Musical Gentrification or Cleaning up the City One Neighborhood at a Time

Yesterday’s LA Times has an article about the effects of police efforts to curb crime in the part of downtown known as skid row. The claim is that since last fall when LAPD increased the number of officers in the area and put an effort into reducing crime downtown the homeless in skid row have migrated to other areas of the city, particularly those accessible by bus. This apparently is putting a large strain on the service providers to the west and south of downtown. Arguably, “cleaning up” downtown is a positive thing. A close friend used to live in the loft building on the corner of 4th and Main, which borders on skid row. It was a scary neighborhood. And I say that as someone with a pretty high neighborhood tolerance. Nonetheless, despite thinking that downtown could benefit a lot by a reduction in crime, I’m not at all heartened by the LAPD strategy. Nor do I find the dispersing effect it seems to have surprising.

I do find this story amusing in a sort of tragically ironic sort of way. I haven’t been in LA long enough to make claims with any certainty about the reasons for the existence of skid row. However, from what I have seen, it seems that part of the process has involved “cleaning up” other areas of the city and pushing the most vulnerable towards downtown. It appears to me that many homeless have migrated downtown as they have been pushed out of places like the part of Hollywood near the Hollywood & Highland complex (home to the kodak theatre). Hand in hand with the cleaning up of other neighborhoods comes the dumping, done by hospitals, service organizations, and LAPD itself, of homeless individuals into skid row. The friend who used to live in the area was pretty convinced that the city was happy to just shove all the problems into skid row and forget about them.

Needless to say, this is not an effective way to address the problem of homelessness. One service provider characterizes the strategy as “the leaf-blower mentality” asserting that increasing police activity without increasing housing and other services is just going to move the population around without changing anything. Enforcing laws against sleeping on the street in an area that is essentially a city of tents and cardboard boxes at night is a laughably simplistic way of dealing with the problem. The same can be said for increasing the number of drug-related arrests. Both possibilities are simply bandaids over gaping wounds.

That said I do feel a bit of sympathy for those in the police force having to make decisions about how to deal with skid row. No matter what LAPD chooses to do, they aren’t actually going to have much effect on the very serious problem of homelessness in this city. There is nothing, really, that LAPD can do aside from trying to deal with the crime in the area. Though I will note that the logic of this quote threw me: “Officials said they expected the police presence would lead to more arrests but not reduce the overall homeless population, which they said is benefiting from safer streets.”

In the end this isn’t a problem that’s going to go away until we a) have sufficient affordable housing and b) deal with the systematic factors that are associated with the particular challenges (such as substance abuse) that homeless individuals are so likely to be dealing with. We do an extremely lousy job in this country of dealing with mental health issues (not to mention a lousy job of dealing with physical health issues for the poor). And we do a lousy job of providing services for veterans. And honestly, though I don’t have citations on hand to back me up, I think these two factors are a huge part of the trends in homelessness. In the meantime I don’t much like the idea of a homeless ghetto (which is really what skid row is/was) but I don’t think that dispersing people away from the biggest concentration of homeless services in the city is a dramatically better idea.

What's the Matter with Picking on Kansas

Last week’s Economist has a book review of Philip Legrain’s Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them. As I understand it Legrain argues that immigration does not do economic harm to receiving countries and is highly economically beneficial for sending countries. The reviewer jumps off from Legrain’s economic analysis to talk about the intersection of anti-immigrant sentiments and racism. In the U.S. most low-skilled immigrants (and I think this is the relevant group to be thinking about since it seems that most of the anti-immigrant sentiment focuses on this group) are non-white. The same is not true in the U.K. where the addition of poorer countries to the EU has lead to an influx of lesser skilled immigrants from Poland and elsewhere. The reviewer contrasts the lack of protest about the incorporation of European immigrants to the reception of muslim immigrants.

In the U.S. the rhetoric around immigration (particularly undocumented immigration) focuses heavily on the effect that they have on our economy and society. They take our jobs. They lower our wages. They leach off our social services that our tax dollars pay for. The evidence suggests that these effects are either entirely non-existent or at the least significantly less strong effects than lots of immigration opponents seem to think. Still, these sorts of images are used to reinforce exclusionary politics. And as The Economist points, racism will likely continue to drive immigration policy in rich countries for the foreseeable future.

