Mutual Aid in Opa-locka

This is about “who is my neighbor?”

My mother was a Georgia farm girl who moved to south Florida in the sixth grade just after World War II, with a mentally ill mother, an alcoholic stepfather, and a teenage bride older sister who had to leave Georgia because her deranged alcoholic husband was threatening to kill her. Like a lot of poor white people at the time, and today, they bore the unfair disgusting label PWT. They were not trash. No one is trash. However, urban planning might suggest otherwise, because they eventually wound up in Opa-locka–a ghetto where I suppose the county, if not the founding, fathers eventually decided desperate human beings they could treat like “trash” belonged (a/k/a, the reserve army of the unemployed), but perhaps originally hoped would be inhabited by another “class” of people altogether, one supposedly fit for “the largest collection of Moorish Revival architecture in the Western hemisphere.”

I write of Opa-locka a lot in A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens/Un camino de bobina a jardines de trabajadores. [Not intending to reflect the disrespect shown to places like Opa-locka, I mistakenly left out the hyphen from its official spelling in the pamphlet and in the initial version of this post. When my grandmother died in the early seventies, I never went back, and the exact spelling had never been important to me as a child.] I refer the reader to the sad YouTube rap video of the place, which captures some of the despair of youth and the visual bleakness.

(See A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens, p. 39.)

Somehow, my mother “escaped,” on paper at least. Her half-siblings did not. Tell me if you were born and raised in Opa-locka that you would not self-medicate. (Not all do of course. At the 2:31 point of the video is a moving photograph of a family sitting at a bus stop dressed for church. Even in the midst of incredible turmoil, people try their best to build a better world.) “Mutual aid” to Opa-locka includes agreements with other police departments for help with one of the worst, if not the worst, crime rates in the U.S. This is not superfluous to the problems of the people by any means:

In addition to love and sharing of basic material resources made possible through love, I would add “external and internal peace” to the list of human necessities. If you are not safe in your living space and neighborhood, you will have a very tough going. Please, if you have not done so already, go back and look at that video of Opalocka, the slum where my mother’s half-siblings were forced to grow up. External peace is unlikely where capitalism’s great reserve army of the unemployed is abandoned to suffer the trauma of slums and an endless drug war. But the needed peace is not only external. If you are not safe in your surroundings and adequately at peace within your own heart, you remain alienated and are much more likely to wind up self-medicating and acting out aggressively or recklessly. How can one be at internal peace and remain within a slum? This seems quite difficult. It generally is the work of saints, not regular people. In general, slums are soul-destroying as well as safety destroying.

(A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens, p. 65.)

Then I come along in 2013, more than half a century after my mother left, and say Opa-locka, you ridiculed and forsaken place, I love you and I love the people who live on your sandy soil. We cannot fully leave people and places behind that are in pain. To do so is itself soul-destroying. I describe my mother’s situation after she left as “unhappy, lonely, and trapped with two kids and one on the way in that tiny rural Mississippi house next to the little church, while her birth family back home in Opalocka was imploding with alienation.” (A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens, p. 77.) Growing up, I viscerally hated one place on this planet, Opa-locka, and now I want to love it through my garden variety democratic socialism? Well yes. Escape is an illusion.

While my mother and her sister managed to hold it together, sort of, not so for their half-siblings. God had willed that they grow up in a very bad neighborhood with an alcoholic father and a severely mentally and physically-ill mother. Ruth had to go stark raving mad and be institutionalized to get any kind of assistance with her mental conditions.

The oldest boy was addicted to drugs at an early age, and, last I heard of him several years ago, had at least two unsuccessful marriages which bore him at least two children. He served a lengthy prison sentence for selling drugs. I do not know if he is still alive and in recovery. I hope that he is. He was the lucky one. His sister was addicted to drugs at an early age, a prostitute, a wife three times, and a mother of two, before dying of a drug overdose several years ago in late middle age.

Their younger brothers were not similarly blessed with decades of drug abuse. The youngest became addicted to drugs at an early age and committed suicide while depressed as a young man. The other, who also became addicted to drugs at an early age (four-for-four were my mother’s half-siblings in this regard), barely made it into his twenties before being executed Miami Vice style on a boat somewhere off the coast of Miami in a drug-related homicide.

Obviously they all would have been better off never becoming actively addicted to drugs, but this is easier said than done. I visited them in Opalocka often when I was growing up. I hated everything about the place and the visits, but I felt so sorry for my young aunt and uncles, who were not that much older than I. To say they lived in a pigsty would be only a slight exaggeration. I would be surprised if, in most of their years growing up, they ever knew the feeling of sheets on a bed at night, much less clean sheets. It was just a matter of sleeping on whatever filthy mattress you could find. I never knew their refrigerator to have anything in it other than beer. I remember overhearing on one Christmas Eve my father asking their father what his high school age children were receiving for Christmas the next day and being surprised that their father had not thought about it, and said in response, “I don’t know, maybe I will give them some cash.” So, obviously these children were not blessed with the best of parents or the best environments, and self-medication became an escape, just like alcohol was to their father and depression and hallucinations were to their mother.

