[In May and June of 2020, a time of pandemic isolation, economic collapse, and intense partisan rivalry, videos of Minneapolis cops lynching George Floyd — a Black man with his hands cuffed behind his back — sparked nationwide mass protests against widespread police brutality and systemic racism in America.]

Impossible to Ignore Any Longer:

The Perfect Storm of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter

Michael Rooke-Ley 2020


As the press keeps asking, is this just a moment or the beginning of a movement? Two months ago, many of us wondered where we'll be when this coronavirus nightmare is over. What lessons will we learn from this "war-time" crisis?

Two issues stood out to us. First, we noted that in recent years, and now accentuated during this critical time, we have been experiencing a rise in authoritarian leadership around the world. Self-defined "strong men" have utilized the coronavirus to justify sweeping "emergency" powers. Worldwide, we have witnessed theatrical displays of military muscle; the public humiliation, expulsion, and even jailing of inquisitive journalists who might dare to fact-check blatant propaganda; the censorship and the disenfranchisement of those who would speak truth to power; the invasive surveillance (including cellphones) of private citizens; the firing of whistle-blowers; and bans on public assembly.

We have seen the purging of federal officials, including the practice here at home of making "acting" appointments to bypass approval from a co-equal branch of government, that is, circumventing "checks-and-balances" the suspension of national elections and the suppression of eligible voters through — again, here at home — voter-roll purges, voter ID requirements, partisan locating of polling sites, partisan gerrymandering, and the failure to accommodate voting- by-mail and other efforts to maximize voter participation.

We also observed that far too many nations all across the world, in the pockets of powerful insiders and in the face of climate change and the coronavirus, have been rejecting... science.

With all this in mind, we asked whether Americans will decide that some of these "emergency" measures were temporarily necessary during a pandemic — just as in wartime — in the interest of protecting as many of us as possible, but that these measures are not to become permanent fixtures? Or will Americans embrace a new authoritarian reality in perpetuity?

Secondly, we noted that here in the United States — and around the globe, to be sure — this pandemic has starkly revealed on so many fronts the enormous and unconscionable disparity of wealth and opportunity: education, medical care, housing, jobs — the list goes on. When it's all over, we asked, will we learn from this experience and adopt policies that provide a viable safety net and reduce class divisions?

Consider the health care workers, grocery clerks, mail carriers, bus drivers, sanitation workers, public school teachers, police officers (so many of whom have never been able to afford to live and be welcomed into into the very communities they serve!). Yes, take a moment today to thank them personally, but, then, how can we honor them in a lasting, meaningful way?

Perhaps the starkest examples of our nation's stratification are the thousands of domestic workers who clean and cook for the well-off. Struggling even in the best of times, they do not have the luxury of prioritizing their health care during the coronavirus crisis. Some have already lost their jobs when their employers departed to more comfortable vacation homes. Those who are still working board buses, streetcars or subways to clean the homes (and often care for the children) of people who can afford to self-quarantine.

Let us not forget those suffering in crowded and dangerous refugee camps, those without shelter in our streets and parks, and those incarcerated in tightly knit jails because they simply cannot afford cash bail as they await trial. And consider our school children, where the cruel, historic class- based disparities that have resulted in "summer slide" for low-income kids unable to partake in the menu of "enrichment" programs and opportunities are now accentuated with this extended summer break.

Yes, this pandemic has starkly revealed 1) the "strong man" tendencies and deeply divisive behavior of our pathetically insecure president and 2) the unconscionable societal inequities that we have so conveniently ignored. And now, add to the mix the tragedy of George Floyd, whose murder has placed in stark relief the vestiges of slavery and segregation and the present-day conditions facing African-Americans. The perfect storm of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

Maybe this is just what we needed. In the end, these crises can serve as an opportunity — an opportunity to rejuvenate our democracy, to dramatically increase equality in all its forms, to resist today's indecency and harsh divisions, to aspire to our better selves. Those of us who have experienced past "wars," foreign or domestic, must remember that we cannot simply leave our nation, and all its inequalities, for the next generation. Let's get to work.

* * * * * * *

As I and many others have written during the past decade, today's wealth disparity threatens our very democracy. While we lead the world by far with 41.6% of total global personal wealth, we also have the greatest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation, including England from which our founders fled to create, presumably, a more egalitarian, less royalty-bound nation. To repeat, we are the richest country in the world, yet we have the greatest concentration of wealth in the fewest hands. 15% of Americans live in poverty; the richest 10% of Americans have more wealth than everyone else combined. And it continues to get worse. In 1965, the CEO of an average large public company earned about 20 times as much as a front-line worker. Today, that figure is nearly 300 times. America's 400 richest individuals own about three trillion dollars in wealth — more than all black households and a quarter of all Latino households combined.

