Sunday, October 28, 2018

Main Street, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh

In the aftermath of the horrific massacre at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, I am flooded with memories of the pleasant neighborhood and its active, bustling Main Street where I've had lunch and dinner many times. I am also flooded with memories of the contrast between the serenity of that neighborhood and the life-and-death struggles that were going on in The Hill, East Liberty and Homewood.  The separateness was, as I remember it, both profound and false. 

One might ask, "Is not the crime that troubled the poor, Black neighborhoods different from virulent anti-Semitism?" 

I had a major encounter with this question in my research career.  I was engaged as a consultant to a study of instances of fatal school violence, being carried out by the National Academy of Science/Institute of Medicine. My team examined two episodes of school shootings in East New York, 1991-1992. Our paper, "What did Ian tell God?" is included as a chapter in the National Academy Press 2003 book, Deadly Lessons, which you can download for free at their website

Throughout the process of the study of fatal school shootings, the dominant discourse was this:

that school shootings in "white" schools were the real focus of the study, because these were bizarre, "rampage" shootings, nearly impossible to understand. By contrast, a school shooting in the violent, minority neighborhood of East New York was sad, but not unexpected.  After all, "white" people don't kill each other, but, sadly "Black" people do.  

As a result, and because there could not possibly be any connection between the "white" cases and the "Black" cases, our chapter was placed at the back of the book.  I am, I confess, still angry the story of East New York was marginalized, when its lessons were desperately needed to solve the problem of fatal school shootings. 

It was not until the Parkland shooting in February 2018, that links were acknowledged. The youth leaders who emerged from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School were joined by youth leaders from a diverse array of high schools, all of whom had suffered from violence.

We are sorely tempted, in an Apartheid society, to see things as different, and to rate them as "my problem" or "not my problem" depending on factors like our skin color or religion and geography.  And we are equally tempted to be angry when some problems get attention and others are allowed to fester.  And we get upset when people point out links among problems, as "diluting" the "real" issue.  Why, after all, talk about murders in Homewood just now, after the massacre in Squirrel Hill?

But these reactions derive from the logic of Apartheid, which enforces separation in all things.

To return to the question posed early, we may not yet know all the links between black-on-black crime in a poor neighborhood and virulent anti-Semitism attacking a prosperous one.  But we do know enough to know that the disinvestment in massive urban neighborhoods destroyed effective urban functioning, undermined working class solidarity, and tore the social connections that can keep hatred in check.  Indeed, the destruction of minority neighborhoods was an expression of racial hatred, and once unleashed, why would it stop there? What we call "racial" hatred has many targets, including women, sexual minorities, religious minorities and immigrants, to name a few. 

We need to learn the lesson of history, which is that my safety can only be measured in the safety of others. The German pastor Martin Niemöller wrote this teaching poem:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me. 

Might we see the violence in Squirrel Hill as the same as sending pipe bombs to liberal politicians, denigrating the caravan of immigrants trying to reach safety, killing students in schools and cutting school lunches?  I believe these are interconnected in their logic and implementation.  We can create a powerful response if we consider those connections and the ways in which we might interrupt them.

Somebody has to make the first move in creating solidarity.  It may be that Squirrel Hill will reach out to its neighbors in East Liberty, who have lived tragedies of violence.  It may be that the people of The Hill, East Liberty and Homewood will go to sit shiva with the people of Squirrel Hill.  However it happens, let us all be prepared to follow suit, linking arms in radical solidarity.