To be sure, their sick family failed them. Sick families often do this. Children are not at fault in that situation but bear the burden. I do not know all of what could have been done by a caring society to make their lives better. Providing access to mental health services for my grandmother Ruth and nurturing after-school activities for the children in safe places would clearly be two things. The slum itself was so overwhelmingly dispiriting that is hard to imagine a bigger challenge for the marvels of after-school activities.

Perhaps the “drug war” atmosphere also did not help. Things were so bad that humans in pain probably would find a way to “escape” no matter what the chemical choices that could be found—whether it was sniffing glue or gasoline. As a junior high student, I happened to spend a lovely night sleeping on a couch in the small living room of their house one of the two times I can remember when we stayed over there to sleep. In the middle of the night my mother’s oldest half-sibling wandered in off the streets with a friend, and they proceeded to huff on a plastic bag filled with something that smelled like I had used on my model airplanes.

All such hypothesizing about what might have been is a moot point because I do not believe they lived in a caring society. I know all of this sadness broke my mother’s caring heart and contributed to her becoming severely mentally-ill herself, fond memories of Girl’s State long behind her.

(A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens, pp. 85-86.) My mother not only had undiagnosed PTSD; she also had horrible guilt for abandoning her mother and half-siblings to their fate–she had a broken heart.

Opa-locka, how can I love you? I know it seems silly to say that growing fruit trees and vegetables can help, but perhaps it can:

In many places, it would be hard to find the space for workers’ gardens. Not everyone around the world has a yard that could be converted into a suburban mini-farm. Needless to say, many in the developing world live in terribly crowded, unhygienic, and unsafe circumstances. Even in the first world, many live in crowded apartments and other complexes surrounded by concrete, asphalt, barbed wire, and broken glass, and in some slums having yards, crime makes it dangerous to work in the yard or play outside. In many urban areas workers’ gardens would have to be located on rooftops.

The vital social policy is that where climate and other natural conditions will permit it, a right of access to at least some soil and sun for safely growing food should be recognized as a fundamental human right held by everyone. To the extent this recommendation is based on soil science, this is not gratuitous advice. Workers’ gardens make sense in terms of soil science, as I will develop in this report.

However, the benefits are unlikely to be limited to yields of food and helping with the problem of nutrient scarcity in our soil. While I will present my line of reasoning in this report as a clear-eyed soil scientist focused on soil chemistry, I am also admittedly motivated as a socialist even beyond a socialist’s need to be concerned with food supplies and nutrient scarcity in relation to soil.

Workers’ gardens could have side benefits of somewhat revitalizing and humanizing otherwise alienating urban spaces. Benefits could be experienced in terms of “the workers’ health and family life.” Workers’ gardens could become a focal point for mutual aid. In unsafe slum areas, hopefully security could at least be provided at workers’ gardens so that every child would have one place outside under the sky that was wholesome and peaceful. While this may not make a single capitalist any money, it is the right thing to do, in some form, democratically-determined, for all people.

I do not at all believe that workers’ gardens will be a panacea. They will not solve all or even most of the nutrient scarcity issues humanity will face. They certainly will not bring about a pastoral utopia on a planet with a projected nine billion people, many of whom have been forced off the farm into horrible circumstances and are unlikely to return, having lost the farm to neoliberal trade agreement-driven food-import dependency, large-scale industrial agriculture aggregation, land grabs, or global warming-related droughts.

By themselves they will not rejuvenate the blighted urban landscape. In many slums their short-term benefits might be trivial in comparison to the serious and immediate problems with which people must live on a daily basis. They will not end alienation and make Opalocka where my mother was raised a safe and nurturing place to grow up. Only good jobs for everyone needing work, which will not result under market capitalism, along with other supportive measures I cannot fully identify might do that.

Finally, as a socialist I would not want to overlook the potential dialectical and liberating values of the people forcing the capitalists to recognize that this is “our” soil. Neocolonialism and capitalism, which have directly or indirectly driven the poor people of the world off the land, should not be allowed to own and exploit all of the land capable of supporting life. The commons should be revitalized, with workers’ gardens as one needed increment of economic justice, sustainability, and socialized food production.

(A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens, pp. 106-107.)

With love to Opa-locka [with a hyphen],

Brother Francisco

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