(All Words Matter - Part II)
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
I love musical theater. It is a not-so-guilty pleasure that I first developed while watching my high school’s presentation of Little Shop of Horrors, back in 1991. Since I had zero artistic talent, I was a member of our stage crew. Shout out to our amazing director (Bob Sloat: RIP) and both Audrey 1 and Audrey 2 - Kathi Carpenter Cox and Patrick Belizaire. They were artists who created an experience that made me want to come back for more. Since then, I have seen scores of shows, I own even more soundtracks, and can loudly, and poorly, sing nearly every insanely irreverent word of The Book of Mormon as well as every profoundly connective word of Rent.
A few years ago my wife bought us two tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway. With no real disrespect to every academic institution that I have attended, I learned more about United States history in that two-and-a-half-hour sitting than I learned in all my other education combined; and it was also a lot more enjoyable. Especially in high school, the way we were taught US History (and English) served as a very clear and public reminder of the invisibility as a black boy that I was feeling. Back then, much of history “happened” to me and my ancestors, while, at least in my mind, the male ancestors of my classmates and teachers made history. And even more troubling, now in my adult life, I am learning how much of our history has been manipulated by the storytellers that write our history books. No matter how great our country wants to be we cannot rely on lies and half-truths to make us feel better. Christopher Columbus was a great explorer and by all accounts, a terrible human being. #FACTS. Good people, with even average intelligence, cannot argue against those facts. But so many “good” people chose to cover up his atrocities in order to celebrate him unashamedly.
In a different and in my opinion more perverse cover-up, last year, I found out that the Statue of Liberty was a gift not about immigration, but about emancipation from slavery. Those words matter and that story matters, because the truth matters. All elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high school graduates in the United States are required to take US History. We are told that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” I understand the “benevolent” desire to shield our elementary students from the horrors of our past. It’s like telling them that when a favorite pet dies that it went to Auntie Martha’s farm in the country. Subverting the truth is an effective tactic for protecting and controlling children (and adults) and that’s why we have Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Bogeyman. But if they are 18, and then 30, and then 50 and they believe that death is Aunt Martha’s farm, we have done them a huge disservice. At some point, we need to let all of our citizens know the truth so that lonely seventy year-olds aren’t leaving milk and cookies out for Santa on December 24th and believing that they have been bad because it is still there in the morning. Sorry for the slight digression; back to Hamilton.
Seeing myself reflected in the faces of the actors helped draw me in, but the full storytelling, especially through the brilliant music, is what captivated, and keeps me. Every time I hear any of the songs, I am taken back to that moment in history; I truly wanted to be “in the room where it happened.” I watched it again last night (on the eve of Independence Day) and it was almost as good as the first time I saw it. It is worth the $69.99 price tag for the year of Disney+. And while Hamilton is my favorite, the first musical I saw on Broadway, the one that still ripples through my heart and mind, especially as I think of justice, is Les Misérables.
Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, a twenty-six-year-old man who was sentenced to five years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to help feed his sister and her starving daughter. He ended up serving fourteen more years because he tried to escape. After he is released, to a form of parole, he has very few options because his “papers” mark him forever as a criminal: prisoner 24601. Through the grace of a bishop, he changes his name, changes his life, and works to make the world around him better. However, throughout the musical, and Victor Hugo’s novel, he is pursued by the system, through the very morally upright keeper of justice, Inspector Javert. Amazing music, terrific story, complicated morality, and voíla, an imprint on my soul forever. No one I have met has ever rooted against Valjean; he is a hero. He also happens to be a criminal, and while Javert has every “right” to pursue him, no one ever roots for Javert. That is the beauty of a complete story, it allows the consumer of the story to gain full proximity to the protagonist and her or his plight. Proximity allows us to try to see ourselves in the shoes of others, it allows us to develop empathy. If you had a niece, or a son, or even a neighbor who was suffering from perpetual hunger, and you felt like you had no other options to feed them, would you steal bread? I believe I would. Poor people typically don’t steal for greed; that is the privilege of the rich. Poor people who steal, usually steal for need and they are disproportionately punished by a system that both needs and hates them. Thankfully, for me, I have never had to make the decision to starve or steal. My parents each worked two or three jobs to keep us living comfortably as the working poor, while my older siblings worked to supplement our household income while sharing childrearing duties. All of that and I still needed some lucky breaks, good community programming, and an innercity independent school option (Community Prep) to help change my stars. Other children, and families, no matter how hard they may work, are not as fortunate.
Why Are They Poor?
Too often in this country, we see the “destitute” as creators of their own malaise, while blindly championing the system that created and helps maintain their destitution. True poverty can’t be solved or cured by a system whose innate and primary purpose is to create and then perpetuate wealth. Wealth typically begets wealth; poverty typically begets poverty. In America, true poverty, as I see it, is that generational poverty that is found overtly in our inner cities and our hidden rural outskirts. This is the “social asphyxia” that Hugo talks about in his intro to his novel. It is not just the lack of access to money and material things that make them poor, it’s the poverty of real opportunities and a poverty of hope that permeates and then perpetuates their situation. A problem for most of us is that we do not have any real proximity to the systemically deprived. In his book Just Mercy, lawyer, author and humanist Bryan Stevenson wrote, “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
So let’s go back to the sticky and complex question of justice, and the conversation that started this entire line of thinking for me.
I do not claim to be an expert on the “Defund the Police” movement, but I want to, and need to, understand it better. I believe we all do. I have learned through my research that some people on one end of the “conversation” (I carefully use that word, because these groups of people don’t seem to be engaging in any real discourse) would like to abolish the police, an idea that I believe is shortsighted and serves no one well. On the other end of the conversation are the people who want to further militarize the police. That too does not serve us well, and in many ways is even more problematic to our concepts of liberty and justice. Before we do anything, we all need to first acknowledge that the justice system in our country is broken. Once we do that, then we can move on to the next step of thoughtful rethinking, skillful and inclusive rebuilding, and innovative and impactful reform.
