Monday, September 15, 2008

101 Too Many

I'm not so wrapped up in wedding planning madness that I don't check the local newspaper, where I read this distressing article about the four killlings this past weekend that bumped Oakland's number of homicides this year to 101. Last year at this time, as the article claims, the number of murders in Oakland was 97.

Neither number is one that I want to have associate with the deaths of people in Oakland, my adopted hometown.

The complex problems that lead to these murders are too numerous for me to detail in this brief blog post, but J. Douglas-Allen Taylor does a pretty good job getting to some of these. I am not surprised but am dismayed at the way the Tribune (and the Chronicle, no doubt) portrayed the sideshows as death-shows, with loaded language about one of this weekend's homicides taking place 'a few miles' from a sideshow but still somehow linking it to these fairly spontaneous street events where local youth do donuts in the street, drink, hang out and generally make a lot of noise, sometimes disturbing the residents who may live nearby. Taylor's column does a good job at examining the broader social and political and racial landscape that puts the sideshows into a context--it's never as simple as the media, or even the man on the street, would have us believe.

I was in a site visit with a funder for my organization the other day, a funder that happens to fund work in Oakland specifically. She asked me at one point how the increased violence has affected our organizing work and our youth. I wasn't surprised by her question but I was a little surprised at my own response--a shrug that came close to indifference, although indifference wasn't what I was trying to convey. What I told her was that for most of our youth, the violence has been going on for so long, and has been so much a part of their everyday lives--they aren't the ones that only worry when restaurants get robbed on Piedmont Avenue or Lakeshore or in the Glenview neighborhood--that it's not like this recent spike was really anything new to them. So many of our youth have heard, seen or know of people getting killed on their block, or have had friends been shot and killed, that to call this recent spike a crisis and pay more attention to it than we would in years when the homicide rate was much lower, is a bit insulting to the reality of those that live in deep East Oakland or West Oakland and who deal with violence daily. I agree with my friend M., who grew up in East Oakland, that only when middle or upper-middle class white folks and professional people start getting robbed do people pay attention. I wrote something similar when I wrote about Chauncey Bailey's murder.

But when are we going to break out of our 'safe', illusory cocoons, wake up and realize that every death in this city, whether we knew the person or not, is connected to our lives? That violence that happens two feet or two miles away from us is our business too? That our willful ignorance and neglect of the violent and often impoverished and bleak realities of the people that are turning to crime and murder is part of the problem? Too often, people like me--middle-class, college-educated, living fairly comfortable lives--don't do anything until something happens to us, or someone that we know, or someone like us. We are motivated only by our fear of harm to our own persons, our own safety, when others walk around in our city feeling unsafe all the time, not just during years like this one.

Well, I, for one, want to be motivated by love, and I challenge all of my fellow Oaklanders who gripe and complain and sit on their hands when it comes to the violence in this city to do the same. Can we, as the Buddha and Gandhi and every other nonviolent leader in history has urged us, reach out in love and compassion to each other, to the strangers that walk past us? Can we say good morning to someone that we think might not speak the same language as us--whether that language is English or street slang? Can we challenge ourselves to rise above our own fear and feel compassion and empathy for not only the people that have been killed but for the people who wielded the weapon that brought about those deaths? Until we see that all of our lives are connected and intertwined--as this violent crisis, global warming/climate change, and numerous other major events in the world today show us--we will never be able to solve these persistent and disturbing problems.

Try it, if you don't believe me. Say 'hello' to someone that you pass everyday when you walk around Oakland--a young Black man or an older Asian immigrant. Smile. Be human, and see them as such. Make a connection. Eventually, you might end up having a conversation with someone that otherwise you would've just made lots of assumptions about, and you might learn that they are not that different than you. Or if that's too vague and unstructured an activity, volunteer to be a mentor to a young person who doesn't have lots of positive role models to look up to, help out at a local youth group or school, or if you don't have time to give, make a donation to an anti-violence group like the Silence the Violence project. Volunteer as an advocate for children in foster care.Talk to your neighbors. Get to know Oakland as a community, a group of people, a neighborhood, a place you call home, rather than a place you go to sleep at night.

For now, I'm sitting with this and thinking of the families and friends of those that were killed this weekend. I pray for them, and for the recently departed, and I pray for this city, that we can pull together in the ways that we need to to bring this cycle of neglect, oppression and violence to an end.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Getting Closer to Democracy

While the two-party certainly sucks for many reasons, and historically voter turnout in this country is abysmally low--my guess is probably even lower than in a place like my family's native country of the Philippines, where corruption in politics is rampant and well-documented--I am encouraged by this article on how newly registered, first-time voters are the wild card in this year's big Presidential race. I wholeheartedly agree that pollsters--yes, the same pollsters who are cranking out all these polls of likely voters saying how close Obama and McCain are running--have no idea what to do with this group of people, which this year number in the millions, though I can't find a solid number.

Yes, the Democrats are registering these new voters, so the first thought one would have is that these new voters will turn out in droves in November. Possibly. Registered a new voter and getting to vote are two different things. And it's another thing as well to get them to vote your way. But with Obama's massive popularity with young people never waning these days--and with Generation Y or the "Millenials" vying for the baby-boomers' demographic dominance in the American landscape--you can be sure that if these new and young voters get to the polls, they will mostly be voting for the Democratic ticket.

A ray of hope for us progressives on an otherwise shadowy horizon (a shadow cast by Palin, of course)? I think so. But it doesn't mean that we don't have some work ahead of us to make sure we take even more steps towards a real democracy in this country. Getting more people to vote is just the beginning. Even electing Obama into office isn't the end-all, be-all of our struggle. But I believe, for the first time in a while, that we can do it, together. Like Obama's campaign and the United Farmworkers and Cesar Chavez and community organizers around the world have said for decades, "Yes We Can."

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Missing Kali

It's been several years now since I had a regular Kali (one of many Filipino Martial Arts (or FMA as some people call them). This article from the Oakland Tribune made me realize why I loved practicing Kali and made me miss it. It was a way to ground myself in the body, and in a certain level of consciousness that extended far beyond my body, a kind of consciousness that also went beyond the classes I took with Gura Michelle Bautista, my main teacher, who was trained by our Master/Tuhan Joe Arriola of the Kamatuuran School. A quick excerpt from the Tribune article about what sets FMA apart from other martial arts like karate:

"The weapon, really, is just an extension of the hands," [Alexander Bautista Bayot] France, [an FMA master and instructor at Hayward Martial Arts] said. "Take the weapon out and we still have a complete and highly efficient martial arts system."

And weapons, France said, can be anything.

Have a 6-inch pen at your disposal? That can easily become your dagger, he said. How about that broomstick laying in the garage?

"Now you have a staff," France said.

I loved the economy of movement of Kali, and the way you could make a weapon out of anything, such as a frying pan (which many Black women and others have used historically to defend themselves against abusive husbands), a cell phone (point to throat and shove hard), even a coat (you can throw it in someone's face or over their knife). Many people have seen Kali and not even known it, as Matt Damon trained in it and used it for his Jason Bourne movie series. When I first saw 'Bourne Identity' I immediately recognized the quick moves that Jason Bourne uses as Kali--and I was super-excited to see this beautiful art finally given its due on the big screen. I remember tugging on H.'s arm and whispering urgently, "That's Kali!"

As the wedding planning ramps up to breakneck speed I find myself craving the release of physical action like Kali to get my aggressions out. Maybe after the wedding I'll start going to Gura's classes again. Or maybe I'll try to find some time beforehand to haul my butt over there. Nothing like a little stick- and knife-fighting to make a warrior-woman like me feel better!