So I could take a stand here and rail against the racist hate-mongers who drive these policies of anti-immigrant-who-is-other but the problem of bigotry is an interesting one because eventually you realize that there are a lot of people living in glass houses. A few days ago I pulled into the parking structure at UCLA and noticed a truck with a bumper sticker that displayed the word Kansas in big letters and then in smaller ones underneath “as bigoted as you think.” This strikes me as a pretty typical liberal holier than thou attitude. I have a number of acquaintances all too ready to hold court on what’s the matter with not just Kansas, but the entirety of the midwest. Apparently bigotry is just fine as long as it’s aimed toward “red-necks.” I’m not sure that I have an erudite commentary that would coherently link these two threads of thought. But I am quite convinced that they are linked, that unchallenged denigration of “other” is no more acceptable from the urban coastal elite than it is from the middle of the country. Moreover I remain unconvinced that Kansas (by which I mean any of the “red” states) is particularly more bigoted than anywhere else. Southern California isn’t precisely a uniform tableau of tolerance. There is, perhaps, a more heterogeneous set of hatred here than elsewhere but I’m not quite sure that I’m confident enough in the material my house is constructed of to be throwing stones at others.

No Clemency

I wish I had something insightful to say about Schwarzenegger’s decision to deny clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams. For me it comes down fundamentally to the fact that I am firmly against the death penalty. Given that, I need not delve any deeper into the questions of guilt vs. innocence or whether Williams has legitimately changed. But this case makes me sad at a deep level because it is not just a question of the morality of state sanctioned killing. For me there is something much deeper to this than just the case of a man convicted of murder who will be put to death by a criminal system structured around revenge rather than reformation.

Surrounding all of this are the realities of race and class hierarchies in this country. Williams is a founder of the Crips. Given that fact, it is perhaps easy to understand the bloodlust that this case seems to inspire for some. But it ignores the question of how gangs form and survive in the first place. It’s not my area of expertise so I can’t lay out all the forces involved. But I will suggest that perhaps when society denies you access to resources and infastructure it is logical to form social structures that give you access to other resources. Too often it seems to me that the way violence and crime gets talked falls back to the assumption of actual equality, both under law and in a the reality of day-to-day living. It always surprises me when people assume that all that is necessary to get out of poverty is the desire to get out of poverty. As if somehow wanting an education will change the quality of the school system you are in (on this one I can assure you from my own experience that it does not). As if somehow wanting a job will change the labor market you are in. It’s a pervasive myth. And a dangerous one.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing that we should shrug our shoulders at the activities of gangs. But I think discussions of these things need to face the realities of what the choices for young men of color in poor urban areas are. These boys are not making the choice between gang life and a job on wall street. But who am I kidding? It is precisely the ability to stick your head in the sand that race and class privilege buys.

Tonight I am sad, and angry. I am also mildly concerned that other people’s sadness and anger may be expressed as violence (lots of my friends seem a bit concerned about violence in my neighborhood and surrounding areas but my fear is more generic than personal; perhaps this is naive) . I’m not normally the type to pray in recognizable ways. But tonight I will light a candle and hope.

Not all garden implements are spades

I have great respect for people who are willing to call a spade a spade, particularly when they are willing to do so in situations where the status quo rules supreme. But I’ve become frustrated with what seems to me a tendency among some to call anything that even vaguely resembles a spade a spade (“it has a handle and you can dig with it, therefore it is a spade; the fact that you insist that it is in fact a hoe is a sign that you are not really with us.”) My main complaint with this lately has been in the area of racism, but it’s a danger in all anti-oppression work. Yes, I said a danger. I think that calling things that are not clearly instances of the racism (or other ism) racism (or other ism) weakens an anti-racist (or anti- other ist) movement. Why? Because it reduces your credibility, and because it makes you appear angry, reactionary, and fundamentally impossible to work with. At it’s worse I think it is equivalent to crying wolf.

Let’s step away from racism for a moment and talk about sexism, since that’s something that I’ve thought deeply about for a longer time (and an area where I’m less likely to be hit with “well it’s your privilege causing you to make that argument; if you were of the oppressed group you wouldn’t feel that way”). I once read (or perhaps it was a conversation) a sort of parody of feminist analysis that argued that ketchup is an element of the patriarchy? Why? Start with round tomatoes, clearly symbol of that which is feminine. Boil these tomatoes down and force them into a bottle. Not just any bottle but a bottle that is higher than it is wide (well, I guess that’s the definition of bottle, otherwise it would be a jar). Don’t you see, you’re taking the feminine round essence of the tomato and forcing it into the phallic masculine mold?! We must protest the patriarchal ketchup. Clearly this is satirical right? And you’d probably find yourself taken aback by anyone who seriously argued that ketchup is a tool of the patriarchy used to keep women down right? Indeed, you might even find yourself questioning whether this person could be trusted to ever cogently analyze what is and is not patriarchal, right?

