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What the Kerner Commission Said About Ferguson: Nostradamus

I was having a relatively ineffectual day, the kind where your efforts come to naught, so I did what a reasonable person would do in such a situation- I went home and re-read the Kerner Commission Report.

One of the scholars interviewed in the study reported, “I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.

I must again in candor say to you members of this commission- it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland- with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

When Dr. Kenneth B. Clark wrote this, there had been no O.J. riot, no Ferguson, no police body cams, and no Facebook streaming, no Charlottesville- and yet his statement and words ring true today. This man was frustrated by the persistence and repetition of race violence and the associated causes, and 50 years and a black president later, things are still-the-same.

And we don’t need to wonder why.

And we don’t really need another commission to explore the issue.

Because the causes and problems are eerily, creepily, frustratingly- the same.

The problem is that we have never actually taken the actions the study proposed, compounded with a glaring gap where the report made no proposal at all.

The report gives plenty of advice, mostly in re-training the police and National Guard. It also suggested an investment in supporting poor black communities on a scale never before seen- proportionate to the centuries of devastation imposed on the American black population.

What it did not do was prescribe anything to change the cause of the disparity and grief in the first place- white racism and the pervasive and profound lack of white understanding. It pointed a stern finger of blame in one direction (white America), then pointed the finger in the opposite direction moving forward.

Why should any of us be surprised that things have not changed?

The report has this big blind spot, ironically in line with the report’s own conclusions, in that it warns of an impending fracture between black and white- as if the two were ever together. When were we one? The report urges integration, but when it describes what integration is, it lays out abandoning the city and inserting black people into the white suburban community with its associated opportunities. It does so as if those white communities will magically accept these black interlopers, an action they had never done collectively. Why would they-we- change now?

The answer is pretty easy. In large part we haven’t.

We haven’t because, as the report clearly stated in 1967, we white people still don’t understand what it was all about in the first place. I was once taught, and I have seen hundreds of kids taught since, that the original problem was treating people differently because of skin color. That the problem was calling people that N-word. That the problem was the indignity of making people sit in the back of the bus. That the problem was a drinking fountain or entering a business through a separate door.

We were and are taught that the solution, as proposed by the undisputed leader and solution provider Dr. Martin Luther King, was to simply stop judging individuals by their skin, despite Dr. King having never taught that as a solution but rather a goal, but our lessons skipped the work in between. And I will say with confidence, despite the critics, that so many in my generation took the bait. We did it. We listened to our teachers, we followed the king, and we worked to not judge black people.  We idolized Michael Jordan, we listened to Snoop Dog, and we voted for Obama. We did what our teachers and our parents and our churches told us we needed to do to make the world better, we cheered for, and were nice to, black people.

And still Ferguson. We shouldn’t be surprised. The Moynihan Report (196-) and the Kerner Commission (1967) both, explained exactly how and why Ferguson and Baltimore would happen. It stated plain as day that racial violence breaks out in cities because the environment created by white policy makers and power brokers stifles black pursuit of happiness- that jobs were too scarce, that housing was too expensive and run down, that education was underutilized and underfunded, that life was too hard, and that unchecked police brutality in this environment touches off the powder keg- and that the general white population, the ones making major policy decisions and holding the collective purse strings, has absolutely no understanding of how hard life really is in what the report calls the ghetto.

It does not suggest that the solution is to stop saying the N-word out loud. It does not suggest that the problem was interpersonal rudeness and insensitivity. Yet that is where we white folks worked he hardest.

The report suggested monumental increased welfare support of poor black communities. Our investment was not monumental- but our resistance has been. I have been told by many people, in many instances, that this report warns of, and blames, the disintegration of the traditional black family as a cause of welfare dependence and community degeneration. Yet none of these people also explained to me that what this report really claims is that black men, black father’s, were and are being driven from their families by lack of opportunity and a system that prevents them from being able to both stay home and provide. No one told me that the problems with the welfare system were that it didn’t go far enough or last long enough to support any family from doing what they all wanted to do, which was to progress and become self-sufficient. Never once did the report state that government assistance generated laziness or lack of will to move on. What it did say is that the meager scraps provided through assistance were the best options available and were meted out in a manner that trapped individuals into dependence- and it stated outright that the only way out was a major tax funded increase on a majestic scale.

Yet I have heard so many cite the report as a justification for decreasing public assistance. I doubt those who told me this ever actually read the report.

The commission stated that violent and militaristic overreaction of law enforcement sparked the race riots of the 60’s and suggested substantial retraining and accountability of police. The current administration has stated outright it wants to reverse any efforts to do so. I have been told today that saying “black lives matter” is racist against white people and antagonistic to police. I am told that after watching videos of a handcuffed black kid in Oakland being shot by a cop on a subway platform, or a 12 year old black child being shot by officers when the 911 call suggested he had a toy gun, or when I watch a police officer shoot a mental health worker who was lying on his back with his hands in the air, or when I question how a handcuffed black kid gets his neck broken while in the back of a police van, that I should withhold judgement or emotion because the cop was afraid. I think of this argument and read it plastered across my Facebook feed, and then I read the report of Newark 50 years ago.

