Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Biking Through the Ghetto

Several times a week, I bike through a part of north Minneapolis that most prosperous local citizens wouldn't traverse in a Hummer with full body armor. During the winter months, I travel after dark at about 10 miles an hour—with a flashing red light on my back, no less.

But the route happens to be the most direct between my home and office, and it keeps me off streets where I'm at greater risk—from inattentive drivers with cell phones. Plus, it's been 20 degrees or colder lately, which tends to temper anyone's desire to steal a bicycle.

On a recent weekend ride further north, I came upon a convenience store freshly yellow-taped after a shooting that killed one store worker and paralyzed another.

Have I ever felt personally endandered on these trips? No. Not here, or riding and running city streets for decades. I think of myself as experienced and observant enough to weigh the risks and avoid trouble.

I believe most of the people I see here each day want peace and quiet. They want to work and raise their families. They don't want to be hassled on the street and aren't about to hassle me. I found the same thing when we actually lived in similar, marginal neighborhoods. It wasn't all sweetness, but neither was it as bad as it looked to an outsider.

Yesterday as I made another uneventful trek to the office, I thought about the unseen struggles going on in this neighborhood. Among gangs. Between drug dealers and business owners. Between residents who want a peaceful place to live and criminals who have no regard for them.

Thoughts of the invisible gangs led to wondering about their gang colors, which led to imagining Red and Blue as national gang colors. Just as there are a few extreme punks working for control of this neighborhood, political extremists seem intent on knocking each other off—or at least claiming exclusive control of their turf. Meanwhile, the majority of citizens stay indoors and hope a metaphorical bullet doesn't crash through the dining room window.

In gang wars, the actual numbers involved are a relatively small proportion of the neighborhood, and most of the direct casualties are those involved in the conflict. But inevitably, the entire community goes downhill. Investment stops. People avoid constructive conflict for fear it might escalate. People from the outside are reluctant to come in, and insiders who still have the resources to flee will get out.

What happens to our larger communities if the state and national political processes break down to the Red gang versus the Blue gang? Will it matter if today they are fighting battles over issues that seem only peripheral to our lives?

Ironically, we see the threat clearly in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. We see the ugly futility of tribalism and sectarian conflict, where people choose sides because it seems safer than remaining neutral. One of the important aspects of US policy is to create Iraqi institutions committed to religious and ethnic coexistence. Let's hope we can do it here at home, too.

Yes, I can ride through the ghetto and emerge unscathed, but I wouldn't choose to live there.

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