Maybe my blog posts are so depressing and fatalistic because it seems like I live behind a veil of privelige that screens me from the things that are happening in the world. Nay, the things my country is doing in the world.
Activist lawyer Bill Quigley recently emailed us a long story about the thirty-three mistakes of Katrina, deliberate or otherwise. Briefing them is beyond the scope of this blog, but you may read them for yourself at Counterpunch: How to Destroy an African American City in 33 Steps.
But this is not the miscarriage of justice that makes me feel the veil is lifted momentarily. I Stumbled Upon an article about the things they don’t show in the pictures of Abu Ghraib. Charges of children being held at the camp, children being rapedand tortured so that their parents might confess to crimes. Women were passing out messages “saying ‘Please come and kill me, because of what’s happened’ and basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling.”
The writers of these articles and blogs thought that many of these things that were supposedly caught on tape will soon see the light of day.
That was in 2004.
I remember when this whole travesty happened, the pictures they showed were anti-climactic. And I remember waiting for the American public to get a look at all those darker home movies that would rip open the veil and reveal the Iraqi quagmire up to the elbows in shame. I remember casual mention of children at the camps but no mention of torture of children. And if this did come up, is this the maximum outrage our culture can muster? Is it too late for me to be outraged by these things now? I feel like a Jewish child just being taught about the Holocaust for the first time.
Did I miss something? No, really, please tell me: has anyone reading ever heard anything about this? Or do I have to read newspapers written in German to get the whole story?
I am classist after all!
I was saying hi to my neighbor the other day, he is about my age, Mexican, drives an SUV.
I got up the will to confront him about throwing away furniture. I told him about the place up the street where they take furniture donations.
He said that that wasn’t their furniture at all. Random people had been dumping it by our trash. That is why they had started locking the gate at night (another thing they were doing that was really annoying because it doesn’t make me any safer and it takes extra time).
All it took was a little communication. Now to figure out why he’s driving that gas-guzzler.
To make matters worse, I found out that their aunt used to live in this apartment before she died. So at that time they had this whole complex all to themselves, one big happy extended family. I feel like an intruder. No wonder they are polite. We are like a ghost in the attic; they are stuck with us.
My Mexican neighbors keep throwing away their furniture. I don’t know how they go through it so quickly, but once a month or so I will see sofas and pillows and dining chairs stacked by the trash, like a big-boned house of cards.
I wonder how many tissues, crushed soda cans and credit card offers I can fit in the space these will take up in the landfill.
If they were white, I would ask them about it. I would ask whether they knew there was a thrift store three blocks up that will sell their furniture for the benefit of disabled children. I would say that I know a guy there who would walk the three blocks with a dolly to come get the stuff.
But they are not white. They are first generation immigrants living the American dream: a gas-guzzler in the driveway and furniture that matches the carpeting.
Herein lies the disconnect between us: conservation activism is a luxury. It is only conceptualized in a world of abundance. How can one think about the impact of all they have when all along the most glaring truth is all they have not? Those who cannot afford new clothes aren’t thinking about organic cotton. It is the middle class people that are replacing the innefficient bulbs in their house with longer-lasting ones. And I confess that as a poor college student I bought the cheapest ones because renters don’t stay long enough to see the economic benefits of the earth friendly light bulb.
I’m not saying poor people don’t struggle, on the contrary, their lives are defined by it. But it seems like the struggle of the poor is one for survival. They sure as hell aren’t going to feel guilty for not recycling when there are corporations privatizing their water supply.
Maybe I am wrong about this. After all, my neighbors are paying the same rent that I am. Maybe they are just typical Americans and I am blinded by white guilt. Surely there are no excuses, now that conservation is a matter of survival for everyone. But our exchanges now are smiles and nods and I want to keep it that way. Who am I to give them a lecture?
