Last week was a tough week for me, for the staff at my school, and a double whammy for the students we work with. One of our beloved professors, one who demanded much of them and gave more, Dr. John Dennis, was brutally murdered in his home. Students, who come to our barren little campus in East Oakland hoping for a second or even third chance to put their lives on the right road, realized there was no safe place—no solace or respite from their tough neighborhoods in this tough city in this tough country. As on many mornings some came bearing a doughnut or a rewritten paper or a just a sigh of relief for another Monday and for a quiet place to change their lives—and found new grief.
Since that sad Monday, my mornings have been filled with students who feel they have to smoke marijuana just to get up and get out of the house, who cry in my arms over the most recent murder of a beloved cousin or friend, and whose eyes brim with tears when asked a simple question about their unremittingly hard lives. One student had to leave a class where another student had just had a seizure after which the first student quietly shut down from an anxiety attack, while another reacted angrily after being told he could not come to school if he could not deal with his marijuana addiction.
Of course, we’re not alone in the midst of this epidemic of violence. That same week another university student shot down his teachers and peers in the heart of this country, while another midwest city reeled from a shoot-up in their city council chambers.
Still it seems that we haven’t tried to make any connections or act on what we already know to be true. There’s our moronic president who thinks that “shock and awe” was just a tactic on the way to “Mission Accomplished.” Our governor, seeing a bankrupt future for California—thanks to greedy banks, mortgage brokers, hedge-fund administrators, and oil companies etc.—has decided that we should just lower our expectations for a well-educated citizenry, a functioning infrastructure, and working hospitals so that his conservative buddies won’t point their fingers at him for raising (or restoring) taxes, even on the super rich.
So, folks, if you think it has become a little dangerous around here—our city, our state, our country—get ready for the hopelessness that may yet sweep over us like a tidal wave.
Here in Oakland, our Mayor has been out beating the bushes (not those Bushes) for funds to do all those wonderful model-city-kinda programs. I supported his vision and still do, but I have begun to believe that he is at a loss for what it is a mayor’s supposed to do. I think the man has a lot of heart but he doesn’t seem to know where to start.
Of course, he’s not the first one to flounder in the face of the crushing needs and conflicting wants of our city. He’s our third mayor in a row with very little experience in the nuts and bolts of local governing. Even our last mayor, former Governor Jerry Brown, according to all accounts, was a removed and ethereal executive. As mayor, he was even less on task and tended to jump at short-term solutions which he subsequently lost interest in.
So Ron, who seems to truly feel the sense of loss and hopelessness coming from our streets, also seems to be avoiding confronting these terrible problems in the way that we’d hoped he would confront them. I think that maybe the job is so overwhelming that for Dellums the best strategy is to spend his time raising money for the programs that he believes will fix things. He’s probably right about the fixes that we need. He may be able to get enough funds to put some of these programs in place, and he’s certainly right that they’ll take time to work. (But he has filled the potholes: Turns out, that kind of stuff is the easiest to accomplish.)
When Jerry seemed overwhelmed, he resorted to glibness. His fix was to believe that the marketplace would solve all our problems. For a time, it seemed to, but those were boom times that couldn’t continue.
The biggest shortcoming for me in the current mayoral regime is not that Ron is not a good CEO. This is a democracy not a corporation, a business, or a factory; it’s a town of many neighborhoods and cultures. What I expected from this administration, at the least, was a return to participatory democracy, something that should be possible at the local level. I took part in a task force, but we never got to meet with the mayor after we finished our first round of work. Spending many hours every week on top of two jobs and other responsibilities proved too much. So, for me, one round of that with no response was enough.
I’m not sure what I expected but somehow I thought Ron would be out and about, talking and listening to the many constituencies, having groups in to meet with him, responding to ideas, and checking in with neighborhood leaders, activists, parents, and workers for feedback and even more new ideas. Task forces can eventually become stultifying and folks who do not get paid to go to meetings—many task forces ended up being run by professionals—cannot keep that schedule up.
The youth I talk to at my job are experiencing daily violence and abandonment in their neighborhoods, in their homes, and in their city. It’s difficult for them to talk about their lives, because most people can’t and don’t want to imagine themselves in their shoes. I don’t blame them; it can be a crippling experience.
I don’t need answers. Everybody has known the answers since the Reagan administration removed the safety nets (already full of gaping holes) and convinced us that we do not owe the young, the old, the disabled, the sick any protections, any assistance. And everyone should have known that eventually the reaction would be devastating. No, the answers have always been there. But where is the love, where is the heart, where is the courage to face the reality of the pain we have allowed to fester?
We need to be clear about the reach of this crime and violence. The folks who are dying are the same folks who have always been ignored or abandoned in our society. If you’re a middle-aged, middle-class white man or woman, you should fear the violence inherent in driving your car more than living in your average urban neighborhood. As for crime, robbery and burglary may well spread. But the devastation of violence does not affect all our communities (within Oakland) in the same way or to the same degree.
Who is suffering the most? Many young people at our school grew up in foster care where they received little nurturing as children and then were dropped on the doorstep of society at the grand old age of eighteen with no back-up and few skills. Imagine your children, imagine yourself, at that age with no one. One of our best students has to make up time she lost after leaving school at age 14 to take care of her mother. Now, at age 19, she goes to school all day and then to her security job in another city at night. She’s exhausted when she should be in college making new friends and studying wondrous new ideas.
Do I blame Ron Dellums for this? That would be silly. Would I wish that he would come and meet with these students? I have made that request many times. Do I think that Don Perata, who seems to be running for mayor, would do a better job? I guess the idea of imagining someone known as the Godfather, the Don (and one of the most money-grubbing politicians California has ever known) as a role model, much less a mayor for these kids… well, please don’t kid a kidder.
Meanwhile the governor and the legislature have already accepted big cuts in education and Medi-Cal, which many of my students depend on and many more can’t get now, as the solution to our structural deficit seemingly without considering other solutions.
If every one of our current state politicians—and Don Perata is at the top of that heap—does not do absolutely everything within his or her power to stop any more cuts on “the weakest of these,” then all of them are responsible for leaving California a smoking ruin.
The ashes of our golden dream will eventually filter down to all our backyards and across this nation. We can’t wait for hope and change to reach out for us; we have to invent it here, now.