Friday, December 2, 2011

Disoccupied



We are promised another night of fearsome winds but all is still. Waiting for the shake and squeal that doesn't happen is almost as eerie as enduring it the night before when we are fortunate to make out the sound of gushing water through all the wail and din. The branch of a pepper tree thuds again and again to activate a spigot on our deck despite our efforts to secure it. The wind blasts us as we fumble with the errant pepper. Himself, Ph.D and all, makes some suggestions towards correcting the problem that are so staggeringly stupid I attribute the lapse to some sort of Santa Ana phenomena related aberration. He is relieved when I have the presence of mind to suggest bungee cords.


I double my morning walk to compensate for a day skipped due to the storm and make a giant circle through Mount Washington. Most of the power is restored and the streets are largely unobstructed but for a giant fallen elm on Quail Way, which having crushed a car and someone's living room, still blocks the narrow road. Fallen branches that carpet the steep streets emit a sweet aroma and dawn breaks to reveal an electric blue sky.


From the top of Kite Hill City Hall is still illuminated and glowing at sunrise. Occupy LA is broken up by the LAPD the night before the deathly Santa Ana's. I hope that the energies harnessed here are a catalyst for good but if nothing else, candidates in the next election are now obliged to address the issue of economic disparity. The message is articulated most effectively with the coinage of the phrase “the 99%.” Occupy L.A.'s mission was complicated by its attractiveness to a large number of substance abusers, mentally ill and just plain homeless folks. This is a voiceless segment of 99% and while their presence at the Occupation isn't particularly photogenic, people sleeping in boxes in the shadows of the opulent offices of hugely profitable but tax exempt corporations is just as salient to the movement as the thousands of unemployed graduates with no means to pay off their college loans. Inevitably any assembly will attract its share of crazies as is evidenced by wacko Tea Party signage that's nearly as popular on Facebook as kitten videos. But the far reaching impact, of what I would have dismissed as a mobilization of right-wing crackpots, is impressive, viz a viz, the Congress. Perhaps there will be a formidable Occupy ticket in the 2012 election.


Spuds visits Occupy L.A. with us a number of times but while a large group of students from his college are regular participants, our elder son is dismissive. Number One Son is the kid who attributes his lack of enthusiasm for moving away to college to the happy childhood he was provided and his distaste for involvement in shaping his future is perhaps another attempt to postpone the encroaching demise of carefree youth. Sixteen year old Spuds takes a bus and two trains daily to my office so I can drive him to his tutoring job which is a bit off the public transportation grid. He arrives late, having made solo a detour to City Hall where a cyclone fence has been erected and we watches while former occupiers fruitlessly plead with the police to enter and prevent their possessions from being loaded onto huge dump trucks by workers clad in hazmat suits. Spuds muses whether in three years anyone will remember what happened here but I think O.W.S. will have traction. I look at iconic images daily as I search for footage, and even though I've seen them all a million times, frames from the 60s, of little black girls in church dresses being fire hosed in Selma and college students being shot down at Kent State, I am always gobsmacked by how much of the positive change that I've witnessed is fostered by protest. I suspect that old pictures of the tent city on the steps of City Hall and students in Davis being pepper sprayed will evoke the same awe for Spuds and his big brother too some day.


I have vivid memories of civil rights and peace protests only via photos and film but Spuds has taken part and himself delivered food and medical supplies. He discounts his energies but still I think his involvement entitles him to really own a bit of any salubrious results. It's this “at least did more than nothing” self satisfaction that makes me particularly ebullient about Hillary Clinton's trip to Burma, even though the press still uses the name Myanmar, a name coined by despotic leadership in an effort to completely denude the nation of its heritage. It isn't like I am single-handedly responsible for freeing Aung San Suu Kyi but I did give her a nice birthday party which unfortunately, due to her house arrest, she was unable to attend. Some monies were raised for the cause and the handful of people who slog through my rantings here week in and week out were informed a bit about the ruling military which seems recently to have loosened its grip. There is still a long way to go but the image of the recently free Aung San Suu Kyi dining with Hillary Clinton and the documented release of other political prisoners is reason for cautious optimism. The U.S. Campaign for Burma and similar organizations in other nations doggedly kept the dictatorship on the radar and I think, this group, of which I am a card carrying member, is entitled to take a little credit for the current shift in the right direction.


