A decade ago, I was fortunate enough to have been offered a slot in the Leadership Birmingham program (2011 – best class ever). It’s a program that takes local residents from all types of careers and walks of life who have proven themselves to be leadership types and gives them a crash course in how our metropolitan area actually works. With full days devoted to topics such as health issues, education, economic development, and cultural opportunities, it was a great chance to network, develop new friendships with people in other industries and job types that I might not otherwise meet, and a rare opportunity to peek behind the curtains into the realities of the power structures. My class included a federal judge, the school superintendent, a city council person, various business types, activists working on social justice issues for the African-American and Latino communities, and clergy. By the end of that year, we had bonded and discovered a lot of commonalities, despite our diverse backgrounds and we, like all of the other classes that have gone through the program over the decades, have used our experiences to help make our community a better place.
One lesson I took away from all of that was one that I don’t think was intended. I quickly recognized that when it came to local politics, the lower the level, the more intelligent and resourceful the individuals. Those working on projects on the neighborhood level tended to be bright, impassioned, committed individuals who cared deeply about their areas of town and who created great things on minimal resources. On the city of Birmingham level, the leaders were predominantly bright with hearts in the right place but were starting to be beholden to powers and economic interests that would at times lead to contrarian decision making in terms of politics and expediency. Those working at the county level had even more of this. It was only a few years since the Jefferson County sewer scandal (which we’re all still paying for – you’ll notice if you look at what’s happened to your sewer rates over the last decade) had roiled the county power structure top to bottom and most of those we met always struck me as having one eye over their shoulder looking for the feds. Those individuals we met working on the state level were to a person, far more invested in the game of politics than they were in the results or in the needs of the citizenry and a few of them struck me as just plain stupid. We didn’t meet much of anyone on the federal level for me to compare that but the stripping away of morals and IQ points as they ascended the ladder to Montgomery strikes me as being somewhat of an explanation for the two separate, but intertwined issues facing us at the moment. I can’t speak to the truth of this pattern in other states, not having been through leadership programs there but I have a sneaking suspicion the pattern isn’t unique to Alabama.
The first problem is that of Covid-19. The case loads locally continue to increase. It’s a little difficult for me to find out just how much as there’s not a lot of transparency in the numbers. Alabama, for instance, is one of the few states which is not reporting on what is happening in nursing homes. UAB, where I work, weathered the initial surge and is starting to return to more normal operations (and I had a fairly typical outpatient clinic day today) but everyone is on tenterhooks wondering if that other shoe is going to drop. As other stories start dominating the news cycle and as people, tired of social distancing, start crowding back into newly opened places of business, we could be well on our way to a fresh spike by the Fourth of July. Friends of mine are reporting the beaches are full, stores are filling up, and then, of course, there have been mass demonstrations. The state has pretty much abdicated its role in protecting the citizenry. I haven’t seen the governor or the legislature in evidence at all the last few weeks. Our mayor, a young and energetic African-American, has been one of the few local leaders who has had and kept media presence and given sound advice.
I’ve been watching as I’ve been out and about a bit more because this has been moving week. In the city, the majority are wearing masks (and we are under a mandatory city ordinance through June 12th). In the suburbs, not so much outside of health care facilities. It’s as if society has made a sudden decision that this is all over and on with it. The problem is that Corona Viruses don’t care if you’re bored. They don’t care about the economy. They don’t care about your politics. They have one mission and one mission only, to propagate and, until there is an effective treatment or vaccine, the only way to prevent that is distancing and masking in order to break transmission chains. We’ll know soon enough if we’re in trouble. In the meantime, I continue to stay home. I’ve been exposed to a few more people due to moving, but I’m keeping my hands clean and trying to keep a certain distance.
