My favorite game to play these days is “spot the end of the empire.”
At the end of the Roman Empire (although the practice pre-dates that, according to one of my Greco-Roman scholar friends), wealthy Romans would eat until they were full, then throw up so they could continue to eat. The term for where they did this was, seriously, the vomitorium. At least that’s what my scholar friend told me.
So, inspired by an episode of This American Life (where the host wondered if the trend of people eating things they knew they were allergic to and then taking vaccines so they wouldn’t die was the modern day equivalent), I started looking for parallel signs of the end of the American Empire. Most of them are fluffy—dog salons and dog bakeries, for example, or maybe that motel made completely out of ice.
What strikes me, the day after the Oakland Peace Center was broken into (AGAIN) and our office plus those of four partners in the building violated (AGAIN), is that the signs of the end of empire that I usually notice are all related to growing wealth disparity, and they’re usually focused on the frivolity of the rich. But it’s Mad Max times for a lot of us living and working in poor communities in Oakland, which only gets noticed when it leaks into rich communities.
I was recently in a meeting with a pastor in west Oakland who has been organizing for the rights of people in west Oakland. His congregation knows what it means to experience gun violence first-hand, and the congregation has lost its share of members or family of members over the years. In the meeting, this pastor exclaimed emphatically, “There’s B&E’s (breaking and entering) in PIEDMONT! I mean, I used to get hired to park cars in Piedmont at events as a kid, and people NEVER had to be afraid in Piedmont. If it’s in PIEDMONT, this is SERIOUS, y’all!” I’m not sure I could count the funerals he’s attended. But to a man who’s been in Oakland most of his life, advocating and pastoring in the most struggling neighborhood in the city, break-ins in Piedmont were letting us know how serious things were.
Similarly, when a young man died at the city’s pride-and-joy community event, First Friday, last month, a blog post went viral from an Oakland resident who works in the Oakland flats, stating “If you want to live in this city, then you have to help us deal with this dilemma. You can’t ignore this away. You can’t gentrify it away. We have a crisis on our hands..” The “two Oaklands” paradigm that concerned so many progressive activists (one Oakland an artistic, hip and trendy place highlighted as a great vacation spot by the New York Times in 2012 and the other a place where lives were expendable and education was broken and resources were non-existent) is being threatened by the one Oakland inconveniently encroaching on the other. And those of us from the second Oakland believe it, too.
The break-in at the Oakland Peace Center is a sign of the end of the empire. It’s a sign of the growing wealth disparity that will kill this country. We’re the canary in the coal mine. Oakland is the vomitorium of America.
Wealth disparity usually happens because some people are getting rich at the expense of others; something has tipped out of balance.
In some places the disparity is easy to ignore. In Oakland, if you pay attention, it’s a little more aggressively in your face. I’m not the first person to suggest that wealth disparity in this country is growing because some people are profiting off of others’ suffering. In Oakland this is tangible.
I’m not in a position to do really rigorous analysis on the following, but they are questions kicking around in my head as the bullets fly and windows break and everyone in the system lives in fear (residents, perpetrators of violence and police, if all of them were allowed to be honest):
- Gun manufacturers make a profit whether guns are sold legally or illegally. They have a prominent voice in the NRA and discourage new laws or enforcement of existing laws that would reduce the number of illegal guns that find their way to the streets of Oakland. Are we flooded with guns in some part because a business makes more money if our streets war zones?
- Drug sales on the decline and sex trafficking on the increase because the lower risk and higher profit margin make it more appealing. Men drive to International Boulevard for sex with minors from suburbs all around our city. Some of the women being trafficked are from abroad; a lot of them are from here or other nearby poor cities. Are people profiting off of the hopelessness of young women in our community?
- Gun violence across the country has decreased, but in some communities like Oakland it has increased, meaning the spikes are even more significant. Are we warehousing poverty, desperation and crime?
I also find it fascinating that when I typed in “guns” and “Oakland” into a google search, 80% of the top 30 articles were related to the Oakland Police Department (particularly a recent independent report stating that during an attempted drug raid/investigation, two police officers trained their weapons on an 18-month-old baby). I have deep respect for an overwhelming majority of the individuals in the Oakland Police Department and do not question their motives for getting involved in law enforcement, including police commissioner Howard Jordan. And yet in my short time in Oakland I have watched good officer after good officer get sucked into a vortex that is the systemic oppression embedded within the OPD going back at least 70 years. Until the community and city leadership and the OPD can rebuild their relationship and way of functioning with one another, we will continue to face violence in our community, and violence that is pushed out of rich communities who can more effectively pressure the OPD to be present and who, if they don’t flee the city, will invest in private security (like the “oasis” or “fortress” of the University of Chicago in the South Side of Chicago).
I believe that as free market capitalism (well, limited constraint capitalism) morphed into the quasi-oligopoly (corporatocracy?) that we face in America today, an inherent part of its thriving became the harming of some people for the profit of others. And the fact of the matter is that throughout history, the gross oppression of the many to fund the excess of the few has inevitably led to either overthrow or (more often) the crumbling of the empire. Oakland is the canary in the coal mine. What I wonder is, can we shut down the vomitoriums before killing off all the people who staff them?