I have also written here extensively about the plight of inmates incarcerated in California prisons and shameful overcrowding and inhumane conditions. I wish I could say, that like signs of hope emanating from Burma, there has been progress on this other issue that is important to me. The state is complying with a federal court mandate to reduce prison overcrowding by sentencing non-violent offenders to county instead of state facilities. This is just a cynical numbers game but given the current political clout of the guard's union and the continued hacking away at the already pathetically miniscule budget devoted to rehabilitative programs in penal facilities this truly might be the only way to comply with the order to reduce the prison population. The bottom line is that nearly nothing is being done in prisons, county jails or aftercare to prevent recidivism and the guards union is well aware that a high census preserves hefty salaries and pensions and to them the cycle is more cash cow than vicious. I would love to add the issue of California prisons to the short list of things I've ranted about that have actually gotten better but unfortunately it seems the rush to comply with the Federal court bodes only to make the situation far worse but I am a lowly blogger and for a number of reasons, prison reform just isn't very sexy right now. My sense of impotence is dually exacerbated and diminished by correspondence I maintain with three Jewish California inmates.


Two of my pen pals are lifers. One has been incarcerated near San Diego for many years and another, after stints at Mule Creek and Pleasant Valley (!) is now at the same facility. Both of these men are smart and funny. They probably find my letters vaguely amusing but look forward most to the ones that contain legal pads or stamps which, except for paperback books sent directly from Amazon, is all that can be sent to a prisoner. I have no details about their crimes. I don't ask and they don' t tell. I feel no strong connection to either and suspect too that neither is a paragon of honesty. I know that in some odd way the human contact I maintain with them is important and it takes me very little time to dash off a letter once a week.


The man moved recently to San Diego is wheelchair bound now due to a neurological condition. He reports that the move to San Diego is scheduled after he is hospitalized for a week. He returns from the hospital to find his possessions all packed in preparation for his transfer. He is kept in a holding cell for several days without even shoes or a toothbrush. He is awakened at 3 am to board the van and the officer in charge instructs him to walk from the wheelchair. The prisoner indicates he is unsure whether he is strong enough to ambulate. The guard says he'd seen the inmate walking on the yard within the last few days and turns a deaf ear when the prisoner explains that this is impossible as he'd been hospitalized. It is determined that another vehicle will be necessary to transport him in a wheelchair but the irritated guard refuses to remove the man's belongings from the van so he is left without his bundle until a wheelchair equipped van can be engaged. It takes a week for the transport to be arranged and then after he arrives in San Diego it is several days until he sees his stuff. I am aware at this population's propensity for exaggeration and the prescient inmate includes with his letter a copy of a prison generated report that seems to corroborate this story.


I wish this were an isolated instance of petty-assed punitiveness but the third inmate I correspond with, and the one I consider a lifelong friend and not a mitzvah project commends a number of prison staffers for being professional and compassionate but notes too that bad-assed power tripping is rampant and seldom checked. The right is tough on crime and the left is reluctant to take a stand in opposition of any union, even CCPOA, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Officers have the option of choosing a badge that says Dept of Corrections or one that says Dept of Corrections and Rehabilitation and almost all opt for the former, at least honest about their lack of motivation to rehabilitate anyone.


The L.A. Occupiers have been dispersed through the city. Perhaps some of the more effectual members of the movement will be a voice for not only underemployed college graduates but also for the very bottom rung of the 99% who eke out a survival on the streets or languish in prisons due a society that values tax loopholes for the wealthy more than providing the most basic services for the destitute and mentally ill. The world is watching Burma for signs of genuine change and proof that Clinton's visit and other gestures towards improving international relations are not just a grab for more foreign monies. We are promised another severe bout of merciless wind and yet the air is still. Sometimes human goodness prevails and sometimes storms that we expect just don't arrive.



1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

This is a thoughtful and smoothly segued piece on inequality, unpredictability, and disharmony. The mighty wind this week reminds us of how tiny we all are on earth, and how "a still small voice" of 99% might be heard above, or after, the din the 1% makes. As in scripture, so in reality: as we mature, and reflect, we listen for what is learned often not so much from what's first chanted in slogans but in their subsequent silence. xxx me