As more and more of the added value in our society goes toward capital and less toward labor, our stability is threatened. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich warns that "as equality widens, the richer have more power to demand and get systemic changes in laws governing taxes, antitrust, bankruptcy, labor law, intellectual property, finance, and bailouts and subsidies. These changes make the rich even richer, while leaving the poorer even further behind. It is a vicious cycle." And, as we all know, the tragedy of homelessness is unspeakable. In recent decades, wealth and homelessness have both increased — a stark illustration of the inequalities that pervade American life. After visiting Northern California, Leilani Farha, a United Nations rapporteur who has visited impoverished nations throughout the world, commented, "There's a cruelty here that I don't think I've seen.". And homelessness is poised to increase dramatically with the loss of jobs during this pandemic.

Despite our efforts in the 1960s, our poorest neighborhoods have remained that way. Schools that grew more integrated, peaking in 1988, have re-segregated. Aggressive policing has continued, most recently involving George Floyd and, this time, captured on film. Strong labor unions, ensuring a decent middle- class life for their members, have withered, replaced by a vast low-wage service sector. As Emily Badger reports,

workers are now serving meals in restaurants where their wages wouldn't cover dinner... Atlanta, for example, relies on hotel clerks, nannies, gardeners, house cleaners, car washers, Uber drivers, janitors who clean fancy gyms and couriers who deliver from trendy restaurants. Jobs like these are what tend to be available now to workers without a college degree who 50 years ago could have found middle-class work in factories and offices. Such low-wage jobs in cities are disproportionately held by minority workers. And these are the people hit hardest by job losses this spring, during a public health and economic crisis that has highlighted urban inequality.

All across our nation, affluent Americans have been segregating themselves from the poor. We have made it virtually impossible to build affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods pushing lower-income families forced ever further from jobs and services. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, more than 120,000 lower-income workers were reported to have daily commutes of at least three hours. As the NYT Editorial Board noted recently,

we need to change the harsh reality that the neighborhoods into which Americans are born define their prospects in life: their chances of graduating from high school, of earning a decent living, of surviving into old age. In Chicago, the difference in average life expectancy for people born at the same time in different neighborhoods is as much as 30 years. Please pause to consider that number. Babies do not choose where they are born. In Streeterville, a neighborhood of white, affluent, college-educated families living comfortably in townhomes and high-rise condominiums along the shore of Lake Michigan, a baby born in 2015 could expect to live to 90. Eight miles south, in Englewood, a poor, black neighborhood of low-rise apartments in the p 7 3 shadow of Interstate 94, a baby born in 2015 could not expect to reach 60.

In several of our states, black children have shorter life expectancies than children born in Bangladesh or India. And blacks are dying from the coronavirus at more than twice the rate of whites.

There can be no equality of opportunity in the United States so long as poor children are segregated in poor neighborhoods. And there is only one viable solution: building affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods. Over four decades ago, I warned that the affordable housing crisis in northern California cannot become the burden solely of the politically powerless. Before being permitted to zone out the poor or to restrict growth, counties and municipalities must meet their fair share of regional housing needs, providing, in particular, their share of low-income housing. I was singin' in the wind, I'm afraid — it's only gotten worse. Much worse.

Here in San Francisco, the beloved city of my birth, the impact of Silicon Valley and gentrification has diminished our black population from 15% in my youth to a mere 5% today. Housing costs are simply out of sight for middle- income Americans of any race, and, as a result, California — not Appalachia, not Mississippi — now has the highest rate of poverty in the nation. Outside my window I see the homeless in Golden Gate Park.

Professor Carol Galante paints an important profile of this crisis and offers an answer:

Single-family home subdivisions are contributing to an environmental disaster, requiring people to commute by car, sometimes two hours each way, while spewing carbon emissions. And the dominance of single-family development has only increased in recent decades....Yet this pandemic is reminding us that we need communities where teachers, child- and elder-care workers, nurses, doctors, janitors, construction workers, baristas, tech executives and engineers all share in the prosperity and the comfort of an affordable home....We should put an end to zoning policies that restrict building to single-family homes and stop mandating that lots meet large minimum-size requirements....The necessary corrective is for states to take back some power from local bastions of privilege. Oregon set a valuable precedent last year by banning single-family zoning in all cities of more than 10,000 people... Portland, Ore. and Vancouver, British Columbia, now allow small cottages in the yards of single-family homes. California has followed suit by allowing accessory dwelling units...Now is an especially good time to reduce restrictions and allow for denser housing. Construction is hit hard during recessions, and opening up more building opportunities would be a stimulus for the industry...This would get workers back to work, provide safe and affordable living for those hard hit by this pandemic and get property taxes and other revenue flowing back to local governments for the services communities need.

