Friday, June 17, 2005

About that wild and crazy border-crossing ...

Have been wanting to say something profound about that weird man who crossed the border from Canada a couple of weeks ago. The words were hard to find. It was all so obvious. Surely everyone had reacted to the news similarly, but I wasn't sure. After all, the jokes were numerous and the night show hosts must be having a field day. "Stranger passes immigration carrying brass knuckles, a sword, a knife and a chainsaw stained with what appeared to be blood." How crazy is that?

Allowing it to pass without comment seemed the wisest course. After all, wouldn't anyone reading those words feel the same shock over the lack of "homeland security"? That would be only one aspect of the incident, however. There was so much more to the story, not to mention the decapitated male body plus that of some unidentified woman found later. This, plus the fact that the Canadian justice system was awaiting his appearance in court that very day.

What did it say to me? The obvious was that this was the ultimate example of white privilege. The explanations given quite seriously by some good friends and some public figures were that -- the immigration agents could not be held to blame since there were no grounds upon which to hold him. (They'd confiscated his weapons, after all.) He'd received an unknown number of points simply for being white -- a kind of affirmative action not often considered publicly but silently accorded to the anointed.

Were that wild man of a different skin color; black or brown or had he appeared middle eastern, would there have been any hesitation to hold him at the border until a thorough investigation had been undertaken? The double standard has allowed for the imprisonment of hundreds (thousands?) of darkskinned people with no known crimes on record -- to be held for years in Guantanamo and elsewhere. Many have been released as innocents after losing years out of their lives to our paranoia. Many are suffering torture at the hands of American "contractors" in our names after being flown into countries known to embrace the most brutal of interrogation practices. I cannot imagine that we "good Germans" haven't taken our outrage to the streets before now in an effort to stop such practices in our names.

It is painfully clear that this obvious sociopath was given a pass because our government would never hold a "white guy" until there was clear evidence of a good reason to do so. "We had no valid reason to keep him from entering the USA. That being so, we had to allow him through."

The irony is inescapable.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

New body count ...

The feeling that the earth is shifting beneath our feet is more pronounced today than it was only a few days ago. In the interim between the last entry and this has seen a 7.2 earthquake at Crescent City -- at the northwestern corner of the state. The tsunami warning involved the entire coast from Alaska to Mexico. My apartment looks out on San Francisco Bay. The sight of water was as menacing as if it were the ocean. Above us is a huge earthen dam that stores all of the water for the city of Richmond. It's several miles long. My apartment complex sits in the direct path of the San Pablo Dam. The Hayward fault runs very near to our home and -- if viewed on the map is shown dropping off into the Bay at Point Pinole -- about a mile-and-a-half from where I sit at this moment.

Add to that the sound of bullets piercing the night at around ten last night. The screams of sirens and the window-rattling roar of police helicopters announced that the street wars have moved from the rotting heart of the city to within sight of Hilltop Village -- where my home is located. Last night at least one more death and three more critical injuries were added to the list of casualties. The death toll is now 14. Four of those occurred over the past week. Today the mayor will announce a state of emergency -- as if that will quiet either the earth under our feet or our streets under assault by gun violence.

I'm certain that we're seeing a leaderless revolution and that the answers won't be easily found. During my long lifetime I've seen us reach this boiling point before. Each time only a fragment of the problem is addressed -- postponing the day of reckoning but rarely if ever taking the full corrective action required.

I'm not sure that anyone is making the connections between the fact that -- only yesterday -- the Senate was again unable to pull together a unanimous vote of apology for the horror of lynching. Since the days of Reconstruction there have been over 5000 (mostly black men) hung from trees, eviscerated, burned alive, dragged behind trucks, etc., and to the jeering and amusement of crowds of white families who participated as bystanders to a shameful continuing era in our history:

WASHINGTON -- The Senate officially apologized Monday for something it didn't do -- take a stand against the lynching of thousands of black people.

By a voice vote, the Senate approved an apology for failing to enact anti-lynching legislation. At least 80 senators signed on as co-sponsors.

Between 1890 and 1952 seven presidents urged Congress to end lynching. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced over that period.

But the Senate, with Southern conservatives wielding their filibuster powers, refused to act.

With the enactment of civil rights laws in the 1960s and changes in national attitudes, the issue faded away.

(Washington Post - June 15)
There is a relationship between what is happening at Guantanamo and Abu Graib and the kinds of brutality that a significant number of our citizens are capable of. We are -- and maybe always have been -- a cruel people. That our children know this at some visceral level and are reflecting that cruelty should come as no surprise. The models are before them on the small screen, in the multi-plexes in living color and surround-sound, and from the media, the internet, and at times -- from personal experiences in our juvenile detention centers and prisons. There are no surprises here. We're creating monsters and we make no apology for it.

