I am posting an excellent essay by Michael Hureaux Perez from Black Agenda Report. I can really relate to this piece because he lives right down the street from where I lived for two years, in West Seattle where I still work and organize. Hureaux Perez and I are both teachers. I work at an alternative program for youth who dropped out of high school or skipped and need to catch up on their credits. I bet we’ve had some of the same students. In his piece he tells the story of Marleney, a young woman who could very well end up in my class because of all the issues she is facing. She’s behind in credits, her husband is undocumented and can’t find work, and she is also unemployed.
Marleny’s situation is not unusual. The other day in class I showed my students the 2000 census maps for West Seattle. Most of them come from White Center (Marleny and Hureaux Perez’s hood), Delridge, and High Point neighborhoods. When you look at the maps of Black, Latino, and Asian-Pacific Islander unemployment rates, these neighborhoods are like dark dots in a sea of white. 35th Avenue runs through West Seattle dividing the employed, white, college educated middle class from the unemployed and working class people of color. It’s like Seattle’s 8 Mile. When my students saw these maps they were beefing. And these were made before the economic crisis; it’s only getting worse now. I asked my students what should be done about this. A few said we should go rob the people living on the other side of 35th. Others said we should riot.
One of my former students decided to channel this anger into productive action. He and I did a study group over the summer and we just recruited our friends to start a new group called Employment Justice Action. We are demanding jobs, especially for unemployed youth of color who are hardest hit by the economic crisis. We’re starting by demanding that the local Walgreens hire more people from the neighborhood. They take money from the neighborhood; if folks can’t work there, why should we shop there?
This is especially important because High Point has been seriously gentrified and whitewashed. The housing projects were torn down and replaced with a mixed income development. The Housing Authority promised the former working class people of color residents they could return but many were unable to and were scattered through the rapidly growing South King County suburban ghettos. Seattle Housing Authority kicks folks out if they commit certain crimes, and this contributes to gentrification. They make no effort to link the rising crime rate to the rising unemployment rate in the neighborhood and they make no effort to produce jobs here.
The youth of color who remain are facing isolation as they are harassed by cops and private security forces who take their photos just for being outside. With the lack of jobs or anything else to do, young folks end up on the corner in local gangs but that gets old pretty quick. They either go on to more serious organized crime or end up chilling outside the gas station near Walgreens with nothing to do. Their new bourgie white neighbors turn up their noses at them as they walk by and then turn up their noses at us when we offer them a flyer saying “demand jobs in High Point.” But many folks of color and more working class white folks have been very supportive. We’re trying to say that demanding jobs in the hood is a key way to bring a sense of community back and to challenge the racist survival of the fittest mentality of these whiteys who took over our home.
Here is a copy of the flyer:
When I first told my newest group of students about Employment Justice Action one of them said “but we can always find temp work at the Labor Ready”. Well Hureaux Perez talks about how Marleney went to find a job there and one of the first things they asked her was “can you defend yourself, can you fight?” Through the rest of his essay, Hureaux Perez talks about how temporary employment and gentrification in Seattle are leading to a social breakdown and rising violence where this question is becoming the norm. He says: “There’s just something about being treated like expendable products on the shelf that makes a lot of people full-blown batshit crazy in short time.” He points out how in his experience White Center is more dangerous then Washington Heights where he used to live. I don’t doubt it. Maybe being treated like an expendable product in a city where Bill Gates type wealth is all around turns folks batshit crazy even faster.
This piece really struck a chord with me. It puts things into perspective. I’ve been dealing with a lot of chaos at school and this piece is a good reminder that it’s not my fault, it’s part of a broader social crisis.
First of all, district restructuring and increasing bureaucratic oversight mean my hours are getting longer right when we’re getting threatened with privatization which could mean unemployment for me. At the same time, I’m facing a larger class size than our program has historically had, and I’ve barely prevented several fights a week between students with serious emotional issues who are being placed in our program even though they need much more serious one-on-one attention than we can provide with our current class sizes. (Luckily we have a very good integrated counseling program and I’ve been really impressed with how some of the counselors have stepped in and helped us out).
