Friday, August 18, 2006

On the private creation of reality ... .

I attended the monthly dinner meeting of the Richmond Downtown Task Force last night. Several things caught my attention that seemed so crystal clear that I cannot imagine that others hadn't picked it up. Though there are times when I truly believe that -- if one can reach these advanced years with an intact mind added to a wealth of experience, piled on top of the growing sense of urgency -- clarity of thought is a given. My agile mind cuts through the garbage like a knife through butter, leaving only the purist of impressions. Last night was such a time. (This balances off the times when I stand in the middle of an aisle in the supermarket wondering what in hell I came here for ... .)

As you've undoubtedly read over time, Richmond is reputed to be the most dangerous city in the state with a crime rate that rivals cities twice its size. But is that really true? Gun deaths from suspected gang warfare is surely a factor, but it appears to me that ordinary crime stats compare pretty closely to those of other comparable municipalities.

Gathered together for this meeting were nonprofits, corporations, merchants, agencies, that are located in the crumbling historic downtown area known as the Iron Triangle, an area deemed a "hot spot" by the press and the police department. This was reaffirmed by a recent summit meeting hosted by Senator Don Perata that involved the mayors of Oakland and Richmond to seek ways to address the problems -- and, on the eve of an election campaign in which both mayors are running for office, of course.

Last night I noticed that the first presenter was a representative from the Richmond police department who gave a comprehensive report on reported criminal activity over the preceding month plus the year-to-date. He circulated sheets of statistics that gave breakdowns of types of crimes reported, whether or not there were arrests (prostitution, robberies, aggravated assaults, vagrancy, etc.). After he completed his report other agencies and organizations stepped up to update their activities -- related to economic development and/or new projects in the making.

After an hour or two the meeting's last presenter stepped up to give an update on a program being conducted at San Quentin prison involving men who will be returning to the city after completing their sentences -- and ways in which they are promising to work with the city to try to curb street violence by walking the hot spots in the effort to turn youth away from a life of crime. The program is being funded by the city and involves a number of members of the clergy as well as local police and probation officers.

There it was. The meeting started and ended with the group focussed on criminal activity. To the extent that we create our reality by giving prominence to particular aspects of our lives -- this city is constantly reinforcing the worse possible self-portrait. I could not imagine a more damaging climate in which to try to support or grow community or in which to try to bring up children.

Over a long lifetime in public service of one kind or another I've seen this phenomenon repeated, but never to this extent. Police reports normally appear in small town newspapers on the back pages as a simple presentation of data for those who wish to have it for one reason or another. In Berkeley those stats are available from the desk of the public relations officer. I'm not sure that -- for their size -- those cities experience more or less crime, but I do know that criminal activity is not what defines them.

Suppose, instead of concentrating all of creative energy on defending against it by "...adding 20 more policepersons to the department," we added ten well-trained playground and community center staff and ten school counselors to address the deeply-cut recreation and school district services? In this district one school counselor services 1500 students; an appalling situation. That would be my first line of defense against the kind of street violence we're facing now. Troubled kids could be identified earlier (I'm thinking middle schools) and remeditation might be possible. But since there are even fewer mental health specialists than counselors ... .

Community centers are seriously understaffed to the disadvantage of a restless and underserved generation of youngsters. With 49% of non-white children dropping out of schools by the 10th grade and no job-training possible for lack of programs of amnesty for less serious crimes -- what's happening on our streets was painfully predictable. Given the fact that 1 in 4 black and brown males are imprisoned in this state -- one might assume that these are quite possibly the "absentee" fathers who are so maligned by the rest of us for being unavailable to their children.

I also feel some reluctance to create a career path through crime as in the case of ex-offenders becoming teachers and negative role-models for kids in place of those who've succeeded within the system. Tough love sometimes creates no more than tough people so desensitized as to lack compassion and empathy for others. The efficacy of such programs has yet to be proved since most die after brief trials from lack of funding and/or fear from the communities in which they function. I think that some conferring with institutions like the Ella Baker Center in San Francisco might offer guidance that could be helpful in seeking answers to whether these programs are truly practical in addressing such problems without creating more.

In addition, I listened to an on-air discussion yesterday (speakers from the conservative Heritage Foundation) extolling the successes of welfare reforms that were enacted under the Clinton administration. They cited the huge reduction in welfare dependency, but nowhere did anyone mention how many have fallen into an underground economy fueled by the drug trade. But then how on earth would that be measured? I suspect that the percentage is significant, and that no one in that debate would have been interested in exploring just what that means in the mounting trauma of families and their children growing up in the inner cities of my state and others. Maybe that's why our fears so dominate these meetings that are so infused with crime stats.

I think that it might have been my own blindness in yesterday's meeting that caused the refusal to see their reality -- as I stubbornly managed to cling to the optimism and sense of empowerment that my work provides day after productive day.

Am I simply being naive, or, maybe just old and increasingly out of touch ... ?

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