“Certain fundamental political decisions have been taken in our name – without ever being presented to us as a matter of choice. We have accepted them as inevitable or with minimal protest. …We have been spared the obligation to commit ourselves to a choice concerning any of these issues which occupy three quarters of the world as matters of life and death: such issues as racial equality, the right to national and economic independence, the ending of class exploitation, the struggle for freedom (and survival) in a police state… Unaccustomed to choosing, unaccustomed to witnessing the choices of others, we find ourselves without a scale of standards for judging or addressing one another. The only standard which remains is that of personal liking – or its commercial variant, Personality.” – John Berger, A Fortunate Man
Yesterday, while enjoying an evening with my family, my brother asked to show me something on Facebook. It had to do with a neighborhood figure, one often referred to as a “community leader”. My brother was surprised I hadn’t seen it and written a response; I had to inform him that I had stopped following this person some time ago, having tired of a rhetoric I was increasingly uncomfortable with, an us-versus-them pride, a kind of base nativism. I suspected this post would be more of the same and thought nothing of having a laugh at hyper-local hyperbole. What I read, however, struck me much more harshly. (Names removed for privacy.)
Upon a quick scan, his words might suggest that members of the city council of of Santa Rosa, California, had their physical selves put in harm’s way by actual thugs. (From Webster’s Dictionary: “Definition of THUG: ruffians, assassins. E.g.: ‘Earlier in the year another prominent German Jew, the foreign minister Walther Rathenau, had been assassinated by right-wing thugs (earning the praise of a Nazi Party member named Adolf Hitler)'”) His words, “like the criminals that they are” begged the reader to feel anger and worry. They suggested that we’d find actual, criminal records for these people. Upon further inspection, however, the reader reaches the article’s subtitle, wherein we learn that the “thugs” and “criminals” were everyday people fighting to protect the civil rights of a rapidly growing homeless population, one left drowning in a staggering housing crisis worthy of a passage in a George Orwell novel, already horrific enough before a recent spike fueled by a climate chaos nightmare.
(Before I continue, I need to explain to you who this person is. He’s a small-town, former city planning commissioner who owns a land-use consulting business. He also founded a neighborhood association that rallies around such pressing issues as barn renovations to make a $3,700/day venue, dog-park building, and farmer’s markets, and how to move the homeless out of the neighborhood. He likes wine and sunny days and his dogs, and he absolutely hates garbage on sidewalks. You know him. There’s one of him in every neighborhood in every town in America. He also happens to spearhead my parents’ neighborhood association.)
To get an idea of the scope of how shocking his words are, should you need the scope, I should take a step back. I was born and raised in this county. For 30 of my 36 years, I have lived in Santa Rosa, minus a brief stay in Portland, OR. We were never rich, and neither were most of my friends, but for most of my childhood and teen years there was a relatively thriving arts and music scene. However, as the economic landscape shifted toward wine and expensive consumables, that changed. It rapidly became too pricey for young people without inherited money to get a start, and to make matters worse, many long standing venues that offered all-ages entertainment were shut down in the early 2000s. Suddenly, the entire county was a “destination”, meaning if you weren’t here to offer a lucrative temporary service to a visiting tourist, you weren’t wanted. Half of my friends left the county to avoid moving from an apartment to a couch. And with the economic crash of 2008, the gap became wider. “Hopeless” wasn’t a hopeless enough word.
Enter the fires. On the morning of October 9, 2017, there were times when I didn’t know if my parents or friends or my bosses or anyone who lived in or near east Santa Rosa was alive. As the fires kept burning, for days on end, I didn’t know if my brother two counties over was going to survive the fires that were heading in his direction at the same time; if our health would take a blow due to the amount of human-made plastics waste and chemicals in the air; if, should our houses actually burn down, there would be any chance to live here ever again. The etc.’s are too many to type. But there was no time to panic. The second the cops finally took down the barriers to Santa Rosa, I ran toward the fire. I stayed up for twenty four hours driving supplies where needed, checking on loved ones, putting out the still-burning embers on a friend’s property. The next week I spent distributing children’s masks that my friend made when he learned that people weren’t able to find any, and making sure my friends with health issues had their medications and food. And I went to my mom’s house and cut down dead brush and hosed down the roof.
Let’s take note of where this house is located. Less than three blocks away is a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen. It’s always been busy but recently, with shelters shutting down and rents growing at unbelievable rates, it has been overflowing. A few blocks beyond that is a bike trail that runs alongside the Santa Rosa Creek. Many homeless encampments are set up there, as well. Now, let’s take note of the state of mental health services in the county.
In January of this year, just four scant months after the devastating fires which left thousands more residents without homes (in the midst, it must be repeated, of an already dire crisis), the county readied to slash its mental health budget. Medicaid – healthcare for poor people, which is basically all of the middle class at this point – has been sucked dry by our current federal administration and its local enablers. In our case, those who voted to fund the gulag-inspired make-over of Old Courthouse Square – to the tune of $10m. If I am reading page 269 of the 2017-2018 Annual Budget projection correctly (I’m probably not, I get lost in the jargon), this county allotted $1,255,746 to mental health services and $2,597,134 to behavioral health. That’s less than 40% of what the city spent on cutting down old growth redwood trees and replacing them with a concrete desert.
