“They” and “Us”

“They” and “Us” June 12, 2014

MY FAMILY MOVED TO BENICIA, CALIFORNIA when I was 13 ½ years old, on March 11, 1976. Benicia was a much smaller town then — the suburban growth boom that marked the era in the Bay Area had just reached my new town, and the Southampton development to the north of town existed, but only a couple blocks up from Southampton Road had been built out, and even in the older part of town, my parents’ house up on M Street had almost nothing but fields and horses to its north, all the way to the freeway. Sheep still grazed on the west side of town, where a Taco Bell is now.

We had moved from Richmond. Richmond, California. The city consists of The Flats — that portion west of Interstate 80 on the coastal plain next to San Francisco Bay, where the poorer people live — and The Hills, which overlook the flats. The Flats were (and still are) beset by violence and crime, and were dangerous enough that I have struggled for years with PTSD from my time there.

I remember a few weeks after we moved into our new house, my sister and older brother and I walked across M Street and into fields high with dry early-summer weeds and thickets of rattling anise stalks. We ran through the fields like the children we barely still were, laughing and playing silly games. Looking back I can see we were very much like prisoners released. Moving to Benicia from the mean streets of Richmond was like the end of a war.

Late that afternoon I ran with my face turned up to the sun, my arms out like wings, deep into the fields, and at some point I found myself alone, surrounded by thick brush, my only companions the sounds of buzzing insects and warbling birds, and I was covered in the pungent licorice scent that came from a trail of broken anise weed. I stopped, felt an odd weight in my chest and sat down. The world seemed to lose color, and I put my hand to my face — and suddenly I was weeping in great, gusting sobs.

I wept that day with grateful relief at having survived Richmond — and more than that, at having found myself in a place where I didn’t have to survey the street at every moment to see who might be out, whether they were armed, and what their intentions might be. In my new town, I could just walk out the door and explore its alleys and neighborhoods in complete safety.

I wept with pent-up sorrow, the lid suddenly off a grief I had dared not fully express, or even allow myself to feel, in a place where it might be taken as weakness and thus make me a target.

I wept, too, with sadness for the dear friends I’d left behind. Part of it was selfish — I would miss the company of people I could not remember not knowing — but part of it was something deeper. I had left people I cared about in a terrible situation, and was helpless to help them.

“Why am I in this field, crying with relief,” I thought, “and yet my old friends cannot share this with me?”

Survivor guilt is a common experience in people who have survived traumatic events that others have not, and in that moment in the field there was certainly a pang of that — and I have had occasional bouts of it since.

While excessive or misplaced guilt can be destructive, it is also possible to transform it into motivation to right wrongs and prevent others from suffering what you have. This has informed my writing about my old neighborhood here in this space. My beloved childhood friends in Richmond suffered terribly, and did not deserve the suffering they endured — they were, after all, just children.

I write also because Benicia, and places like it, can play an important part in alleviating the problems besetting Richmond and places like it.

There are many organizations in Richmond that do vital work to help its residents — pastors of churches, workers in nonprofits and other charitable organizations, volunteers who try to offer a constructive alternative for at-risk young people who might otherwise turn to the many destructive and life-threatening ways of coping that can be a powerful temptation in streets that often seem hopeless and devoid of mercy.

This is all vital work, but it is not enough.

An idea I keep coming across in discussions of the problem of urban poverty is that Richmond is Richmond because of a lack of “personal responsibility” in its residents. While it is important for anyone, whatever their location, to take responsibility for improving their circumstances, I can also say that Richmond is not lacking in that particular virtue.

Richmond is Richmond because too many there lack power — the kind of power that comes from economic opportunity. And this is where more prosperous places in America like Benicia can be of help.

I believe we who have more ought to commit ourselves to the task of making sure that everyone in Richmond who wants a job can get one — and not just a “job” that involves minimum wage and little hope for advancement. Richmond has a deep pool of tragically underutilized talent — people who would be savvy, intelligent, charismatic, dedicated employees. They are worth far more than the minimum wage. If the market is not providing those jobs on its own — and it is safe to say that it is not — then we need to act collectively to correct that situation.

I have mentioned before in this space that Richmond is not just a troubled city, it is also a symptom of a wounded society, where too many people dismiss others in different circumstances as “them.”

“We” can shake our heads in little mimes of concern when one of “their” children is gunned down. “We” bemoan the poverty that besets so many parts of this country, but think of it as an immutable characteristic of “them.” And while it may be diverting or engaging to speculate about what might be done, it is at the end of the day not “our” problem.

Unless you and I can take responsibility to bridge that divide — unless “we” can admit that “they” are truly “us” and that “their” children are “our” children — then we are standing in the way of healing that division.

The ongoing emergency in our poorer neighborhoods is our greatest moral scandal. With their grinding poverty and their unconsoled victims and relatives whose bodies and minds have been wounded by violence, Richmond and the many places like it stand as searing indictments of our society’s greed and selfishness. The violence and the tattered social fabric of Richmond is a poignant expression of the outrage — more than that, the unutterable pain — of priceless children of God who have been told, with words and the bleeding wounds of a million injustices large and small, that they are People Who Don’t Matter.

Why do I care about Richmond, and write about it often? Because I want all the children of the friends I left behind to run carefree through the fields of America, turning their face to the sun — weeping with gratitude, as I did, that they have been delivered from their suffering. I want “their” children and “our” children to be friends and peers and neighbors.

And I want those children’s children to roll their eyes whenever Dad lectures them about how tough things used to be back in the ’hood, just as I rolled my eyes when my father talked about trudging through snowdrifts to school.

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