US AND THEM

Katrina’s winds and floods stripped away houses and buildings as well as the veneer that keeps polite and courteous people from behaving roughly and unkindly. Katrina also stripped away the veneers of city, state, and federal organizational efficiency.

There were many reasons why the veneers disappeared.

A primary reason? With evacuations ordered, the only people who could evacuate were people wealthy enough to possess a car. However, populations are not made up of just well-paid professionals and semi-professionals. Populations also contain thousands of normally unseen people normally sequestered in ‘low-income’ areas. These are the people who do the low-paid work that keeps modern cities and towns ‘affordable’ for the members of the better-paid middle and upper classes.

These usually unseen people often cannot afford even a second-hand car. These people had limited means by which to move themselves. In their tens of thousands, they could not move. Victims of their own circumstance, they were stuck.

This unseen class could have been carried by publicly owned transport. The publicly owned school and public transport system possessed scores of buses. But these buses were not employed in any organized fashion. That forced all these “unseens” to fend for themselves. In fending for themselves, though, they were not being treated differently than their wealthier mates who had jumped into their vehicles and driven out of Katrina’s path.

In Katrina’s aftermath, these tens of thousands of poorer people broke through the mechanisms and systems that had previously concealed them.

Before Katrina’s strike there were orderly lines as people sought entrance to shelters. After Katrina it was noticeable that whenever crowd pictures were shown, the sight was invariably that of a milling mob rather than an orderly queue or other evidence of a line with persons awaiting their turn. These folk, already hard-hit by Katrina, were then hit hard again by a primal need to get access to clean drinking water, food, and essential medicines.

Over the next four days, normal social mechanisms broke down as these “unseens” began asserting their primordial right to survive.

That’s when the veneers of politeness and kindness melted away. That’s when the veneers of city, state, and Federal organizational efficiency melted down. It took several days before the meltdowns stopped and sound organization arrived.

CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX have shown us film clips of scrabbling refugees in what westerners call ‘third world countries’. This time the scenes came from the USA – arguably the world’s richest country; and certainly a well-developed state.

Bermuda, sits in the eastern section of the Atlantic’s thousand mile wide ‘hurricane alley’. Thirty-two years ago, Hurricane Arlene hit Bermuda hard. Immediately after Arlene’s 1963 hit, Bermuda created the Emergency Measures Organization [EMO]. The major Bermuda events of Emily (1987), Fabian (2003), and the smaller BELCO blackout (2005) showed that our EMO system does works. Bermudians don’t expect miracles, but Bermudians don’t expect any organizational meltdown either.

As well, Bermuda’s oft-cursed Planning Regulations reduces Bermuda’s potential for damage, aids our self-sufficiency, and provides high levels of safety for us as individuals.

From all our past national experiences we know that we have generally accepted that we are our brothers keepers and we have kept our brothers [and sisters and mothers and fathers…]. A few can remember Arlene’s 1963 hit. Some will remember Emily’s 1987 hit. Most will remember Fabian’s 2003 hit. We’d all recall that it is only by sharing and caring that we got through all these aftermaths.

There’s something else. We are on our own. No Home Depots just over a next state border. No thousands of Bermuda Coast Guard and Navy and Army and Air Force and Marines with helicopters and boats and ships and aircraft and trucks to come roaring in to restore and resettle.

It’s just us. And, since we’re such a rich society – remember our boasts about our ‘per capita incomes’? – we ought not expect the world to see us as we saw those uncovered unseens of New Orleans.

Fabian’s experience was that the world did not see us as a poor nation. The world saw us as capable and competent enough – and certainly rich enough – to manage our own affairs.

We ought not forget that.

In our national circumstance, perched out here on 13,000 acres at 65W32N, we should especially remember that we are our brother’s keeper. We ought never forget that. We could, perhaps, remember it better each day and make a special point of treating each other that way – more often.

Knitting

In our Bermuda community, there’s a sound that we need to hear. It’s the sound of Bermuda as it quietly but steadily knits itself together. It’s a sound that I believe is getting quietly louder each day. But, if it is to be heard, it’s a sound that needs to be listened for.

            When I listen with my writer’s ear, I can hear it easily. But when I listen as an ordinary person listens, that sound is usually drowned out by the louder and harsher sounds of discord. Recently, most recently, I heard the sound at the funeral service for the late Gloria McPhee.

            To my writer’s ear, the sound itself is like the soft clicking sound that knitting needles make as, in the hands of a skilled knitter, they knit and purl single lines of black and white wool from separate balls of black and white wool, into the unified pattern and blended colours of a woolen sweater. 

            I have several woolen sweaters that were knitted specifically for me. Seeing or knowing that someone else has spent their time doing something so special and so personal, and just for me, makes that woolen garment extra-special to me. I like wearing these sweaters. I always have a special feel when I’m enclosed in their special warmth.

            At the funeral service for Gloria McPhee, I heard the tributes and the songs. Along with the hundreds of others who attended, I took part in some of the singing myself. During the quiet moments that come in every funeral service, my writer’s eye saw the actions, and my writer’s ear heard the sounds, of my Bermudian community quietly knitting itself together.