In most cases the sorts of things that annoy me are not as full blown ridiculous as claiming that ketchup bottles reinforce patriarchy. (I’m sorry, I realize ridiculous is a judgmental term, but since I came up with the original argument in the first place I think I am justified in labeling it as patently ridiculous.) And as a result these things aren’t as damaging to the credibility of the analyses they are associated with, but still I find myself looking at a lot of things that seem very dangerous to credibility.

I’m going to cite an example that is contentious among the Unitarian Universalist community (or at least the online community, for various reasons I haven’t talked to anyone in my immediate UU community about the issue), but I think gets right to the core of my frustration. At the end of June there is an annual assembly of UUs called General Assembly or GA (UUs like acronyms). GA this year was in Fort Worth, Texas. Unsurprisingly there were some incidents of racism at GA. I say unsurprisingly not because I think racism is ok, but because as long as we live in a racist society some incidents of racism are inevitable, even among progressive religious people (who, incidentally, I often feel are much better at denying their racism than actually avoiding racist behavior). There was apparently a great deal of hurt surrounding some of these incidents, and a lot of processing went on around them as well, causing the cancellation of one of the social events in favor of time to process.

In the aftermath the board of trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association issued an open letter of apology. The letter doesn’t give much clue about what really happened or what the nature of any of the incidents really was. The discussions I have seen online about the issue have focused almost entirely on an incident that took place during the closing ceremonies. This incident involved some young people outside the hall. Apparently the young people in question did not have their badges that let the ushers know that they were in fact registered for GA. Thus the young people were not admitted to the closing ceremonies. This made them angry and there were unpleasant words exchanged between the youth and the minister who spoke up in the ushers’ defense.

As you can guess the young people in question were not white. And the incident was labeled racist. In the absence of other information that seemed like a potentially accurate analysis. ChaliceChick brought up another perfectly reasonable analysis, suggesting that the youth might have been asked for their badges not because they were black, but because they were youth. Indeed, she suggests that all the ensuing chaos might have had more to do with their age than their color. If you happen to be a UU you probably won’t be horribly surprised to find out that she was quite quickly attacked in a number of places for suggesting that just because an incident involved people of color does not automatically mean the incident was racist. Yes, for a faith that claims to be non-dogmatic, we are awfully vicious in enforcing the accepted group-think when it comes to racism.

And then, the first actual eye-witness account of what occurred appeared (it appeared first on the anti-racist white allies email list, but I’m linking the article on fuuse). According to the usher (who herself happens to not be white) who was present, the kids were not escorted out because they were black. Indeed they were not even escorted out because they didn’t have their badges. They were escorted out because they were rude and disruptive.

At this point, some people began to acknowledge that while racism is a problem within the UU community, this particular incident might not actually have been primarily about race. Many others, though, dug their heels in and continued to insist that this was racist. And maybe it was. We don’t all the details. But given the details that we do have, I have a really hard time with people saying unequivocably that this was racism. To me it’s like standing in a garden looking at a bit of handle poking out of the ground with the rest of the instrument hidden in the dirt and yelling “look, look, it’s a spade.” Much worse than the continued insistence that this is a spade is the names and insults being leveled at the people who reply “well, I suppose it could be a spade, but we can’t really tell so maybe it’s something else entirely.” This accomplishes nothing. It alienates those who are calling into question whether the implement is in fact a spade. And it may make them much less likely to believe someone when they say “I saw a spade lying out by the garden.” I know for me if you tell me that a little bit of handle poking out of the ground is definitely a spade and ridicule me when I say “it actually kind of looks like the handle to the garden weasel I left out here last fall” I’m going to be very hesitant to ever believe you when you tell me you’ve seen a spade.

I believe language is important. And I believe misusing it is detrimental. When you call everything used to dig a spade it lessens the precision of your analysis. When you call every negative incident that involves people of color racist you are undermining the term racism. You are weakening your position opposing racism. And potentially you are putting yourself in a position when people won’t hear you when you do see something that is racist.

I know that a lot of times it feels like incidents are because of the categories we live in. And often they are. But sometimes a jerk is just a jerk. And I think moving forward in our analyses and our actions requires that we be able to not only call a spade a spade but also stop and ask ourselves and others whether it really is a spade at all.

I’ve spent the past two years of my congregational life calling attention to structures and incidents that I feel are racist. And that’s important work and we should all do it. But for one thing it needs to be done in ways that aren’t confrontational or people’s feelings get hurt and they stop listening (and even if you don’t give a flying f*** if people’s feelings are hurt, if you want to get anything done you better care whether they keep listening). And it also needs to be done in a spirit that recognizes that if we think the people around us are wrong, they also might think we are. The minute we stop being able to question and analyze our own perceptions of things we are lost. If we cannot question everything including ourselves we run the very real risk of becoming a source of the very types of oppression we seek to root out.

