Wednesday, December 02, 2009

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Oakland Without Us, Against Us, For Us?

East Oakland is no paradise. But it is my home, my future, my struggle, my community, my family of families and my poetic. Hope and despair commingle in a single easterly horizon of Oakland,

During the last seven months, more or less, six teenagers have been killed at the hands of other teens and adults not much older than their victims in my neighborhood. Most of them probably thought they were old; felt old maybe even felt time was running out and did. There have been as many -- probably more -- failed attempts at killings.

Although violence among and between Latino youth is not the only thing happening, it is there latent, lingering, a trend, a possibility. Enough to make you think a couple of times if you want to go out, walk around, maybe go jogging, or walk or take the bus home after school, and risk violence. The police are the only ones actively, thankfully too, who are going after the armed troublemakers.

Violence Is Not Random, Not An Equal Opportunity

Violence, however and unfortunately, is not random. Lack of resources, opportunity, cell-phones, tennis shoes, i-pods, and other niceties is not random. And who preys on those who have are those who have not? Who is poor, unemployed, perennially unemployed, profiled, who has police when you need them, who has services, who has cafes, bookstores, botiques, cinemas and restaurants?

Violence is not a drive-by. Violence is unemployment, violence is underfunded schools, violence is the lack of bookstores. Violence is the lack of hope and mentors. Violence means it's easier to get a gun than a book in east Oakland streets. Violence is the lack of cultural centers, art galleries, bowling alleys and other spaces that are user-friendly, relevant and affordable to those who now live in east and other parts of Oakland who share the same fate.

Oakland is a whole, yet only parts of it in the so-called North benefit from the whole. We in east Oakland suffer for it.

Poverty is not random; the economic crisis and who shouldered the brunt of the crash was not random. Neither is the coercion and the threat of jail, the threat of punishment by banishment. So-called gang violence is the segue to either more abandonment, flight of investments out of the barrios, or more push outs, gentrification. It's still a toss up in the short run which option will take the day.

In the long run, neither pushing out the working poor or gentrification are viable, sustainable or desirable.

Strangling California Public Schools
Strangling Poor People's Imagination

How do you do this? The Governor cuts the budget for public services. No, he doesn't cut; he gouges. No he doesn't gouge, he strangles the budget for public services and goes first for the future, our schools.

Our schools are readying for the massive cutbacks on the same horizon. They are already reeling from the cutbacks. In my east Oakland, schools are no longer just centers of education. They offer safer spaces, provide food, stability and a proverbial finger in the dike to ward off the devastating floods the California and federal governments have in store for education. The children of the working poor of all colors, immigrants, women-led families, the homeless, the day laborers depend on at least one meal, sometimes the only meal they'll get, from the school kitchens. The food nutrition is below Mc-Donald's par.

In this mix, the schools are superheroes doing the impossible every day. Principals and teachers, what remains of after-school program teachers, artists and other support systems, are frayed. Their job is to teach and prepare critical minds, to practice creativity and boldness in making and creating choices and taking on obstacles. Yet they battle a over-funded pipeline that goes from the classroom to the jail cell, a pipeline fed and organized by three-strike laws, criminalization, powerful politicians and prison guard unions and others who believe safety and stability requires policing first. Even the best politicians are complicit in this decline and juncture, when they organize investments into our neighborhoods that demand our expulsion.

We need police; yet policing alone is a recipe for gentrification and destabilization of the existing members of my community. Police alone cannot and will not solve the problems facing our communities and their neighborhoods. Policing alone is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire.

The options cannot be endure policing, jails or poverty. The poor are not just poor, we are impoverished. Our poverty is not the same as our culture. Mexicans have a communal soul and ceremony for almost every day, month and season of the year. But the economics of poverty and survival means we are stripped of our souls and our flesh is subjected to the daily grind of those who are profiting from our work. Where community is still and barely alive, there is hope and no one goes hungry or despairs or resorts to desperate measures where you gamble away your freedom.

We are not poor because we do not work enough. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters work two, three jobs and the family suffers for it. Children are left alone to their own devices, including survival.

We are poor because we are underpaid; our labor and our values are exploited or demeaned. We would pull ourselves up by our bootstraps if the jack-boot of employers, landlords and others who coerce us would be taken off our backs.

Guns, Schools & Street Corners

You have Latino youth taking it out on Latino youth; Blacks on Blacks; and the young men target the young women in their vistas and circuits. This has a domino impact on friendships, brothers and sisters, cousins, mothers and fathers, the grandparents. Even if it is not a direct experience of your family and loved ones, you suffer the consequences. Families are being ruined by the violence of everyday survival. Children left alone end up forming "gangs," that then imagine a turf of their own that requires power. They believe what they see: power is violence or the threat of violence.

Community or Chaos

Gangs? Are they all bad? Do they provide a "family," respect, power, safety? Are our or anyone's families created by domination and threat or by love and cooperation?

What happens to our children and families when the core members, the parents or older adults, have to work two, three jobs? Who guides the children, who watches over them, feeds them, comforts them, gets them to read, gets them to dream a different, sustainable, rich life?

Is it domination, control, coercion of a small corner, not of hope, stability, family, relationships, or even of a liberating vision? Or is it just plain meanness, fists, beatings or the threat of beatings, guns flashed for good measure, selling drugs, getting high for the sake of getting high, prostitution and survival?

Every day a child, teenagers on the verge of legal age, goes to jail. Sometimes these jails are better than their neighborhood. I feel crushed by these losses. Would we have a different neighborhood, if instead of the detention center for children that has basketball courts, safety, meals, decent bedding spaces, if instead these resources were invested in my neighborhood -- where we could have a basketball court, a gymnasium, sports, workshops on physical education, art and writing, fully staffed and safe? Where would you want your child to be? At this center or in the jail center? It's not a rhetorical question. Families are losing their sons and daughters to the anguish of prison and prison-like detention. The pipeline is a colorline: female and male Latinas/Latinos, African Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders, Indigenous people and, of course the minority, white working poor.

How will we transfer the resources of the prison-industrial complexion, imprisonment and policing, strangling of public schools and other services, to make our neighborhoods safe again? Safe for culture and her people of all colors?

We have come again to that fork in the road. As our great Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, we have a choice, everyone does: community or chaos.

Chaos is neoliberalism, the extension of politicis by other means (wars), gentrification, criminalization, the strangling of public services and education, the big government of Reaganomics.

Community or chaos, health or the disease of private property and public bailouts, culture with class, race, color, gender, roots or the prison-industrial complex(ion)? It's not black and white, it's complex, we can have our own community of chaos -- my chaos would be to divest from prison-building and criminalization, divert funding from the military to the multicultural and invest in culture, education, industrial, virtual and actual telecommunications and servcies skills and job creation.