Walking among the Wretched

“Getting ahead cannot be the only motive that motivates people. You have to imagine what a good life is.”

It’s Christmas afternoon in West Oakland, CA.  It’s quiet for a change where I live.  The freeway beside me is almost at a silent standstill, no sirens or cars speeding down the street. It’s kinda…urban hood peaceful right now.  This has become Christmas for me. Separated from the streets lined with Christmas lights and the occasional nativity scene, I’m now surrounded by a shanty town.  Tents, dilapidated RV’s that become home to humans and animals, tiny houses and piles of trash that make up the “neighborhood”.

“..part of the problem with a war on poverty today is that many Americans have decided that being poor is a character defect, not an economic condition.” -Anna Quindlen

Among the garbage piles, graffiti stained buildings, empty warehouses, and homeless encampments, the forgotten people dwell.  That’s what it feels like we are. Fighting to exist in a growing gentrifying city that seems to turn a constant blind, apathetic eye to the problem of extreme poverty and homelessness. Nestled against the backdrop of the “goodwill” of the holiday season, sits an ever growing eyesore of humanity. It’s inescapable. The smell, the rats, the sea of ripped open garbage bags,  an almost endless amount of abandoned, cheap IKEA and Target furniture. It tends to mark the territory of the displaced. Kind of a reminder of who and what you are to most.  We are in the bottom of the dumpster of the city.  The sight of the  homeless encampments help people feel better about dumping all those refrigerators and washing machines on the street without care of who or what it’s harming.  As the new year approaches, with everyone figuratively and literally cleaning out their closets with resolutions for a better them in mind, the debris of mindless consumption piles up on my block, it becomes a metaphor for a vapid mass consumer culture. Anesthetized people leading a fervent march toward a dystopian future.

Journalist, and author Chris Hedges describes this decline so well in a recent essay for Truthdig

“America is in terminal decline. It is enveloped by radical evil. Its corporate systems of power and empire exploit and kill with impunity. Its perverted values champion cruelty, mendacity and greed. It bows before the idols of money and power. It is severed from the human.”

So true are these words, and the sentiment that resonate with me.  Oftentimes I feel like we’re a bit “severed” from our humanity.  Our ability empathize with the poor and the disenfranchised,  has been replaced by championing a neoliberal self serving need for more.  This need is best described by scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux.

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My neighbors!