July 24, 2009: Skip Gates, local resilience

Since every Greater-Boston commentator, black and white, is weighing in on the recent Skip Gates incident, why should I be any different?

Because I’m presently hyper-aware of nothing less than ENORMOUS COLLECTIVE VULNERABILTY* I’ll be brief: To arrest Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own porch because the Harvard scholar, possibly exhausted and certainly pissed, refused to kowtow to a police officer, was racially motivated. And maybe, although Gates’ friends claim otherwise, the possibly exhausted and certainly pissed prof pushed another button belonging to a white, working class Cambridge cop by being indignant—perhaps by being haughtily, righteously indignant: “Do you know who you’re dealing with?”

But here’s what I want to say: We don’t have time for this. (And we certainly don’t have time to pay a lot of attention when every Greater-Boston commentator, black and white, says exactly what you’d expect. When it come to race, we don’t need pontificators. We need dialogue.) As Richard Heinberg boldly states in the foreword to The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, “We humans are facing tough times.”

Humans. That’s all of us. Black, white, the police, the formerly incarcerated, Mayflower descendants, the undocumented; all of us. Given that the Age of Cheap Oil will end in fifteen to twenty years, how are all of us going to work on local resilience—and, as the crow flies, Gates’ ritzy Cambridge neighborhood and my Somerville neighborhood, while socio-economically miles apart, are most certainly LOCAL—if we keep focusing on what’s different about us? Huh?

Schooled, first by Lynda and Owen and now by formerly incarcerated men, that, yes, racism is real, present, disturbingly operational, I (mostly) see the world differently. (Also disturbing is how easily I can lapse into age-old cluelessness sometimes.) Now I’m being schooled to be mindful of something else, something equally pervasive, huge, and absolutely critical to constantly consider: Life’s about to profoundly change.

A story: Last night, while reading The Transition Handbook, I suddenly had a terrifying thought: “Ohmygod, David, how will we heat this house?” (We’re going to run out of natural gas, faster than you might expect, too.)

My wise husband, David, who is building us a greenhouse, who built raised beds last year, and who, like me, is intricately connected to his neighborhood community, his faith community, and his Wednesday night community of the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them said, “That’s something we can’t do ourselves. That’s a problem to be solved collectively.”

As usual, he’s right.

Officer James Crowley, the man he arrested, Professor Gates, David and I face shrinking resources and cold New England winters together. A woman of faith (and the mother of a daughter named Hope), I believe that we WILL figure out how to survive. And WILL create a Blessed Community.

Collectively. Resiliently. Locally. And with compassion.

* Another quote from The Transition Handbook.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks Patricia, for this insightful look at how we continue to divide ourselves against each other. The human species is facing an unprecedented wake-up call, and unless we shift to a collective lens, we are doomed. It’s the golden rule of most religions, Do Unto Others… It’s the supreme wisdom of ecology – we are all connected, and our genuine self-interest is actually tied up in the self-interest of everyone else – the plants, the animals, and most visibly the rest of our human species. This genuine self-interest is actually the same thing as the public interest, not the short-sighted self-interests that dominate our individualistic and competitive society.

    Historical oppression and slavery was a clearcut crime against clearcut victims, and African Americans today — no matter what pinnacle they have reached — cannot feel comfort in their achievements, or inner peace with this wretched society, despite having ostensibly thrown off the shackles that physically bound them.

    But oppression and slavery of a different nature continue today, and have exacerbated and accelerated their grip. There is a psychological slavery that — under the surface — appears to do much less damage. But the reality is that this psychological slavery is doing more damage — indeed it was the driver of slave labor and the slave trade. It was the driver of countless massacres and wars and genocides. And it continues to be. It is the driver of resource wars in the Middle East and Africa, and the driver of ethnic strife, and the driver of our over-consumption, pollution, and resource-sucking ways.

    Most of our species is beholden to a mythology of human transcendence above nature, and a sacred paradigm of economic growth at the center of our economic interactions. This economy — an increasingly globalized, fossil-fueled one, is sustaining us, for the time being. But it is inherently unsustainable. And we are starting to reach those physical limits.

    The only viable response or solution is an ecological one — to find a way to quickly create a society in which incidents like the one that happened to Gates don’t happen because, like you said, we don’t have the time for it. If we don’t do it, the response will still be ecological… meaning that our species and countless others with it will get swept into the hands of planetary processes beyond our control. Our only chance at a just, sustainable future is to build it, because mother nature is reasonably blind to justice.

  2. One of the saddest parts of this whole sorry incident is that Prof. Gates’s neighbors didn’t recognize him. The woman who reported him as a possible burglar worked just down the street (and Ware St is only about 2 blocks long) and the man who took the only known photo of the arrest also said he didn’t know or recognize Gates.

    Had these folks recognized their neighbor, this whole incident would never have happened.

    Which is not to minimize the roles that race and class played in the scenario. They were both large, I believe, since they are both constructs that keep us from recognizing each other as fellow humans. And since attitudes about race and class are so often below consciousness, they tend come out unexpectedly and harmfully when we are placed in situations of extreme stress. Like a police officer confronting an unknown, apparently hostile person on unfamiliar territory. Or a person suddenly confronted by a police office in his own home.

    But still, had neighbors known each other, that broken door would have been nothing more than an ordinary inconvenience.

    The importance of community!

  3. Patricia, I think what you are saying is that big media should be giving more attention to big problems that affect us all, such as the energy crisis, rather than focusing on specific ones, such as the Gates arrest. I share your concern, but I’m fine with articles and op-eds that start from the specific incident as a stepping stone to larger issues, such as equality in society. It is important to talk about equality issues because our society’s resilience will remain impaired until everyone is treated with equal opportunity and dignity.

    I’m intrigued with the question of how priorities get shaped in the big media outlets. I think this can be traced back to calculations about what will drive up advertising revenues and what fits with the sponsors’ priorities, for better or for worse. So how can we change those priorities? Can peak oil be in the headlines without some shocking domestic calamity to bring the issue home to readers?

    I think the solution is to find ways to make these issues new so they will get reported in the news. Get high-level politicians talking about them. Get universities and government agencies to issue reports. Get community groups and organizations to issue public statements. Together, we can do it!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.