The second problem is the civil unrest currently gripping most urban areas. (I read somewhere that more than 140 cities have had demonstrations in the wake of the George Floyd killing this last week). While the murder by police of Mr. Floyd and it’s reigniting of the issues of the horrific injustices suffered by the African-American community for centuries is the proximate cause, I tend to think that widespread civil unrest was going to happen no matter what. An enormous portion of the populace is out of work, food prices are skyrocketing and it’s becoming more and more difficult for those at the bottom of the ladder to put food on the table. Many have been relegated to subsistence jobs for years, enough to survive but not enough to build wealth, get ahead or ensure that things are better for their children. Then add to that the lockdown and the cancelling of all those things that distract us or that make our lives a little more bearable. No sports, no cultural events, no concerts, no gatherings. When there is neither bread, nor circuses, the plebians become unhappy with their lot. The government had the chance to make grand gestures and side with the people but instead let big business run off with hundreds of billions of dollars from the treasury while telling ordinary folk to survive for months on $1200.
I don’t know where this is all going to take us but I remain relatively optimistic. All of the best scientific minds in the world are working together on methods of controlling Covid-19 and I imagine we will start to see some progress on prevention and treatment in the coming months. I went to the demonstration on Saturday at Kelly Ingram Park put together by local Black Lives Matter activists. (I stayed as far as I could from others and wore my mask. Most of the crowd was masked as well). I went because I thought it was absolutely imperative that white men of a certain age be represented as being in solidarity with the African-American community against injustice. I am but one small voice but every voice counts. Kelly Ingram, being the site of police dogs and fire hoses within living memory, is hallowed ground in Birmingham and the crowd was peaceful, well behaved and impassioned. That scene of all races together massed for a better world was my Birmingham and I was proud to be there. I was not at the Sunday demonstration where mob energy was misdirected leading to mayhem. To me, that was not my Birmingham and I was much more drawn to the news stories of this morning of hundreds of volunteers drawn to downtown to clean up and repair the damage. However, it is not my place to tell others how to feel, react, or protest. Suffice it to say that lives always matter more than property or money, even though capitalism pushes society to the opposite (as is very apparent with both of our intertwined crises where our leaders are much more concerned than money and property than with lives.) I write this now under curfew (which doesn’t bother me a bit) with Facebook Live video feeds showing that the city is indeed dismantling the Civil War memorial that was the flashpoint for yesterday’s problems.
A word about the memorial for those not of Birmingham. Alabama is governed under the fraudulently passed constitution of 1901 which was designed to ensure white supremacy and to concentrate political and economic power in a small group of white industrialists. It pretty much prevents home rule in the cities and has been amended roughly 700 times. (When South Africa was looking for models for their apartheid constitution, guess where one of the first places they looked was…) The Civil War memorial was erected a few years later, as were most such memorials around the south, by the White Citizens of cities as a reminder to African American Citizens as to whom held the power. It had been grumbled about for years but things came to a head with Trump’s election, the Charlottesville demonstration and resurgence of white supremacy ideology countering the Black Lives Matter movement. The city wanted to take the monument down out of respect to the African American community but, before they could do so, the state passed a law that effectively prevented such an action. The city countered by covering it up with plywood and there were various suits and countersuits and pretty soon, this fifty foot granite obelisk became a symbol for what was wrong with the system. (And much could have been prevented if the city was allowed to attend to its own affairs without state interference which continues to have racist undertones). Last night, following the demonstration, the crowd tried to pull it down as the Parisians once pulled down the Bastille but multi-ton granite and sandstone obelisk memorials don’t come down easily. If the monument had toppled, the crowd would likely have dispersed satisfied; as it did not, mayhem ensued. Tonight, the mayor, keeping his promise, is having a large crane do what human muscle could not. (Actually, human muscle could do it if properly leveraged. The anthropologist Sarah Parcak from UAB has a great Twitter thread on this based on her knowledge of Egyptology – look it up but don’t read the asinine comments).
I’m hoping in a few days we’ll all be calmer. Just don’t look for any help from a federal level where the executive branch seems bound and determined to make things worse with each passing day. In the meantime, to my African-American friends and colleagues, this White male authority figure remains your accomplice, not just your ally and feel free to turn to me if I can help in any way. All I ask is stay home when you can, wear your mask in public, and keep your hands washed.