Meanwhile, the cost of living in Sonoma County was already on par with the most expensive metropolitan cities in the United States. On the low end, you can rent 824 square feet for $1,849. As a person who grew up here, I have to ask, “Yes, but what are you GETTING for it?” Certainly not what the metropolitan cities are offering. A vibrant, richly diverse, community-centered municipality that embraces change and celebrates positive growth for all? No. I will tell you what you will get. A town that shuts down all-ages venues faster than a fundamentalist father shuts down a boy walking within 200 feet of his virginal daughter, to make room for the temporary happiness of monied passers-through: wineries, breweries, fooderies, things that disappear, things that last one day, things they will forget tomorrow. It’s a county that still upholds Jack London on a lucrative ivory pillar, despite his unhinged alcoholism and astounding racism. A town whose cops shoot children in the back while they play – and let said cops keep their jobs. A town that decided a giant, white, Italian marble hand in front of a mall would symbolize our rich agricultural history (if you’re not from here, you might not know that our agricultural history was built by brown hands). And who are our cultural leaders? Who are the community movers and shakers? Well, I will tell you. Save for the rare few diamonds in the rough, they are mostly men and women who would rather shut down a conversation and lose friends than address their own racism. They are men and women who defend institutions before children. They are men and women who call peaceful defenders of human rights “thugs” and “criminals”. They are the men and women who fear grief and pain so much that they will gladly sweep those who experience it out of the way like the dog shit in their poodle park before they will allow themselves to feel one one bloody, pulsing ounce of humanity.
But I digress. I took a moment and I decided that I would step into the rabbit hole of Comments on a Facebook Thread. Mostly, it was somewhat uplifting. Many people spoke out about the heartlessness of who I will now call the Neighborhood Ebeneezer. Some were calm and to the point, others powerfully displayed their anger and dismay. One of the citizens who had been arrested at the city council meeting chimed in with wise words that brought the Ebeneezer’s original post to shame. And yet.
(Clarification: I’m about 99% sure he meant to type “acting out doesn’t help solve the blight”.)
I will work backwards from last paragraph to first: Ebeneezer doesn’t appear to understand that this entire statement contradicts itself. He wants us, the *relatively* progressive audience, to think that he dislikes Trump, yet turns around and subscribes to the highly Trumpian, and highly problematic, blue-lives-matter stance that neo-conservatives tout like pitchforks. Ebeneezer, how can you speak ill of wall-building when you’re whole goal in life is to build walls? Around your house, around your park, around your neighborhood, around your town. You ARE the wall. When you open the dictionary to “NIMBY”, it’s just a photo of you. You hiss at the homeless and the drug addicts and the poor and the mentally ill, and basically anyone who doesn’t abide by that distinctly privileged, white, male certainty that your reality is the best reality. You want to walk around denying the pain of others, not fully realizing that pain walks beside you, beside me, beside us all, everywhere we go, and that only by bearing witness and lending a hand when times are cruel will things get better. You’re nearly a figure of Shakespearean tragedy, so alone on your little hill, but your deepening well of self-imposed solitude will get no sympathy from me when you verbally spit on human beings just so your existence can remain static.
Middle paragraph: “Make Santa Rosa Great Again”. There is literally no point in addressing this sentence.
First paragraph: “Desperate times? I see a lot of frustration. Life is short – acting out does[n’t] help solve the blight of the homeless.” Yes, life IS short. And aren’t you lucky that your short existence doesn’t involve actual survival? That you aren’t being referred to as a “blight”, as though you are made out of pustules, or locusts? You’re absolutely right, though, “acting out” doesn’t help solve blights. According to Webster’s, to act out is “to behave badly or in a socially unacceptable often self-defeating manner especially as a means of venting painful emotions (such as fear or frustration).” And here is the definition of “protest”: “A solemn declaration of opinion and usually of dissent.” I believe what the protestors at the City Council meeting were doing was declaring dissent, solemnly. “Acting out” is something I associate more with a grown man willing to whine on social media about trash on a sidewalk while people are forced into living in their cars all around him.
All of this behavior that you’re exhibiting comes from an understandable place. You love where you live, and it’s difficult to observe pain, particularly when it is so prevalent. I can understand this because I also love where I live, and I also struggle with witnessing so much pain. But I will tell you a short story that will hopefully put things into perspective for you, because you claim to love your neighborhood, and it happened to your neighbors. On the second day of the fires, after we were sure my mom was secure, my dad was packing up his work truck to go help others. Suddenly, a homeless and very possibly mentally unwell person came up to him and punched him square in the face. Pushed him straight back and down, causing his head to hit a large, ceramic tree planter, breaking it in half. All for no apparent reason. My dad did all the appropriate things. He called the police and he informed our neighbors. And then, two weeks ago, my mom woke to the sound of a man trying to break through the gate into her backyard. She, too, did all of the appropriate things, while also dealing with the reality of living alone, with cancer, in a neighborhood that sees grief all day long, surrounded by neighbors who she doesn’t have the energy to get to know better. But you know what the difference is between you and them? Despite the fear they felt, they never lost their humanity. They could see beyond themselves. They never said “If it weren’t for those thug/criminal people and their inability to be just like me, this world would be perfect.” They don’t have the privilege of clinging to an ideal born out of nothing but the dreams of colonialists-cum-capitalists. You have everything, a home, family, financial security, a neighborhood that mostly does what you ask…and you still aren’t satisfied.
I have to ask, what is that like? I’ve never had the privilege of assuming that this world was supposed to adhere to my exact liking, because I was taught that it’s literally everyone’s world.
Shame on you. Shame on your use of words such as “thug” and “criminal” to describe human beings who are trying to help raise up other human beings. Shame on you for abusing your power as a “community leader” to poison the well with hate. Shame on you for your turning your back on your own humanity when you have every reason, and all of the means, not to.
This city deserves better than you.