I read about how the National Guard had taken cover on corners and behind cars, lying flat for safety, because they were under sniper fire from a housing project. The local Director of Police arrived on the scene and walked boldly upright through the middle of this scene and no shots were fired. Eventually, as the officer finished surveying the scene, a gunshot finally came, sending the already hunkered Guardsmen scrambling. The officer, who knew this place, didn’t scramble but walked over to one of the soldiers and asked him if he was the one that fired. He said that he had. He had seen someone near a window and shot at them. The local officer stayed on the scene for several hours with no incident. Upon his departure two additional columns of Guardsmen were called to these scene and directed mass fire into the projects in response to reported snipers. And then I watch footage from Ferguson.

Or Charlottesville. And I wonder when we will follow the advice and recommendations we have been giving ourselves since before violence in Baltimore, L.A., Charlottesville, or anywhere going all the way back through reconstruction? When will WE, the white people who explicitly or implicitly control so much of what happens with our taxes, our public policy, our society, change? Change in a way that will help. Change in a way that will work. Get better in the big way, not just the one-on-one easy way.

Maybe more of us should start by simply reading, not reading about, the Kerner Commission report. Or the Ferguson Report Maybe even that one from Moynihan too.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/8073NCJRS.pdf

https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

https://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/moynchapter5.htm

 

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I Abandoned A Homeless Man: what a horrible thing to say, uhhhh… do.

Calvin James *not his real name.
Today I got great news. I was informed that I am no longer responsible for a homeless man. Yup, he’s off the books.
This doesn’t mean he is all the way off the streets; he’s just off my plate.slumpedcorner
Off my plate.
How cold. Like left overs.
Has-been, second rate, and inconsequential leftovers. It feels heartless to talk about him this way because it is. I feel heartless that I was even able to walk away from his life, but I have. It is good that I’m no longer responsible for him, I was never very good at it, but I was all he had. I wish I could say I left him in a better spot than when I found him, but that isn’t true.
That isn’t true mostly because he wasn’t homeless when I found him.payphone
When I met Calvin James he was a competent, cocky, guy. He wore shined shoes and suit jackets along with gold hoop earrings. He was a little flashy for my taste but always well put together. He was funny and friendly and above all else, he was sure of himself. But he had reason to be.
Calvin can cook.
When we met he was the head chef of a fancy prep school. He had a kitchen and a staff. He loved what he did and took great pride in it. The man could, and really still can, cook.
We met in church.pushforhelp
This cocky guy came in contact with some missionaries and couldn’t shake them. He began to realize that his life lacked depth and this new church had it. Now I have met some others in church who came there to escape their past. Calvin wasn’t doing that. I have met some who lived hard lives, or maybe lived life hard, and once on the bottom looked to God as a way back up. That wasn’t really Calvin either.
Calvin had it together. He had done some college, business school, had a career he loved, and he wasn’t all that old, just a little over 40. He was single, no kids, owned a house. He came to church, not necessarily came from somewhere else.
That was Calvin.
Then came cancer.
I don’t know all the details, I’m not a doctor. I know he lost a lot of weight, he was never very big, went through radiation of some sort but kept his hair, and I know it was very hard on him. He had to take time off work to get healthy; Dr.’s orders. He took so much time off that his job let him go.
It wasn’t right for them to let him go and after a lot of haggling the courts agreed and he got a settlement. He got a settlement, but not his job. He was also awarded disability benefits but not a clean bill of health. So now he had a little bit of money but still had cancer.drugtires
Losing the job hurt him a lot. Chemo is painful and so is unemployment. Calvin tried to kill the pain. But Calvin found this pain was hard to kill and then the doctors told him it wasn’t just ordinary pain, it was depression. For those keeping score we are up to cancer, unemployed, and depressed.

 

Then came the fire.
While Calvin was in the hospital there was a fire in his house. He didn’t know about it till he got home. Calvin was, and still is, a nice guy; the kind that lets people live in his house. Some of the sorts of people who just live in a friend’s house are also the sort that just runs away when a fire starts. Sometimes when you live in an old house in North Philly and you get cancer you don’t really think about things like insurance. Calvin didn’t have homeowner’s insurance.
For almost a year Calvin lived in a fire damaged house with no windows and a door that wouldn’t close all the way. He spent most of that time trying to kill the pain. Now a bunch of us tried to tell him things, warn him about stuff, and he tried coming to church, but none of the words, or sitting in a pew, made the pain go away.