* * * * * * *

The most viable escape route from poverty is a good education, beginning at an early age.Yet public school teachers all across America are saying, "My students do not normally advance beyond where they were born" or "By and large, my students do not surpass the socioeconomic climate that they were raised in." In 1965, as part of the War on Poverty, the federal government started a program for lower-income children called Headstart, but federal investment remains paltry. Headstart is available to only 11 percent of eligible kids below the age of 3, and 36 percent to those ages 3 to 5. Yet, for public school education at all levels, the bigger problem is breaking the link between property taxation and school funding. Former New York Times editor James Bennet provides an example that reflects the condition all across our country:

In Washington, D.C., parents in wealthier neighborhoods contribute lavishly to parent-teacher organizations that provide extra money to public schools in their neighborhoods, but they do not vote for a similar level of funding for all city schools. Two schools in northwest Washington each raised more than half a million dollars in 2017, while several schools in southeast Washington don't even have parent-teacher organizations. But equity requires a reversal of the current situation. It costs more to provide an equal education to lower-income students. The Netherlands, for example, funds schools at a standard level per student, plus a 25 percent bonus for each student whose parents did not graduate from college.

San Francisco's public high schools reflect a pattern of re-segregation seen in New York City and in other major cities. The student body in our most academically competitive high school, Lowell (like NYC's Stuyvesant) is mostly white and Asian — 10% Latino and less than 2% black — while the percentages in our other high schools vary consistently with each neighborhood. "White flight" to private schools is, of course, rampant.

The cost of higher education has also become prohibitive for so many Americans. As business professor Hans Taparia explains:

Forty years ago, going to college in America was a reliable pathway for upward mobility. Today, it has become yet another symbol of privilege for the wealthy. Through this period, tuition rates soared 260 percent, double the rate of inflation. In 2019, the average cost of attending a four-year private college was over $200,000. For a four-year public college, it was over $100,000. To sustain these prices, more students are admitted from the top 1 percent of the income scale than the entire bottom 40 percent at the top 80 colleges.

As I wrote several years ago, compounding the problem for our low-income, college-bound students is our public universities' eager pursuit of full- paying international students, not for the purpose of creating a diverse cultural experience for our provincial students, but, rather, for the purpose p 7 3 of raising revenue. All across the United States, roughly one million foreign students now attend our universities, including 329,000 from China, a five- fold increase from a decade ago. At the University of California undergraduate campuses, the admit rate for international students is 60.4% compared to 35.9% for California applicants. Not coincidentally, out- of-state students pay in excess of $40,000 for annual tuition and fees, while California residents pay an average of $13,500. UC Davis is now intensely recruiting in China, having hired a recruiter based in Hong Kong. As one admissions officer said off-the- record, "The cash cows live in China, not in the agricultural fields across our county."

[And, post-pandemic, I fear that online education will be deemed acceptable for most students and that actual campuses will be available only to the wealthy. But that's a discussion for another day.]

* * * * * * *

Just as the New Deal sprang from the Great Depression, our response to this pandemic must include universal basic income, strong labor unions ensuring living wages and benefits, paid parental and sick leave, child care, desegregated and well-funded public education, universal health care untethered from employment, and environmental regulations not loosened but strengthened and enforced so that, in the words of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, "all children — no matter the ZIP code — can breathe clean air and drink safe water."

And, of course, with respect to all of these concerns, the vestiges of slavery and segregation can no longer be denied. Yes, race matters, and the events of today could be a reckoning. Systemic racism, our nation's original sin. The pandemic itself is disproportionately affecting people of color (front-line workers, the unemployed, death rates), as is the resurgence of housing and school segregation, as is the unavailability of adequate health care, as is the unrelenting pattern of police violence. (As for "de-funding" the police, I need to learn more. But "re-defining" community safety work is crucial, to be sure, with the help of EMTs, social workers and an engaged citizenry. I would love my kids/grandkids to grow up to be public servants — living and working in the same community, helping to make everyone feel safe and responding appropriately to emergencies.)

* * * * * * *

I am hopeful (Do I have a choice? I have kids...and a grandchild). This "perfect storm" is serving as a wake-up call, albeit much belated, to get up and get going. I am inspired by the activism of our younger generation. Now fully revealed in all its ugliness is the absence of decency and civility, the fraying of a common purpose, the deep societal divisions that we've tried to rationalize and ignore with each passing decade. This is a generational moment, an opportunity for community organizers, for mutual aid groups, for neighbors to recognize that "rugged individualism" need not be our prevailing national mantra. Let us emancipate ourselves from the days of Nixon's p 7 3 "Southern strategy", Reagan's "trickle down" economics, Bush's "Willie Horton" fears, Clinton's global economic priorities. Working together means connecting with our neighbors, re-building our labor unions, integrating our "gated" communities. Maybe even a time to institute national service.

Copyright © Michael Rooke-Ley


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