The Fierce Urgency of Now
Today as we celebrate and commemorate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, we must also acknowledge the violence of his death at the hands of the machine that has only grown more powerful and rapacious over the years. We must also acknowledge the violence of the inconceivable racism here in America that recently raised its demented head in such places as Jena, La and in the toxic soups in disadvantaged and mostly black neighborhoods of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and in my own backyard: Bayview-Hunter's Point, San Francisco.
In Jena, La, some righteously angered and courageous black young people had the gall to leave their designated places and sit under a "white's only" tree at their high school. The nooses and the beatings that were created that moment, and the segregation that forced it, should have seen the beginning of the end in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1st, 1960 when four black college students sat at a lunch counter in a Woolworth's and audaciously asked for service. The students refused to move when they were ordered to, realizing that they were just as human and deserving of equality with the whites who forced their black brothers and sisters to exist in a "separate but equal" (yeah, sure) world that was so deeply unjust that many people (black and/or white) lost their lives; got beat over the head with clubs; fire-hosed and had vicious dogs unleashed on them (pre Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) to protect the status quo of the ruling class. After years of struggle and many enacted laws to protect the civil rights of all citizens, segregation is still overtly practiced and many times offenders receive little more than a slap on the wrist: Until brave folks stand up, sit down, or refuse to be silent in the face of oppression.
In the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and, indeed, in many diverse (read: non-white) neighborhoods in the Gulf States, our brothers and sisters are still suffering in ways that are horrifying and inherently unjust. To this day, many residents cannot return to their homes, even if the homes are not ruined and low-income housing is being torn down to make room for casinos and high-density; higher income properties. Land grabbing, gentrification, privatization, and profiting off of other people's misery are being elevated to an immoral art in the Gulf States. The Iraqi-zation of America is continuing with little notice except on the anniversary of Katrina when we get an opportunity (provided with commercials by our MSM) to dust off our shelved compassion and pretend to care for our fellow Americans.
It has been wonderful to be immersed in a city that is as diverse and stimulating as San Francisco. When I impulsively challenged Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to put impeachment on the table or I would run against her for her seat as the Congressional Rep in California's 8th district, I knew the task would be daunting and exciting, but I did not then know the depth of the wonderful resources in San Francisco. Here in Fog City there is a cornucopia of committed and lifelong activists: every social/political/economic/environmental issue here has ardent adherents. Saying all that, there is a toxic (not-so) secret in San Francisco that goes way beyond gentrification and contamination that noxiously emanates from the decommissioned naval shipyard on Hunter's Point in the economically disadvantaged and predominantly black neighborhood of Bayview.
While many of us spend many hours protesting and fighting against the degradation of our environment and against the killing and looting of our brothers and sisters in Iraq and the environmental destruction of their country, we do, (at everyone's peril) with equal strength and conviction, turn a blind eye to the toxicity and injustices being perpetrated right in our own back yard here in San Francisco.
The Hunter's Point Naval shipyard is one of the most toxic Super Fund sites (radium, uranium, chromium, asbestos...you name it) in the world with low-income housing abutting the boundaries. No one has been in a rush to clean it up to develop, let alone for the health of the neighborhoods. As a matter of fact Lennar Corp (a national builder legendary for its corruptions and contaminations) stirred up more air-born toxins when it started to grade a parcel of the shipyard for five weeks without any pollution detectors monitoring their crimes. The EPA has never visited the polluted Parcel A that was sold to Lennar by the City of San Francisco for the hefty sum of one dollar. A Bayview activist told me she would give Lennar a buck-fifty to get it back. Schools and homes are within feet of the newly stirred and flying asbestos contamination.
Parcel A is the cleanest of the several parcels that now divide the shipyard for future gentrification projects. Parcel E is the most contaminated and that is the spot where some beleaguered elected officials want to build a new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers.
Few San Franciscans wants to see the team leave San Francisco, but Nancy Pelosi, Senator Dianne (Mukasey supporting) Feinstein (D-CA) and mayor Gavin Newsom (D) are striving mightily to keep the team in the city by promising to build a new stadium on Parcel E. The recent federal budget even appropriated 82 million dollars (a fraction of what it would really cost) to cleanse the area to build a shiny new stadium for a team with one foot in Santa Clara already. No concern was paid to the health issues or corrupt profiteering in the Bayview-Hunter's Point area until our football team wanted to flee Candlestick Point. ( This hypocrisy was so flagrant even the establishment mouthpiece noticed it). That area is the last developable (read: profitable) land to build remaining in an ocean and bay-locked town. Ms. Pelosi recently said of the project "the money will flow and the dirt will fly"---and basically, let the current residents of Bayview "eat toxic cake."
The diversity of our communities must be protected from the dehumanization of greed and connections must be made to who benefits (cui bono, people). Whose pockets does the money flow into while the toxic dirt is flying into the schools, homes, parks and lungs of the people of Bayview?
From Iraq to Jena to New Orleans and back to the City by the Bay; racial and economic injustice and immorality needs to be faced and rectified whether the people who are being helped "vote" or not. Like Dr. King said on April 04, 1967, at the Riverside Church in NYC, (exactly one year before his assassination) in his Beyond Vietnam speech:
"Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism...We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today and we are faced with the fierce urgency of now."
* * *
Cindy Sheehan is the mother of Spc. Casey Austin Sheehan who was KIA in Iraq on 04/04/04. She is a co-founder and President of Gold Star Families for Peace and the author of two books: Not One More Mother's Child and Dear President Bush.