Friday, May 01, 2015

America in Flames - A New Reality or Revisiting the Past


 We Shall Overcome

The pictures and videos on television could almost move one to tears.  Little towns and big cities are going up in flames over the death of yet another Black man at the hands of the police.

No doubt, there is discrimination between races.  Then there is discrimination within races.  Then there is discrimination between nationalities within a race.  Throw in language, wealth, religion, income, memberships, schools, and health care discrimination, all within the same race, and you start to get the picture.

However, even though we are not equal in all the areas I mentioned, to name just a few, our Declaration of Independence and Constitution guarantee us equal opportunity, and to have equal protection under the law.

We are free to pursue whatever our hearts desire as long as we respect the right of everyone else to do the same.

Unfortunately, much of the freedom and equality incorporated into our Founding documents was a framework for the future of our nation and did not even exist when the documents became law.

Foresight, intuition, premonition, prophecy, common sense, and good luck are all vital elements in the drafting of constitutional documents that must guide a nation far into the future.  Ours worked pretty well most of the 239 years we have been here.

However, since humans are the only life form capable of excessive greed, obsessed with physical and psychological possession, and intoxicated with the thirst for control, we hit occasional speed bumps on the road to perfection.

The scenes of Baltimore in flames, seems like the typical fictional show we see every day on television.  I suppose it is certainly the best of the reality shows, which conveniently blend fact and fiction blurring the lines between.

Here are some observations from a concerned citizen, me.

No doubt, our television and social media fan the flames of dissent with 24/7 coverage, cameras in the faces of everyone, their failure to be honest about "live" news footage versus incessant reruns of the same fires, force or criminal behavior, and their inability to verify most of what they are told by on-the-scene witnesses.

Last night I watched the same building burn down over 25 times and they never mentioned it was a rerun.  They have "Breaking" News Alerts of stuff that happened the night before.  Reporters take sides when caught up in the emotion of the scene and stop being objective.

So yes, the media certainly fans the flames of dissent.

The media, government officials, consultants, and activists all gravitate to the spotlight when such violence breaks out.  Then they proceed to say some rather stupid things.  When all these mouthpieces for the public speak their piece, a lot of time has elapsed and the result is a different result than the peace they claimed to advocate.

Another thing that bothers me is when we have 45 million Blacks in America, why is the Reverend Al Sharpton the only spokesperson for all 45 million people.  I know some incredibly articulate and intelligent Black people who could say something meaningful and hopeful to those caught in the middle of riots.  Surely, we can do better than just ask Al.

I wonder if the media is too young to remember all the times this has happened before, even in our lifetimes.  They act as if they never saw such a sight before.  Expecting them to do research might be out of the question.  Assuming they know history is even more absurd.

I am a Baby Boomer, in high school at the beginning of the 1960's.  By the end of that one decade, there were Civil Rights riots, Academic Freedom riots, anti-war riots, riots over the use of drugs, riots when political leaders were assassinated, and riots after students were killed in other riots.

We had marches and massive protests against everything.

When I went to college, I knew I would be going to war in Vietnam.  So, I joined the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC), at the University of Arizona in order to be ready to face death.

One day, bricks came crashing through the ROTC headquarters building as over 1,000 students stormed the place to protest the war and draft.  My classmates were in the crowd.

Later in the '60's I worked for the mayor in Omaha, Nebraska when there were riots again with college students over tuition and curriculum and race riots after the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  After the death of Dr. King, the nation was in flames from Los Angeles to New York.

There were more race riots in Omaha when a policeman was lured to a suitcase bomb and killed by Black Panthers.  For a time it was a toss up whether you were safer in the neighborhoods where the stores were on fire, than you would be outside the riot zone where vigilantes in trucks cruised around looking for potential victims to get even.

Hatred can be a powerful thing.

When I joined the Office of the President and then Congress in 1973, the Wounded Knee takeover by the AIM Native American movement flared up on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation.  This time there was fighting between the tribal council and traditional leaders and AIM took over the site of the original Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.  Before it ended an FBI agent was killed and U.S. Marshal was paralyzed from the waist down, both worked out of the same federal building where I worked.

Ironically, there is a thread common in most of these incidents.  The most serious involve the destruction of property and deaths, which typified those involving race relations.  Race riots were the most destructive, because there was a willingness to destroy the very places needed to serve the low income.

The same is true today.  Nothing has changed much in the past fifty years.

Many of the years from 1964 to 1975, I worked for the government.  In my career, I worked for mayors, city councils, county boards, governors, House members, Senate members, and the Executive Office of the President.  I worked for the administrative branch, legislative branch, and occasionally for the judicial branch of government, and often worked in the campaign operations.

My role was strategy and policy development and implementation.  In short, I identified the need, developed a solution, and determined how to get it done.  I made things work that helped people.

When I started out in government, President Lyndon Johnson had signed and implemented the Civil Rights Act and Economic Opportunity Act, the latter of which became the core of his War on Poverty.

I was fortunate to work with a number of agencies on programs like the National Alliance of Businessmen jobs program, Keep America Beautiful efforts, and so called poverty programs such as Head Start, Legal Services for the poor, and many others.

