The Shooting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
My mom grew up on a farm, but I can’t even successfully grow tomatoes. More on this in a second.
A friend I think very highly of posted something on her Facebook account, and I generally agreed with the gist, get on up and do something to repair the world. Wholly agree!
Where I stopped was, “people need to stop complaining and do something.” Picking themselves up by the bootstraps implied.
This is in relation to the recent police shooting in Lancaster. For what it’s worth, as a no-longer-a-soldier, I cannot and will not second-guess the officer shooting a man charging him with a knife. Everyone speaking of tasers, linking videos of UK police subduing someone with a machete—I wish those folks would enlist or join the police force if we can make happier outcomes with pixie dust of hindsight YouTube videos. In this particular case, which involved a split-second decision, I would focus more on prevention vs. police conduct.
Really, though, this is about the neighborhood reaction…this is where I wish I could find a way to communicate effectively the lived experience of growing up in a neighborhood like Cabbage Hill, where we literally watched the transition from single family, home-ownership in the “everyone has a union job”, low-skilled labor market—to the low- to no-income, multi-tenant shit-show Fremont and Union Streets have become.
I’d ride the municipal bus with the kids who had their water, electric, or UGI shut off. Unwashed clothes, unwashed bodies, and a whole lot of shame and and anger.
Some of my friends would eat breakfast with me towards the end of the month when the food stamps would be gone. My mom taught English as a Second Language, and we lived in a neighborhood that was rapidly taking on more black and Latinx residents, so we knew many of the kids on the free or reduced lunch program. If we’re sensitive to it now, there were absolutely no compunctions about embarrassing kids 30-40 years ago.
I really hated it at the time. Not because I was imbued with empathy for what was going on around me, but because we were white and doing mostly “all right,” sometimes that would make us the locus of externalized resentment for their circumstances. It’s hard to give a rat’s ass about what your neighbor is going through when he’s beating you up or shaking you down for lunch money.
Later on, I got time to think about it, though. True empathy compels us to ask “well, why was Anton an asshole?”
And this is why I push back when someone says, “my relative was a LEO,” or “my parent grew up in poverty” to justify their reluctance to try a perspective shift.
It’s why I point out that just because my mother grew up on a farm, it doesn’t mean I can milk a cow.
Richard Munoz could have been any one of a dozen of my neighbors or fellow students. If he had been my mother’s or my uncle’s neighbor, I wouldn’t be able to immediately relate to him as my lived experience.
And, no, it doesn’t seem logical to anyone to break windows on state trooper SUVs. It doesn’t seem logical to go out and try and agitate the police.
Is there anything really logical in play here, though?
In a place where no part of life is really reasonable, the expectation of reason is itself unreasonable.
To me, it’s the same dynamics I lived at the municipal bus stop to my high school, writ large.
We can all be as reasonable as we want, but the grievances pile up. Academically underserved—not for lack of trying! The low-skilled labor market dried up years ago. There’s just a surprisingly narrow range of low-skill retail and food service jobs available, few of which pay a rent-sufficient wage, especially balanced against utilities and other needs. And with COVID-19, a whole heaping helping of residents are living on borrowed time with evictions and utility shutoffs postponed.
A global camera manufacturer (full disclosure: I worked for them for nearly a decade) turned Lancaster into a virtual showroom by working out a cozy deal with the Lancaster Safety Coalition…and so their neighborhoods are under surveillance with no local control via government. If you live in a place where your doorbell camera allows you to chide the UPS dude for leaving your packages too far from your door, you might consider that life under constant surveillance in the neighborhood means that grainy video with digital signal processing designed specifically against white subjects will often leave people with darker complexions open to constant misidentification by law-enforcement. Your 4K doorbell cam is orders of magnitude better than the plethora of 480i PTZ cameras all over Lancaster, but that latter video is going to be state’s evidence used to push under-represented people charged with crimes into plea deals. Those plea deals, if it’s a first strike, then become the gateway for unpaid fines, which in turn become bench warrants, that then become incarceration. By hook or by crook, it’s just one of many entry points into the criminal justice system, and I’m shamed that this is as true of Lancaster, Pennsylvania as it is any other city.
And that row-home three blocks down on Manor Street? You know the one, where a flipper knocked down some sheetrock, exposed some brick, added a Viking Range, and made an open floor plan? Well, that house is now going for 300K (tax assessed < 50K), and you bet your bottom dollar that means more policing to keep Fremont Street riffraff out of that neighborhood.
So just like when I was the recipient of anger over the numerous grievances my peers grew up with, these unaddressed grievances lead to stupid things on a larger scale.
And right or wrong, Munoz’ death tips the scales.
I’m glad Lancaster leadership has shifted focus to talk about mental health, but let’s be clear. It wouldn’t matter in his neighborhood if he was the adult child a parent was stuck dealing with all on her own, or anything else. He could just as easily be the sibling with mental health challenges and violent impulse control, or he could be the husband in the married couple that gets loud with their kitchen fights every night. For all of them, the minute any of it escalated to involve the police, there’s an awareness that it could be deadly.
And it doesn’t even need to be deadly. They can be evicted under disruptive tenant ordinances, or cited under any number of fine-bearing summary offenses Lancaster City has on the books.
It needn’t absolve anyone of personal responsibility, but it definitely doesn’t absolve those outside looking in of perhaps trying to operate outside their own frame.
Embrace a perspective from beyond your 4K doorbell camera.
