An Alternative State of the City Message

by Bob Waldrop, Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House

Earlier this month, Mayor Mick Cornett delivered his annual “State of the City” speech, giving his”View from the Top Down” as to how Oklahoma City is doing.  This alternative presentation is a “View from the Bottom Up.”

Oklahoma City is a place located on lands looted from the Creek (Muskogee) and Seminole peoples who were forcibly relocated here by the United States government in the 1820s. There may be nothing to be done about that at this late date, but forgetting our origins is a moral peril.

Oklahoma City is a place where we make twice as much in fines and court fees as it costs us to operate our court system. Cash bail ensures poor people are held until trial. They are charged rent for being in jail, even if they are later found innocent or charges are dropped. This can be more than $1200/month. If they do not pay, they are hunted down, arrested, and incarcerated in our debtors’ prison – the County Jail. Our municipal courts do not always advise people coming before them of their rights to a hearing to determine their ability to pay fines and costs. This social darwinist approach of City government grows out of the attitudes of our dominant culture and its leadership class. We are deaf to the plea of the single mother of three children for mercy for a ticket and costs amounting to hundreds of dollars for some random non-violent “crime” that hardly deserves that classification.

Oklahoma City is a place where, under the guise of “redevelopment,” the City and State have
used eminent domain to ruthlessly destroy entire neighborhoods, mostly peopled by persons and communities of color, scattering neighbors who have lived together for generations, and paying them cheap prices for their properties. Eminent domain is essential to the processes of structural racism that keep poor people poor.

The destruction of the Deep Deuce and the development of the Hospital/Innovation districts are textbook examples of structural racism at work. It’s very clever how it happens. As Oklahoma City schools integrated, white people moved to Edmond. A freeway connecting downtown OKC with Edmond was necessary to accommodate the white flighters. It jammed its way right through the Deep Deuce. But it’s not accidental that so many African Americans lived in its path because that was the only part of town they were allowed to live in – by law – for decades. Obviously it was their fault that they were black. If they weren’t black, they wouldn’t have had to live in that neighborhood. Plausible deniability is all over the place then and now. We give an occasional quick wink and a nod to the sacrifices of people of color to benefit those in the dominant culture who disliked them so much they were moving to Edmond to keep their kids out of schools with them.

Later, the remaining Deep Deuce eminently domained properties were transferred via various sweetheart deals to wealthy and politically well connected developers (mostly white of course). The mostly black original owners – these are people driven out by court orders via a due processed white riot that destroyed their neighborhoods just as thoroughly as the Tulsa rioters did to the Greenwood neighborhood in 1921 – get nothing from the newly politicized value of their former properties. All the construction and economic activities in the Deep Deuce and the Innovation/Hospital districts grows from these foundations of land theft by government decree.

In this process, more low income housing was destroyed than was subsequently built, so this eminently domained system of structural racism also raised rents for everyone. How convenient for the landlords and how inconvenient for the renters. I’m sure it’s an accident that most landlords are white. It’s hard to build family wealth, however, so you can become a landlord, when you are forced to sell your most valuable asset – your home – for a low non-market price, and then you have to buy new property at actual market prices. Oklahoma City has forced this upon some families as many as three times since the 1970s. This destroyed enormous amounts of family wealth and community cohesion for the sake of assorted pie-in-the-sky-white-people economic development gimcrackery. This is not the mythical invisible hand of the marketplace at work. It is the foreseeable result of public policies enacted by the government of Oklahoma City which has always been controlled by white people.

If this wasn’t enough. . . and it obviously isn’t. . . after all this history is studiously ignored by the dominant culture, its media, and its leadership class, and with the most enormous amount of hypocrisy possible, we say that their poverty is all their own fault and nobody else had anything to do with it.

Oklahoma City is a place where we spend a billion dollars spiffing up downtown, fattening the wallets of well connected developers and construction companies with huge welfare checks from the taxpayers. But our advice to the poor is always, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” When three of the richest guys in the state showed up on the porch at City Hall with their plan to snatch the Seattle Sonics and make them the OKC Thunder, Mayor Cornett didn’t say, “Great idea! I’ll support you all the way as you bootstrap yourselves into this new endeavor.” No, he did not say that. He most emphatically did not say that. He said: “Here’s the city checkbook boys. How much do you want?” Oklahoma City is a place run for the profit of rent seeking economic aristocrats who loot the common good with their crony capitalistic schemes.