Back then, like now, there was virtually no hope for most young, Black teenagers.  If they did not finish high school there was a better than 50% chance of spending most of your life in jail.  Teen unemployment was through the roof while the drug culture was sweeping through the ghettos.

For the next several years I learned of the world of the forgotten or invisible Americans and it would take me to areas like Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Falls River, MA, Albuquerque, and searching for ways to protect programs, understand the problems, and work to develop solutions.

There were times I was the only white person in meetings with hundreds of Blacks but I was determined to learn what to do to help the urban communities.  We tried many things, some worked, and some did not.  Then we determined which programs were too corrupt or too ineffective and had another battle trying to get rid of them.

People forget we spent billions and billions of dollars on poverty, jobs, job training, economic development, housing, education, health care, food, and criminal justice reform during the 1960's and 1970's.  Some programs worked great like Head Start.  Others worked great but were controversial like legal services.  There were many efforts to eliminate all the programs, as the Vietnam War grew ever larger across the ocean.

With over five million Americans sent to fight in Vietnam, 1.3 million causalities, and 58,209 dying there was pressure to transfer massive amounts of money to defense spending.  The competition for money was great among the different interests.

Sometimes, seemingly good projects like low-income high-rise housing in the ghetto in time failed miserably, and by the 1980's we spent millions of dollars to get rid of what did not work.  We faced that in Jersey City when I worked for the governor of New Jersey and it took several years to tear down a series of dilapidated high rises where drug dealing, prostitution, gangs, and other elements of the dark side flourished.

In the end, the programs most controversial or ones that did not work were eliminated first, and as poverty lost out to law enforcement, wars, and financial affairs of the public, even the good programs were cutback.

Many people cared, tried to help out, and even contributed to major milestones in the war on poverty, and some were even White.

One was a friend of mine from Shenandoah, Iowa.  In my opinion there were two great brother acts from that little town in Southwestern Iowa, the Everly Brothers (Don and Phil), and the Offenburger brothers, Dan, Tom, and Chuck.

Dan Offenburger was a close friend and we both showed up in Omaha, Nebraska in around 1968.  Dan was a graduate of Creighton University in Omaha and worked for the school rising from intramural director to Athletic Director and pulling off the miracle of landing Willis Reed, NBA superstar with the Knicks, as head basketball coach for the Creighton Blue Jays.

From my position in the Mayor's Office and the fact one of the mayors I worked for was a Creighton graduate, we were deeply involved in anything to help the Jesuits.  As I progressed into being a newspaper reporter for the Omaha World Herald then working for congress and the office of the president, we would meet often at the Omaha Press Club.

Dan had two brothers he never stopped talking about, Chuck, who was a near legendary writer and columnist for my favorite newspaper, the Des Moines Register, and Tom, who had recently resigned (1966) from being the Chicago Bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report.  Tom left one of the great jobs in journalism to become the press secretary for Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., when America was about to go up in flames.

Because on my work with programs intended to break the cycle of poverty, Dan introduced me to his brother, who would go on from working with Dr. King, to working for and with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young for more than a decade, and  the wife of Dr. King, Coretta Scott King.

Andrew Young would later travel to Shenandoah, Iowa to deliver the eulogy for Tom.  Young called him a highly revered man and said Tom "interpreted the Civil Rights Movement," turning "a hostile press into seekers of the truth."

After the murder of his boss in April of 1968, riots swept the nation, primarily in black urban areas. At least 110 cities experienced violence and destruction in the next few days, resulting in roughly $50 million in damage. Of the 39 people who died, 34 were black. The worst riots were in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Over 22,000 federal troops and 34,000 national guard were sent to aid local police -- the largest ever called to deal with domestic civil disturbance. In many cities, the devastation was so great that it left a permanent scar, which is still evident, decades later.

In Baltimore, the 1968 riots cost six people their lives, injured 700, and destroyed about 1,000 small businesses.  People burned down their own infrastructure and their own neighborhoods.

It was the worst social unrest in America since the Civil War.

Just two months earlier Tom had drafted a letter articulating the need for the King non-violent movement, a letter approved by Dr. King.  In the letter, Tom said frustrations were growing across the nation because of the failure of our government and society to start meaningful, massive assaults against economic exploitation and racial injustice.

Tom asked the question do you think our nation can escape violence by the continued suppression of poor people.  He outlined the goals of Dr. King in seeking decent jobs and income for all people, and help rebuilding the slums.   

On April 4, 1968, the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom's close friend and boss, took place when Dr. King was age 39.

We have an opportunity to build on history.  Unlike previous occasions, we must address the issues Tom raised of economic exploitation and racial injustice.  We must finally finish the war on poverty by learning from our experience, creating new solutions, and maintaining the fight long after the media has stopped reporting.

Once upon a time America was not afraid to make mistakes when it came to the good of the people.  That spirit, courage, and faith must live in people, all people, and then yes, We Shall Overcome.

By the way, We Shall Overcome, those are the words inscribed on the gravestone of Tom Offenburger.  He was a white journalist, friend, and press secretary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Tom was the man who interpreted the Civil Rights movement to the "hostile" press of America.  His life proved that we all must care about the plight of the poor.  His work proved we all have different ways to contribute to such a worthy cause.   

{Note photos are from the riots of 1967 Detroit and nationwide in 1968.}


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