Among my students this year it seems that the level of raw class hatred against the rich is stronger than I’ve ever seen. I have seen white students and students of color bond over a shared hatred of racism, white supremacy, and capitalism. But the level of volatility and anger misdirected against other oppressed people is also much more intense then last year. I’ve had to deescalate a lot of fights between students. There have been several times when a student has lost control and I’ve been the only adult around and I have seriously thought for a second that I might be assaulted and I’ve wondered whether it would be appropriate or not for me to defend myself and whether it’d be worth loosing my job in order to keep from getting hurt.
The (un?)fortunate reality is I have had to rely on one of the more community oriented and Black Power minded gangstas and a few other powerful students to help mediate arguments and to help talk some students down from doing things that could get them or someone else seriously hurt. These youth have done far more to prevent tragic situations then I ever could in my official role as a teacher. And when I have been able to reach them and encourage them to build solidarity instead of stupid beefs it’s mostly been because they respect me as an activist and as a member of the community, NOT as an authority figure.
However, I constantly need to remind myself that the situation doesn’t always work out so well. A lot of my students seem to have appealed either to a gang or to informal groups of family and friends who can fight or who are armed to settle disputes they’ve been involved in. For example, I was trying to do a vocab analogy lesson that involved the world “intimidate” and a queer student used it as a platform to announce in front of class that if anyone messes with him he will just call his Samoan friends who will then proceed to fuck up his enemies. To their credit, most of the West Seattle Samoans I’ve met tend not to be homophobic.
The reality is people in the neighborhood trusts the cops and the cops don’t trust people in the neighborhood. Recently someone blew up some cop cars in Seattle and left behind a flyer for an annual march against police brutality. An officer was also just shot on Halloween. The cops are stepping up their profiling and harassment in response and everyone is on edge. I just heard a rumor that someone was brought in and questioned for this shooting and was badly beaten.
Considering the horrific experiences many of my students have had with cops I can understand why they don’t call them when they have a crisis. But the problem is there is no alternative community organization that can do judicial affairs and the lack of that kind of organization is probably the biggest reason why people turn to gangs.
I have an incredible class this year and I have great relationships with most of my students. Many of them are budding working class intellectuals, artists, musicians, and activists and I have no doubt they’ll play a role in future artistic, cultural, or political movements. But the level of drama they’re bringing in from the streets and from their homes and workplaces is higher than ever.
As teachers we can’t be expected to compensate for all of this within the fragile four walls of our classrooms. That’s why it feels good to get out into the hood with Employment Justice Action to flyer and meet folks. Hopefully we can be a small seed of the kind of organizations that need to be built up by the neighborhood as a whole. Maybe we should take a tip from Hureaux Perez and flyer outside the Labor Ready with a flyer saying “you shouldn’t have to know how to fight in order to put food on the table.”
It’s been pretty draining for me to be going through this each day and to keep thinking that this isn’t “really” the ghetto cuz it’s Seattle. I end up going through the week with a sense that I should just suck it up because it’s worse elsewhere. I mean, that’ s partially true, it ain’t Detroit. But I gotta drop that mentality because it’s part of the ideology that official society holds up here in the Starbucks capital to keep us from directly dealing with our problems. The reality is, Seattle is changing rapidly and I don’t think the white elites and middle classes in this city have any idea what the hell is going on.
My coworker put it well the other day: this city is growing, attracting workers from all over the country and all over the world. Refugees from ruling class blitzkreigs from Detroit to Samoa to Somalia. In 20 years this city could be LA, and yet the official story is not keeping up with these changes.
This city has a rich history of Black Power , Chicano, and Asian Power revolts. It had a huge May Day rally in ’06. A lot of this is overlooked. Some of my friends are working to try and research and rep this history (for example, check out the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, which I use heavily in my Black studies and Asian American studies classes)
At some point I would not be surprised if there is a new upsurge/ uprising / movement here and it is going to surprise everyone who doesn’t live in hoods like West Seattle. But in a positive sense, it will put entire social forces who are currently politically invisible at the forefront of defining what this city is – the non-model minority Asian American workforce, the Samoan community, Latino workers spread out all over the state and tucked away in hidden industrial zones in the city like South Park, working class white youth who are in or around multiracial people of color cliques and gangs, and of course Black youth who are probably some of the most multi-racial/ internationalist oriented folks in the country.
