A reporter once asked A.J. Muste — a social activist who, during the Vietnam War, stood outside the White House night after night — ‘Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?’
“‘Oh,’ Muste replied, ‘I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.’
This passage is widely quoted but this blog post on The Liberal Pulpit caught my attention. I am grateful that I’ve been able to stand for a lifetime of powerful protest to resist the evils of man from the Vietnam war in the early 1970s to the environmental evils of climate change deniers in the 1980s to the evil of trumpsters from 2016 to 2020. Only through this process of perseverance to upholding our core moral values will we, as individuals and as a human society, prevail on this earth.
In 1963 a young native Canadian American folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie living in Greenwich Village was moved by seeing young wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam while the U.S. government was denying that our men were involved in the war. It inspired her war protest song “Universal Soldier” that has endured as perhaps the most recognized anti-war song in contemporary culture. Eventually many returning U.S. servicemen faced condemnation by the American people in their own communities for participating in the war even though it was certainly not their choice. Even though I was just a kid, I remember it as a wrenching time and a very difficult issue for adults. The resulting societal moral conflict led to the end of the draft in 1972/1973. The song has new meaning today as we witness militants fighting for the federal government attacking U.S. citizens on the streets in our home country. Those militants are rightfully being condemned within their communities.
It was great to see her as the headliner tonight at Philadelphia Folk Festival. Her version of “America the Beautiful” was moving. Her new war protest song “The War Racket” is equally strong that preceded “Universal Soldier”.
Tonight I saw the rerun of the March 1, 2020 barefoot performance of “Once in a Lifetime” by David Byrne on SNL. Amazing!
The ultimate water dominance lyrics from 1980 have stayed with us for a lifetime:
“And you may find yourself Living in a shotgun shack And you may find yourself In another part of the world And you may find yourself Behind the wheel of a large automobile And you may find yourself in a beautiful house With a beautiful wife And you may ask yourself, well How did I get here?Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down Letting the days go by, water flowing underground Into the blue again after the money’s gone Once in a lifetime, water flowing undergroundAnd you may ask yourself How do I work this? And you may ask yourself Where is that large automobile? And you may tell yourself This is not my beautiful house! And you may tell yourself This is not my beautiful wife!Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down Letting the days go by, water flowing underground Into the blue again after the money’s gone Once in a lifetime, water flowing undergroundSame as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever wasWater dissolving and water removing There is water at the bottom of the ocean Under the water, carry the water Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean! Water dissolving and water removingLetting the days go by, let the water hold me down Letting the days go by, water flowing underground Into the blue again into silent water Under the rocks and stones, there is water undergroundLetting the days go by, let the water hold me down Letting the days go by, water flowing underground Into the blue again after the money’s gone Once in a lifetime, water flowing undergroundYou may ask yourself What is that beautiful house? You may ask yourself Where does that highway go to? And you may ask yourself Am I right? Am I wrong? And you may say yourself “My God! What have I done?”Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down Letting the days go by, water flowing underground Into the blue again into the silent water Under the rocks and stones, there is water undergroundLetting the days go by, let the water hold me down Letting the days go by, water flowing underground Into the blue again after the money’s gone Once in a lifetime, water flowing undergroundSame as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Look where my hand was Time isn’t holding up Time isn’t after us Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Same as it ever was Letting the days go by Same as it ever was And here the twister comes Here comes the twisterLetting the days go by (same as it ever was) Same as it ever was (same as it ever was) Letting the days go by (same as it ever was) Same as it ever was Once in a lifetime Let the water hold me down Letting the days go by”
It’s been 40 years to the month since the City of Miami race riots in May of 1980. Public Safety Officers chased, beat and murdered a black man in public. The 33 year old black man, a former marine, was illegally operating a motorcycle but not involved in any other crimes. Police crushed his skull and he died of multiple skull fractures. A total of 8 police officers were charged with crimes ranging from evidence tampering to manslaughter. Prosecutors tried four officers on charges of manslaughter, evidence tampering and other charges. The officers were acquitted at trial. Public outrage led to riots including looting, arson, a sniper and murder.
Now my son Josh is a public prosecutor in Miami. I’ve met his friends who are also Miami prosecutors. We hear in the news and otherwise about bad acts by both the police and the public.
Yesterday new riots were ripping the city apart. Tense times will follow. All we can do now is pray for all.
Post script: A friend reminded me tonight about reading ‘Huckleberry Finn’ aloud to Josh and his sister Arielle when they were young. It was such a meaningful experience that I still have that copy of the book in my nightstand today, more than 20 years later. It was tough for me to say the word “nigger” aloud so many times in those bedtime readings. I struggled with it. I struggled with the resulting conversations about racism with my children while discussing the book. But we all learned. My attitudes about racism evolved and matured and continues to evolve and mature. But the book wasn’t just about racism, of course, and neither are the issues we face today. I hope these lessons from childhood so many years ago will help guide Josh in his difficult official duties now.
