It has been only one week since the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I trust you’ve all heard Obama’s routine by now. Say what you want about his leadership skills; there is no denying his comedic timing. And some of his jokes are pretty darned funny.
Yes, America, this is the new Obama. Now that he doesn’t face any more elections, he is free as a bird. He’s got nothing to lose, so why not say “Bucket” – or something that rhymes with that – and do what he FEELS like doing, whether it’s impolitic or not.
That speech was given on Saturday, April 25th. And since then, it seems, a whole lot has happened. For one thing, each morning we’ve awoken to news of hundreds upon hundreds more having been killed in the earthquake that struck Nepal on the very day that Obama killed it on stage. For another thing, we’ve been witnessing scenes from Baltimore that look more like they were right out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. On Monday night, the scene in Maryland’s biggest city turned into a full-fledged riot, with brick throwing, looting, and arson galore. Superficially, the cause of the Baltimore riots was the way the city’s police department had dealt with a 25-year-old African-American man named Freddie Gray, who died in police custody on April 19th for reasons that had yet to be disclosed to the public. But it wouldn’t take Albert Einstein to realize that the deeper cause of the events on Monday night was that the poor, inner-city, African-American youth who led the riots had their own bucket list.
“Tell off the police? ‘Bucket!’ Break into stores and steal stuff? ‘Bucket!’ Burn down buildings? ‘Bucket!’ Never get to go to college? ‘Bucket!’ Go to prison? ‘Bucket!’ Come to be known as a piece of trash by the Establishment? ‘Bucket!’”
The way they look at it, the last few of those items on their bucket list were probably inevitable anyway. So what the hell? “Bucket!”
Do you know what else happened this week? On political talk shows like Morning Joe, pundits were talking about something they have almost never spoken about in recent decades – the plight of the inner city. Poverty statistics were bandied about – like the massive rate of incarceration or unemployment experienced by black men, or that community’s tiny rate of college graduation. We also were treated to more exotic ramifications of poverty – like the fact that in eight Baltimore neighborhoods, the life expectancy is lower than it is in Syria. And why, this week, was poverty finally getting such a spike of national attention? It was all because a group of “dead enders,” as Donald Rumsfeld might have said, or “thugs” as President Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake actually did say, put reacting to poverty on their bucket list.
Am I condoning the acts of the rioters? Absolutely not. Do I support prosecuting lawless behavior? Sure I do. No criminal would want me on their jury, whether their crimes are of a white collar or blue collar nature. But the fact is that we have problems in this country that go way beyond the bad acts of poor, desperate people. And there is no problem greater than that our nation has grown complacent when it comes to addressing the needs of our neediest people, or for that matter, our ever-so-fragile planet. Those who run our nation’s political and business establishment, not to mention the voters who elect them or the consumers who buy their products, seem to care infinitely more about feathering their own nests than they care about addressing how best to lift the inner city poor out of poverty.
The irony, here, is that the Baltimore riots are happening in the United States of America in 2015. We are now into our 240th year as a democracy. We have fifty separate state governments, and far more city governments. Plus, we have a national government, a “free press,” and a ton of world renowned institutions of research and higher learning. You would think that, by now, if we truly cared even a whit about the plight of the poor, our numerous states and cities would have generated valuable lessons and even data as to what approaches work and what approaches don’t. Then, our national government, our news reporters, and our colleges and universities could gather and analyze this information to ensure that our poverty level is reduced to a trickle. This is common sense, folks, not utopianism.
It is the deepest of tragedies that the only way for the poor to get noticed is to behave lawlessly. We need laws to be honored if we are to remain free and secure. And yet we also need our citizens to feel like true stakeholders if we are to expect them to obey our laws. Once enough people put “Risk going to prison” on their own bucket list, we’re all in trouble. But as crazy as that behavior is, it is equally crazy for us to pretend that their poverty is not our problem … or to wake up to it only after they riot and only as long as they riot.
Fortunately, it appears the violence has largely subsided. My fear is that our concern for the welfare of places like inner-city Baltimore will subside as well.