The Great Plotnik

Friday, July 19, 2013


I've been told it's easier to read stories on Blogger than on Facebook. So here is today's post, which stems from a discussion with The Great FiveHead about black townships in South Africa. This little girl was photographed in front of her house in Kayelitsha, near Capetown. At last night's TIAPOS several people wrote about Trayvon Martin, from different perspectives. Here is mine. - TGP)


We San Franciscans love our city. When our family comes to visit we want to show it off. But the fact is that no matter how beautiful the cityscape, what tourists always notice first is dirtbag piss-covered humans everywhere they look.

I moved from casual California to callous New York in my early twenties and I was horrified to see people on Broadway nonchalantly stepping over winos sleeping on the sidewalk. I blamed the East. It was so cold, life was hard, people had to have thick skins.

Now I live in Paradise. I get it. I see the beggars, but I don't want to see them, so I look up instead of down -- there! The Bridge! There! The Wharf!

A few years ago we traveled in South Africa. We went to townships like Kayelitsha and Langa, outside of Capetown, and also to Soweto, which is a few miles from downtown Johannesburg. The townships are far larger than I had thought. Soweto is an enormous, sprawling community of several million people. There are a few blocks of small but nice homes where the local gentry live, and then there is 'across the tracks,' for everybody else.

Except there are no tracks. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu live down the street from each other on a block with trees. Their houses have lawns and grass and there are street plaques celebrating these favorite local sons. But travel a quarter mile and you are in the middle of a roiling treeless ocean of sheet-metal shanties where eighty thousand people share a few water spigots and primitive group latrines. Their tiny homes smell pungent, of the kerosene they use for cooking and heat, and of the garbage that piles up when so many people share so few services.

They have lots of drunks too. The shabeens (bar-shanties) brew up a toxic home-brew which sits in a copper tub in the middle of the dirt floor. You take a metal cup and scoop yourself a glassful. The old men in the shabeens look as dazed and forlorn as the crackheads on Eddy Street.

Go to San Francisco's Tenderloin at night and you see what remains of the American township we used to call "Skid Row." When I was growing up, every city had one. If you were drunk or vagrant, the police threw you into the wagon and took you down to Skid Row -- the bowery. They might bust your head so you wouldn't try heading into the town again until you were sober.

Skid Rows have disappeared. Urban land is becoming valuable again. The Google Bus does not stop on Eddy Street yet, but it will.

My sense now is that white people in South Africa thought about their people of color about as much as we in America thought about bums on Skid Row. Their lives were without value to us. What we wanted was to dump them somewhere where we wouldn't have to think about them. This has not changed all that much.

If homeless people stayed in the Tenderloin, or in the camps under the 280 Freeway, we wouldn't hear about them. But they don't. They camp out in parks, on streets, in doorways, in BART stations, in the entrances to theaters and concert halls and restaurants. Escalators stink of urine and sooner or later rot out and stop working. Bums lie lifeless and curled up on Powell Street in the midst of lines of tourists paying $6 dollars each to ride ten minutes on a cable car.

We who live in crowded cities have accepted the laws of minimal behavior -- don't pee on the sidewalk. Don't smell so bad people jerk their heads sideways when they pass you. Don't lie in the street covered with your own vomit. This is not such a high standard, but if you won't go into the homeless shelter, if you won't accept treatment, if you won't show up at the neighborhood courts, and if you won't or can't stop drugging yourself to death, we are helpless before your intransigence.

We don't know what to do.

I have read Shantaram. I know we are supposed to consider all humans among us to be deserving of equal respect. We are all sacred children under God.

Here's what God allowed in South Africa, during the years of apartheid. Every city or town of any size had its own township, with limited or no city services. White people lived in the towns and black people lived in the townships. In an area like Capetown there is a third ethnic group, of Malay and Indian origin, so there was (and is) a "colored" township as well.

What made you "black" and what made you "colored?" The pencil test. If a pencil fell out of your hair in a few seconds, you were colored. If it stayed there you were black.

Coloreds did not go into the black township and blacks did not go into the colored township and neither one was allowed on the streets of the white city after dark. They were expected to be back in their own township by then, so they would be of no danger to white women or children. Their own dangers, living in overcrowded squalor with little rule of law, were not considered.

America took a different approach. We enslaved our black people, then freed them into informal townships, which we call "neighborhoods." We have specific neighborhoods for all people of color, black neighborhoods, Asian neighborhoods, Latino neighborhoods. You can work yourself out, if you wish, but it is not easy.

White is a color too and we have white neighborhoods, often broken into ethnic grounds, Italian, Irish, Jewish. When my parents were young in Chicago, a Jewish kid did not walk into an Irish neighborhood. A black kid did not walk into a Mexican neighborhood.

And homeless people, or hoboes as they were known then, stayed on Skid Row.

If you strayed, you could get what Trayvon Martin got, or that version of punishment that existed before bullies could legally carry concealed weapons and use them with impunity.

George Zimmerman might not have noticed an older man in his neighborhood, or a young white kid, or perhaps even a young black kid without the telltale hoodie. Trayvon's mom had warned him about "looking hard" when he was visiting his dad, but, you know, kids.

All societies have rules. People who live there know them. They are not good rules, nor righteous rules, nor do they add anything decent to the quality of our lives. But sometimes they are what stand between life and death.

Trayvon Martin did not deserve to die, as far as we know. But he was a young black man wearing a hoodie in a non-black neighborhood. In the despised apartheid days in South Africa, if you'd stuck a pencil in his hair he would not have been allowed anywhere near George Zimmerman. But this is America and we have no pencil tests. We dream of tolerance, but tolerance comes slowly, and is always swept away by fear.

Fear killed Trayvon Martin. My guess is we will step right over it. Look! The Wharf! Look! The Bridge!


At 4:14 PM, Blogger Karen said...

If you want it both ways, post a link to your blog on Facebook. Then people will see a short teaser on Facebook but read it on your blog.


Post a Comment

<< Home