When Politics is Personal

by Peter Lauterborn on April 12, 2007

There are times when the failure of politics is just too painful. Often various issues are disregarded as political ploys or publicity stunts, especially for those working for communities who hold little political punch and have their hands on no purse strings.

Recent local battles – in the schools for violence prevention and the police department for more beat officers – loomed large in my mind after I was again reminded of the cost of inaction.

The reminder came several weeks ago when yet another dear friend of mine was sexually assaulted on our city’s streets. She told me afterwards that she had “this crazy notion that a woman can walk down a street on her own.”

But choices made by the police and the schools are not making our city safer. I could not help but grow angry at our schools and our police for their failures in responding to the community’s plea for change.

Many people – youth in particular – shy away from politics because it appears plastic and without relevance to our daily lives which can appear too turbulent for the slow political process. When youth do try and turn personal tragedy into progressive change, we are often rebuked.

It was three years ago when the San Francisco Youth Commission was gearing up for an April 1 hearing on sexual assault and harassment which I was to co-chair. Despite our repeated requests for input from the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), they acted surprised, shocked, and angered that we dared bring up the subject. The local media was more than willing to place this issue in the greater story frame of Arlene Ackerman versus the progressives.

But they were wrong. The Youth Commission felt compelled to act on this issue solely because of the havoc it has wreaked on our lives. Right now, we are raising the next generation of youth; if we do not act, they too will grown into both victims and perpetrators of such abhorrent behavior. With each year that goes by without a compressive plan to counter this issue, we raise yet another generation of youth who will be devastated by the simple ignorance of what is right and what is wrong.

This was all playing back in my mind when my friend told me what had happened to her. She then described how she was assaulted in a dark corner along Market Street while several police cars drove along, incapable of fulfilling their duty from their mobile perch.

This event occurred after a long, politically charged debate over police foot patrols. It is impossible for me to look at this situation and not wonder if my friend would have been subjected to such a trauma had these police officers been walking rather than riding down the street. Clearly manpower was not the problem as she saw several cars pass by.

There are many people with common experiences who are wondering if the police solely exist for their own protection. Such sentiments have been attacked by the powerful Police Officers’ Association as a recipe for placing our officers in harm’s way.

But it is time for them to make a choice. The police cannot demand generous pay under the claim that the dangerous nature of your work demands, then turn around and refuse to do the dangerous work. It is entirely demoralizing to believe that our police are being paid to protect themselves ahead of anyone else in our society.

If it was not for personal experience, progressives would never hold such sentiments.

Like so many other individuals who jumped into progressive politics in response to a personal tragedy, my interest in issues is an extension of my life. When discussing politics, I am speaking on behalf of my dozen or so friends victimized by sexual aggression, the brutality experienced by my gay friends, my middle-school friends stabbed in the back and killed while playing with friends, and my former teammate who was gunned down two years ago.

Politics in America is supposed to be run by the people, for the people; there is a place for policies born from tragic experiences. But as the political establishment continues to rebuke such progressive efforts, those with experiences that can help shape meaningful policies will be discouraged from politics.

What will it take to make them change?

Peter Lauterborn is a youth and education advocate in San Francisco, and appreciates feedback. Reach him at plauterborn@gmail.com

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