            I saw it in the visages and the colours and the ranks and the antecedents of all the pallbearers. I saw it in the blending of the congregation that filled the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity.  I heard it in the sounds of the laughter as erstwhile political opposites shared warm friendly human moments.

            All over my Bermuda, all through my Bermudian community, my writer’s ear hears and my writer’s eye sees a community that is quietly knitting itself together. A community that is beginning to come to grips with and acknowledge its past; accept and get comfortable with its present; and with a new equanimity, is beginning to look towards a future that is better shared.

            Sometimes – often – there are other, louder, voices. Voices of discord. Voices of anger. Voices from the past.  These strident voices appear as headlines, boom out as unsettling sound-bites, and flash up on websites and rattle around the Internet. These are the voices of what I believe is a minority. A shrinking minority.

            Amongst us, all around us, is this other sound that I’ve described. It is a quiet sound. It is the sound of ordinary people quietly knitting a new community. It is a sound that must be listened for.

            Listen for it. Listen to it. It’s all around you

GHETTOS

Ghetto.  An explosive word prickling with shards and fragments. Racial shards. Ethnic fragments. Like a bomb with trip wires. Touch any wire and – Boom! – it blows!

            In my lifetime, in Europe and Asia, ghettos were the places where Jews were confined and kept segregated from the major society. The ghetto, as I’ve just described it, reached its zenith – or was it its nadir? – in Europe during the Second World War. It happened with the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.

            In 1943, after four years of increasingly restrictive and harsh Nazi and SS confinement, the locked-in Jewish population of the Warsaw Ghetto exploded in revolt. The Jews who rose against the Nazis sent a radio message to the Free World. That message ended with the words: “Save Us”.

            That Warsaw uprising began on 19 April 1943.  History records that though the Ghetto fighters asked for help, and though help was needed, no help came. Part of the reason for Allied inaction lay in a strain of anti-Semitism that, even then, permeated much of the Allied decision making hierarchy. This was coupled with a disbelief that what was said to be happening in German-occupied Europe was actually happening as alleged. So the whole Allied machinery of war stood by as the Nazi forces annihilated the Jews of Warsaw. 

            April 19, 1943 was the same day that a conference convened to discuss the War’s ‘refugee problem’.  One of the problems was the plight of the Jews and what actions would be taken to help them. That conference took place in Bermuda. Most of the meetings took place in the Belmont Hotel. For Jews, this Bermuda Conference achieved nothing.

            At the end of the Bermuda meeting, an American-based Jewish organization took out a three-quarter page ad in the New York Times. The ad blared: “To 5,000,000 Jews in the Nazi Death-Trap Bermuda was a Cruel Mockery.”

            Later, and very strongly in the 1990’s, black Americans resurrected the word. They used it to describe their inner-city living. Hip-hop and Rap artists helped give the word its highest profile. In their music, these artists described themselves and their inner-city audience as people living in ghettos. The word itself, combining with the style of life portrayed, showed that the word accurately and honestly described the life of many – too many? – inner-city black Americans.

            Unlike the walled-in Warsaw Ghetto, these newer self-described inner-city ghettos had no visible walls acting as real confining mechanisms. These newer ghetto’s were wall-less. The blacks who felt confined within these ghettos were locked-in, but locked-in by invisible walls. 

            These invisible walls were built up of the bricks of major society discrimination, major and minor society prejudice, poor education, low skill levels, low expectations, and low or non-existent hopes.  Faced with years of resurging white American conservatism, many black Americans retreated and hunkered down in their inner-city ‘hoods and ghettos, and even seemed, at times, to glamourize the resulting lifestyles.

            Bermuda is a polka-dot mix of nice alongside not-so-nice. Rich mixed with not-so-rich. Well-off twinned with poverty. Bermuda doesn’t have one single area that can be accurately described as a ghetto. That doesn’t mean though, that some Bermudians don’t describe themselves as living in a ghetto. That doesn’t mean, either, that there are no ghettos in Bermuda in Bermuda. Quite the contrary.

            Bermuda has many ghettos. They’re all over this island.  They exist wherever there is a regular gathering of a group of people, resident in the immediate area, who share these characteristics: Poorly educated – low skill levels – low or non-existent expectations – a feeling of nothing to lose, and equally, nothing to gain.

            More important than the picky point of an exact geographic location, the sight of rows of boarded-up windows, or lines of decaying buildings, is that these ghettos do actually exist in the minds of a significant segment of our Bermudian population. The lack of precision of place obscures – but doesn’t eliminate – this reality. Our Bermuda ghettos exist in the minds of hundreds of locked-in – more correctly locked-out – Bermudians.

            Tell me, in 2007, what identifiable part of our population of 48,000 Bermudians shares these characteristics: “Poorly educated – low skill levels – low or non-existent expectations – a feeling of nothing to lose, and equally, nothing to gain.”?

            Tell me, in 2007, what identifiable part of our population of 48,000 Bermudians would agree with the sentiment: “Bermuda… a Cruel Mockery.”?

            Tell me, do we really have ghettos? Yes? No?

            Please, please, tell me.