Some of these folks were involved in the last uprising in ’99 but not with enough social weight to prevent the cops, the media, and much of the Left from concluding that it was just a white thing. Next time it happens it will be an unmistakable fact that there are a lot of people of color who want to run this town. And hopefully folks can turn around all that training in fighting each other and use it to fight together for jobs and to fight to take our neighborhoods back.
I live in White Center, which is on the southwest border of Seattle City limits. Life in White Center has been dicey for a long time, the old joke about the area is that “it ain’t so white and it ain’t so centered.” Originally, it was a farming community with the first major trolley stops out of Seattle on the South side of the town, it was also a hub for goods brought across Puget Sound by boat. The rats that sometimes travelled alongside items brought off of the larger vessels lent the community its nickname “Rat City.” The neighborhood boomed briefly with the Boeing Company’s fortunes during the 1940s through the 1960s, but it has succumbed in the decades since to a sporadic pattern of retail havens and mini-malls. Today, the usual entrepreneurial efforts appear in spotty patterns alongside both sides of White Center’s main drag, 16th Ave SW. Teriyaki joints, bars, SE Asian produce stands, dollar outlets, porn shops, beauty parlors and a Tacqueria van with an outdoors shelter are the main businesses. Street traffic during the day is made up of exhausted people who chain smoke cigs out in front of the ubiquitous taverns and at night, the gangs, the crystal meth junkies and the prostitutes come out.
Young people slice and dice each other often in White Center. A small gang war has broken out between black and Mexican gangs, and South Sea Island youth are wild card players anywhere within that mix. My wife and I bought a small house in the area five years ago and have seen or heard of many times more carnage between kids in that amount of time then I saw or heard in the five years I lived on 162nd Street and Riverside in New York City. Washington Heights, according to the hype of the day, was supposed to have been one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in New York, but the wannabe thugs around here are anxious to apply. Gang bangers in the northwest seem to have this driving need to prove they are as “hard” as their cohorts in East St. Loo and South Philadelphia, so the bottom falls out of gang peace consistently.
“Gang bangers in the northwest seem to have this driving need to prove they are as “hard” as their cohorts in East St. Loo and South Philadelphia.”
One of my students in the area is Marleney T., who is 19 years old and about five academic credits shy of what she’ll need to graduate by spring. That goal seems more remote with her recent marriage to a young man who’s up here from Mexico without permission. Mario was laid off last week and employment prospects are dim, given his immigration status, so she’s thinking about dropping out of school. Like many of the young women that end up looking for work around here, she thought for a time about becoming an exotic dancer because it’s lucrative as crap work goes, but health problems have precluded even this wretched option. Her wisdom teeth are coming in, and no community clinic in the area at this time will see her without some sort of payment or insurance, which she doesn’t have. So she’ll walk around with her face swollen up like a beach ball for awhile until someone somewhere relents, or until the teeth impact or rot in her head, whichever comes first. No big deal, lots of people go through life with a mouth full of dental abscesses. It builds character.
This week, Marleney made her way down to Labor Ready, which is the fallback temp agency for working class kids in this part of town. In filing her application at Labor Ready, she was asked by the shift manager there “if she knew how to defend herself, to fight.” Marleney, understandably a little taken aback by the question, replied that she was just trying to find some work in the warehouses. The Labor Ready manager told her that there were “a bunch of tough ladies” in some of their work locations, and since they couldn’t provide security for their workforce off shift, that she’d probably have to know how to fight, being a woman and all. So snap goes the last thread. The social Darwinist ethos carries the day.
“Most of us learn to sublimate the rage and defensive posture in one way or another.”