We've created a legacy of unbelievable cruelty over many decades, and are now exporting it worldwide. Our leadership models on the world stage precisely depict what we're now living with in Richmond. This is insurgency warfare just as brutal as what we're seeing in the Middle East. The only thing lacking at this point would be the heroism of those who sacrifice their lives by becoming human bombs in the pursuit of their goal to oust the occupiers. There's little heroism on our streets; only terror and a one-way trip to the yawning gates of the prisons. But the plight of the Iraqi resembles that of Richmond's street warriors in at least one way; hopelessness deep enough to merit suicide. The differences lie in the fact that the Iraqis are struggling to rid their country of invaders who are imposing their will and threatening their sovereignty. The Richmond youngsters don't even know who the enemy is and therefore their suicide has no rational meaning. They appear to be eliminating the "self" that is reflected from others around them. They're living under a code of violence that few can penetrate. It appears that we've lost them to that code.

Today I'm frightened. In the background I can hear the voices of those testifying at the Conyers hearings in Washington. It all feels so hopeless. It's all so familiar. I'm not sure how the impeachment of the president et al will effect the threat that lies so close to me, but it may serve to give hope to those with the power to change things. It may not save the street warriors in the immediate future, but over time, it may make life safer for my grandchildren. How I wish I had the power to love these kids back into the mainstream. But my place in it is only conditionally secure, and subject to the vagaries of a changing ethos of a nation in complete moral disarray.

After all, yesterday 20 Republican senators refused to vote to apologize for the lynching of black Americans. They were not being asked to support a bill but a simple resolution. Since it was a voice vote, Majority Leader Bill Frist was able to refuse to allow the votes to be polled - thereby protecting their identity from voters. Their refusal grants permission to their constituents to continue to deny rights and perpetuate the cruelties that leave shameful stains on the body politic. It is attitudes such as theirs that continues to cheapen life and feed the rage that is exploding so brutally on the streets of Richmond.

I'm not sure how we can discover which senators voted against the resolution, it will be difficult to respond effectively. Maybe you will join with me and others in trying to identify them and to help to select suitable leaders to succeed them in 2006. We're going to have to begin to support candidates in a nationwide way -- living in the San Francisco Bay Area as I do, it would be easy to relax in the knowledge that our leadership caucus is enlightened and can be counted on to express that in their votes. I'll look at the next elections in a very different way, I think, and hope that others will do the same. Acting locally in a world economy may mean acting nationally. The context has changed drastically and our responses probably need to adjust accordingly. The time has come when we must think of Georgians and Iowans as our neighbors for the purpose of bringing change. The greatest nightmare of those who have usurped control of our country would be the coming together of ordinary people like me and thee for the purpose of bringing us back to the pursuit of a truly compassionate America. In such a nation Guantanamo, Abu Graib, and the terrifying street wars of cities like mine might eventually disappear into history as we begin to build a new future together.

There may be lots of blue state folks who are as appalled by the state of the union as we. Do you suppose?

It's a thought... .

Sunday, June 12, 2005

All of the notes but none of the music ...

Spent last evening in the suburbs in the company of my friend and his grandson, a really fine 14 year-old youngster, an avid musician aspiring to find a place in the jazz scene once he matures into it. Both his parents are professional classical musicians so his world is rich with potential. I looked over at his innocent ruddy cheeks with the dark bangs stopping just above his brows in the way of the English schoolboy. He plays in a middle school jazz band that involves 80 youngsters. I thought about him and about his world in contrast to my own and that of the children I see around me from my windows. It is stark.

This morning I met with a black entrepreneur who is considering taking on some of my writings for some national exposure (don't ask). We were acquainted many years ago when we both were residents of Berkeley and when he headed the school board there and I was an aide to a member of the Berkeley City Council. He is now heading up a task force that is trying to address the out of control spate of black on black crime in Richmond. It was he who masterminded a summit about a week ago that brought together all of the forces (civic, faith, nonprofits, social agencies, and political figures and the media) to spend a full day examining the causes and effects of this frightening situation.

I learned from him that there have been 90 shootings since January 1st (all black), resulting in countless injuries and 10 deaths, the most recent being two days ago within a block of NIAD, the place where Dorrie spends her days. She'd mentioned when she came home on Thursday the yellow tape that surrounded the block. I felt a chill but it was quickly dissipated as my mind absorbed this no longer unfamiliar announcement and the buzzer sounded on the micro wave oven announcing supper.

Richmond is now listed as the most dangerous city in the entire state. It is the 12th most dangerous in the nation. It is a city without its soul ... .

Last night I sat in one of the clubhouses in Rossmoor, a relatively affluent mostly white gated community of 10,000. The room held perhaps 75 elders (except for Matthew) to listen to a concert featuring Dmitri Matheny on flugelhorn accompanied by a jazz pianist whose name I didn't catch. They were playing standards so "standard" that I could have named the arrangers and hummed the lead on anything played (and did to the annoyance of the woman sitting to my left!). It was a typical 'white folks' audience -- sitting quietly between songs and clapping politely as the ends were tagged; so sterile. I've seen a far greater level of enthusiasm in a chamber music audience -- but only in a highly controlled manner that dictates precisely where applause is allowed (only at the end of the piece and surely not ever after a movement).

