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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 ... ?





Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I'm not alone!

and what a great feeling that is.

On last night's MS-NBC's Countdown, Keith Olbermann (I think I'm in love!) did a segment where he listed the ten times over the past 5 years that the Bush administration called for a red alert (critical danger!!!) and then he listed the national events that occurred only 2-3 days prior to the issuance. It was stunning and far beyond the possibility of coincidence. Those wolf cries were faked -- with no visible means of support. We're in sync; Keith O. and I. Just about the place where I hit my point of total non-belief, so did he, apparently (see August 10th entry). My cynicism was well-placed, an appropriate response to what was coming out of Washington. We met at the top of the absurdity scale and bumped heads!

It begins to look like Howard Fineman and even Patrick Buchanan are beginning to express suspicion that we're being duped. The media is beginning to rise up and rebel. The generals are finding their voices, too. Just maybe... (Hillary, why aren't you among them?).

Now my only fear is that -- in their desparation -- some pre-planned catastrophe will occur timed to disrupt the November elections. (The old October surprise?) And, yes, that's a real fear that I'm certain lurks in the minds of a great many thinking Americans in these times. This is not the time for ignoring the warnings of continuing duplicity. Our fears are well-placed and are serving us as nature intended.

Which is not to say that there aren't very real dangers out there from those who are bent upon vengeance for wrongs done in our names. That's quite real -- but we're not being made safer by being misdirected in our national response to what we may be facing in the future. We cannot modify our national policies if we're ignorant of the effects they're producing in the world.

Photo: Taken from Keith Olbermann's website. The video of yesterday's segment referred to above can be viewed. It's well worth taking the time to do so. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/)


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Lunacy reigns!

Is it not ironic that we've allowed our tax dollars to support a defense department in its quest for the world's most effective arms -- with countless billions going to nuclear explosives research and Star Wars defense shields and supersonic stealth aircraft -- only to find the "advanced" western world held hostage by inventive young people with box cutters, toothpaste tubes, hair gels, and lipsticks? (I can't wait for the movie, but who would buy such a script as plausible?)

The world can only be saved through conflict resolution and diplomacy. Is there anyone left who doesn't know this? Okay, besides our delusional fearless leader and his posse, of course. The lunacy and futility of generations of wars have been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. But then one has to wonder if saving the world and its people is any longer the goal of the evolutionary process. Could it be true that some are now hopelessly consumed by their twisted need to bring on the Rapture -- a concept accepted as truth by only a minority of true believers? I've been trying hard to avoid thinking about the rising voices of the Christian Right in this country -- but this may be the only way to explain what's happening.

A measure of just how far we are from reality is the fact that no one dares to mention the idiocy (at least not aloud), or express embarrassment at just how far off the mark this wayward nation now finds itself in its murderous quest for international supremacy, something we already had but have now squandered needlessly. We were -- not so long ago -- the hope of the world.

Sunday is a disaster! But I'll honor the sabbath by sending off another small check to MoveOn.com or the People for the American Way or anyone else who might be able to overcome the now warped political process and get themselves into the Congress or the Senate in November. I need another work day to take my mind off these things over which I have so little control.

This is assuming, of course, that there will be a November election ... .

(What a chilling thought.)


Strange and wondrous workings of an ordinary mind ...

It must have been some time after six this morning ... my radio alarm is set for the Sunday Edition of NPR ... Lee Ann Hansen's voice is usually the first thing I recall upon awakening. I'm sure that this is the reasonable explanation (though I don't place a lot of trust in reasonable explanations in these later years).

I can recall lying awake for what seemed hours before dropping off into a fitful on-again-off-again troubled sleep. I was still mentally chewing on a letter to the editor I wrote at the urging of a young member of the city staff on Wednesday. She appeared at my cubbyhole excited, "...Betty you need to address this," says she as she urged me to move aside so that she could bring up on my computer an online edition of the West County Times. It was a story about a summit held earlier in the week -- hosted by Senator Don Perata and the mayors of the cities of Oakland and Richmond on the urgent subject of street violence and soaring death rates in both cities. I read the short article and spent the next few minutes writing a quick online response in the bulletin board provided by the paper. When I read the entries that preceded mine, I was horrified. They were as damning of the young as were the words of the political figures that inspired them to write. Cynicism reigns!

The important factor here was not the story but the young Richmond woman whose desk was in another city department -- but within earshot of mine. She was saying to me in her way, "you believe in us, Betty, and you have the words ...". In no more than a few minutes I pulled together a couple of paragraphs that surely wouldn't change history -- but that might reassure my young friend that, indeed, I do. I posted them, printed out a copy, and lay it on her chair before going to lunch.

I knew that the mayor's dramatic program of change, "Safe Streets Now!" involves as it's key element the hiring of 20 additional policeman to roam the streets and catch the bad guys. In the way that dreams can over-simplify, I could hear myself saying, "...not 20 more cops, please, 20 more school counselors and school nurses to identify troubled kids and bring them help before they're lost!" It's all seemed so obvious -- so simple. But then that's the way of dreams, isn't it? Has the media trained us to expect change to occur within the hour -- before the last commercial is aired?

Then this morning -- as I woke from the next round of fitfulness -- the words in my head formed, " ... Lebanon, the War on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, all of it -- makes sense only when the effects of white supremacy and privilege are factored in." I woke suddenly with that all-too-familiar feeling of having solved all of the world's problems in one fell swoop! I knew! But when I woke fully and realized that I'd been dreaming and that the UN wouldn't call me for a statement and that the world was still in chaos, I could hear Lee Ann Hansen's voice as she was interviewing some male voice from overseas. They were talking about the arrests this week by Scotland Yard of the 20-odd young Muslims for suspicion of involvement in the plot to blow up US-bound planes over the ocean. I heard this man comment (by way of explanation) that these were all young Pakistani men who were citizens of England. Then he added, "...though only 5% of the population, young Muslim males make up one-in-five of those imprisoned. He added that, "...though they've lived in Britain all of their lives, they still think of themselves, primarily, as Pakistani." Now why do you suppose that would be?

I sat up in bed then, to give full attention to the obvious. Given no more than those two statements by our reporter, is it not obvious that something dreadfully wrong is happening to the lives of non-whites overseas that is fueling hatred to a degree that has made a growing number of young people of color opt for suicide rather than a future of continuing degradation? And that they will take as many of the offenders as possible with them for the sake of the futures of the generations of young Arabs to follow?

The program loops from five o'clock until ten. I must have heard this interview earlier while half asleep. It shaped my dreams, but I was only sharply aware of the story as I woke at the later airing.

But for a few minutes there, I had the answers and was about ready to pack (no liquids or gels, of course) for the UN to notify the world of my brilliant insights.

Oh how I wish ... .


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