Taking Stock in California: Inequity & Grief

‘California drives the technologies, culture and ideas that shape the entire world. But for that very reason, our failures of governance worry me … There is a danger — not just in California, but everywhere — that politics becomes an aesthetic rather than a program’ – Ezra Klein

I’m a white cis woman in good health and with safe housing in San Francisco, and in my spare time I’ve had the relative comfort and security to think about two things.

First, how social activism can potentially be a contradictory pursuit; a social brand more than a social good. As Ezra Klein recently wrote, Black Lives Matter signs are on nearly every block in all of the most expensive suburbs in San Francisco. These suburbs are dominated by single, white families that, when it comes down to it, are resistant to key policies that would significantly improve Black lives in the city – additional and more affordable housing. At the same time as I have been thinking about these contradictions, my two academic disciplines, anthropology and bioethics, are quite rightly reckoning with some of their own contradictions and racist roots. The American Anthropological Association hosted a virtual Raising Our Voices 2020 conference (although The Association of Black Anthropologists started in 1970), while the #BlackBioethics movement has been formalised in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the lack of social justice orientations in healthcare (amplified during the pandemic). For nine years now, my research interests have revolved around health disparity, lived experiences of social/structural inequities, and people’s perceptions of their luck versus ‘hard work’ or ‘bad choices’ in life. Yet, until last year, I had not explicitly looked at these issues in regard to racism. I’m glad to have had this wake up call. 

The second thing I’ve been thinking about is the danger of forgetting the enormous grief that keeps unfolding around us – no doubt because forgetting may be easier than remembering. Thanks to an eleven-month lockdown and intensive mask-wearing, the toll of the pandemic here has not resulted in nearly as many covid cases or deaths compared to elsewhere in the state, or the US more broadly. The pandemic atmosphere has included natural disasters – minor earthquakes and severe fires – that blur everything together. It seems much longer than six months ago that the horror of the recent Australian east coast fires echoed here along the west coast of America, recurring like a bad dream that followed me across the Pacific Ocean. I now only vaguely recall the one Wednesday when the fire smoke lifted high enough for us to breathe fresh air through our masks while we were at street level, but at the price of the smoke particles scattering the light into a foreboding dusk colour all day.

The above two thoughts/concerns are related. Below is my attempt to more clearly connect them.

Two tiers

When the smoke is replaced again by fog and sunshine, there is plenty to love about San Francisco. Neighbourhoods are nestled within spectacular surrounds of wildlife, land and sea. There are beautiful public gardens and parks, and most houses have an unrelenting charm from the outside even when they appear vacant (significant numbers of wealthy white-collar workers have fled for places like Lake Tahoe during lockdown). I get why people who could live anywhere choose this gentrified city as their base. 

There are the thriving food, culture and tech innovation scenes. Access can of course be limited to those who can afford to support it. At the extreme end, restaurants like the French Laundry, a 1-hour drive from the city, can set you back at least US$800 per head. Both the Governor of California and the Mayor of San Francisco both found the time (and money) to dine there during the pandemic. There is a lot of free public art and access to recreational activities (such as tennis courts). At a price, there are unmatched healthcare and biotech lifestyle enhancers. 

There are also a curious number of tiny dogs being pushed around in prams. If they’re mini French Bulldogs, they cost at least US$6,000 per designer puppy (they’ve been bred so small as to not be able to reproduce on their own and they have multiple health problems that shorten their lifespan – if anyone has ideas about how this particular form of unintentional cruelty has become such a symbol of absurd excess wealth and anxiety, please leave a comment). 

Most distressingly, social mobility isn’t a realistic concept for so many: there are plenty of people who find themselves living on the streets. There are boarded up shops; many small businesses have not survived the lockdown. I am getting used to the smells and sights of human excrement, along with the wafts of urine and marijuana. I promise myself that I will never get used to the homelessness. Eight thousand people are homeless here every night.

There are tents and cars and RVs around most city corners. The pandemic initially may have granted some sliver of stability in terms of tent encampments not being broken up and forced to move on by city officials due to health concerns. Some people were relocated to hotels and public portable toilets were placed around the city.  The homelessness crisis nonetheless worsened

A related issue is that there have been more drug overdoses this year in San Francisco than there have been covid deaths (on Dec 19th 2020, there had been 621 ‘deaths of despair’ compared to 173 deaths from covid in SF). Again, the homelessness and drug addiction situation here is not new (this brilliant ethnography by Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg illustrates the situation from 1994-2006). But it is reaching new heights and, hopefully, drawing more public attention. 

I remember walking by an RV once on a very grey afternoon and glimpsing two people inside who were quietly sipping on steaming tea under a warm glow of a lamp. There were hanging pot plants and details that almost made it look cosy. But I was quickly drawn back to the hard realities, walking around the corner to see others without any kind of temporary shelter. It is common to see people lying cocooned in old sleeping bags on the sidewalks. 

Failures in governance

Our first sighting of a security robot, designed to monitor security outside businesses took a while to process (spotted and photographed through a supermarket window). 

The presence of these robots imply a priority setting: supposed security and governance to protect commercial interests rather than housing the homeless. The cameras quickly scan license plates to build databases on people’s whereabouts. The hope is that this will fight crime (which comes when people lose their jobs and safety nets). My partner had been raving about Shoshana Zuboff’s book about surveillance capitalism, and this has become a good framework for us to try and understand how the limited privacy people on the street might have is so readily exploited for public monitoring (and data) – and the inequitable access to such knowledge/data. 

