Homily for Sunday, May 3, 2015

Readings for Today

I have had a lot of relatives die lately. Four since December. They have all been advanced in years, and none of their deaths could be called unexpected. As can be the case when a loved one dies, each death has occasioned a lot of remembering for me. I have remembered funny things, like my father getting out of his car at the George Washington Bridge asking for change, since he had driven into the exact change lane without exact change, or a house where there were always good things to eat, or instances where a love of the Red Sox was fostered. In fact, it is not unusual. Many of us are filled with stories, using the amazing faculty of memory to make past experiences present again, to make them real once more.

One memory evoked by today’s readings was one that takes me to one of my aunt’s house, where, in the back yard, there were grapes. I recall these grapes for many reasons. First, the location of the grapes sometimes made baseball a little difficult to play, and I must confess that there were times when a wayward pitch caused some damage for the grapes. There was the difficulty in following directions to wait until the grapes were ripe, only to know they would be picked for jam or some other treat.

The grapes were better than raspberries, which were at another aunt’s place, because even though the raspberries were more plentiful, one ran the risk of encountering a snake in the raspberry patch. Despite the snake stick, the method of protection devised by my aunt as we engaged the risk of the snakes (likely harmless grass snakes, or maybe equally harmless milk snakes, though we did not know that).

Growing up in a rural world, it was not possible to avoid gaining at least some knowledge of the natural world. It was all around us. Whether it was playing hide and seek in the corn stalks that seemed to extend for ever behind the small car dealership in my relatives small town, the blackberries that were endlessly available, which contributed to many a delicious pie made by my mother and others, the rhubarb which grew everywhere, my life was one surrounded by images like the vine in today’s gospel.

As I look back on those days of my childhood, the grapes, the raspberries, blackberries and corn were not really about what they produced, as tasty as those things were. Rather, they connected me and my relatives to something much bigger and more important. They served only as the means to teach us about how we were connected, that even in those times when we were scattered far from our summers in this small town, we were never really all that far apart. We had these common experiences that connected us.

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It’s not about Freddie Gray

Remember James Carville, the strategist for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, was known for the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Meant for the internal team, it became known outside and is often cited as a reason Bill Clinton won the 1992 Presidential election. His point was that in a difficult economic situation, people would vote for that candidate who offered a plan to make things better.

To understand Baltimore, and places like it, it is necessary to understand that too many feel desperate, hopeless, forgotten. Consider these quotes from an NBC News story.

Sixteen-year-old Essence Harris brought many in the audience to tears as she sobbed over her friends who’d been victims of violence, inadequate teachers at her school and ongoing police harassment in her neighborhood of Mondawmin.

“I really feel like nobody cares about us, nobody cares about me,” the 10th-grader said in between tears at Empowerment Temple AME Church. “It’s so hard to get through school…I want to make my mother and grandmother proud of me.”

Jalen Bookman, 13, was furious that the rioters’ actions were overshadowing the community.

“I’m angry about the way we’re being viewed as not people, the way we’re being viewed as less than what we were, as less than what we can be,” the 8th-grader said. “Those aren’t the people that care about this city. The media only focuses on the bad and never the good.”

Twenty-five-year-old CraShanda Wilson took issue with the broader issue of police brutality — saying “it’s not just here in Baltimore” — while others spoke about the lack of recreation centers and issues with the mental health system.

NBC News, Baltimore Forum Shows Freddie Gray Is Just One of Many Issues

Consider opportunities that are available in this country. There certainly is an inequality in the financial resources available to schools when funding is tied to property tax. Indeed there are many states where this method of funding schools alone has been struck down. But money alone cannot explain the lack of opportunities. There is also the lack of economic opportunities available in many of the same neighborhoods where the poor go to school.

Those who live in the neighborhoods that were damaged say a lot about the problem. It is not really about Freddie Grey, he has just become the catalyst for something that has been a long time coming.

It’s not just about the police.

The riots in Baltimore have been blamed on anger and frustration over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody earlier this month — the latest flashpoint in the national debate over law enforcement tactics in African American communities. Saying “the unrest in Baltimore also sprang from decades of economic decline and a dearth of opportunity for those left behind” NBC News indicated the sadness that is part of the situation. “That is the view not just of economists and urban policy experts but of some people who live there and who turned up on Tuesday morning with brooms to sweep up the broken glass and ashes of the night before. Laquicha Harper talked about it as she pitched in with the cleanup at a CVS drugstore that was looted and torched.

