From the January-February 2022 issue of News & Letters
San Francisco—Market Street is the main artery for San Francisco’s political, financial and cultural powers. Because the street has lights, the homeless congregate there at night for safety. The Orpheum Theater put on a performance of My Fair Lady, a musical about a homeless girl, singing: “All I want is a room somewhere/ Far away from the cold night air….” She is picked to be groomed as a high-class lady.
HIDING THE HOMELESS
We, Urban Alchemy, who work on Market Street, have to get the homeless away from the theater, so that the fine high-class people—who pay $$$ for the ticket, $20 to park their car, a lot more if they want a dinner before, or refreshments after—can walk into and out of the theater without seeing an actual homeless person.
All the money going into the “homeless problem” is spent on mediators: not just Urban Alchemy, but an army of street cleaners, social workers, various medical services. If those resources were actually provided to the homeless, maybe they could get off the street.
The question of “solving” homelessness seems overwhelming. But where you have to start is simple, you have to be human. Little incidents, like helping a blind man negotiate a street full of obstacles, have to become a general sentiment. Empathy is recognizing that what you want for yourself you want for others. Everyone’s life matters. The abyss I see every day on the street says clearly that Black lives don’t matter.
Acknowledging humanity in your neighbor, in the homeless people on the street, is the beginning of the change we need. A universal principle throughout all those particular situations is relating to another human being as a human being, including especially their need for a basic shelter.
There is a cry for Black businesses as a solution. But to be in business, you have to sell things, usually for more money than what one pays in large stores. When your Visa card is your philosophic rudder, it is not freedom. Capitalism muddles your brain.
There are echoes of Booker T. Washington in what Nipsey Hussle did in Los Angeles. In his 1895 speech Washington advised, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Hussle built a shopping mall in the hood, helping the community. Even though he was fatally shot outside his store in March 2019, he made a dent. A Nipsey Hussle lyric is “what they call you in the hood, N….” For people of my generation, your reputation in the hood was everything. A bond represented by what they called you in the hood used to be meaningful. Now, it has no value. Snitching has become commonplace. Someone will sell you out for a nickel.
My people, cats on the street—white, Black, Brown—don’t talk about freedom anymore. The talk is about getting money. Money is a palliative for what is wrong, but it is not a substitute for freedom. All former prisoners I know want to have a car. Some people work three jobs to have a BMW. The spate of “smash and grab” actions are all about trinkets. Why do people get so caught up with money that way?
THE HUMANISM OF FRANTZ FANON
Harriet Tubman was right, she could have freed more slaves if they knew they were slaves. That’s what I see on the streets today. People don’t see any alternative to chasing the dollar.
Capitalism engenders selfishness, breaks down your connections to others. Frantz Fanon said, white man laughs when he hears Black man talk about unity, because he knows many things he can use to set people against each other. What we learned in solitary at Pelican Bay prison is that we have to work out for ourselves the human connection to others across racial lines, overcoming the prison-enforced racial designations.
We used to have study groups in the yard. A frequent group project was to write two pages on Black history. Many reports focused on the drive to end slavery. It was a form of humanism, a demand for slaves to be recognized as human beings. But humanism has to have a life after ending formal slavery. I have to ask myself constantly, what happens after Pelican Bay? We have to learn from Fanon, whose humanism kept going deeper into the idea of freedom in order to set afoot a new human being not only for Black people fighting racism but for the whole world.