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Isolation, Displacement and Disenfranchisement—What Berkeley Misses (Personal Essay)

By Thomas Lord
Wednesday December 19, 2012 - 07:52:00 AM

I live in Berkeley, California. Yes, that Berkeley. I have long hair. I don't often wear tie-dye t-shirts anymore but I think I still own some. I think everyone who lives in my apartment building is college educated or close to it. The public schools are said to be pretty good. There is a very large, very well maintained public park nearby and kids' leagues from surrounding cities come to make use of the two well groomed baseball diamonds. (The tennis courts, tot playground, community center, picnic areas, recently resurfaced basketball courts and unofficial but tolerated off-hours dog park are also very popular.) Our City Council on Tuesday took up a resolution against allowing civilian or law enforcement drones here—an item put forth by the "Peace and Justice" council-appointed citizen's commission. That commission is one of many citizen commissions that operate with funded support from city staff and help to create and shape local public policy. While my block and neighborhood are high on the list of poorest, relative to the rest of the city, the city as a whole is very affluent. By population I think we are about 4 times larger than Newtown and by land area we are almost 6 times smaller. One of the most bitter battles in the recent election was a narrowly decided zoning issue regarding our light industrial zone (and its possible up-zoning). 

I live right next to one of the murder capitals in the US., Oakland California. I can walk a few blocks to a famous "gang injunction" area — a court-ordered stay-away zone and do-not-associate-with-one-another zone for a bunch of named gang members. A few months ago a fellow was murdered (outside the zone) about 2.5 blocks from here (in Berkeley) near the corner store and next to the community's non-profit organic nursery. Rumor had it that that was a case of mistaken identity. A couple of years ago I covered, for a local news outlet, a murder even closer than that. I got to that crime scene early on in the event because I had my window open and heard the multiple-10s of shots, in well under a minute, with only perhaps two or three shooters, using weapons that would not be prohibited by Diane Feinstein's bill. There was a teen there at the scene who acted kind of weird around me once I was recognized to be press and, I'm not sure it's the same guy, but I think he was the kid killed a few weeks later in a shooting that the police decided was an accident. I can give you a rough idea of where, nearby, you can buy a few hours alone in a motel room with an adolescent child, if you are so inclined. 

What remains of the local press is increasingly afraid to venture into Oakland because a resale market exists for high-end cameras and video cameras such as the one that was recently stolen from a TV news station during a live broadcast from a public high school. "Someone is going to get shot and the funeral won't be mine," said one photojournalist to explain why he was refusing to go cover any more stories in Oakland where, in fact, people get shot all the time. Generally speaking the Oakland police department no longer responds to or investigates home burglaries and the like, although they maintain a web site where you can file a police report for insurance purposes. Indeed, in Oakland the son of Willie Brown (former mayor of San Francisco and former state assembly speaker) came home to observe burglars in his home — who took their time finishing the job and leaving well before the police sent a squad car to take the report. I have neighbors whose main response to this kind of thing is to try to engage in collective punishment, suing and harassing black families and businesses out of town. Did I mention that the Oakland police department has recently been put under the control of a federal-court-appointed official because of its repeated failures to correct its tendency to act like just another street gang, shaking down and beating up and murdering and such? 

Again: I'm talking about Berkeley and the Bay Area. You know, "The Graduate", vegan food, Chez Panisse, and Silicon Valley. Some of you have probably been here on business and had very nice meals and some good wine. Perhaps you caught some theater or took a drive along the coast. 

Berkeley is increasingly awash in (mostly white) economically displaced young people — many of whom aged out of foster care and were dumped off on the street. Word is that the whole coast is lit up with this growing demographic of very angry, permanently displaced young people — many quite smart and not especially crazy — who simply no longer believe in the legitimacy of government or straight society. They don't see many ways to live without enduring the gratuitous violence of the more privileged and they're increasingly consciousness-raised about that. The town's swells are trying hard to harass and legislate them out of town — so we'll look more like Palo Alto, I guess, in spite of having little in common besides the dual presences of a lot of money and an institution with "University" as part of its name. 

I've been directly engaged in two mental health crises right on my street. One was an impoverished single mom who the community could no longer prop up to get past her episodes of standing and shouting out to Jesus for hours on end. I only knew one of her boys... perhaps 6 or so ... from holding his head in my lap while he hoped to avoid another beating. I wound up praising and encouraging his late developing ability to add numbers less than 10 together. He was keen to show them off. He'd seen something like it in school, I gathered. He illustrated his reasoning with some rocks off the ground. In another case there was the 30-something woman, nearly catatonic most of the time, kept as a latchkey child by a mother who knew all too well what the public options were. When her mother's care faltered, and the disabled woman spent months living in a feces-filled apartment, roaming the street from time to time in her feces-covered clothes, dropping weight to the point she looked on death's door —- when that happened it took all of those months from the first sign of trouble for me to coordinate the public agencies enough that they felt they could legally act. 

I have great respect for how badly the Newtown tragedy makes everyone, including me, feel. It is a struggle — and I do try — to have any respect at all for the kind of "gun control!" or "more gov't spending on mental health!" responses and rhetoric. I want to say, frankly, those responses come from a perspective that is not situationally aware. It is a harsh thought but I keep coming back to my perception that economic and racial and gender privilege — combined with the specific technological and cultural organization of our time — has left so many of us without a freaking clue about what the state of the world is. It's so easy to isolate ourselves. To go live in a nice neighborhood. To maintain the illusion of worldliness by developing a keen familiarity with the airport corridors and fine hotels and restaurants of major cities around the world. To eat from menus that vaguely refer to what used to be a practical diet, and call it rustic. To support (passively or actively) the school district that wants to drive out the problematic kid (as in this Newtown case). To feebly entrust to Diane Feinstein our political response to a tragedy. To throw more money at mental health agencies on the assumption its their job to make the problems just magically disappear. It's just rent on our personal islands, right? 

The powerful in this country — and relatively speaking that's us — treat all this dysfunction as an inconvenience. We look to government or mental health institutions or institutions of education to please just go ahead and implement some policies and make all these displaced, angry, violent, dead-ended, rejected, ostracized people disappear from sight. When, as in Newtown, white privileged society, with its predilection for exclusions and expulsions starts manufacturing maniacs of its own the liberals can't decide if its better to step up the elitism with gun regulations or state-operated mental health regulations but either way the gist is the same: to try to answer the symptoms of isolation, displacement, and disenfranchisement by making the barriers of exclusion harsher. Hey, maybe it's not just an outrageous distribution of income disparity we suffer in this country but an outrageous distribution of attention and community.