“We need any revenue and any business that we can get in this area,” she told NBC News. “To take a loss like CVS, where they carry small groceries for people who are not mobile — there is vast elderly community around here, you know? We need it.”

According to US Census data, a third of those who live in the areas impacted by riots live in poverty. Again, consider the following from an NBC News report. With economic decline came problems with services. “Roughly 20 percent of the 225 million gallons of water flowing into the city from three huge reservoirs never makes it to a water customer,” says NBC News. And so water gets shut off because of increased rates and inability to pay. Businesses do not locate in these neighborhoods precisely because of the lack of services.

Baltimore Orioles COO John Angelos expressed an opinion that on his twitter account that was widely quoted.

Brett, speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.

That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importance of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.

According to the Associated Press, one if four live in poverty. Baltimore has 17,000 abandoned row homes. When a lottery was opened for public housing, “Within a week, roughly 60,000 people— nearly 10 percent of the city’s population_had signed up.” In some areas, like Freddie Gray’s Sandtown neighborhood, whole city blocks sit empty. According to the US Census, two-thirds of the city is African-American. Fewer than half of all occupied dwellings are owned by the people who live in them, and the property values are less than half of the property values elsewhere in Maryland. Data on the Baltimore City Public Schools suggest one in three will not graduate from high school. The average per capita income in Baltimore is only two thirds that of the rest of Maryland, and the household income is almost half the rest of Maryland. Almost a quarter earn less than $15,000 a year. When looking at the “free and reduced lunch population.” an indicator of poverty, the rate is 83.5%. Almost all students in Baltimore public schools (86.6%) are black.

It is an area rampant with drugs and crime, but one that also has had police problems as well. From the same Associated Press Report, “In 2010, the ACLU and NAACP reached an $870,000 settlement with the city that required police to track their arrests. But by 2012, an independent auditor found Baltimore officers still couldn’t justify 35 percent of their arrests.” The Baltimore Sun, in an investigation written about in September, spent “$5.7 million on 102 court judgments and settlements for alleged police misconduct since 2011.”

Education, which should provide opportunities to move out has simply not done so. While there is an admittedly high percentage of “free and reduced lunch” recipients, the education system too has contributed to the problems in Baltimore. Consider this summary from the Associated Press.

Some experts say the frustration and discontent among Baltimore residents stems from the lack of educational opportunities. The city’s failing school system, which was under a federal consent decree for more than 20 years over treatment of special needs students, has fueled a sense of desperation among the city’s youth, as well as resentment, restlessness and anger, according to Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“They are reacting to something very specific: a feeling of hopelessness,” Ray said. “People who aren’t from these neighborhoods see one incident: Freddie Gray. But here, Freddie Gray triggers collective memory and experiences that they’ve had over time, like their lives don’t matter. People without jobs, trying to feed their families in neighborhoods without grocery stores. Sitting around not talking about, ‘What did you do at school today?’ but ‘Did you get stopped by the police on your way home?’ It’s been brewing for decades.”

All of this has created the sense of hopelessness and desperation that can be seen in the anger and resignation of its residents. If this is not understood, then there cannot be even the beginning of the problem. Any large American city can face the same circumstances and the same problems. Any large American city is just as likely to be one incident away from a situation like Baltimore.

Six days of peaceful protests led up to the riots. Many people from the neighborhoods where the riots occurred were saddened and angry by what was destroyed. But many also understand that until this week, no one seemed to care about Baltimore. Before Michael Brown was shot, few had heard of Ferguson. Until the video of the cop who shot the man at the gas station in South Carolina, or the video showing the shooting of Walter Scott, or the choke hold video showing the death of Eric Garner, who knew much about South Carolina or New York?

And the issue is not only major cities. There is a lack of hope among some in Vermont, not long ago featured in a New York Times story about the heroin problem it is seeking to fix. The United States Department of Agriculture features a summary of the issues of rural poverty each fall. The recovery in these areas has not been as strong as in urban areas, fewer people are in the workforce, and rural areas continue to have fewer involved in high education or training that leads to higher wages.

