Watching the coverage of the Ghost Ship fire that struck my hometown of Oakland, I’m struck by how, as a nation, we play the blame game. It’s natural enough for grieving people to get angry, and angry people want to drop their outrage on someone’s head (or village). If we can accurately assign blame, we feel like we can prevent future outrages, but our failure in America is that we employ a strategy of least resistance—that path that leads to the smallest change to the status quo—when looking for someone to blame.
In prison, you’re not allowed to blame others—not if you’re a “lifer” trying to demonstrate his rehabilitation to a parole board. Rehabilitation in California means that if I had been (and I wasn’t) framed for my crime, I couldn’t blame the person who framed me for my incarceration. I’d have to tell the parole board something like, “Although I didn’t commit this crime, I’ve made poor decisions that put me in a position to be framed. Here’s a list of those decisions…” This mode of assuming responsibility for all outcomes is the level of accountability required to impress a parole board.
As a cultural mind-set, such a philosophy carries a libertarian utility: the individual becomes intensely sensitive to the power of his or her choices—which, fair or not, is prerequisite for success for marginalized citizens—but, often, because the individual invites the public to fixate on their culpability, the institutions of power that inextricably linked race to crime and systemized inequality can sidle Wizard-of-Oz-like behind the curtain. The result of this blame-by-least-resistance is that little changes. A person like me gets out of prison after 25 years equipped to navigate inequality, but on the day that person is released, a thousand 18-year-olds come to prison to live that person’s journey.
The Ghost Ship fire has occasioned lots of finger pointing, and I can’t help but notice how the media is creating a path of least resistance by manufacturing a villain to place at the tragedy’s center. Derrick Almena was the “master tenant” of the Ghost Ship collective, and he’s emerged as the villain of the story. I’ll admit the first time I heard Almena complaining on television about losing his business while the rest of the world mourned the loss of life I wanted to slap him with a rolled-up newspaper. I still dislike him, but the more news coverage about him I digest, the more I worry that we’ll continue to miss the point.
Tina Wright, a professor who specializes in media awareness in Southern California, teaches her students that all media today is framed to serve an agenda. Her students ferret out agendas by pinpointing underlying messages in media content. Three underlying messages about Almena emerge in the Ghost Ship coverage. He hurts people (he’s abusive and has a criminal record), he’s irresponsible (he’s an unemployed drug addict and a bad parent), and he’s repulsive (he’s arrogant, eccentric, and a cis white male who exploits LGBTQ tenants). I found some of those characterizations questionable after close examination, but putting accuracy aside, any professional writer will tell you virtually nothing makes it to the pages you read that doesn’t have a purpose. Every sentence is crafted around a message to achieve a desired effect. When you depict an irresponsible figure who hurts people at the center of an avoidable, lethal tragedy, the desired effect is a scapegoat ala Frankenstein’s monster.
The millions of factory workers who voted for Trump have been crying out against outsourcing for decades. Our response has been, “Welcome to the 21st Century: update your skillset or become a yokel.”
So we grab our pitchforks and chase Almena through the Oakland Hills. Meanwhile, who’s behind the curtain? Is it landlords evicting more desperate artists in the name of safety—as if homelessness presents fewer safety considerations? Is it Oakland generating millions of dollars from art while upholding America’s tradition of shitting on artists? Is it state legislators with their corporate-friendly laws that obstruct meaningful housing reform in the Bay Area?
One of the many ideas I appreciate from restorative justice is that it frames a single crime as a failure of the entire community. In other words, when a teen picks up a gun, it’s the society that has failed them—their crime having taken root long before via failing schools, dehumanizing media messages, and an apathetic nation. The idea came from African tribes that understood how blame obstructs change.
We spend too much time not looking behind the curtain. Donald Trump was elected because we became accustomed to ignoring the apparent: white and/or male supremacy thrive in this country. That’s not Trump’s fault. It’s not him standing behind the curtain; it’s us behind the curtain refusing to look at each other. African Americans have been struggling with slavery’s legacy before and since the Civil Rights movement, yet a popular response to black grief in America is “Get over it.” The millions of factory workers who voted for Trump have been crying out against outsourcing for decades. Our response has been, “Welcome to the 21st Century: update your skillset or become a yokel.”
A lot of people rail against the status quo. I rail against it, but I think it’s important to examine what the status quo is. It’s not an entity; it’s people making decisions—it’s the sum total of the decisions we as a nation make (or fail to make). If we want to change the status quo, we can’t hope to do so while continuing the same mistakes. We’ll need to choose paths of high resistance because there’s no change without friction.