The hungry insurgent
As I write this, the massacre of 20 young children in Connecticut is still fresh and bitter. It reminded me of something that happened at the beginning of my teaching career some 42 years ago.
I was teaching English as a foreign language to a notoriously restless group of 9th graders in French-speaking Togo, West Africa. I was tired in the afternoon heat and the kids were distracted. Suddenly, all hell broke loose, with kids shouting in their native Ewe language, jumping out of the ground-level window in our open-air classroom, desks toppling. An intruder had entered the school compound. Young as I was, foolish and angry at the disruption, I marched up to the man, noticing when I was entirely too close that he had two large knives. Too late to retreat, I gambled that he could speak French (I didn’t speak Ewe), and I asked him to give me the knives. Fortunately, he did and I took him to his sister’s house nearby.
I had nearly forgotten about the incident until Sandy Hook. I recall now that the children greeted me as a hero the next day. I remember that the troubled man had actually placed the blade against his own arm, and that he committed suicide two weeks later. I also learned that he had taken the knives from nearby food vendors. My actions were probably foolish, since I was about to become a father for the second time. But even if the worst had happened, a couple of knives would not have caused the bloodbath that we saw in Newtown.
Now I am a father and grandfather, the former teacher of several hundred children. I would literally do anything in order for children in my care to be safe. So I understand the impulse to buy more guns and post more guards and hire more police. But most of us also understand that more guns and more fear will expose children to more danger, not less. So how do we find more security?
The hard answer is: We build our community. We strengthen the ties between us. We watch out for each other. If you find this unrealistic, consider that the shoe bomber Richard Reid was subdued by fellow passengers. Street vendors, including a Muslim immigrant, Alioune Niasse, from Senegal, were the ones who noticed the Times Square bomber. And even though the passengers of Flight 93 died when it crashed, their heroic actions were what caused that plane not to reach its terrorist target. Ordinary people stopped that violence, not presidents or generals or police officers. Even in the face of military-grade weapons, it was teachers like Victoria Soto who gave their lives to protect their children. Teachers led them to safety at Sandy Hook.
In earlier columns, I have pointed to things we could do to make our food systems more local, more diverse and more reliable. So what would a safer Minneapolis actually look like?
Historically, those in Minneapolis before us designed the entire city so nobody would have to walk too far to get to a city park or an elementary school or public library. Fire stations and police precincts were distributed fairly evenly throughout the city. In early days and without so many cars, residents found corner grocery stores and barber shops and churches nearby. Bread and milk and ice for your icebox were delivered right to your house. In the warm days of summer, outdoor community sings drew thousands to the parks. Children played outside. There were neighborhoods.
Most of those community amenities still exist, but could use a little work. We can still borrow a cup of sugar over the back fence, but maybe we could also loan the neighbor our lawn mower or snow-blower or canning kettle. Some of us have excellent block clubs, including maps with phone numbers and even email lists for alerts, but we could also exchange house keys and ask for a little extra alertness if we are going to be out of town. In the block of my ideals, we would know who was the nurse or the person who knew CPR, just in case. The city would actually expand its civilian first response training, so every block had a trained person or two who could help after a tornado or gas explosion, until the pros arrived. We would know the carpenter down the block and the plumber on the next street, and they wouldn’t mind helping us out in a pinch, since the retired teacher next door was helping their kid with math tutoring. We would help each other.
My fear is that we are responding to real danger with ill-considered solutions. If we place all our confidence in massive firepower, we are headed for blood. If we believe that the rich are the only ones who know how to handle money, then we will end up without any. If we rely exclusively on authorities to the point that we give up our own authority, then we will eventually become subject to tyrants. Even if all we do is to listen to professional musicians or watch professional athletes, we will lose our ability to sing and the ability to run or catch a ball.
Solutions: More neighborhood potlucks, tiny libraries in front of many houses, tool sharing, fruit tree planting, community gardens, more time outside in good weather, phone calls with offers to help. We might need to call the police sometimes or we may need the fire department, but we will be much, much safer if we know and trust each other. And please notice that we don’t need any new laws or even new money to do these things. All we need to do is start spending more time with our neighbors.
Meanwhile, if you can believe it, the very first gardening classes have been announced. Mother Earth Gardens is offering a series of FREE classes across the street at the Riverview Wine Bar, 3845 42nd Ave. S. All classes start at 7 p.m. RSVP is required, either by email firstname.lastname@example.org (note no “s” after “garden”), in person or with a phone message at 612-724-2296.
Here they are:
Tuesday, Jan. 29, “Seed starting.”
Monday, Feb. 4, “Irrigation-free landscapes.”
Monday, Feb. 11, “Composting with worms.”
Monday, Feb. 18, “Sprouts and micro-greens.”
Monday, Feb. 25, “Realistic garden design.”
Monday, March 4, “Beginning urban veggie gardening.”
Monday, March 11, “Herbs.”
Monday, March 18, “2013 plant introductions.”
Monday, March 25, “Beauty in your edible landscape.”