“I thought we were beyond all this…”

Cincinnati’s pervasive tensions around race, class, and gender inequality were omnipresent for those of us who lived there in 2001. In particular, the successive shootings of unarmed African American men by police officers was something of a shock–seriously, how many were there in a row since 2000? Too many, so when Tim Thomas fell in April, the city erupted in protest and unrest.  Hundreds, later thousands, of community members came together to organize nonviolent protests, and early on, we gathered in churches. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth lived in Cincinnati then, and it was his legacy (among many others) which inspired many of us who never thought we’d have occasion to march for civil rights to get involved. It was life-changing, humbling and permanently affected my perspective on public affairs and our society. Divisions still run too deep, and as painful, uncomfortable, and sometimes confusing it is, I believe it is up to us to grapple with that idealistic vision of Dr. King: to be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin. What does that really mean? That is an ongoing distillation.

Interviewed at the time about unrest in the city where he had lived since the 1960s, Rev. Shuttlesworth said of Cincinnati that “I thought we were beyond all this” in reference to (as I recall, anyway) the destruction, fires, and more violent components of those few days in April. It was sickening and sobering to realize that we weren’t.

Learning of Shuttlesworth’s death on Wednesday (along with Steve Jobs and Derrick Bell) brought to mind some old Irish superstition about deaths occurring in threes. What a tremendous, momentous loss for us all with these. But of the three, it was the loss of Shuttlesworth which gave me an emotional pause, thanks to those intense days ten years ago.

new boozy city

My favorite bit of narration from Prohibition, Parts II & III:

Consumption dropped in every major city, and everywhere in the United States, except in New York City, where it went up. New Yorkers then as now did NOT enjoy being told what to do and took to drinking in defiance.

Heh. Yeah, I could’ve guessed.

Another favorite tale: a woman at grad school in Cambridge (Radcliffe?) applied that intellectual talent (with a roommate) to making homemade beer. It blew up, thus spoiling an otherwise promising weekend, no doubt.

All of these stories–up to and including the spawn of what we now know as the mob–make for quite the tale of “crime, corruption and hypocrisy.”

Oh, and did anyone else catch the right to privacy first articulated thanks to Justice Brandeis?  Or a hero of New York politics, Al Smith? Imagine a politician today standing up for his or her convictions regardless of losing a general election, because that’s what Smith did after denouncing the strengthening KKK.

It was quite something hearing from The New Yorker’s Lois Long (aka “Lipstick”) who could be a blogger recapping her night somewhere on the Lower East Side circa 2011 : these are the tales which cemented the legendary flappers in New York’s imagination, I’m sure.

At last, Burns gets back to gender in the 1920’s, and brings up a phenomenon you’ll see again in the wake of 2nd wave American feminism: an incredibly politicized generation of feminist activists appalled at the sexualized behavior of their daughters. My delightful discovery, thanks to this doc, was that of Pauline Sabin, the blue-blood Republican who stood for repeal and against the Women’s Christian Temperance Union because she felt offended that they purported to stand for all American women.

Definitely worth a viewing–so put this one in your queue for a winter’s weekend, if not sooner! I’m impressed at Burns’ brevity here: there is more than enough material to have gone on far longer, and this film is fairly “tight” for him, clocking in at around six hours. It’s also genuinely insightful in terms of how long certain political and cultural debates have been with us as a nation, which is to say–as always–longer than we thought.

prohibition, part 1

It was interesting to see so many of the issues I’ve worked on in policy and feminist history show up throughout the first installment of Ken Burns’ Prohibition.

Kudos to Burns for tracing the history of women’s activism in terms of the temperance movement in the 19th century–they are absolutely intertwined. It is amazing to reread the history of temperance seeing “alcohol” as code for domestic violence, marital rape and financial ruin if paychecks were brought directly to taverns where they could be cashed and spent in full. This did not encompass every single drinker’s behavior, thank goodness, but it has always interested me to think about how easily we can use one identifiable so-called “evil” as a stand-in for far more amorphous social problems (then and now).

Last year, I spent a lot of time doing research on New York’s alcohol policy, and the same arguments from the 19th century about the city’s “vice neighborhoods” now appear as battles over the efficacy of allowing “nightlife districts”. Watching Burns’ documentary, you see history repeat itself over and over again. In America, fights over alcohol  have been going on in the background of our politics forever–one way or another.

all of this has happened before…

It is probably no surprise to friends that I’m a big fan of PBS, American Experience, or any sort of “Burns-related” documentaries wherein voiceovers and mood music illuminate our forbears’ sepia photographs, black and white films, and whatnot.

A longtime favorite is the 1999 (suppl. 2002) documentary series “New York”, an eight-disc commitment, but you begin with Henry Hudson sailing into the Narrows and, in the final, sorrowful post-script, trace the conception, birth, life, and death of the World Trade Center.   I find it fascinating.  I watched, riveted, from the first (then seven-part, as it concluded in 1999) airing of this on PBS, learning just how outlandish, crude, cruel, gorgeous, and inspiring the City has been and could be.  Ever since, I find myself queuing it up on Netflix every couple of years, since I can’t afford to just buy the thing.  (PBS docs = tres expensive).

This time, what struck in a new way was the segment about the City and the Depression, from the spinning boom of the ’20s that preceded it, to the crash, to contemporary accounts of unemployed, hungry, homeless, and wandering former professionals.  If you bracket certain aspects distinguishing our present recession from the crash era, what good that did come after, (more precisely, the New Deal) has a new resonance.  Now we have a social safety net providing people like me with unemployment benefits, rather than forcing me into god knows what to earn money; social security, medicare, food stamps, and online access to state benefits allowing you to forego the likely indignity of waiting on line to submit a form or claim your check.  Seeing how low, how forlorn, and weary, and even nearly hopeless some parts of the City (and, obviously the rest of the U.S.) were, it occurred to me that these images did not mean the same to me before the last year here.  I know what happened after the Depression: that the Second World War, among other things, spurred astronomic economic growth and led to a period of prosperity the likes of which we have not seen since, broadly.  So I look at those soup lines, those bread lines, and know what the (mostly men) in shabby coats and worn brims could not: that one way or another, for some of them, life would get better.

I am always frightened and disturbed by the truism that at least in part, wars can spur economies; such a path out of our own recession would be reprehensible to me.  Yet I don’t know what will make things work better, how so many of us will return to work lives and pick up careers (or career changes), rebuild personal resources, and perhaps even know a small measure of frivolity at some point.  If these things are cyclical, then, I think about the people who lived in shacks on Sheep Meadow, and think that if they made it, we will too.