Thursday, January 17, 2008

Local Politics

This post, on my friend Justine's blog, Justinespired, reports on an event that occurred recently in our town:

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Playground lessons

Last week I went to a city council meeting to protest an ordinance that would have allowed a bar to relocate to the middle of one of our city parks.

I changed out of sweats before I left because I wanted to make sure my clothes sent the right message to the council. I wasn’t sure, though, which message would be more effective: “Stylish Concerned Mother of Playground-Aged Kids,” or “Fashionable Mature Tax-Paying Property Owner.”

Instead, I chose “Currently Not Homeless Person Qualified to Sign a Petition,” because it was the only thing left in the laundry pile that I didn’t have to wash, iron, or lose 10lbs. to wear.

And besides, if people judge me by the way I look, that’s their problem. And, besides, it’s winter and I didn’t have to take off my coat.

The meeting was already crowded when I arrived, and I had to squish next to a man whose attire said to me, “100% Genuine Article Gangsta.”

I know I just got finished saying that it's wrong to judge people by their appearance, and if my kids were with me and we saw the same man on the street, I would say to them, “He might look like a bad man, but maybe he’s not. Maybe that scary black leather jacket, and that black scary t-shirt, and those scary baggy pants with the chains are the only clean things he has to wear because he has a psychological block against buying clothes that actually fit him without first having to lose 10lbs. Some of the nicest people you know suffer from that same problem.”

Then I would throw my kids in our van and speed away without buckling seat belts, because I would judge him to look like trouble. I nodded in greeting, but avoided catching the man's eye. It was my first city council meeting, and I had no idea what kind of weird grievances were on the agenda. I heard Mr. Gangsta and a gentleman next to him discussing “the charges in your case,” and when Mr. Gangsta muttered, "I’m scared, man, I’m scared,” I was glad we had all walked though a metal detector.

As the room continued to fill up, there was more squishing and rearranging of bodies, and Mr. Gangsta disappeared somewhere down the row, and then out of sight. The meeting was called to order, and after the proposed ordinance was read, citizen, after respectable citizen, got up and presented a list of convincing reasons why an economically struggling town with already crappy parks should not invite a bar to move into one.

(Really, Council, did we have to tell you that? Did you think we had nothing better to do with our time? Laundry perhaps?)

Parents, homeowners, and a retired D.A.R.E. police officer spoke. The crowd applauded after each speech until the mayor and his gavel forbid such outbursts. Cute old ladies made their way to the front to give the council a piece of their mind. So did businessmen, college professors, and elementary schoolteachers. Many people seemed a little nervous speaking in public-- they leaned on one leg, their voices wavered, their prepared comments on paper shook in their hands--but they got their point across. About 80 people packed into that room to protest the proposal. I was getting a little hot with my coat still buttoned up.

Then somewhere off to the side, the crowd parted. Suddenly, I realized that the man standing front and center was my old neighbor, Mr. Gangsta. He gave Council his name and address in a slow and steady, deep voice. He said he had been a recovered alcoholic for six years, and that he was an ex-felon. He said his Grandma had raised him and his siblings with “good morals,” but then “some of us chose to go our own ways.” He straightened out and moved back to our small town from Chicago because he thought it would be a good place to raise his kids. He slipped back into his “old ways,” but then straightened out again. He said he personally knew the devastation of alcoholism, and that the recent spate of shootings in our town was caused by “alcoholic rage”-- by kids getting drunk and hunting down other kids they hated. He knew this because he knew those involved. He stood with the confidence of a man who knew he was forgiven for his sins, and when it came to putting the temptation of alcohol next to a playground, he asked Council to vote “No”.

Gavel be danged, I clapped with everyone else when he was done.

If life were a good movie, Mr. Richmond’s words would have been the last ones hanging in the air before the votes were cast, but a few more folks insisted on having their say, and the drama slightly deflated. Whatever. We still won! The ordinance that was predicted to pass with a 6 to 1 vote going into the meeting, was defeated when three councilmen changed their minds and voted it down, 4 to 3.

The newspaper account cites a number of reasons for the councilmen’s switch (and that’s a topic for another post) but I want to thank Mr. Richmond for having the guts and the humility to get up in front of that crowd, and for reminding us that although the clothes might make the man, no matter what they say, there's always hope that everyone can change.

Many thanks to Michael Hernon, our former councilman-at-large, for keeping many of us informed of these important issues. You can visit his new initiative, The Catholic Association, to learn about his work on a national level.

I like the way that Justine makes this experience personal. The story also underlines what happens when people feel empowered to step forward and speak, in short, to act. It also contains a beautiful message about prejudgments and the power inherent in listening to others and recognizing their humanity. Thanks so much, Justine!

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."