The recent riots in the U.K. have brought out the usual responses from government officials and white, middle class people. Gordon Brown says they are hooligans and will pay in court. Perhaps their families will pay by being evicted from subsidized housing. They have also brought in a U.S. gang expert, who may or may not have some helpful suggestions.
It’s brought out a certain American cohort with its racism smoldering just below the surface. They can’t come right out and say the looters were mostly people of color- they will say they are welfare bums or some such. They will say this is what happens to socialist societies. To which I reply-the first Tea Party was a riot from the perspective of those British merchants whose tea was tossed into the harbor.
It’s also brought out the kind-hearted and sometimes light-headed social reformers for whom minority populations can do no wrong because they are just victims. It hasn’t brought out too much comment on the fact that the riots kicked off when police shot a man who was not trying to shoot them. Riots have started because of murders in the past-notably the murder of Martin Luther King, which resulted in massive rioting in over 100 American cities.
I lived in the projects for three years-on purpose. I ran a clubhouse for disadvantaged kids and saw about 200 kids per week. It was a mission; we had little Bible studies, played, and ate together. We did projects together, like the wild donated clothing store where you could buy jeans for 25 cents. Work was a big part of the project. The kids had the dignity of earning all their privileges, just like in the real world. They worked hard, they all wanted jobs, even the tiny jobs I could provide for them. They paid for the clothes in the store-they weren’t getting a handout-they were shopping. This is important.
They wanted help with getting jobs in the community and sometimes we could pull this off, with rent-a-kid for yard work, painting, moving, etc. They lined up for the chance to earn some money. I observed that they kept striving to get jobs from about age 12 through about 18, when most-quite rationally given the conditions-gave up and started selling drugs. A 17 year-old came to me one evening and asked for help getting a job at McDonalds. I pointed out that he already had a job, since he was selling drugs and even had his own place and a car. He said, “But I’ll lose it all. I’ll get caught and lose it all and go to jail.” I tried to help him get a job, but he was not hired.
I learned so much in the projects. I learned that there was a whole different world living side-by-side with mainstream America; a world of violence that didn’t get much play in the press. There were three murders on my block while I lived there. The kids had guns-everyone had guns. On New Year’s Eve they shot their guns off-a tradition I was unprepared for. When the whole ghetto shot off their guns at once, I thought a war had broken out. While watching the riots in the U.K., with the kids throwing bricks and bottles at the police and the police reacting with restraint, I had the sickening suspicion that similar disturbances in the U.S. would have resulted in many deaths. Bravo U.K. police.
A gang attended our meetings regularly-the New York Boys- and they were well-behaved while they were there. When a rival gang-the Voltron Possee-came one Friday night I asked them to respect the fact that we were a church place and not fight, to which they replied, “Yes, ma’am.” Polite gang members. Forming gangs was as rational as selling drugs. They were afraid, the world was dangerous-did I mention the three murders on one block? Lest we get too teary-eyed for the terrified gang members, I should point out that they also committed crimes and beat and killed each other. It’s not anarchy, its tribal warfare, an adolescent attempt to organize a society. One boy was killed right in front of our house. I remember his mother kept his bike leaning on the porch where he’d left it for a year-she couldn’t bear to move it. Finally, someone stole it.
In general, the cops were the enemy, the oppressor. The kids expected to be treated unjustly by the cops, so they seldom called them for protection-that’s what gangs are for. With my white, middle-class attitude toward the police, I didn’t get this for a long time. Then I observed cops buying drugs and shaking down dealers, cracking heads, soliciting sex, and doing other things that surprised me. Obviously, not all cops did these things and I can understand their reluctance to quickly respond to calls from a well-armed, resentful neighborhood at 3:00 AM.
My oldest daughter Mary just called and I asked her opinion on all this since she has been working with the kids of my project kids for ten years now-with much greater success than I had. She also thought more shooting would have occurred here, simply because some of the kids with guns would do something stupid. She thought that the parents of the looting kids should be held responsible, as well as the kids themselves. She suggested that America’s race issues are complex and unique, since in this country, a large number of slaves were once upon a time suddenly and violently set free.
It’s a mess, it has taken a long time to make this mess and there is no quick fix. The mess is also not going to go away, though we in the U.S. have tried to remove it from view by building and stocking more prisons. There is no quick fix, but there are solutions.
1). Government policies that discourage fathers from staying with their families must be changed. Now, if he’s in the home, a poor family’s benefits are cut.
2). Make it POSSIBLE for a person to get on their feet. Now, if someone gets a crap minimum wage job, they are punished by having their benefits cut. They then have no medical insurance-yet don’t make enough to actually keep body and soul together.
2). Jobs, productive activities, sports, JOBS must be created to give young men and women the dignity of accomplishment and earning their own way.
3). Police: The people in the projects are people, not perps. They want to live, to stay alive, to have food and shelter and some meaning in their life. They want a chance to get ahead. They want the same things every other human being wants. More positive HUMAN contact between cops and young people and for God’s sake, equal justice. No justice, no peace.
4). Respect: It is demeaning and paternalistic to expect that poor people are just losers and perpetual victims-weak, child-like, and dependent. I met as many geniuses in the projects as on any college campus. These kids can finish school, get a degree, and make their way in the world, with just a bit of mentoring. But is there room for them in the world? Is there a job waiting after they do everything they are told they should do to be self-sufficient? can they get a part-time job while they try to work their way through school?
Martin Luther King said he had a dream that one day people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. By that criteria, some people of color come up short-and this is what the Politically Correct are loathe to admit, though I doubt that King would have been so reluctant.
Human beings are responsible for their choices; give them the dignity of holding them responsible. Hold the police responsible for their choices as well. Let’s not leave anyone out-hold the politicians responsible for the stupid institutional choices that have merely perpetuated injustice.