Don't Blame the Parade or Downtown
By Jack Cashill
Imagine that it is Kansas City’s bicentennial year, 2050. To honor the bicentennial, and to commemorate the recent completion of the Performing Arts Center, a swarm of academics descends on these parts to write a history of our maddeningly schizophrenic burg.
To grasp the ethos of the city circa 2006 they zero in on one particular event, the Downtown St. Patrick’s Day’s Parade. They begin with the newspaper of record, The Kansas City Star. Here, they learn that police seized several guns at the parade and broke up “at least ten fights.” The victim of one such attack happened to be a Star employee and his family.
As the employee told his reporter colleagues, a “youth” made a cryptic comment, and, he added, “The next thing I knew I had 10 to 15 guys on me . . . . My wife was on the ground getting (beat), too.” His 16 year-old daughter was attacked as well.
From Star columnist Mike Hendricks, they learn that it was “high-spirited young people” who were responsible for these scuffles. The most unfortunate consequence, as Hendricks and others saw it, was that fairly or unfairly these scuffles would make it harder to market Downtown to suburbanites. “Perceptions matter,” worried Hendricks.
For all of that, however, these events scarcely seemed to ruffle the city’s civic waters. The historians note the good cheer of City Councilmen like Alvin Brooks, who “was impressed this year with the diversity of the crowd,” or Charles Eddy, who saw “a much more family-type crowd than a ruffian crowd.”
As the historians probe deeper into events, however, they see a disturbing pattern beneath the surface. They wonder how the Star could have missed it, especially given the beating of its own employee and the consistent narratives provided by so many parade-goers on the paper’s very own “Crime Scene KC” blog.
The historians take particular note of the fact that several of the most compelling accounts on the blog were provided by African-American adults disturbed by what they saw. It would be needlessly incendiary for me to cite their comments in detail, but let it be said that the attackers were black and the victims white. What disturbed the onlookers, beyond the violence itself, was the almost gleeful detachment of the attackers.
Upon reading these accounts, the historians scratch their heads and go over the Star accounts once again to see if they missed something. No, they did not. For some reason, a newspaper that hectored its readers about “hate” almost daily made no mention in any article of the words “black,” “white,” “race” or “racial,” let alone “hate.”
The immediate response of the city’s leaders startles our historian friends as well. Many yielded to the temptation to blame the parade and its organizers. Police Commission President Angela Wasson-Hunt and Commissioner Karl Zobrist publicly argued that the best way to deal with such attacks was to move the parade to the weekend. Through a spokesman, Mayor Kay Barnes seconded that solution if it was okay with the police.
Other leaders suggested a different parade route or more creative police work or tighter drinking restrictions. The last solution seemed especially odd given that those attacked were more likely to have been drinking than the attackers, who generally preferred marijuana.
What curious responses, our historians think. In reviewing the climate of the times, they see that the parade itself was not the problem. The participants, after all, were celebrating the life of St. Patrick not Jefferson Davis. Unless you were a member of the Ulster Voluntary Force, there was nothing provocative about it.
Nor, as far as the historians could tell, did the problem lie with “downtown.” The “high-spirited young people” didn’t live there. They didn’t live anywhere near there. According to one blog posting, the city’s high schools emptied out that day, leaving, for instance, fewer than 100 kids at Southeast High some five miles away. These kids could have shown up any place they had a mind to go.
OK, say our historians gathering their notes, let’s see if we understand this right. We have a dynamic in which hundreds of kids feel no compunction about cutting school, traveling en masse downtown, smoking dope publicly, verbally abusing scores of parade watchers, gleefully launching racially-motivated attacks, and then joking about it afterwards.
This wasn’t an anomaly. It was a pathology, a plea for help. And civic leaders responded to it by debating whether to move the parade! The historians don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Where was the shame, they ask themselves? Why no thundering editorials from the Star? Why no lock down at the high schools? Why no serious sensitivity training?
Our historians conclude that there were two fundamental reasons that the most impassioned accounts on the blog came from African-Americans. One was the long-term effect of such behavior on race relations in Kansas City.
“You wonder why you can’t get in to certain clubs or [why] people don’t want you in their neighborhoods,” one adult African-American asked the young hooligans on the Star’s blog. “It’s your own stupid actions. I wouldn’t want you in my neighborhood either.”
The second reason, and the more profound one, the one that shocks the historians is this: the post-parade public record shows not a trace of civic concern over the future of the kids themselves. Allowed to escape all public sanction, these kids have no reason not to cut school, not to behave even worse next time, not to condemn themselves to a precarious and unproductive adult life.
It’s not that community leaders don’t care, the historians note. It’s not that they are more concerned about the parade or downtown than about the kids. It’s just that given the city’s exquisite sensitivity on questions of race, no one dares express his or her concern for fear of being misinterpreted.
As testament to this sensitivity, in the years preceding the parade, our historians find almost total public silence on the forces that drove the kids downtown on that blustery St. Patrick’s day: the disproportionately fatherless homes, the undisciplined schools, their self-defeating victimization curricula, the forced removal of Christianity from the public square, the relentlessly hateful, corporate-sponsored hip-hop culture that filled the void.
Nor could our historians identify any serious attempt to deconstruct a public school system that had been spectacularly malfunctioning for a generation. Indeed, the most consistent civic response to accommodate these kids had been the addition of more prison space.
Still, the parade of 2006 did force change, some serious, some less so. In 2007, our historians learn, the parade went off without incident. The marchers circumnavigated the track at the Kansas Speedway before hundreds of onlookers, most of them police.
In 2008, the city fixed at least the perception problem attached to the Kansas City School District by renaming it the “ Johnson County School District.” In 2009, Ingram’s Magazine bought the Kansas City Star at a tax auction and exiled its entire editorial staff to Kyrgyzstan. And in 2011, Kansas City dramatically improved its crop of elected officials by scrapping elections and pulling names out of a hat.
Real, substantial change came quickly after that.
(Webmaster's note: The above version diverges from what appeared in April 2006 ingramsonline.)
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