Riots are not the result of protest of the killing of one black man. Riots are not just about killings. Riots are not just about blacks. Riots are the expression of the unheard over decades. The sooner that the media and the public realize this, the better off we will be to deal with the current crisis.
Many police chiefs across the country will come to regret decisions they made in the early stages of these riots. They just don’t know better but will come to understand that they chose bad strategy that made matters worse.
“If we are to ever transform our outrage into meaningful social change, we have to do more than take to the streets with cellphones. We have to organize rallies, not riots. We have to use the pen and our voices before the sword and the stone. And we need leaders who rise from the flames of civil unrest to navigate us arm in arm, both literally and figuratively, away from purposeless violence toward purposeful progress in civil rights and social justice that began more than half a century ago.” – Joe Pierre MD, Psychology Today, May 30, 2020
A true story: On a dark and stormy spring night 17 years ago (May 2003) I was chased down and tackled in my own neighborhood of Ocean City by undercover police officers who were following me in an unmarked car. I lived alone then as a divorced bachelor and walked two blocks around midnight from my house to Wawa to get milk and cookies after watching a violent gangster movie on TV. So I was already in a fearful mindset from the movie. When I saw them following me slowly in a black sedan with windows rolled down in the rain, I ran as fast as I could. In those days I was still pretty athletic. I would have outrun them but I tripped over landscaping near my house and came down hard on the pavement. If I had not landed on top on the gallon of milk and the box of cookies then I might have been injured by the hard fall.
The two men caught up and jumped on top of me a couple of seconds later. I was terrified since they looked and acted like mobsters. It was pretty well known in that community back then that I was one of the accountants providing evidence in the local business owners’ fraud prosecution cases against Donald Trump, who was reportedly mob connected. I had good reason to be scared.
I made them show me a police badge (which was odd that I even had to ask for proof) and then I calmed down. They said I looked like a burglar who was reported in the neighborhood. That was odd because I was one of the few white people living in that neighborhood of 4th And West Avenue. (I moved there to the modest working class neighborhood after being forced to sell our beach block house after divorce and it turned out to be an amazing blessing). I said “Really!? I wouldn’t think that a report of a 40 year old short white stocky Jewish accountant house burglar is all that common!”
Anyway, today I remember that story because if I was black, I might have been shot and not be alive today.
This post is written with respect for Ahmaud Arbery, just 25 years old, who was hunted down and killed while jogging in his own neighborhood in Georgia. Despite the existence of shocking 911 audio and video, neither of his white killers has been arrested or charged. Everyone deserves justice under the law. Ahmaud’s life matters.
Writing this blog post made me think of my former neighbor, Antwan McClellan, a neighborhood kid then who is now our state senator. He lived a few houses away. It was my interactions with the strong black community activists in this specific neighborhood, more than any other life experience, that led me to the activist roles I pursue today.
(The photo is my last Ocean City house that I loved, torn down for redevelopment a few years later).
“I was nineteen when I came to town They called in the Summer of Love They were burningbabies, burning flags The Hawks against the DovesI took a job in the STeamie Down on Cauldrum Street I fell in love with a laundry girl Was working next to meShe was a rare thing Fine as a beeswing So fine a breath of wind might blow her away She was a lost child She was running wild, she said As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay And you wouldn’t want me any other wayBrown hair zig-zag round her face And a look of half-surprise Like a fox caught in the headlights There was an animal in her eyesShe said, young man, O can’t you see I’m not the factory kind If you don’t take me out of here I’ll surely lose my miindShe was a rare thing Fine as a beeswing So fine a breath of wind might blow her away She was a lost child She was running wild, she said As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay And you wouldn’t want me any other wayWe busked around the market towns And picked fruit down in Kent And we could tinker lamps and pots And knives wherever we wentAnd I said that we might settle down Get a few acres dug Fire burning in the hearth And babies on the rugShe said O man, you foolish man It surely sounds like hell You might be lord of half the world You’ll not own me as wellShe was a rare thing Fine as a beeswing So fine a breath of wind might blow her away She was a lost child She was running wild, she said As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay And you wouldn’t want me any other wayWe was camping down the Gower one time The work was pretty good She thought we shouldn’t wait for frost And I thought maybe we shouldWe were drinking more in those days And tempers reached a pitch Like a fool I let her run With the rambling itchLast I hear she’s sleeping out Back on Derby beat White Horse in her hip pocket And a wolfhound at her feetAnd they say she even marriend once A man named Romany Brown But even a Gypsy caravan Was too much settliing downAnd they say her flower is faded now Hard weather and hard booze But maybe that’s just the price you pay For the chains you refuseShe was a rare thing Fine as a beeswing And I missher more than ever words could say If I could just taste All of her wildness now If I could hold her in my arms today Then I wouldn’t want her any other way”
Richard Thompson performed this at Philadelphia Folk Festival. I don’t remember what year.
