Thursday, July 1, 2010

Building Walls

Last weekend, as I was working in my garden, I heard sirens on my street. I got to the sidewalk in time to see a fire truck and an ambulance pull up in front of my neighbor and five paramedics race in to the house. Within another five minutes all kinds of neighbors were assembled with me watching the flashing lights and debating whether to go ask if we could be helpful or just stand there staring, or go back to doing whatever it was we had been doing. The first choice seemed both nosy and unnecessary—after all if this were an emergency a neighbor could help with, why call an ambulance? The last choice seemed heartless—a neighbor is in serious enough trouble to need paramedics, but I return to my weeding. Just standing and talking amongst ourselves seemed to give us all the most comfort and, in its own way, offered solidarity should one of the affected neighbors come out. “Here we are, your neighbors. We know you may have had a heart attack or accidently impaled yourself on a kitchen knife, but can we do anything? Bring over a casserole, perhaps?”

As it turned out, our neighbor was having a very bad reaction to some post surgery pain killers he had taken, and the reaction could have been (but was not) a blood clot or an aneurism. The paramedics left and the neighbor’s partner appeared to tell all of us that all would be well. She seemed pleased at our concern, and the rest of the afternoon various people showed up at their door with flowers from their yards, cookies they had baked or bought, and even a couple of books. (I brought cookies.)

How differently something like this turned out recently in South Carolina where paramedics failed to save the life of a man living in a gated community who had had a heart attack, because an unmanned gate with a pin code entry blocked the ambulance for three minutes. The county administrator later pointed out there were 32 unmanned gates in his district alone. This led to heated debates about the need for emergency override systems at barriers intended to keep trouble, rather than help, out. I had just read this story in an article by Rowland Atkinson called “Prisoners By Choice” documenting the enormous rise in gated communities in the USA and the UK. Atkinson says there are over 4 million US households living behind gates in the US and about 1,000 gated communities in the UK. Generally these are expensive neighborhoods, designed to keep out “crime”—anyone who is not suitable. Atkinson points out the irony that you are most in danger of being hurt or killed in your house by someone you know. In fact, last September a woman and her five children were murdered by her husband in an exclusive gated community in Florida.

The world is becoming increasingly “gated”— Belfast boasts 92 “peace walls”, to keep Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods separate; Israel continues to wall itself off from Palestine, and the US pursues walls at our border with Mexico. Our massive prison population shows our faith in putting people behind “bars”—huge walls topped with barbed wire. California has built 22 prisons in the last 23 years and soon will have the world’s fourth largest prison system (with the USA itself holding the #1 spot.)

So we put some people behind walls, we keep some people from crossing over into our lives with walls, and then some of us, not satisfied with that, choose to live behind walls. Whether they are called bars, gates, fences or walls, they all have the same effect: they keep people apart. We can’t know each other so we must make up stories about each other, and our stories are all negative: criminal, rapist, terrorist, gang member, thug, drug dealer, … Accuracy of description is immaterial, other solutions not considered. Because above all these various forms of walls are very profitable and the amount of money that goes into creating and maintaining the conditions of fear and paranoia, fed by racism and zenophobia, which lead to buying separation from “the other”, may well be the world’s largest industry.

Pondering all this as I went back to weeding, I felt a great surge of love for my neighbors, and for my street which is not walled off in any way except by a stop sign. I continue to ponder how to use the commons to counter the prisons we build for ourselves.

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