 

shopping cart

Then Calvin just kind of went away.
I would go by his house, the one with the open door, but he was never there. Sometimes some very suspicious people would be there, but never him. After a while the people who were there didn’t even know who he was. He was gone.
But he was never all the way gone. He would turn up, usually in a hospital, and usually when it was cold. Sometimes he would just show up on a Sunday to say hello. He would be there looking a little unkempt, never asking anyone for anything, just wanted to say hello and go to Sunday school. He told me the cancer was gone and he was doing OK. I never pressed to hard. People who have hit the bottom don’t normally like to be pressed too hard. When you are on the bottom being pressed feels like being smashed.
One day Calvin called me in tears. His father had died.
He told me his father had been sick for some time, living in a nursing home. The funeral was tomorrow, he had just been told today. He found out via an aunt. All the arrangements had been made by one of Calvin’s two brothers, but none had thought to tell Calvin.
Calvin asked if I would come with him to the service and just be there with him. I took the day off work and went.couchoncurb
I never knew Calvin had a family and when we showed up at the service, I didn’t really learn anything different. They all knew who he was, he looked exactly like his two brothers, but it was equally as obvious he wasn’t really one of them. I sort of stood back and observed as Calvin looked in the casket and touched his father’s face. We sat off to the side as the service went on, speaker after singer after speaker. Everyone in the family got a turn. But not Calvin. In fact Calvin’s name was not in the obituary, not on the program, and not on the lips of anyone who spoke that day. When it was all over I pulled Calvin’s arm over my shoulder and half carried, half drug, this grown man to my car. Then I dropped him off at a shelter.

 

He was a wreck.
About a year after that Calvin called me for a ride. We had been in and out of touch so this was not completely out of the ordinary. This ride was to the social security office. He had to be there at 9am. He asked me to sit in on his appointment. This part was not ordinary.
As the woman began shuffling papers around and talking in official tones I began picking up that there was a problem with Calvin’s money. The money didn’t come right to Calvin, it went to his aunt. Because Calvin had once been hospitalized for depression and dependence, the state would not just hand him some cash, they required a responsible third party to make sure it was spent responsibly. The aunt was now refusing to be this responsible party.
She asked Calvin who the new “payee” would be.
He stared at his hands in his lap, said nothing, and sheepishly looked over at me. I wanted to argue. I wanted to walk away right there. But I knew just enough of his family and situation to know I was there because he had already tried everything else. I signed the paper.
Shortly after signing the paper I got a government ATM card with my name on it in the mail along with an IRS accounting form. I had to report to them how every penny was spent.
From then on I also got a phone call on the first of every month from Calvin. Well, not every month. Sometimes he would disappear and then pop back up in a hospital. There was always a story that went along with it, but after the third one I stopped believing. Not long after that I stopped listening.
Once Calvin started trying to put the pieces back together I began trying to really help. We got him a phone he could afford. The doctor found him a half-way house recovery program. Calvin and I went back to his burned out house and loaded some clothes into trash bags and took them to this half way house. If you have never been to a half-way house for recovering addicts the first thing that you will notice is that they are filled with recovering addicts. Obvious, recovering addicts.boardedup
The man who ran this first house wore fur coats, gold chains, and had his fingernails painted like American flags. Most of the men in the house weren’t really recovering. I learned this because Calvin began buying his stuff from his roommates with the money he was supposed to be spending on food.
The second place we went to had forty men staying in about 1500 square feet.
We tried having Calvin live on his own. We stopped trying to have Calvin live on his own after two more trips to the hospital.
Calvin has a good therapist. This good therapist found Calvin a spot in a home run by the Catholic Church. Calvin has lived in this shelter for a little more than a year.
We have been at this for some years now Calvin and I. Long enough that if I’m honest with myself I must admit I stopped really trying to help a long time ago. A long time ago I met with the director of the shelter and worked out a plan. I pretty much turned it all over to him. At first I would get a call from Calvin on the first of the month, and then I would deliver a money order for his rent and some cash for his food. Then a little later on I would deliver some cash and make him go get the money order.
But really, near the end, what I did was make a withdrawal, make a delivery, and then make an accounting to the IRS. Calvin became an errand.
I feel bad about that.
The good news is that Calvin has been clean and stable long enough that the he is no longer required to have a payee. The money goes right to him. The bad news is that I’m not confident that Calvin will be OK. He isn’t the Calvin I first met. He isn’t the cocky guy who loves his job. In his place is a beaten down guy who is mostly tired of living with addicts.
I watched this guy go from there to here and at the end of it all I am mostly just glad to not be his payee. That is it. The prevailing emotion, the feeling, is the same relief one gets from crossing off the bottom of the honey-do list.
But he isn’t a task he is a person.
A person with a life. A person with problems bigger than anything I face and at the end of it all I walked away. Well, really I drove a moving truck away, but none-the-less I left. I left a man with problems. A man I tried to help but failed, and then I just sort of shrugged my shoulders and moved away. I shrug my shoulders, move away, reflect, and write it up as a story. I write a story mostly about what I feel.
What about Calvin?

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