It was clear that no one in the room realized that jazz here was totally out of context, and that the only way to fully experience this music is to be in an "affirmative action" crowd made up of at least 65% black folks. Only half of the experience is derived from what happens onstage, the other half comes to life from those listening. It's the old "call and response" that feeds the musicians and floats under them in a way that provides the impetus for creativity -- the "music". It's the same element that a rousing black gospel choir provides for the preacher to soar over and drives the frenzy that good preaching evokes and sets up the spontaneous altar shuffle, the occasional swoon -- and the "speaking in tongues" phenomena. Black audiences relate to performers one-on-one. The response is immediate, passionate, noisy, with shouts of appreciation of any especially inventive phrase -- and right in the middle of a riff! They're participants in the performance. They're sophisticated and pick up every nuance and the players know it. Musicians work as hard to bring that to life in an audience as black preachers do to get folks to "testify!"

It was clear that those two very accomplished white musicians last night were striving to bring the audience into their realm, but they were left with only the notes. They had no idea of how to produce the jazz experience in that "civilized" room. I'm not even sure that they knew that they have only partial control over the end product -- the music. I wonder if they know that the notes that they play may be on the charts on the music stands before them -- but that the music is in the people they are trying so hard to emulate. These audiences don't have a clue.

The black kids who are wielding the guns on our streets probably have no idea that the product being so faithfully imitated in Matt's 80-piece middle school jazz band, and that which was being presented last night at Rossmoor originated on the streets, in the clubs, in the choir lofts of street-front churches is their legacy -- bought and paid for by much pain and humiliation by black musicians who preceded them. They've lost sight of that blacks created America's only original internationally-celebrated art form by a lifetime. Perhaps they never knew. Where would they have learned about themselves and their culture -- about jazz?

Because the links have never been made to a culture that continues to enrich the world, these kids are bereft of a crucial connection to their own souls. Self-hatred has been internalized to the point where what we're seeing may actually be a leaderless revolution" misnamed - "Crime in the Streets." Life has been cheapened by successive wars communicated by successive major developments in the delivery of information to masses now armed to emulate the destruction on their own scarred and crime-ridden city streets of neighborhoods that exist in a state of hopelessness.

The black musicians who created the playbook that has lived into our times climbed out of the ghettos and into international prominence through their instruments and access to instruction through either working as teens with older pros or with borrowed instruments through public school programs. The access to this art has now been stripped from school curricula. That is, except for the Matts out in the safety of the suburbs where affluent parents have created foundations through which to augment the arts and keep them as avenues to fame and fortune -- for the enrichment of their own children. What Richmond kids have access to are illegal drugs and guns. The 49% dropout rate can probably be partially attributed to the loss of the arts in public schools. Those 49% of students of color drop out of school by the tenth grade.

Bereft of alternatives but with music and "the beat" crying for expression from somewhere deep within, our kids have been left with only their voices -- their lips -- to use -- and out of that they've fashioned rap, Hip Hop,, an art form that has swept the world and become the vehicle for poets and DeeJays of every language. They've re-shaped street culture at least one more time. That so much of it expresses rage should be a surprise to no one. Rage has become the irresistible driving force for much of the contemporary music of the young, and rightly so. But it transforms when expressed by those who've been lucky enough to attain the resources to combine their artistry with that of others -- often across cultures -- and in the way of Josh Redman, Jill Scott, Paul "DJ Spookie" Miller, and Will Power.

There was a sadness for me last night. I found myself wondering where the new black players are going to come from? Will the art form simply die when the sources have all become derivative and innovation has succumbed to market forces and aging memories? What will happen when there is no one left who remembers that -- once the emotional content has been stripped away -- once the performer is no longer fed by the listener; once the "call and response" has disappeared ... are we simply listening to empty echoes of what once was? And are the sounds I heard last night merely ashes to the embers of the originals? Is this new hybrid composed of black innovation plus white emulation going to be enough to resurrect the souls of our children? Will education ever become relevant enough to nourish and promote their entry into the culture with full credit for ancestral contributions already invested? Or will black culture continue to be expropriated without recognition; with critical elements left on the cutting-room floor because we've simply forgotten all of the elements and accept it in a form that is soul-less?

... and ... in the final analysis, is the essence of what jazz is being defined by the emulators? 

What will that mean?

I wonder if "all of the notes but none of the music" isn't a metaphor for a lot of what I'm living in these confusing final years?

Something to think about before falling to sleep tonight ... .

Photo: Ceramic on wood. This was an award received by our store, Reid's Records, for having pioneered black gospel music and for having contributed significantly to the popularizing of the art form. Geoffrey's Circle in downtown Oakland hosted the event in the early mid-90's.