone at home who understands the demands placed on you by teachers who haven't a clue about what your life is like on the outside or how relevant are the teachings you're expected to absorb ... and besides, he or she looks nothing like you and speaks another language. And one day you graduate from highschool against all odds and enter college. How could this be? Conventional wisdom would surely have predicted prison, right? The fact that many of your friends didn't make it to adulthood but as often as not died in a hail of bullets within a few feet on these same streets is a factor in how you see the future. To climb past the low expectations of those who dominate your life colors your own expectations of yourself and cripples ambition and smothers dreams ... .

How much are kids born to their fate? White privilege would surely have cast the lot of our young Goth differently. What was the missing ingredient that produced the monster? What inner strengths brought this innercity youngster past the chaos of life around him or her and into the mainstream?

In a way, Stanley "Tookie" Williams is living out the norm for black males. The supreme court, the attorney general and the governor are expected to fulfill societal expectations by denying clemency. This would be another norm. The expected outcome for troublesome black youth.

His execution will solve nothing because there is no understanding of or solution for the problems that sent him to prison as a young man. How much wiser to hold him in a life sentence without the possibility of parole where we might plumb his mind for answers to the cul de sac we've created for ourselves in our inability to understand or address the problems of youngsters from his world. He has proven his ability to grow beyond the confines of prison into greater understanding of the problems that sent him there. We have not.

Little has changed in South Central, except that Williams has quieted much of the gang violence through his quiet work from Death Row. The work that brought him to the attention of the Nobel Prize committee will surely die by lethal injection with him and we'll be the poorer for it.

The expectations for our children -- depending upon whether they reside in the Iron Triangle, South Central, Orinda or Columbine -- or any of the white communities where school shootings have taken lives -- are profoundly different. We're capable of producing monsters anywhere -- as anomalies. Have we yet learned the lessons of Columbine?

Can we allow ourselves to continue to use our innercities as a catchment areas for the breeding of violence? Must poor youngsters be forced to continue to swim against the tide of fortune when -- by shifting the lens ever so slightly -- we might see new solutions and begin to build hope for a new future? Will we one day learn that cultural and emotional deprivation are the hidden causes of much of the violence in the world of our young of whatever racial background or economic class? Will our children eventually spring out of the adult-imposed pathology, as they did in the Flower Child era of the Haight-Ashbury days -- seize the world and make it their own again?

After having picked at this through for much of this day, I find myself wondering -- not about how many violent gangs have been produced in the Iron Triangle to boost the kill rate for this year -- but at the miracle of the many who have managed to overcome the environment of destruction to which we as a society continue to confine their young lives.

Our children may have to wrest their world from us in order to save it.

At the moment, we're leaving little upon which they can build.

Maybe they've seen the future and are in dispair of what they see ... .

Photo: The work of CAA/ICU student, George Scott Braley © 1998. Co-Directors Mat Schwarzman and Juana Alicia at Urban Arts in Oakland, California.

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