Saturday, September 24, 2016

On History and Powder Kegs

It has happened again. Twice in the past week or so black men have been shot dead by police officers. One in Tulsa and one in Charlotte. Charlotte has been turned into a State of Emergency with the National Guard called in to deal with the protests and rioting. It is confusing. It is heartbreaking.

I have friends who are black. I have friends who are police officers. I am no specialist on race relations. I don't know what went on in these situations. I don't know what the intentions were with the men who were killed. I don't know what was going on in their head. Or the heads of the police officers who killed them. As a white, middle-class American there is no way I can get it.

Last night I watched the video "The Pruitt Igoe Myth" about the rise and fall (quite literally) of the famous public housing project in St. Louis. The place lasted barely 20 years. It was doomed from the start.

Most fascinating were the stories of the people who lived there. The memories, both good and bad, comforting and horrifying, spilled out for viewers like me to lap up. At first the project provided shelter, community. But as time went on, conditions deteriorated. Crime, danger, fear set in. And Pruitt-Igoe became the poster child for public housing gone bad.

I found this video particularly fascinating and enlightening against the backdrop of the recent racial conflicts in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte. Because the protests and the rioting are never just about the incident at hand. That incident is only the spark to set off a powder keg. And how do decades and centuries of oppression and abuse, much of it institutionalized, systemic, very legal oppression, not lead to a build up of fear, anger, hopelessness.

Take an entire race of people. Throw them in a pit. Stomp on their fingers every time they attempt to pull themselves out of the pit. Blame them for not pulling themselves out of the pit. Complain about the conditions in the pit. And then scratch your head in confusion when the pit erupts?

I am not an expert on black history but I am a realtor. I have read deeds on properties and seen entire neighborhoods that prohibited the sale of the property to blacks. I know that for years the Federal Housing Authority would not back loans to blacks. I know that in 1973 my entire neighborhood was up in arms when word got out that a black couple had looked at a house on our street. These are but tiny nuggets in an entire system of oppression. At some point I would think that you would just flat out give up.

A lot of destruction went on in Charlotte this past week. Can we look at what is behind it?

A couple of years ago a friend of mine was teaching a training class on childhood sexual abuse. The instructional video included a section where victims talked about how the abuse played itself out in their behavior and, indeed, much of that behavior was unpleasant and destructive. During the discussion time my friend mentioned this and asked, "What do we call these kids? We call them bad kids." The point being that bad behavior is often more than just bad behavior. It is sign of something going on much deeper in the human soul.

My heart breaks for everybody. My heart breaks for the police officers who are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Protect or don't protect? Arrest or don't arrest? Shoot or don't shoot? And all the while bear the brunt of pain, hopelessness, anger, and fear. My heart breaks for an entire race of people who, after centuries of oppression, can't help but find their anger welling up and spilling over.

I have never been a Pollyanna. I know that there are no easy answers. But my prayer is that we can all stop and listen to the pain behind the eruption. It makes sense. Where do we go from here?