Watching Baltimore Burn

The title says it all.

I’m watching the burning on MSNBC right now, having started watching it on CNN, and I’m thinking of all the mistakes we have made over the past ten years, the past twenty years, the past forty years in our nation.

For those of you who may be reading from outside the 242, when I say “our nation”, I mean The Bahamas, not the USA. I may be resident in the USA for the next 10 weeks, but when I say “our nation” I mean our Bahamas.

The first thing that I’m thinking of is our current crime wave in Nassau. As far as I can tell, the violence began to escalate in 2007, and it has been rising steadily ever since. Now I know that this is not a popular thing to say. The popular thing is to blame the Progressive Liberal Party for everything negative in our country, but the fact of this matter is that in 2002, the then PLP administration, led by PM Perry Christie, instituted a revolutionary programme for our inner cities. 

Urban Renewal as it was then conceived was based on three principles. 

The first principle was that the people who live in the inner cities are not all criminals. Even if criminality is prevalant in those communities, the majority of the residents, those mostly law-abiding people, who are our poorest residents and those people who are first and most often affected by criminal activity, deserve to be treated as citizens like everyone else. The establishment of Urban Renewal centres in those inner city communities (never mind that the communities themselves were artificially determined according to those absurd lines on paper we call constituency boundaries) recognized this, and those centres were not only inhabited by police; they also brought together various other government services which made it easier for the people in those communities to access government programmes. The idea was that those centres were one-stop shops where people who had limited resources, a shortage of transportation and a shortage of time, could pay their bills, see their social workers, and get the help and guidance they might need to make their lives easier, not harder. 

The second principle was that when it comes to crime, prevention is better than cure. It may be more exciting and more macho to invade communities with guns blazing and riot gear on, but the decision was taken to turn the police into father figures rather than warriors. The idea was that if you treat citizens as people and give them the chance to experience their own citizenry, by making the police their servants and their mentors and not their enemies, peace will follow. 

And the third principle was that you can’t fix broken communities by breaking people. The Urban Renewal programme of 2002-2007 was an integrated programme based on serious and long-term research into transformative community activity, led by psychiatrists and community activists, a programme that forced a number of different agencies to cooperate and work together, using neighbourhoods as the locus of their action and people as their focus, rather than their far-flung, over-insulated offices and addictions to hierarchy. It provided counselling and mentoring; it provided alternative activities for inner city youth; it provided father figures and the sense that inner city residents mattered.

This is what the discussion about Baltimore tells us is missing in that city, what lies behind the riots tonight.

I believe that the rolling back of that programme in 2007, citing the “waste” of government resources, the frivolity of marching bands, the softening of the police, and the inefficiency of providing multiple services, is at least on some level responsible for the escalation of violence and criminal activity in the communities from which the programme was removed. Imagine you are a seven year old boy living in one of our urban centres in 2002. All of a sudden you are given the opportunity to meet policemen, to get to know them, to be taught music by them, to be treated by them as a young human being and treat them as mature human beings. Imagine joining a marching band and getting to travel and wear a uniform and have something to invest in and to feel proud of. And then imagine being that same boy in that same urban centre in 2007, only now you are eleven. Your band is disbanded. Your police friends leave the community. And the next time you see any police at all they are storming your neighbourhood with guns and insults. 

Is it any surprise to anyone that violent crime has been rising since? Like Baltimore, we have abandoned our most vulnerable communities, and strong men, bullies and thugs, are stepping into the space we have left behind.

And the new Urban Renewal programme, which seems to be focussed on buildings rather than people, on small connected contractors mostly from outside the community rather than on building up human beings from within does not take us back. I am not sure that the damage done by the dissolution of UR 1.0 can be fixed; when trust is ripped apart by betrayal, it is twice, four times, ten times as difficult to built it up again. What we are calling “Urban Renewal” today, the so-called “Urban Renewal 2.0”, is not worthy of the name. It is a cosmetic, hollow shadow of something that had roots and had begun to grow. It is a symbolic gesture, a suggestion that we are interested in our least fortunate citizens, but what it does is unsustainable. People who are built up can continue to build themselves; but when houses are repaired and derelict vehicles towed, it’s only a matter of time before repairs and cleean-up are required again.

So were are we now? Once again, we are fighting superficially, squabbling along party lines, worrying about the exercise of authority rather than the principles that ought to guide us. We are slipping into the exhiliration and competition that leads up to the election season, ignoring the fundamental problems. I have no problem with the bringing of rigour to the programme; I have no problem with the audit or the report or any of the criticism that has been levelled. This is criticism that, to me, has a place in a democracy; political and civic leaders should be called to account when they spend the public’s money. But it seems to me that we’re actually missing the point.

The rigour and the attention that we are bringing to the spending of the public’s money is all well and good, but where was that rigour when the first Urban Renewal programme, the one focussed on people rather than buildings, the one that won international awards for its community policing initiaives, the one that pulled the guns off the streets, the one that built relationships with the law-abiding people in our inner cities and made them feel comfortable in their neighbourhoods, where was that rigour when that programme was being dismantled? I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe, maybe we care more about money than people. That we are happy to allow our law enforcement officials to exercise their strength rather than demanding their compassion. That we are more comfortable with classifying one another as troublemakers than as fellow human beings. And so I watch Baltimore burning, and I suggest you do too, and listen to their discussions. Because we have made choices, and our choices have not been good. We are told that governments don’t make stupid decisions, but we can see the deisions, one after another, that have been made over the past decade or so, and they don’t look smart to me. I watch Baltimore burning, and know that there, there, but for the grace of God, go we.


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