I am writing from San Francisco. I flew here yesterday afternoon for a board meeting of the Family Violence Prevention Fund later today at which we will be discussing, among other things, community organizing strategies for addressing domestic violence. Before heading to the airport, I spent the morning at Stateway Gardens working on a report on police misconduct in public housing. This report grows out of the Stateway Civil Rights Project, a collaboration with the Mandel Legal Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School. Stateway residents working together with law students have documented a number of cases of abusive behavior by the police. We have also brought several law suits, one of which, a class action suit occasioned by a raid on a basketball tournament, is now in settlement talks. (We are encouraged about the prospects because dramatic inconsistencies have emerged from the depositions of the officers involved in the raid.)
The cases we are documenting cover a spectrum from verbal abuse to an incident in a vacant unit in the House of Pain on Easter morning in which two police officers allegedly raped a woman they had arrested for drug possession. Yesterday I wrote up the case of T., a tiny woman whose heroin addiction, consuming her body from the inside out, has given her the appearance of a Kenyan marathoner. T. serves as a lookout for drug dealers. A couple of weeks ago, she and a male friend, both on bicycles, were stopped by plainclothes police officers on the grounds outside the building. One of the officers allegedly took out a knife and slashed all four tires. He then took lotion and bottled water from a bag she was carrying and poured it over her. T. and her friend were neither interrogated nor arrested. This incident was brought to my attention by a leaseholder, sharply critical of the drug trade, who was appalled by what she had witnessed from her sixth-floor window.
Having called the drug trade “evil” and having demonized those who labor in its sweatshops, we confer license on the police to behave in this manner.
I was at Stateway on Sept. 11, 2001. My colleagues and I watched the unfolding events on a television resting on a plastic milk crate up under the building. Several weeks later, we resumed publication with a statement rededicating ourselves to “the work of resisting violence wherever we encounter it, and in whatever form, by using language responsibly to call things by their true names.” This is, as I see it, the essential work.
Before setting out for the airport, I looked hard from the other side of State Street at the House of Pain: a place for those for whom there is no other place. In a matter of days, the building will be closed; overnight it will become an urban ruin. Then soon after that it will be gone. The development of which the building is part is not seen as a complex, mysterious community but as a failed “project” to be erased. To my ear, the CHA’s name for its demolition and redevelopment program— “The Plan For Transformation” —is Orwellian. Those who failed to provide maintenance and security now offer transformation. The public rhetoric sings of inclusion; the underlying logic is that of a purge.
As the plane took off from O’Hare, I looked down on Chicago. Seen from the air, a great American city is an amazing thing. What one cannot see from the air is how the way people move through the city determines what they can see and cannot see, how these patterns shape our public discourse about a range of fundamental issues, how this geography of urban apartheid stunts our moral imaginations.
At the heart of this dynamic, I have come to believe, is fear. We are afraid of abandoned communities such as Stateway Gardens and those who live in them. Our fear is axiomatic. It is unquestioned. It arises out of our emotional cores. It is animated by our deepest concerns for those we love and for our own survival. It overrides whatever else we know about the world. It blocks our capacity for perception, for learning. When mediated by fear, ignorance can coexist with knowledge, blindness with vision. As a result, decent people find it possible to support indecent policies, thoughtful people to support stupid policies, compassionate people to support heartless policies.
Tomorrow Patsy and I will mark the 14th anniversary of the day violence entered our lives: the day she was beaten and sexually assaulted. Enough time has elapsed that we can now see the arc of our lives more clearly than we could at the time—can see that we have responded, as she puts it, “by extending our boundaries rather than pulling them in around us.”
When Working With Available Light was published, I did dozens of interviews. Almost invariably, I was asked whether I was obsessed with wreaking revenge on the man who terrorized my wife. Interviewers often seemed disappointed in me when I replied that I desperately hoped he would be caught but that my anger and energy were directed elsewhere. In retrospect, I can now see more clearly that our impulse was actively to resist the all-but-irresistible tendency to fear those who share defining characteristics—such as skin color or address—with the one who inflicted the violence.
Among the greatest dangers posed by fear of violence is that we will lose sight of our true resources for being safe and secure: the care and solidarity of human beings acting together. Our imaginations are shaped around the violent act. We find it much harder to take in the ongoing work of repair and maintenance of the world, all the acts of kindness, civility, and solidarity that make life supportable, all the humane, constructive responses to violence—the everyday resistance to violence—that constitute so much of civilization, including (perhaps especially) in places such as Stateway.
There are large violent acts. There are no large healing acts. Healing is a matter of small acts of attention and care sustained over time. When men aspire to large healing acts, they generally come up with things like lynchings and wars.