But does she know how to defend herself? As well as anyone does, I reckon. She comes from a pretty nutty family situation she had to tear herself loose from when she was fifteen. Marleney had to defend herself from two abusive parents who were themselves caught up in the systematic abuse that follows the lives of the working poor in this country. There’s just something about being treated like expendable products on the shelf that makes a lot of people full-blown batshit crazy in short time, and it’s an unfortunate fact that many of these people pass this abuse onto their children. I’m not certain if the pattern is actually one of feeding their children Popeye’s Fried Chicken for breakfast, as a certain highly esteemed political figure charges, but I do know that when a family has been de-skilled enough and poor enough long enough, they have a tendency to raise their children to believe that they’re “too dark,” or “ugly” some other way, or brainless, or void of talent. Some of you who came up in this kind of household will know what I’m talking about. If we’re lucky, time and maybe therapy heal us up, but most of us learn to sublimate the rage and defensive posture in one way or another. A few of us wind up writing variations on rants like this one.
So yeah, Marleney can defend herself, to fight. She defended herself right out onto the street when she was fifteen, and chose to take rescue from young people who were still walking around smelling their own pee, but who were dangerous all the same, and lots of these kids, between the ages of 12 and 17, maraud to this very day on the streets of downtown Seattle. Every once in awhile, a resident of the luxury towers that have been built to replace the residential housing and single room occupancy that used to be available downtown find themselves caught in a gaggle of these crazy young street mercenaries and gets pretty badly mauled. The media will go nuts because one of the best and brightest will occasionally become a victim of the social cretinism we in this country call prosperity, but then the old denial game goes on. As The Man said last week, “we’re not going to apologize for our way of life.” So everybody needs to learn how to defend themselves, like Marleney T. has. And that’s good. For, as that disillusioned Reaganite Paul Craig Roberts pointed out this week on the Counterpunch website:
“All the Obama regime sees is a credit problem. But the crisis goes far beyond banks’ bad investments. The United States is busted. Many of the state governments are busted. Homeowners are busted. Consumers are busted. Jobs are busted. Companies are busted. And Obama thinks he has the money to fight wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Now, with all apologies due to former Reagan Administration Assistant Treasury Secretary Roberts, the sad fact is that all the national government has done this last few years is follow Reaganite logic to its most absurd extremes. Things are working well along the lines of Reagan’s “supply side economics,” which habitually goes towards credit chaos because it cannot take in the fact that dollars remain only a single representation of actual production/ wealth. The system has always functioned on the principal of building fortunes via the use of someone else’s money, and very often money people don’t really have. Even now, all these buzzards are thinking about is how to cash in. Efficiency in supply-side economics is conservation of dollars in the pockets of those who have dollars and extension of credit markets to facilitate the waste of oceans of human potential, resource, and time. If people aren’t chasing and jetting and strafing around to keep up a surplus supply of vanity items we don’t really need, we’re not being efficient. And the rest of the world, according to the Reaganite model, needs to do as we in the U.S are doing. Obama is only doing as his mentors of the Chicago School have taught him to do, which is to use public governance to enrich that tiny minority which benefits from predatory overgrowth of the consumer system, or the bludgeoning of the masses into defining our lives as the sum total of what we own. And we’re not apologizing for our way of life, said Master O.
“Obama is only doing as his mentors of the Chicago School have taught him to do.”
Thus, as unsettling as the question posed to Marleney T. at Labor Ready was, at the very least, it’s germane. Can you defend yourself? Do you know how to fight? It’s going to be a pretty tough go-round for working folks for awhile, thanks to the Obamites, who for some strange reason believe a fighting strategy for change will be built by the people Obama has surrounded himself with, that is, people who’ve never had to worry about whether the heat is going to come on when they throw a switch. Obamians will tell you in one breath that it’s far too early to criticize Obama, and many will tell you in the next breath that they’re going to work for his re-election four years from now. But “it’s too early to criticize him now.” “Give him a chance.” Give Robert Gates a chance to kill more Iraqi children. Offer Richard Holbrooke a shot at smoking more Pakistani elders. Let Arne Duncan turn the public schools into military academies and bingo parlors. And by all means, allow the megalomania of the Clinton machine full sway in the State Department.
If that’s what they call “pushing Obama,” I’ve seen more productive effort from Dung beetles. And Dung beetles, at least, are conscious of which substance it is they are actually pushing.
BAR columnist michael hureaux is a writer, musician and teacher who lives in southwest Seattle, Washington. He is a longtime contributor to small and alternative presses around the country and performs his work frequently. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org