On A Downbeat Martin Luther King Day

I love Martin Luther King Day. It was the most popular thing I got through as a kid member of the Mt. Tam school board back in the day. Far more so, oddly enough, than the English grammar class.

Unfortunately, Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday became shadowed by irrationality long before our comic opera kingpin of a president-elect ripped Congressman John Lewis as "nothing but talk" practically on the eve of the holiday. Lewis, as even Donald Trump should know, was one of King's most intrepid and courageous lieutenants, and was beaten repeatedly by racists in the process.

Of course the holiday was dishonored eight years ago by a Republican Party dominated by states of the Old Confederacy deciding to oppose everything the nation's first black president tried to do.

Maybe "the great Abe Lincoln," as Trump so (unintentionally) amusingly refers to his new party's founder, who couldn't possibly be a party member today, was wrong. Maybe he should have let the Confederate states go. Slavery would have fallen eventually. And American politics would be much more like that of most of the advanced industrial world, i.e., far less prone to knee-jerk reactionary nonsense.

But that's another matter. And the reality is that race relations have curdled even further under President Barack Obama. Perhaps, in an odd way, because of Obama. Not because Obama is a reverse racist or anything like that, quite the contrary.

It's been my observation, walking around the streets of a number of American cities during the Obama years, that hostility from some blacks has actually increased during Obama's presidency. In areas in which Obama is clearly widely supported.

I've experienced quite a few more racial-oriented comments, not infrequently with an undertone of violence. Since I'm just another white face to these folks, hardly given to breaking into a chorus of "Sweet Home Alabama," what accounts for this?

Not at all surprisingly, I haven't seen research on this. But my own questioning of some black men I know comes up with some logical answers.

The first black president hasn't really changed things for the black community, though there is a certain pride and some additional welfare components. But the big ballyhooed economic recovery -- and let's be clear, Obama inherited an economy headed into the abyss of deep depression -- hasn't done much for most people.

Only the rich, according to research I saw in a recent Stanford course on increasing inequality and poverty, have had their fortunes restored. The reality of recovery for most of the black community has been the opportunity to vie for one or two junk jobs -- low-income jobs prone to replacement by automation or immigration -- to barely keep off the welfare rolls.

Meanwhile, everyone is surrounded by a media culture constantly pushing an agenda of success clearly oriented to the amoral acquisition of wealth and power.

So, disappointment and anger are understandable. But hostility and acting out are counter-productive.

Nevertheless, if more and more people perceive a system that is rigged, some will do what little they can to rig it back in their own favor.

So, as someone who sometimes walks around cities at all hours -- and, sorry, Mr. President-elect, let me assure you that our cities are MUCH safer than most around the world -- I have not been surprised to run into several would-be muggers during the Obama years. They were mostly foolish black kids with bad attitudes, and no serious problem.

However, on the day after our Christmas just past, less than a block from an Apple Store, taking a noontime shortcut through an alley to hit a restroom on my way to a bookstore, I thought for a moment that my luck had run out.

A tall black man wearing a surgical mask approached me, talking as though he was a friendly acquaintance of mine playing a little joke. The rest of the joke being the four-foot length of chain on his shoulders. Since I do know some guys who would find it amusing to see how alarmed I might become to be approached by a stereotypical black mugger, I did not become alarmed, in part because my mind was a million miles away. Until the guy was just four feet away and looking into his eyes made it clear that I didn't know him and this was no joke.

Since he didn't know me, I'm sure I looked an easy, unwary tourist type mark, an older white guy wearing a tony TV show ball cap ('Mad Men' of course) in glasses and sandals.

So his first punch was not as snappy as it should have been. I chopped it away easily and then swept him to the ground. But not for long, as I was in sandals, not looking to hurt my foot and thus not at full speed. And there was that big chain, now off his shoulder and in his hands, and he was now embarrassed and very angry. So instead of kicking him in the head, I sprinted to the end of the alley. And I also gave him some advice to, er, the effect that unless he was even dumber than he looked, he would depart the area as quickly as possible.

No harm, no foul, right? I was completely unhurt. And so was the mugger, except for a bruise or two. Which was fortunate in its own way because who needs further hassle? The guy might have sued me for fracturing his skull. And I might have broken my toe or something.

But what gives with a guy walking around wearing a mask and chain?

I already knew the answer, but asked anyway.

Cops have become wary of creating racial incidents of their own. A surgical mask can be a gangster thing, or it can be a legitimate if paranoid defense against illness. The four-foot length of stainless steel chain? Which was actually much more threatening to me than the guy's size or even a potential knife? Well, that can be a fashion statement.

In fact, that was the joke which I thought someone was pulling on me, which is how the guy got so close to me in the first place. Well, that and me being perfectly relaxed and heedless on a pleasant day, thinking about the next 'Guardians of the Galaxy' or something.

But I'm only relaxed and heedless to a point. Morning martial arts, the first exercise of which is to deal with a sudden close-quarters attack (my long since retired Marine instructor called it "Snap Count," though it has a poetic Japanese name), daily breaking of my high school push-ups record, and regular sprints do come in handy.

The next actual tourist would certainly have been successfully mugged. But this particular mugger had learned that he was much more vulnerable than he imagined, and was hopefully dissuaded.

And at this point in writing this piece, I stopped. A solution, which I expected to come in the writing process, simply had not occurred. And the next day, it still hasn't.

What is clear is what we should not do.

Should we all carry guns? Absolutely not. Though I'm a longtime gun owner, I'll be one of the last to carry a gun.

Most people belong nowhere near a gun. Having widespread carry would create a great many accidents waiting to happen. That is how I would probably get killed, by some nervous idiot firing off a wild round that hits me by mistake.

A gun gives one the wrong idea about oneself, creating a sense of invulnerability which actually makes you more vulnerable. Take the situation in Florida in which that fool of a "neighborhood watch" guy shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Maybe Martin looked somewhat suspicious and maybe he didn't. (My observation is that the vast majority of arguably suspicious-looking black guys wandering around at night, and that is an increasing phenomenon, are perfectly harmless if more than a little lost, just guys looking to feel their way through life. Some of them are undoubtedly more frightened than the folks they encounter.) The job of a neighborhood watch volunteer is to observe and report. Had that white fool whose name escapes me not been armed, his confrontation with Martin would never have escalated past the point at which he was incapable of handling it short of using a gun.

Did the guy who tried to mug me deserve to die for being dumb enough to try to mug me? Of course not. Even though that chain he was swinging around at the end could have done some real damage to me.

Stupidity is not a capital crime. If it was, after the invasion of Iraq and the advent of Trump, the political and media communities would be decimated.

What everyone needs to do is be cool. Obama might have been able to get that message across. But of course he had a rather full plate before him.

Trump? Well, we can't exactly expect him to be cool, can we? Since he has lived so oddly sheltered an existence that he says Oakland may be the most dangerous place in the world, his perspectives are obviously skewed.

Unfortunately, on this particular MLK Day, the solutions look farther away than ever. Everyone is talking past one another, and the volume is only likely to increase.

Facebook comments are closed on this article.

William Bradley Archive