And where there is poverty, drug use typically follows, whether in urban areas or rural areas. And since the selling of drugs can lead to income and a supply for use of drugs, it is not unusual to see why there may be problems with crime related to drug use and sales. But perhaps worse is the hopelessness that leads to such use. Once people feel forgotten, what is there to lose?

While not all of this can be reduced to race, at the same time it cannot be ignored either. Consider this summary from Forbes.

The persistent economic gap between whites and blacks is a more serious and deep-rooted problem. The unemployment rate for African-Americans stood at 10.4% in December, more than twice that of whites, as it has been for most of the past 40 years.

Blacks’ real median household income ticked up to $34,598 in 2013, roughly 59% that of whites’, a ratio that has also not varied much since the Census Bureau began tracking this data in 1967.

And while Forbes suggests Baltimore is the fourth best city to live in for African-Americans, Forbes cautions:

As in Washington, much of this prosperity is not in the hardscrabble city core, but in surrounding suburban areas such as Baltimore County, where the black population grew from 20% of the total in 2000 to over 26% in 2010.

Those that can do move out of the inner city, it seems. But for those who cannot, the cycle of poverty continues. And given the Forbes suggestion that income for blacks has only been slightly more than half of that for whites for the last 40 years. Promises by politicians, again and again, have led to a lack of trust among the poorest residents of the city. And even though there is the strongest need for police enforcement in these areas of high poverty, the lack of trust most African Americans have for police is low.

Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post writes, “African Americans, who are disproportionately victimized by crime, have relatively little trust that police will treat them fairly.  By contrast, the population overall has a good deal of faith in equal treatment by law enforcement.”. I think this is a reflection on the problem. Most in the population trust the police. But for African Americans, in general, the trust is gone. This is why they run from police. Better to take matters into your own hands than be subject to those you do not trust.

Marketing has long had a cliche that “perception is reality.”  If this is true, than it does not matter whether or not the lack of trust is grounded in reality, though it is not hard to see why it a lack of trust might exist. When significant numbers of African Americans are not graduating high school, not getting a college or trade certification (of which cost has been recognized as a factor), it is easy to see where a sense of hopelessness and despair arise.

When people are desperate, they are not afraid to do desperate things. Consider the suicide bombers in the world. How many come from countries with a liveable per capita income? If you have nothing to lose, with a chance to be remembered at least somewhere as a hero, is it no wonder the perception of an exciting life entices many into radical groups like Al Quaida and ISIS.

When teens get desperate, there is the very strong temptation to join gangs (they take care of us) and to use and sell drugs (the economic good life). So much so has education long been gone as providing opportunity that it has given rise to numerous studies documenting the problem in inner cities of the “school to prison pipeline.” And prison is a problem. More about that tomorrow.


The Butterfly Effect and Baltimore: It is all on us

Edward Lorenz. You may not know who he is, but chances are you have heard of his contribution: The Butterfly Effect. In popular understanding, it is the notion that the flapping of butterfly wings in a distant place, say India, can cause a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. But like many popular understandings, the actual theory of the Butterfly Effect is not nearly as simple. I have thought of it a lot in these past few weeks of unarmed black men being shot by white police officers. And both in discussions with friends, commentaries on the news, the situation seems to be reduced to simply standing with the police or against the police, as if those were the only two options.

But like almost everything in life, to reduce the complexities of these shootings to one simple concrete factor, to limit understanding to a binary choice, is to miss the point that many factors go into what we see at the present time. Rather than the simple trace of causality of a hurricane to a butterfly, the physics theory of the Butterfly Effect actually says quite the opposite. While it is true that there can be a direct line of causality, it is not the case that the direct line of causality is easy to find. In fact, given that at any moment there are many such minor, often infinitesimal such changes, it is precisely that such a line of causality cannot be found, at least by us. There are trillions and trillions of such minute moments to keep them all straight.

So, as much as we like to simplify things, not only is it challenging in the physical world to do so, it is equally challenging in the world of events as well. Protests in Feguson, Missouri, or Cleveland, or South Carolina, or Baltimore are simply do not fit into an easy explanation where there are heroes and villains. Rather, in each person there is both hero and villain. And all of our own little comments, actions, and attitudes have brought us to this moment. Everyone. All of us.

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