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Leave it to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to take a good idea and turn it to crap.
If there is one thing missing in America these days, it’s a sense of community. I remember a few years ago my kindergarten-aged son missed his bus to school. My car was in the garage, and my wife had already driven off to work with the other vehicle, leaving me stranded. This was in mid-December and bitter cold (about 15 degrees Fahrenheit, with a ripping wind blowing, and making it feel like -10). The school was a straight shot two miles down a rush-hour artery. I figured anyone would pick up a father and his small boy in this weather, but to make double sure, I made up a large cardboard sign saying "Missed the schoolbus!"
For longer than I want to admit, my son and I huddled on the corner, watching car after car drive by us, eyes guiltily averted. Many of the drivers–most of them male–actually looked familiar; they were people I’d seen many times in the local stores. But no one stopped. Finally, mercifully, a woman in a van, going the other way, who had already passed us once, turned around, picked us up, and, nervously confessing that she had done so against her better judgement, delivered us to my son’s school.
Welcome to suburban America, where almost nobody will go an inch out of their way for anyone unless it’s a relative or a close friend.
Logically, our civic institutions, beginning with government, should be trying to combat this modern day curse of fragmentation and atomization, this profound loss of communal consciousness.
So what does FEMA do? This haven for right-wing zealots and martial law planners has brought us the National Night Out program, an annual law-enforcement extravaganza which, in FEMA’s words, is part of "a year-long community building campaign designed to:
(1) heighten crime prevention awareness;
(2) generate support for, and participation in, local anticrime programs;
(3) strengthen neighborhood spirit and police-community partnerships; and
(4) send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back."
Building better communities by fighting crime.
At National Night Out festivities across the country this Friday evening, local police will show off their S.W.A.T. gear, let kids try on handcuffs and learn how to dial 911–all kinds of good stuff designed to make everyone, what?
Feel good and neighborly about the strangers in their midst? I don’t think so.
A real community-building program should be teaching people in a community to get to know one another, to learn each others’ cultures and needs, to find common interests, and to figure out ways to work together to improve the life of the whole community. It should, in short, be trying to reduce fears, suspicions and hostilities. A real community-building program might, for example, organize a community ride-sharing program, so people with cars could volunteer to help house-bound neighbors (or parents stuck with a car in the shop) to get to work or school. Or it might just host get-to-know-your-neighbors block parties. It might even include a meeting to look into the causes of crime in the community.
National Night Out, which does none of these things, appropriately is part of the Bush/Ashcroft Citizen Corps–the folks who tried to bring us TIPS, the Terrorist Information and Prevention System which, until cancelled by an outraged Congress last summer, was hoping to enlist millions of Americans to spy on their neighbors. It’s also sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch, a mini version of the TIPS concept.
I’m not saying getting a community involved in crime stopping is a bad idea per se. Watching out for your neighbors’ house when they’re away on vacation is a community-spirited thing to do. But centering a so-called "community building" program around crime fighting and crime prevention is exactly the wrong way to go about building a community.
FEMA has always had a police state mentality. But the Bush administration seems to have a one-note song. With these guys everything is about crime, terror and paralyzing fear.
National Night Out is playing right into this theme.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html