Friday, February 5, 2010

An activist Response to Style Weekly's 'Northern Exposure' Article

Mo Karn is a community activist and Anarchist involved with the RePHRAME partner organization, Richmond Food Not Bombs.  Richmond Food Not Bombs has been serving free vegan lunch in Monroe Park for over 11 years!

Dear Style Weekly,

I'm a 23 year old white woman who managed to purchase a condemned and foreclosed home in Southern Barton Heights this summer through a combination of class privilege, white privilege, and luck. I've spent the past months renovating the property to make it fit for occupation, and it is now my permanent home. Before I bought this house, you might remember me from being involved in a project that involved squatting in one of Oliver Lawrence's properties on Montrose Avenue. We were doing that in order to try and draw attention to the issue of housing justice in Richmond. Unfortunately, most of the coverage we received emphasized only the issue of blight. That was disappointing to us, because we did not want to be part of a gentrifying force, rather part of a force calling out capitalistic logic as unjust and oppressive.

What brings me to write you today is the article "Northern Exposure" by Scott Bass from your 2/3/10 issue. Upon reading said article, a ball of anxiety and upset grew in my stomach. I'm really nervous about the future of Barton Heights and Battery Park. There is the chance that these areas can develop as integrated areas of the city. But there is also the very real risk that despite the abundance of housing, upper middle class white people will take over the area culturally and politically, creating a situation that perpetuates inequalities and injustice. Some might say that the dominance of white men politically is already happening- look at both the men in charge of the Battery Park Civic Association as well as our City Councilman.

One of the first things that I saw as problematic in the article is the use of words such as "frontier" and "pioneer". Both of these words are reminiscent of colonial times, white supremacy, and ideas like manifest destiny. Both of these words dismiss the value of people who already live in the Battery Park and Barton Heights neighborhoods, and places the importance on the new white people moving in. These words also make the newcomers seem to be brave and courageous, which implies that the people who currently live there are bad and dangerous. The dichotomy that the use of the words frontier and pioneer creates an underlying acceptance of white supremacy. If white people moving in are pioneers, then the people who already live there are the perceived savages.

I would like to see more of the responsibility for the racial tension on Northside placed in the hands of the new white people in the area. It was their choice to move to the area, and thus they ought to be the more accomodating party. If nothing else, it seems like good manners to show some deference to the folks who have lived somewhere longer than you. I would never suggest that this means you are obligated to always do what they say or want, but I think it does mean that newcomers should listen to their neighbors, and definitely be respectful.

The tone used in describing the instances of new white people in the neighborhood calling the cops is normative, and thus reinforces the idea that calling the police is a good thing to do. There does not seem to be any question of how that affects the ability of these people to become part of a community. Neighbors that call the cops instead of having conversations with their neighbors are building obstacles to community. It would seem from the article that the white people who are so sure that there are drugs being dealt in their neighborhood have never had a conversation with their neighbors about that issue or what is going on. While this is certainly a topic for further discussion, I will briefly say, that as an anarchist I see the police as a threat to communities and community building. Statistically speaking, police forces are undeniably racist, and the results of our 'justice' system reveal the huge economic and racial disparities in America today. Calling the cops is not a solution.

Again, the instance of white people who called the cops because of the Men of Barton Heights basketball tournament, reveals how racist, shallow, and uncommunicative these new residents are. Apparently these callers were incapable of simply asking someone what was going on, or of letting people in a public park exercise their right to be in that park. I believe that Lawrence Day is dead on in saying these calls were racially motivated.

Chris Hilbert's comment about Day reveals another discouraging problem with racism in our area. Hilbert states that he can understand Day's point of view because "'He has seen an ugly part of our past in his youth'". Unintentionally, I'm sure, this statement shows again the foundation of white supremacy and white privilege that white people too often approach issues of race with. Hilbert is saying that racism is in our past. Really? I'm sure that comes as a shocker to every person of color in the world. Racism over? Yea right. Racism isn't over, the ugly aspects of racism aren't over, and being color blind is just another way of saying you have the privilege to ignore race issues. Racism is something that all us white people need to work on.

What this article revealed to me is that the issue of race and class in Barton Heights and Battery Park is big and only getting bigger. Until the new white residents step up to learn how to be members of a community (which may mean stepping down from controlling everything), there will be these clashes. And the reflex that these new residents have for calling the police is only going to create more distance between them and existing residents.

We have a lot of work to do. Anyone in the area who has a recommendation or suggestion for what they would like to see from new residents or white residents is definitely encouraged to let me know. It shouldn't be the responsibility of people of color to teach white people how to not be racist. Any white people who want to get involved in some workshops on white privilege are also encouraged to contact me.

Mo Karn
(804) 300-0023