On Friday Lance and I took a long walk from our home in Belmont Hills, through the roads of Penn Valley and to the neighborhoods of Bala Cynwyd to my mechanic’s shop on Montgomery Avenue near the post office. It was perfect fall weather for a walk. We’ve taken that two and a half mile walk before; he loves it. Our Australian shepherd/Burmese mix just loves to walk. It’s a welcome change from the daily beach walks we’ve taken all summer. I first came to this neighborhood when I started graduate school in Philadelphia at age 21. That was 38 years ago. I left for a while to live in Doylestown but returned when it was time to start a family. Years later after a second divorce I left to live in Ocean City for a while but returned as soon as I could afford a home here again.
I passed my closest neighbor Joe on the street in front of the house. We said goodbyes knowing that our moving day is approaching. I joked with him that I thought I would die in this house, just like the former owner (a weird long standing joke between us). He has always been a great neighbor. I came to this Jones Street neighborhood in 2003 after divorce. I told a Realtor that I wanted a house in the Lower Merion school district with a yard where the kids and I could have a tree fort and a garden. Then I told him how much I could afford. He laughed. I bought this house cash “as is” for $132,000. The only thing from the original 1901 construction is the thick stone wall frame. We rebuild everything else. We did have an awesome treehouse and a garden and greenhouse and hot tub. So many nights were spent in the hot tub looking out over the lights reflecting off the Schuylkill River and the Roxborough radio towers. It was a great house.
Lance and I started up the steep hills from our block where my heavy breathing reminds me than I’m not getting any younger. Then past the library and the community pool where we made so many family memories when the kids were young. In the 1990s living in Narberth we lived to get to the pool in the summer. I remember some desperate measures we took to get there on hot summer weekends. I remember the last time I visited in my early 40s I swam a mile as part of a triathlon training and I never had the urge to swim again.
We passed my favorite trees in Belmont Hills; oriental apricots I think. I remember speaking with the owner once. I noticed that some other houses look like they’ve have had no attention in four decades.
We passed through the roads of Penn Valley that makes me feel like we are risking our lives to cross the street. I was tense. In Lower Merion, we say, traffic lights are only a suggestion. I remember the day I saw a kid doing donuts in the small park presumably in the parents’ Rolls Royce. I called the police later when I got home. They knew about it already but seemed unconcerned. The mix of interactions of the ultra-rich and ordinary folks has always been an issue here.
We walked past the Cynwyd houses where I delivered the kids for play dates and wound up at the Cynwyd Elementary School. I remember when the school was the center of the universe for us. Then the middle school next door. Then to Lower Merion High School just down Montgomery Avenue. It seems so long ago.
Approaching the commercial neighborhood I am reminded of my friends at Rotary. Life would be have been empty without them.
When I got the neighborhood where the kids’ apartment, I lost emotional control. I had to sit down at a bench and cry. I remember that they moved there with their mom and step-dad after our marriage broke. I felt so bad, that I had let them down from a nearly perfect family life. At my lowest moment of post-breakup despair I sneaked to the house there one night and looked into the window where the kids were sleeping. But I also remember being grateful that if I couldn’t be there throwing a ball in the yard with my kids, I was really grateful that Ed was. And there was never any doubt they had a super mom. The story of how our marriage broke is compelling, but not appropriate here. I remember saying that I needed to have more quiet time to read and to write. That was about the time that I started spending more time at Money Island, my summer home now.
After I pulled myself together we walked up to the drive-through ATM. I planned to withdraw a pile of cash to pay the mechanic. By amazing coincidence an old relationship pulled up. He probably wondered who was the weirdo walking through the drive through. It turned out to be Lance, the retired Philadelphia police officer turned trainer at Friends Central School. I used to coach wrestling there. Lance was an amazingly strong positive influence. I still remember the intensity of his exercise classes. I also remember his strong positive attitude. We hadn’t seen each other in many years but he recognized me right away. I wonder if he saw that I had been crying. I explained briefly and I invited him to bring his boat and visit me at Money Island.
We continued our walk through the center of Bala village. Wow, so much has changed. I remember when I had a house charge account at the hardware store after we bought our first home there. I was a regular customer with constant remodeling projects. The hardware store, the pizza parlor and the movie theater made that block the perfect downtown small neighborhood. We passed Stephanie’s condominium where my kids grew up; where they still call home. I’m proud of them – Steph and Ed and that whole community there for being such a positive force for Josh and Arielle over the years.
Of course it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The months and years of recovery from an assassination attempt and TBI. Absurd! Then the devastation of Superstorm Sandy on the bayshore business and how it ripped me away from my life in PA.
I thought about all the great effort that Lori put into selling this house and finding us a new home over this past year. She did a fantastic job. I deliberately disengaged from the whole process and that was the best approach for us. I know how blessed I am that she’s been able to tolerate me through all I’ve been through in the past two decades. Few spouses would put up with my drama.
When Lance and I made it to the marina work truck at the mechanic’s shop I felt emotionally exhausted. I couldn’t focus on work so I took the rest of the day off to move some lumber and household items.
It is likely that this will be our last walk through the neighborhoods of Lower Merion. Thank you for all the memories.
I know a father
Who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons
For the things he’d done
He came a long way
Just to explain
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping
Then he turned around and headed home again