Tuesday, March 24, 2009

So Many Things To Do

Some things you’ve just got to do. You’ve got to clean the stove. And the bathrooms. Besides pay taxes and die, there are lots of things you’ve got to do your whole life long. You’ve got to remind people that organized religion does not run the country and its views on homosexuality should not prevail. It’s a life-long struggle, but you’ve got to keep coming back to it from time to time, when the spirit moves you, just as the kitchen stove keeps calling for a scrub.

You’ve got to remind Americans that there are times when they simply cross the line into stupidity and that stupidity has degrees. There is simple absent-minded stupidity, there is rank stupidity, as when people build bridges to nowhere, and there is cruel stupidity, as when we allow the argument to prevail that allowing assault weapons on the streets of our inner cities somehow serves the cause of freedom.

Last Saturday afternoon, two motorcycle cops pulled a guy over for a traffic violation and the guy shot and killed them. A manhunt for the killer followed and when the SWAT team moved in, the killer killed two more policemen. You can imagine what the mood is like here in the East Bay. Four policemen killed in one day – five shot, actually, but the fifth is still alive.

It will be another Mexican stand-off, of course. Anti-gun people will ask their standard question, “When will we learn?” and pro-gun people will haul out the statistics that crimes go down when laws are passed allowing people to own concealed weapons. I’m on the gun control side, but I don’t want to beat that drum here, except to ask the question even if we do allow guns do we really have to allow assault weapons?

Lovelle Mixon was one of those throw-away kids. Dysfunctional family, no education, apparently no hint of contact with a life outside of the ghetto and prison, no familiarity with a society where the law of the jungle does not prevail. After killing the SWAT team cops, he finished them off execution style with shots to the head. This was one angry 27-year old. Today we learn that DNA evidence links him to a rape, on top of all this, and his desperation apparently stemmed from not wanting to go back to jail. He was being sought on a parole violation.

So much to think and feel bad about. How kids turn this bad. How tragic that four cops should lose their lives – and what are we to do now, stop stopping traffic violators? The implications are profoundly depressing.

74th and MacArthur where this all took place is only ten miles from my house, but it’s another universe. I never go into East Oakland unless I’m lost, like when trying to take a shortcut from the Oakland Airport. Forty years ago I lived there for a while when I was trying to be progressive and demonstrate white solidarity with the black underclass. I had a black lover at the time and was clueless over how much he wanted out – and did get out eventually. Like others of my race and class, I don’t do things like that anymore and justify it by saying it was never about race and always about ignorance and poverty and one does not fight poverty by moving into the ghetto.

But it should not get lost in the discussion over what to assign to race and what to class, and where and how the categories overlap, that this ghetto that is East Oakland has been there as long as I’ve been in the Bay Area, soon going on half a century.

Reading about life in East Oakland is almost like science fiction sometimes. A tipster told the cops where the killer had run to – his sister’s apartment. She recognized his burgundy Buick from the news photos.

Go to Google maps and type in 2755 74th Ave., Oakland, CA and you will see the apartment building. What always hits outsiders, especially non-Americans, is how ordinary “the ghetto” looks. I mean it’s not Calcutta. A tad unkempt, maybe, but so are houses in my neighborhood. There’s something else about the poverty of the mind that doesn’t meet the eye.

The tipster didn’t want to be identified. People in her neighborhood can’t be seen to be helping the cops. In fact, outside the apartment were flowers, candles and balloons, now standard procedure in America when people get shot. Spontaneous rituals of providing a last bit of dignity and solidarity. “We gone miss u big cuzn,” one of the signs read.

That sign doesn’t bother me. I have no trouble understanding even the biggest losers of the world might have somebody to love them. But what did bother me were the flyers inviting people to a rally to “uphold the resistance” of “Brother Lovelle Mixon.”

If you want proof of social sickness, I doubt you can find a better example. A rapist, a violent felon, the killer of young policemen whose use of an automatic weapon reveals a willingness to take countless more lives, is framed as a hero engaged in “resistance.”

That’s not the only science fiction twist. When it was all over, the cops sealed the apartment with a piece of plywood which another inhabitant of the building then ripped off so people could get in and have a look around. When asked by the sister why he should invade her apartment like this, the man answered, “I wanted to see if it was an overkill.”

Such is the state of relations with the cops in this neighborhood. Still pending is the case of a BART policeman who shot a kid in the back after he got him on the ground after a scuffle at a BART Station only three miles from 74th and MacArthur. Still warm in local memory is the celebration by blacks of O. J. Simpson’s acquittal and the comment that it was about time a black man killed a white person and got away with it. Payback time.

I say these are issues that have to be visited with regularity, like cleaning the stove and making the toilet shine. But I know how to use Ajax and oven cleaner. I don’t know how to make American poverty and ignorance go away. One solution popped off the page that you might miss if you were just scanning the story. The tipster happened upon an “officer she recognized.” Bad as this event was, it could have gotten much worse if the police chase had been more protracted. A policeman she recognized. Sounds to me like a pretty good argument for beat cops and more neighborhood one on ones with the cops.

That, and keeping the dialogue going about how to get to the kids born to families that can’t or won’t take care of them, kids who can’t escape the ugly surroundings into which they were born. Big brother and big sister programs. Head start programs. School lunch programs. Stand and Deliver programs that teach kids discipline and self-esteem through academic success.

Got to keep the ideas coming. Got to get to these kids like Lovelle before they learn to think that they can kill people they don't like and their sisters can defend their actions because “he didn’t like his parole officer.”

Prevention goes not just for getting to kids in school. We should stay focused on how the police academy selects and trains its recruits so bad cops too are headed off. One bad cop can set back community relations years.

And we’ve got to keep the lights on on issues of life and death. For me that involves getting rid of the death penalty, avoiding war as a political solution, treating drugs as a medical problem instead of a criminal one, AIDS as a medical problem instead of a moral one – so much falls under the rubric of demonstration of the importance of treasuring all human life.

Laugh, if you need to, at the naivete of that statement I just made. But consider what happens when the lights go out and we avoid such questions because they are embarrassing or frustrating or simply too challenging.

Some things you just gotta do. And keep doing. Your whole life long.

I’m off now to Oakland City Hall to sign the book of condolences. I could be doing other things, like cleaning the bathroom.

I think this is a moment when I want to do both.

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