Has this become tolerable to those walking mini French Bulldogs in prams simply because people tend to prioritize their immediate community (or families) over the collective good? In San Francisco and elsewhere, I imagine that the wealthy see their government/tax money being wasted. Meanwhile, their private services operate better than public services, so why wouldn’t they want to just keep funding those? 

One way that more privileged San Franciscans can start to reignite a sense of larger community of care beyond pitching Black Lives Matter signs on their million dollar properties is through doing voluntary work. For example, TogetherSF was born in 2020 and is looking to move past contradictions by getting citizens actively involved in things like food deliveries to the homeless, community art projects and raising public awareness about the city’s struggles. 

Another way in which privileged San Franciscans can start to challenge their disengagement from the plight of strangers is at the everyday level of attention. Anthropologically tuning into the shared humanity and grief, I think, opens something up.

Four scenes of grief

In the interests of not forgetting (or disengaging), here are four scenes from the few times each week when I have left the house. I first note my thoughts at the time, and then afterwards I will try to bring them all together. 

In late December, my partner and I were slowing down from a jog, crossing the road at some traffic lights near a hospital. I noticed a person standing against a brick wall in the midday sun, phone to their ear. Their mask was hung off on one ear catch. Arms and legs were folded together in a tight self-hug. Tears were streaming; cheeks glistening. An exhausted gaze and flushed nose. My thought: I can’t remember a time when grief looked more normal

I have a memory flash of a recent walk to get groceries. Someone was seated in a rocking position on top of a low concrete wall, forcefully stamping their feet vertically into it at speed, over and over, whelping and sobbing. They were trying to text on their phone, in between the convulsions of emotion. Their face was completely soaked in tears; fake eyelashes blurred into one thick line; a soggy mask at their chin. “Can I do anything to help?” I ask – loudly due to their cries, my mask muffling my voice, and the social distancing rules. They shake their head and keep wailing. My thought: There is such a large number of possibilities for what might be wrong.

On the last day of December while walking through town, we passed a person quietly setting out for the day, zipping up their tent and fixing their mask around their ears. They appeared to have either recently entered homelessness or were experiencing homeless-while-still-employed (common here). Clean clothes and beautiful tortoise shell spectacles catching the light; a rucksack that any capable hiker might use; a newish tent — the positioning of it under a highway underpass littered with rubbish was the give-away. My thought: This person is enduring a situation that is through no fault of their own, and never has this been more common. 

Most recently, in mid February, we had walked some 50 metres down the road when we heard a person’s body thudding against a car then road. The person was conscious but in a daze; their face mask still attached to one ear, blood dripping from their lips onto their teeth. They were surrounded by slices of the fresh pizza they had been carrying, now also twisted on the road; the box crushed. The driver, who had been blinded by sunlight while turning a corner, called emergency services. Stressed, they took off their mask to anxiously smoke cigarettes while waiting. I asked the victim if I could call somebody else. “My wife.” But as they went to pass me their phone, they had a second thought: “She’s pregnant.” Thankfully a passerby who was a medical doctor came on the scene, soon followed by an ambulance team, a police team and a firetruck. Soon they were in an ambulance, and presumably okay. But the near miss was palpable, as was my main thought as we walked away: are the medical bills going to send the victim into bankruptcy (hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer this fate each year)?

Bringing these scenes together, it may or may not be directly relevant that all four people described were people of color. Admittedly, it is a detail that I only realised after reading over these descriptions several times. I suspect that the scenes stuck with me because I’m grappling with the realities of racial disparities and my fear of being too passive about this particular form of social injustice. As an anthropologist, I’ve become accustomed to starting with observations, and then figuring out afterwards why whatever stood out to me did – and coming to terms with my own positionality. 

An appetite for connection and change?

I don’t think I’m alone in absorbing scenes like those described above. I am also having conversations that are, at least sometimes, extending so far as to acknowledge how Black Lives Matter signs might be an empty social and political statement if not accompanied by actual engagement and desire for change. And nowhere is this more apparent than when talking to those working in the medical system who are continually witnessing racial disparities in COVID-19 healthcare

On the 6th January, during the very hours of the insurrection attempt on the Capitol, I was teaching a pandemic bioethics class to a small group of medical students. When they were given the chance to postpone the class until next week, the students chose to keep going, “to compartmentalize” (to focus on the task at hand; to suspend the trauma for now). Yet, we went on to discuss issues of social and racial injustices. They asked if the traditional emphasis on ‘individual autonomy’ might change now. This led to a much more general discussion, beyond an academic discipline or their medical training: how we’re living in a society made up of people who don’t always agree that systemic injustices exist, even after 2020. 

Having meaningful conversations about systemic racism and social immobility can connect people as much as the act of absorbing someone else’s microcosm of grief and relating to it. Ideally, I think, the conversations should encompass both the macro issues and the micro everyday scenes: acknowledging the social values that might hinder social change and communicating the process of witnessing everyday pain that reminds us of our shared humanity. But it is not easy. Even this attempt is just in writing. Nonetheless, because the pandemic has required more people to engage with these issues than ever before, I’m finding myself holding out hope for San Francisco and California – to set a better example as a culture of “innovation.”

[All photos courtesy of Julia Brown.]

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