Media, press, blogs and all that make me anxious. I get nervous at the idea of participating. Working with Tanya on setting this blog up, she asked me why. I tried to explain. She said, “Write it.”
The first time I was quoted in the paper, I was misquoted. Could have been a big deal, but that time it was met with a quizzical smile. The next time the response was violent.
Over 40 years ago: both Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had died from overdoses. This was the time when a judge had his head blown off in Marin County as prisoners tried to escape. This was the time when writer George Jackson was killed in San Quentin.
I was a psychology student at San Francisco State. I guess I spent some time in class. But truth be told, I preferred working in, what we called then, “The Community.” A local community organizer, the nearby community mental health center, several local young adults, and I set up a drug abuse program upstairs in a run down old building. It sat on the border between a largely African-American project and a largely working class white area. The idea was simple. Drugs were ravaging both sides. This would be a way bring both sides together to attack the problem. Little did I know.
Word somehow got out to the San Francisco Examiner. A reporter interviewed us. The paper quoted me as a white student who said he wanted to “help those less fortunate.” Shit, I didn’t say that. I wouldn’t have said that. I didn’t see it that way. “Those less fortunate” was patronizing, condescending.
Raymond, the African-American co-director, looked at the quote, looked at me, shook his head, and smiled. I don’t remember what I said. 40 plus years later, I think I said, “I was misquoted.” Or, “Fucking newspapers.” Probably not that last one. Maybe I didn’t say anything. If I tried too hard to defend myself, I’d look like I was hiding that I really did believe that. Could easily be I broke a sweat and didn’t say a thing.
Song lyrics went though my mind. Please Lord, don’t let me be misunderstood.
The drug abuse program was going pretty well. The local community health center volunteered a nurse; community mental health offered a psychiatrist; black and white paraprofessionals co-led the groups. I recruited several of my friends in the Psychology Department to help out. They put together a grant proposal. I think this was part of a class project.
Then the student newspaper printed the grant proposal. Printed it to show the good work of students at State. At first I was flattered. My name was in there along with my friends who had written the proposal. I grabbed a couple of copies of the paper, cut out the article, and sent it to my mom in Sacramento. I was proud. Quick trip to the Isle of Hubris.
One of the community leaders called a meeting at the drug abuse program. I thought they were going to congratulate us, me, on the article. I encouraged my psychology friends to attend.
We sat upstairs in the rickety chairs. I noticed that Raymond wasn’t there. His co-worker, Shorty was. Shorty was a young muscular Black bus driver. I had wondered if he was selling drugs out of our fledging drug abuse program. No proof. No evidence. Just an occasional rumor. Unsubstantiated. He made me nervous. Sometimes he would stand up in the group, place his back to the wall and furtively look around as if something dangerous was going to happen.
The student newspaper writer was there for the meeting. I think he also expected congratulations. We all talked for a bit about how the program was going. Shorty stood up and said, “So what does ‘culturally disadvantaged’ mean. The student reporter nervously said, “I was just quoting the grant proposal.” I remember him as on the thin side, sensitive, and now he was scared. He wore a blue cap.
I had been blinded by my name in the paper I looked at the article. It said this Black community was culturally disadvantaged. I didn’t see it that way. They were economically disadvantaged. In fact, I was taken with the Black culture there- camaraderie, humor, music, idealism coupled with bad housing, poverty, drugs and violence.
Shorty looked at my psychology friends. “What does it mean? Culturally disadvantaged?”
Bob, the goateed Vietnam vet, the one who had argued in class for philosophical pragmatism, stammered, “That was the language that could get us the grant.” Five young men came out from an adjacent room. Each carried a bat. Shorty hit the reporter hard in the face. He flew off his chair to the floor. The young men with bats held them up to us, motioning us not to move. Shorty kicked the reporter on the floor, then pulled him up and dragged him over to the stair as he was pleading for Shorty to stop. Shorty pushed him down the stairs. We heard the falling sounds. I looked out the side window of the building to see the reporter running up the street.
One of the young men pulled me up out of my chair and told me to stand in the hall. There he held his baseball bat up, threatening me. “Don’t move,” he said.
Through the open door I saw my friends being beaten and kicked.
“You didn’t get it because you’ve been here a long time,” Shorty said as he left. The others left also.
I did the best I could to pick up my friends. One said he just wanted to go home. His face didn’t look good. Bob had been hit pretty hard. I tried to clean off the blood. “Get me out of here,” he said.
“Can I take you to the hospital?” I asked.
“No,” he practically yelled at me.
I drove him to a nearby gas station bathroom. I tried to clean him up with water and paper towels. He began crying. “Its like in Vietnam.” I didn’t know the concept of PTSD and flashbacks then.
I never went back to that “community.” After a couple of weeks, Shorty showed up at State when I was in class. He opened the door to the seminar and motioned me out. I was afraid I’d get clobbered right there. As I walked to the hall I wondered if I would fight back or run.
“Bill,” he said. “You should come back to the program.”
“No,” I said.
“It wasn’t about you.”
“I can’t,” I said.
I never went to the police. I figured if I had there would be even more violence. Or maybe I was just afraid. Don’t know.
I wondered what would have happened had I stood in front of the bats and yelled “Stop.” Was I a coward for not stepping up? Smart for keeping quiet?
I don’t know.
Then the unresolved issues of the country about race, violence, drugs, and prisons were not oblique.
But what I do know now is that I don’t trust the press. I respect the ability of ‘media’ to twist words, to create havoc without a clue, to create damage.
A necessary evil in a democracy, I figure.
I am nervous about blogging, twitting, face booking, newspapers, and all of that.
So here goes.