I am a liberal, yet I am not always in sync with the path that some on the left believe is the only path. My politics probably align most closely with those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but like almost every other person who ran for, and is currently running for, President, I believe their ability to lead and heal a politically and culturally fractured and chaotic country is wanting. Right now for the health of our country, more important than political affiliation, more important than policies and ideas, and much more important than the future size of my wallet, leadership matters most. I have come to recognize that our national leaders and politicians should be open-minded centrists that lean towards forward-looking, progressive change. Throughout our country’s history, great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln knew that great change had to be first conceived and then nurtured by a diversity of minds, with perpetual growth embedded in its core. They also constantly created opportunities for growth and thoughtful positive change for the greater good, while also working to inspire those in their orbit to aspire to a more perfect version of themselves and the institutions that they hope to lead. The current movement of racial equity in our country is demanding the growth and positive change that will keep us on the path to that more perfect union.
Change is Good
Well, all change isn’t good. Change for the sake of change is a waste of time and a waste of resources. Also, drastic and poorly thought-out and poorly executed change can shatter the equilibrium of a system and create more problems for all who function within the system. For instance, arming all teachers with guns as a way to prevent school shootings, would have been innovative but appallingly reckless and short-sighted thinking. I believe that the same is true with the concept of abolishing the police; it is neither pragmatic nor feasible, but the status quo is just as objectable. Too many of our citizens, especially those of impoverished means and opportunities, are screaming “Ouch!” to the current policing practices in their neighborhoods; we must hear their cry; we must hear their words. A few weeks ago I heard some words of clarity in the chaos of the issue from Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
In a recent interview, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s words muted all the other noise both for and against the defund movement. And while I am not always aligned with the “how” of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s vision, I believe she is smart, talented, and passionate. The interviewer asked her, “What does an America with defunded police look like to you?” Her response was hopeful, fair, and brilliant. She said, “The good news is that it actually doesn’t take a ton of imagination. It looks like a suburb. Affluent white communities already live in a world where they choose to fund youth, health, housing, etc. more than they fund police. These communities have lower crime rates not because they have more police, but because they have more resources to support healthy society in a way that reduces crime.” Her response wasn’t political or partisan, it was thought-provoking. It made me wonder, would more money and time spent on things of hope, like education (adult and child), health care, nutrition, afterschool programs, and such subdue crime more than a heavy police presence? Probably. But I can say with certainty more police looking for more crime will always equal more crime.
What is Crime?
If you do happen to live in a suburb, or some sort of gated community, imagine if the powers that be defunded other programs in order to increase police presence and vigilance. What would your neighborhood look like? What would it feel like if police, even the best trained, were always around? What would you be feeling? Would your life change? Would you be slowing down at the “optional stop signs” at that empty four-way intersection? Would you be throwing graduation parties for your children and their underage classmates? Would you rethink that second or third glass of wine before “safely” driving home? Would you be more worried about your children “experimenting” and ”just being kids?” Would you be feeling a little more oppressed?
At Gettysburg College, where I spent my undergraduate years, crimes were being committed on a nightly basis. I underage drank, with nearly all my peers, from the ages of 18-21. The few kids who were caught by the school received $25 fines and a probationary slap on the risk. Imagine if schools like Gettysburg really wanted to better curb the crime of underage drinking. All they would have to do is add more police and security and demand greater vigilance. When I was there, officers could have gone to my fraternity house six nights a week and hauled more than half of us off. Would that have changed our experience? What about those who regularly decided to smoke pot or do other drugs? Were they criminals who needed to be policed? Would having more police on our campuses stop underage drinking, drug use, or hazing? Probably, especially if we were tased for resisting arrest when we were drunk or high. Would college kids protest? Or riot for their “liberty?”
Is it fair, that a kid who goes to a public school gets arrested for possession of drugs on school grounds, but at many private high schools, drug use and possession are dealt with in-house, and almost never reported to the authorities? Same with theft, fighting, and bullying. When private schools deal with them in-house, it feels like the right thing to do, but it perpetuates a justice gap. Juvenile halls across the country are filled with poor kids, especially black and brown kids, who screwed up and are being “rehabilitated” while paying their debt to society. Our wealthier kids often get to rehabilitate in a new school, maybe with slightly lesser prestige, if they can pay the tuition. I am not asking for more kids to get arrested, but for us to recognize that all kids make mistakes and poor choices, and the price they pay for them should not vary that widely because of things out of their control. We truly need to strive for justice for all.
I want to believe. I want to believe in the lived-out promise of the words that I recited every school day until the seventh grade, “with liberty and justice for all.” Those words matter. Though a fictional character, Jean Valjean should have never been sentenced to five years for stealing anything, especially for stealing food; that was not justice. What about the real Jean Valjeans who reside in the crevices of America’s prosperity? The ones who at the age of eight are starving not only for food, but are also starving for an equal and fair education, more impactful healthcare, and a better chance to escape the “dwarfing of childhood, by physical and spiritual night.” We ask these young people to build castles in the clouds without taking into account the foundation, history, and the systems that helped create their current conditions. Some manage to do the improbable, and we praise them; a majority don’t and we blame them. I am not talking about just black or brown children, but I am talking about black and brown children. And poor white children. And poor Indigenous and Asian children. If we are to proclaim that we are the greatest country, then all of our children, yes even our adult children, deserve the opposite of poverty: justice.