If we’re talking about solving problems and making a difference, that carries a responsibility to do better than wax preachy at the human beings making all the wrong moves after a shooting in their neighborhood. It is stupid, but it won’t last. And if we think real hard about it, and we were really honest with ourselves, aside from some distal charity work we might do through our religious institutions, right now at least we’re thinking about them. When they calm down, those same poverty dynamics that I’m talking about—the over-policing, the dangling sword of eviction/food insecurity/utility shut off—will again be invisible to you and I, and it will still be their daily reality.
They won’t be on our minds when city planners talk about economic development that still doesn’t include a low-skilled workforce beyond the narrow, surprisingly competitive food service world. They won’t be on our minds when developers, real estate investors, and the city itself continues to crowd low- to no-income housing right out of the city and into the boroughs, where those folks will be even more under-employed and under-served in local schools. Even the municipal transportation system is aligned against them, and most people with cars fail to understand just how debilitating that is.
Someone might read this and think I’m a little light on personal accountability. None of these dynamics, to me, excuse criminal conduct. Too often, though, the temporary array of antics are used to disqualify giving a “hand up” to people. Maybe it’s a sense that “we’ve given them so much help already, and given these riots, they’ll just squander any opportunity.”
We have to remember that the circumstances have changed significantly since we first started many social safety nets. There’s a big difference between sustainment/maintenance and elevation. We say, “they should learn a trade,” but then don’t understand the obstacles between saying and doing. Lancaster County in general has one of the better-funded vocational training options in the state, at least per capita, but there’s still a disconnect between skill sets and employment market.
In one respect, I utterly agree with my friend. I fail to see how the application of spectacle on the part of woke activists accomplishes anything. Judge Bruce Roth, with whom I am acquainted both through the Jewish community and work with Veterans Court—you visit magistrate courts when you’re advocating for vets—set the bail at $1 million for some outside agitators and local protestors, carrying some fairly significant felony charges involving firearms. I see a group like Lancaster Stands Up, or bowling-shirt-clad-try-hard Lt. Gov Fetterman attacking him for that.
For all of their advocacy, shifting focus to protests also holds the potential to render the neighborhood grievances invisible. Point in case…today the focus on this shooting is about two things. A torched dumpster, and mental health services. Lieutenant Governor Fetterman, while weighing in on the the bail case, says nothing about the landscape in Lancaster that is a bigger version of what he faced as mayor of Braddock. And since he built political capital on really accomplishing nothing there, his commentary is further evidence that the protests will displace the actual neighborhood needs in the narrative. The rest of the issues for Cabbage Hill, I’m sad to say, will rot on the vine in terms of public policy right now, while politicians scramble to be seen being the right kind of people.
Laying in the street, screaming “no justice, no peace” into megaphones, sticking around until the crowd works itself into a frenzy…it may seem like it is purposeful. I would argue, though, that it does nothing to keep attention on the issues. You’ll get your protest participation trophy, sure. But the real work is done, as we did here in Bangor, by groups committed to change and follow through peaceful, civil protest, letter writing, showing up at school board and town council meetings, and getting consortiums of like-minded folks together to fundraise and demand change with specific policy points to advocate for. What has delighted me the most about this part of Maine is that people can and do run for elected office. People disaffected with racial disparity successfully run for school board or city council. I know people are doing this in Lancaster, but they’re also loudly satisfying the phone-in-hand, preening set, at the expense of the disenfranchised.
A strong start would be a local Democratic party leadership that isn’t comprised mostly of folks from Lancaster Township and Manheim Township, or the occasional Lancaster City elite. Look at recent primaries and how the Latinx vote is taken for granted in Lancaster! A county, not city, produced mayoral candidate was favored over an established Puerto Rican candidate who worked for two governors. The same thing happened in the state senate race…instead of giving candidates a fair shot, the Democratic committee pushed for (and I supported him because he’s competent and a friend) a popular county commissioner over a decent Latina city councillor, instead of staying neutral. Right down to shenanigans with campaign signs on primary day, the lack of neutrality crossed the line to hostility in that race. They would insist that I’m incorrect about this, but sorry, you can only give your storied black elected officials the person of the year award before you realize the working committees and county-wide candidates are staggeringly pale. Until this party truly represents the demographics it now depends on for electoral victories, there’s a place for grassroot activists to get busy.
Lancaster, of course, faces challenges that Bangor, Maine, does not. For the most part, given our demographics, having to live up to our averred racial sensitivity is untested. We also don’t have local forces like Lancaster Newspapers and High Steel that push their own economic development agenda and work outside local democratic controls, whether for a convention center or security cameras. Even with that, though, I think our model would rise to meet these challenges.
But that grassroots energy that sees summer soldier protestors screaming into bullhorns on Prince Street could easily be redirected and applied to countering the backroom deals at the Hamilton Club.
It’s fair to say that I’ve turned my back on Lancaster, and that none of this is my concern. I don’t know if I love Lancaster, but I’m proud to be a product of Cabbage Hill with its rich and ever-diverse history. I learned so many of life’s lessons on its streets, from Germans, Irish-Catholics, and Puerto Ricans. It opened its arms to my Jewish ancestors who fled the Pale. It opened its arms to my cousins’ Greek family. It opened its arms to my ex-wife’s Vietnamese family.
Lancaster has always been an incredibly moral, ethical, and generous community, even as stifling as I found it to be.
It’s time for folks to remember that and do better by Cabbage Hill.