Saint Paul Police Chief Harrington told the story as the featured speaker for the Fort Road Federation Annual Meeting. Two police officers went to a house where a concerned neighbors called about a woman at the front door shouting something in Hmong. Not knowing what was up, they proceeded carefully as she kept shouting the same thing, earnestly, over and over. The were nearly to the door when another officer drove up, one who heard the call and knew that his Hmong heritage could be useful in that neighborhood. He knew what was going on at once. “She’s yelling ‘gun’!” he called to the officers, who immediately took cover. The man with the weapon inside later killed himself, but quick action saved the lives of two cops that day.
Harrington told us this story to illustrate his point vividly: cultural inclusiveness on the police force is not a feel-good luxury – it’s necessary for them to do their jobs. Our cops have to understand the language and culture of the people they serve and protect.
Few of us will find ourselves in a situation where our lives depend on being able to communicate with our neighbors. But having some basic communication skills will make life smoohter. More importantly, it makes it harder for the neighborhood to be taken over by drug dealers, slumlords, rich developers, or anyone else who has nefarious plans on the ‘hood. Community organization is hardest when understanding is difficult, and that’s when a neighborhood is at its most vulnerable.
The antidote is a semblance of common culture, a bond between people that bridges as many divides as possible. Some people believe that there was a strong cultural bond across all of the USofA two generations ago, but much of this was an illusion manufactured by people with something to sell. What common bond there was cannot be brought back, but something can be created from what we have. It helps to look at the place where a commonality between people means the most and is the most constructive – in our neighborhoods.
Literature, music, movies, and all other arts give us a kind of ‘shorthand’ that allows complicated ideas to be expressed easily. The understanding between people familiar with the same works of art is at a gut level, more heart than head; this is the same place where an absence of commonality festers into mistrust. Literature and related culture is probably not going to be fed down to us from a publishing industry any time soon, however. That means that we have to find ways of making our own grassroots culture from the bottom up, inventing our own stories with lesson kept close to the heart.
The internet has the potential to make this possible, but there are many hurdles to overcome first. The internet is new enough that “early adopters” still run the show and have a tendency to band together; after all, they have a unique understanding of each other and a lot of reason to flock to a sub-culture. At the very worst, it becomes something I saw before the election when a room full of “bloggers” sat in a room illuminated only by the glow of their screens, furiously typing away in response to distant correspondence but utterly silent to each other. The internet has to develop a local focus if it is to be relevant to the issues of the lives of people who do not want to be enveloped in that same clicking glow.
In addition, the internet has to find ways to sell literature that make books or e-books possible. I have an idea for short story publication that I’m trying to put together, but the bigger picture is that literature on the ‘net has to be as seamless as iTunes is for music. A small amount of income will encourage people to use this as a tool, much as we start to move serious works that would otherwise be unpublished to POD self publishing. There are a few tools that need to be in the hands of people before we se a real Folk Culture take hold, but more importantly the traditional publishing world has already lost any ability to prevent it.
Finally, news and information will use the internet to become more local as Citizen Journalism becomes more important. We have to have Citizen Artisans working alongside them to give us the information that allows our hearts to process the information that might otherwise saturate our brains.
Spectator sports are often a good example of how a common interest that approximates culture can bring people together, and I’ve used those examples often. But in the end a Common Culture is not a spectator sport. The more it is by the people and for the people the stronger it will be. It’s the work that makes us all appreciate it more, as we know well in my own neighborhood in Saint Paul.
The annual meeting of the Fort Road Federation is a time for everyone in the West End of Saint Paul to get together and swap stories. This community of 10k people has deep Saul Alinsky roots and a lot of common culture, some forged through a shared history of fighting. What Chief Harrington told us was that culture is what it’s all about, and finding ways to fill the spaces between us with heart and arm and brain. That’s what it takes to keep cops alive these days, and that’s what it takes to make our complicated lives more controllable and enjoyable. That’s the more perfect union President Elect Obama called for. It’s up to us to do it.