Revolutionary Petunias

The title of this is taken from an Alice Walker poem that always makes me think of changing the world by changing the landscape, revolution with a spade and garden gloves instead of rifles (ignoring for a moment the fact that the content of the poem itself is rather violent).

My brain these days is circling around the word revolution, around phrases like social justice. I wonder what others mean by these words. I wonder what I mean. A fellow Unitarian Universalist asks of the support of white allies in anti-racist movements: “I wonder if that support is premised on our space in the sun not creating a shadow for them.” I have spent a lot of time pondering this question and pondering whether my answer is consistent with my faith/philosophy or whether it is a hypocritical mark of racist self-interest. Because ultimately my answer is “yes.” Yes, my support for anti-racist movements is contingent upon those movements not merely shifting upon whom the shadows fall. But I would expand my answer beyond that. It is not just along the lines of color where I think my discomfort with this formulation lies. Fundamentally I am not interested in reinforcing hierarchies. I am not in favor of replacing old hierarchies with new hierarchies that simply favor the formerly disempowered. I do not seek to replace white supremacy with non-white supremacy, patriarchy with matriarchy, or rule by the rich with rule by the workers. I haven’t read Rawles in any detail, but I understand him to basically argue that justice requires the feeling that a system is just even if you don’t know where you’re going to end up in it. The way I think of this is that I should be imagining a utopia where I am not penalized for characteristics of my birth. The assumptions of those fighting for their own empowerment, however, often seem to rest on the notion of a zero-sum game, the idea that one cannot come into power without wresting power from another. And that’s a reasonable assumption, certainly. It’s the next step in the logic that puzzles me. Why does a redistribution of power necessitate recreation of hierarchy? Revenge? Where’s the logic there? Why is it any more fair that I should pay the price for my position in a system created by my ancestors than it is that you should pay a price for your position in a system created by my ancestors?

Truly I’m not much of a revolutionary, the way revolution seems to be typically defined. My disdain for violence seems to get in the way. I understand that to say that I am a pacifist is a reflection of my privilege. I understand that when the war lands on your doorstep the words “but I’m a pacifist” will not stop the bullets. On the other hand, I have seen no convincing evidence to suggest that any problem has ever been solved through violent action. I am convinced, having seen it historically and in the personal lives of people surrounding me, that violence begets violence. Of course violent revolution can be successful, but it requires an astounding amount of blood. It requires not merely overthrowing those in power and putting yourself in their place, but killing every last one of those in power or those related to those in power, or those sympathetic to those in power. Essentially it involves killing anyone and everyone who might eventually want revenge. I have to admit that I am at a loss to think of any cause I support strongly enough to endure that kind of bloodshed.

But I realized last night that I have other problems with leftists and revolutionaries, and radicals in general. Tunnel vision, a devotion to one’s own cause that leaves even well-meaning fighters of oppression perpetuating oppressions of their own even as they pat themselves on the back for their progressiveness. I realized in the midst of another conversation that part of my retreat from economic radicalism has nothing to do with my pacifism and everything to do with my feminism. I offer here two historical examples. The first is the United States in the 1960s. Sara Evans offers a nice narrative of the relationship between civil rights activism and the formation of the women’s movement (second wave feminism). Of course, if you want to look back further, you could also make similar arguments about abolitionism and the suffrage movement (first wave feminism). But flash forward a couple of decades and shift your focus a few thousand miles south of the civil rights work done in Alabama and Mississippi. Anna Fernandez Poncela and Jennifer Bickham Mendez both offer descriptions of women’s organizing in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution that is depressingly familiar. Maxine Molyneux describes the history of women’s organizing in Cuba in ways that again sound all too familiar. And yes, my skepticism is driven largely by self-interest but I have a hard time getting behind the word revolution when it seems clear to me that I risk being put against the wall for the color of my skin (or the privilege of having pursued intellectual pursuits, never mind the ill-logic of punishing people for where they ended up rather than where they started) without even having any hope of overthrowing the particular hierarchal structure that holds me down. And as a feminist I can’t much fantasize about violent revolution if I want humankind to survive. And even if it weren’t for the issue of reproduction, nothing changes the fact that some of the people I love most are people empowered by patriarchy, men.

There is more I could say of course. But really what it comes down to is a conviction that no one should be living in shadows. And a deep underlying suspicion of anyone who would ask me to fight for their right to stand in the sun but be unwilling to fight for my right to the same.