I threatened this balance the other day while murdering the kudzu in my backyard. There was so much of it that I couldn’t have told you what the fence beneath it was made of. This created quite a pile of lawn clippings. A young man and old woman come out of the apartment above while I am dragging branches to a heap half as tall as I am and just as wide. They look at me inexplicably. I ask if they know where the compost bin is (in Oakland, they have a recycle bin for compost). More confusion, some head shaking. You know, the bin that you put leaves in. The bisabuela points to the dumpster. No, I want the one for recycling. I wonder if she speaks English. But surely he speaks English. I can’t help but think that as a result of this exchange they gather that I am simply too lazy to walk the extra five feet to the trash. I vow to call the Oakland Recycling Center. They smile and nod. I smile and nod.
And isn’t this very same conundrum happening on an international level? Excuse me, China, but I can’t help but noticing that the smog in Beijeng is so bad it would be safest to never leave the house. Our Olympic athletes are precious assets and we’d rather not have them damaged by breathing in all your smog. But then someone comes along and reminds us: China is just getting the hang of the “first world,” give a country a break! And don’t get them started on the banana republics and African countries that are raping the oceans of what’s left of the big game fish. Don’t they get to have economies, too?
I was sitting on a bench during my ten-minute break from work when I was approached by a young black man with dreds. His clothes were shabby and his eyes were damaged and baggy from the level of exhaustion that usually only comes with the assistance of drugs.
He offered me a quarter to use my cell phone. This reminded me of my boyfriend, who looks aÂ little like a “terrorist.” We had an argument once because he walked a mile home to use the phone rather than asking a person on the street to use theirs. He told me that it never works and people usually get scared or annoyed. He would rather walk the mile than ask.
So it ocurred to me that it wasn’t easy for this man to approach me.
I also thought of all of the things my racist and classist culture has taught me: that he must be desparate and willing to do anything, that he is jealous of my luxury and riches and will not hesitate to hurt me in any way if it is to his benefit.
That I am willing to admit this thought even entered my head is only through years of analyzing class systems. I truly believe that most middle and upper class people only think, “he might steal my phone.” And then they make up a white lie (so aptly named!) to cover their racism (really, more classism, few are intimidated by a black man in an expensive suit.) that everyone else can see right through.
This angered me. What is more likely, that this guy needs to use a phone or that he
is part of some con to score a bunch of crappy, beat-up cell phones and resell them for a fraction of what they are worth? I have loaned my phone out to many people on the street, in retrospect all of them black women at the bus stop. This is less of a coincidence and more owing to 1) most black men wouldn’t bother to ask me for reasons stated above and 2) most white women have cell phones.
Additionally, I have borrowed many cell phones from random people. I never hesitate to ask because I am a white woman which equals harmless and demure.
I have never loaned my phone to a man, much less one that looked like a drug addict (now there’s another stereotype: so many drug addicts look as wealthy as they are. Cocaine, alcohol, pills, weed — desparate housewives live in fear of the crackheads and meth-heads sport these addictions of their own.). I admit I hesitated long enough to think all of these things before I handed it to him, which really only took a few seconds.
Ultimately it ocurred to me that I would rather my cell phone be stolen (which is unlikely, and besides I can outrun this guy) then contribute to the cycle of fear that racism and classism neccessitate, and this was the deciding factor. I gave him my phone and went back to reading my book. He was done in less than three minutes. A car showed up — I suppose he was giving them directions. He made sure to look in to my eyes when he gave the phone back.
He told me that it meant a lot to him that I wasn’t afraid.
He returned minutes later on a bicycle that is much too small for him. Then he told me that this bike may not look like much but it saves him from having to walk three hours to work. I told him that I also ride my bike to work but I don’t even look at jobs that aren’t in biking distance. He responded that with “the dreds and the skin color” jobs aren’t so easy to find. I admitted that things are tough; I have a bachelor’s degree and I work in retail. He took a moment to appreciate that as a sign for how fucked up the economy truly is: even a white girl with a diploma works in a shop and hasn’t had health insurance for years.
I know that our little exchange meant a lot to him and truthfully it meant a lot to me too. We each had to take a risk. Such a small risk, something so inconsequential, at least among people of the same race/class, becomes powerful and imbued with meaning simply because we come from different upbringings. We exchanged names and he promised to spit some poetry when next we meet.
I am truly looking forward to it.