Oklahoma City is a place where the permitting process for a tabletop shop (a small table or stand on a sidewalk) is so byzantine we might as well say its illegal. Los Angeles has 50,000 tabletop shops which means 50,000 people are able to create a microenterprise living for themselves with low barriers to market entry. OKC will hand out any amount of money to politically well connected developers but the City can’t provide an easy process to permit tabletop shops on sidewalks and other public rights of way.

Oklahoma City is a place where there is no plan to finance and operate a robust bus system that gets people to work, shop, worship, and learn, potentially benefitting hundreds of thousands of people in central Oklahoma. Most of our jobs are not reasonably accessible via the bus. We have no Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Bound (SMART) Goals for the bus system. Instead, the City is spending FOUR TIMES the annual cost of our bus system to build a downtown streetcar to nowhere, and then we take $3.5 million from the general fund for its operations. If there was $3.5 million in surplus revenue this year, why no improvements in the bus system? The dominant culture’s leadership class makes regular claims that there “will” be such a “robust” system, we should all “just be patient.” In the absence of SMART goals for the bus system and a transparent, public plan with actual details, we can only conclude that there is no plan. Since there is no plan, the claim by political and transportation leaders that the bus system is a priority and will eventually become “robust” are neither believable nor credible.

Oklahoma City is a place where we persecute the poorest of the poor with egregious violations of their First Amendment right to beg for help in public. It’s not enough that we set up situations of cascading sorrows that render people homeless. No, we must lock them up and levy fines and costs on them for begging the public for help. And then we callously and hypocritically claim that “this is for their own benefit.”

Oklahoma City is a place with a glittery downtown and a wannabe sophisticated urban culture that functions as a Potemkin Village hiding the ugly realities of a City where 88% of the Oklahoma City Public Schools students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Our willingness to let all of this evolve without insistently asking questions of morality and prudence speaks poorly of the character of the people of Oklahoma City and the political, economic, cultural, and religious organizations of its dominant culture. We have not held people accountable. We have turned our eyes away and ignored corruption. We have let the crony capitalists run amok at great cost to the common good. We are not taking decisive action now to secure justice, opportunity, and equity for all in this City.

So it comes to pass, that Oklahoma City is a place where solidarity is an increasingly alien, foreign concept apparently not a major concern to the dominant culture and its leadership class – until the next tornado anyway. Then the pressure of circumstances forces us to do what we should do anyway. But right now, we think we can get by without it. If it were important, things would be different. But they aren’t, so there you go.

If we want Oklahoma City to become a better place, then each of us must endeavor to be a better people. This is especially important for the dominant culture and its leadership class, because that is where the majority of our problems arise. All of this public social evil, with such consequences for so many people, grows out of individual bad decisions of omission and commission. Some, of course, are more responsible and culpable than others. Of those, the Lord Jesus Christ, in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, says, “And these will go off to eternal punishment . . “

However pious the thought, it remains a cold comfort in the present situation.

Bob Waldrop

Oscar Romero Catholic Worker
January 24, 2018
The Memorial of St. Francis de Sales, Bishop & Doctor of the Church

The Works of Justice and Peace:
Mission statement of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker

+Live simply and justly in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and be a good neighbor. Make no war on them, rather, be one with them in spirit, truth, and love.

+Hear the truth when it is spoken to you. Discern the signs of the times and speak truth — to power, to the people, and to the Church.

+Make injustice visible — witness, remember, teach, proclaim, tell. Light candles, do not curse the darkness.

+Protect the poor and powerless– listen, learn, educate, organize, empower participation, and respect life from the moment of conception to the time of natural death.

+Work for reconciliation with truth, evangelism, catechesis, orthopraxis.

+Celebrate life, goodness, beauty, virtue, responsibility, and joy. Practice peace, non-violence, servant leadership, harmony, community, voluntary cooperation, and the proper stewardship of God’s creation. Pray without ceasing.

+ Ensure fair distribution, subsidiarity, economic opportunity, justice, and food security for everyone everywhere.

Each month the Romero Catholic Worker delivers food to about 420 low income households where no transportation is available. To learn more about the activities of the Romero Catholic Worker, visit http://www.justpeace.org .

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