First Person: The War on Ourselves

By Winston Burton, Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 07, 2006

We have met the enemy and it is us. 

—Walt Kelly 


Last year my friend from Berkeley, Dwayne, called me on a cell phone and said, “Winston, I’m on a business trip in Philadelphia for the first time, where should I go?” 

“Where are you?” I asked.  

“I’m driving past Broad Street and Ogontz Avenue,” he replied. 

“Oh, you’re in North Philly, near Germantown,” I responded. 

After a long pause he said, “I don’t see any Germans around here.” 

“I know! The Germans left a long time ago and so should you.” 

“Why?” he asked. 

I told him, “Because you don’t know anyone, and there’s a war going on in that neighborhood!” 

“What war” he wanted to know.  

“The war on ourselves and it’s been going on for years!” 

Several weeks ago I went to the Solano Stroll on a beautiful sunny day. The theme of this year’s mile-long block party and festival was “Send in the Clowns.” There were thousands of people at this multi-cultural, multi-ethnic all-generations gathering. There must have been 20 different bands, arts, crafts, games and a wide variety of foods to choose from along a 10-block stretch. The fun went on long past sundown, and when it was over there were no “sideshows,” riots or folks getting mugged on their way home. 

One of the reasons the Solano Stroll is such a success every year is the dedication of the organizers. But it’s also owing to the civility of the participants. When people unavoidably bumped into each other and scrambled to get into long lines, they said, “Excuse me, please,” or “I’m sorry.” It reminded me of how the Festival of the Lake in Oakland used to be before gangs and the war on ourselves took over. 

Last month I went to an event in West Oakland on a beautiful sunny day at Shoreline Park. It was called the Healthy Neighborhood Festival. There were several bands, good food, arts, crafts and information booths. The several hundred people who attended, instead of the thousand expected, seemed to enjoy themselves and each other. There was no pushing, shoving or long lines. There were no “sideshows, riots or muggings at this gathering either. One of the major themes for this event was the need for “Organ donors in the Black Community!”  

There is definitely a need and unfortunately a supply of healthy organs in the black community. Drive-bys, gang violence, muggings, petty arguments, and perceived disrespect have led to deadly disagreements and a steady stream of young corpses. On the other side, heavy drinking, smoking, drug use and poor eating habits, practiced by an older generation, have created a whole crop of people that may need a liver, kidney, gall bladder, lung or heart. I myself am not above it—I could probably use a few organs myself in the coming years. 

The war on ourselves is not just about bullets and drugs. It’s an attack on our language. The conjugation of the verb to be is not I be, you be, we be! It’s an attack on education when honor students are ridiculed for being smart. It’s an attack on the family structure when teenage girls introduce their ex-boyfriend as their baby’s daddy and not by name. It’s about being fatalistic, “I might not live tomorrow, but I’m going to live today.” 

The Oakland Tribune printed a story on Sept. 30 that an anti-violence rally was cancelled over fears of violence and safety concerns. It’s pretty disturbing when you’re scared to have an anti-violence rally. As of that day, from the beginning of the year, there had been 115 people killed in Oakland and 287 in Philadelphia, almost nine a week! I wonder how people have died in New York, New Jersey, Las Angeles, Detroit and Miami.  

At the Healthy Neighborhood Festival some speakers talked about how they benefited from healthy organs being harvested and receiving a transplant. Others spoke, sad but proud, of how their family member’s donated organs had contributed to the well-being of someone else. One paradox that struck me was that most of the organ recipients were old and the donors were young. 

When I left the Healthy Neighborhood Festival, I didn’t feel festive as I had at the Solano Stroll. It was more like I had attended a wake. I was glad to see the people I knew so that we could give each other support, but in the end it was a sad occasion. We were watching a community mourn the deadly harvest of the war on ourselves.