Monday, April 27, 2015

Writing in troubled, troubled times

I say this over and over again - among our most important humans in this time of deep crisis are our culture workers, our artists, poets, story-tellers, those with searing, truthful lenses through which to SEE our world, those with the imagination, the vision, the narratives that can help us imagine new ways of living - because we need them so badly now.

A little while ago I turned on the TV looking for news of Nepal and ran into live coverage of the violence in the streets of Baltimore. Rocks, bricks, and other objects have been hurled at police and several are injured, some with broken bones and one described as "unresponsive."

CNN and MSNBC have unfortunately decided to focus on a CVS pharmacy that is being looted, as if that's the point. Now a police car is in flames, and things are getting worse. Now other stores are being looted, more rocks being thrown...

A long legacy here, one I learned something about during the 25 years I lived in the DC area, in Maryland, just down the freeway from Baltimore,
a legacy of desperate urban poverty left largely unaddressed, racism, gang violence, police brutality and harassment over years and years, profound injustice, and more.

We're a mess. This is just the latest in the string of episodes from our cities in the last couple of years that are shining a fierce light on the true state of the nation. I watch this awful version of what goes for "news" on cable channels and realize how much the media itself fuels the problem with the way it covers these events, what it chooses to focus on - and the narrative that it wraps around it all.

Stories and images - much more powerful than straight out reporting.

And how do you account for police injuring an arrested person, in this case Freddy Gray, so badly that his spinal chord is almost totally severed? What do we really expect of people after that, especially people who have been victims of police abuse over the course of their lifetimes? White people want to tell African-Ams in a city like Baltimore how to behave after these years of abuse and neglect. Protest, but be nice, be peaceful, don't do any damage.

Well, that's not emotionally honest. In fact, responding to this kind of violence with profound non-violence, self-control, restraint, and respect even for those who have harmed you, is heroic, takes incredible inner strength. Read Martin Luther King Jr., and maybe a little Mahatma Gandhi, for more info on that...

We need a new story for this culture in a big hurry, one that tells the real story of who we are. We are actually not such a nice people, not when it comes to matters of justice and race.

Now comes Wolf Blitzer, and he is really stoking the flames of the narrative as he starts his reporting.

As a nation, we're in such trouble. We are falling apart, coming unglued. We have lost any sense of cultural cohesion, always a struggle here, but this feels different, like an inexorable social force leading to our fragmentation as a nation.

In my hometown of Milwaukee, to which I returned 8 years ago after working in the DC area for 25 years, the homicide rate is up 170% from last year. 170%! I try to take that in. Mostly guns. Much of that spur of the moment decisions to resolve an argument. We have lots of guns here now. Guns - concealed and open-carry - thanks to our Repub-NRA-funded state government.

Each victim means another family torn apart. The trauma mounts. And yet polite white society, politicians, and police expect all these people to behave nicely after the latest police killing, or unwarranted traffic stop, or unconstitutional strip search.

Reaping the whirlwind, that's what's happening now. The strain of holding a severely unjust order in place is finally giving way.

What's a writer to do?

Our poetry must be searing. Our lenses must be true and clear. Our stories must reveal. Our words must get us all out of our heads and into our hearts. We have to break the anti-logic, the thinking patterns, the knee-jerk responses of a culture rooted in making divisions among us and then enforcing those divisions with injustice and sometimes by force.

[Just turned the channel to Al Jazeera America. Try it. It's a great improvement.]

I'm currently reading Michael Perry's Population: 425 - Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. He is revealing to me a rich cultural truth about my state that this city girl has no other way of knowing. It is wonderfully written, the characters delightful, the stories moving from comedy to tragedy to poignancy to tender and back around again. I don't know if any of these people and I would agree on one single thing going on in the political culture of Wisconsin right now, but I am fond of them all - because of how Perry is offering them to me, in all their humanity.

Which is where we must meet one another now if we are to stop the unraveling from going beyond a tipping point where the nation really falls apart. I am not trying to be dramatic here. I feel us very close to that tipping point. The way the global economy has been taken over by corporate masters disenfranchising and impoverishing tens of millions of my people, the way the election of Barack Obama has brought the seething racism that has marked the nation's history since slavery back to the surface, electing politicians bent on making certain it never happens again, the rise of religious fundamentalisms that have put a cloak of God and morals over some of the worst in the human heart, and this sense that we do not have the tools or the will available to us to address the biggest crises of our times - from climate change, ecological unraveling of all sorts, terrorism, war, and more - all of this is feeding the fear and anxiety, the rush to blame, that are tearing us apart from within.

What can culture workers do now to serve our broken humanity? What can we contribute? Can the turn of a phrase open a mind or heart? Can a spoken word poem reach to the place of despair and open it again to a place where it can find comfort and solidarity? Can a story open an imagination to another possibility? Can a work of street art get people to stop for a moment - and think - what in the world is going on here? What is someone trying to tell me?

Sounds like a mission to me. And I look for other culture workers who are already engaged in or want to share in a mission like that - because we who try to look often suffer from what we see, and the community support matters to our own psychological and spiritual survival.

Okay, back on Al Jazeera America, here's the older white news correspondent with a British accent, wearing a very nice coat and scarf in the streets of Baltimore where rocks are being thrown. And he has invited two young African-Am men to talk to him and to the world about what's going on, why there is looting, why people are doing damage to their own neighborhoods. He is sincere, he really wants to know, and so they tell him. One begins to talk about being sick of police abuse. And John the Correspondent stops him and says, "But tell me, specifically, what is it they do? What has happened to you?"

So the young man tells him about the traffic stops. "I show him my license and everything's good, and he still makes me get out of the car. He pats me down. I mean, my girlfriend is in the car and I feel humiliated. I don't want her, I don't want my kids, my nephew, to see me like this."

Then they tell John about the beatings, about how police ARE the law in the streets. The other man says he was first beaten by police when he was 15 year old. They say that, if you try to run away, then you really get a beating. It's not just Freddie Gray. It happens all the time.

John asks, so why attack your own neighborhood? "To get some attention, man. Nobody pays any attention to us. We need them to see what's going on here. It may not be cool to do these things [the looting and vandalism] but nobody pays any attention."

Well, bless you Al Jazeera for actually talking to the people in the streets, for giving us another narrative. It makes a difference, doesn't it? A clear and truthful lens.

Meanwhile, just as I was about to finish this, the new images on TV - that CVS pharmacy is now in flames. The governor has declared a State of Emergency for the City of Baltimore. The National Guard is being deployed.

Dehumanization is a powerful, insidious force. What will stop this? What will makes us human again?


  1. This is a wonderful and powerful text! Thank you - definitely shared (and some of my FB friends have already reshared..)