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February 3, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 5
Radical pragmatism: the shadow government
By Geraldo Rivera
AN OUTLINE FOR SAVING 30 SQUARE BLOCKS OF THE WORLD
The Lower East Side is dying. Like the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and Harlem, it has been essentially abandoned by the city government. Despairing of ever being able to improve the situation there, it has forfeited control, ceded it to the junkies and the muggers and the wretched hundreds of thousands who will barely live and finally die there.
A triple plague of rotten housing, rampant crime, and wildly uncontrolled heroin usage is wiping out, destroying a generation of black and Puerto Rican children.
Given our present priorities and the structure of the local and federal governments, the situation in the inner city will inevitably deteriorate from critical to hopeless. Only a new kind of government can stop the apparently inevitable trend, because the existing governments, while benevolent, are incompetent, well-intentioned but unable.
A similar situation existed in Russia before the overthrow of the Czar. Then, elements of the population chose to overthrow an incompetent but basically well-intentioned government by force. The Russian Revolution began in 1917 and only now, 55 years and tens of millions of lives later, has the plight of the lowest levels of Soviet society been appreciably improved. The price was too high. There is an easier way than revolution to improve the quality of life in places where the power structure is reluctantly willing but functionally unable to do so. In a neighborhood like the predominantly Puerto Rican desperately poor Lower East Side, a kind of shadow government could be set up.
Established by young men and women who knew both the neighborhood and the system, it would function within a very limited geographic area, say from Houston Street to East 10th Street, Avenue B to the East River. In outward appearance, the organization would very much resemble the Young Lords, circa January 1970. Tough, well-disciplined, and grass roots.
The Young Lords Organization, for all its militant posturing and revolutionary rhetoric, accomplished something our educational and welfare institutions have squandered millions trying to do, but failed. It reached down the meanest streets, into the most horrid tenement apartments, and gave kids, may of whom had never belonged to anything but the student body of a reform school or the legion of heroin addicts, something constructive to belong to and believe in.
Doing something like organizing a rent strike may not sound like big stuff to many sophisticated New Yorkers, but the change it brought about in the young people was truly a thing of beauty.
But the outward appearance would be the end of the similarities. The shadow government would be vastly different from the Young Lords or any other activist group in direction and philosophy. The Lords and the others were destroyed because they were politically oriented. The shadow government would be as completely non-political as the PAL or the YWCA. So apolitical, in fact, that it could get foundation funding and a tax-exempt status. The basic orientation and overriding philosophy of the organization would be practical, even cynical. It is difficult to label its philosophy: the closest, easiest tag is “radical-pragmatism.” It would have the ability and desire to do anything, get along with anybody, and be anything it had to be, to exist, to function effectively, and to accomplish its goal: a minimal level of dignity and a decent existence for those within its geographic area of responsibility. It would be a mean and angry bully; it would be a catalyst.
Among the functions of the Radically Pragmatic Organization would be to use the existing but now largely ineffective network of public and private agencies, to improve the quality of life. For example, the OEO legal assistance lawyers, assisted by volunteer, private attorneys, could be used to make surveys of the number and condition of all the abandoned buildings within the target area. (Within the area described above, there are at least one or two per block.) Through the assistance of the instinctively sympathetic press, the city government could be convinced, pressured (by demonstrations, restrained confrontations, etc.) into waiving tax liens and transferring title to a non-profit corporation set up by the lawyers working for the “RPO.”
Rehabilitation would be assisted by an army of volunteers, recruited from the thousands of high schools, colleges, and more affluent communities in and around the city. These volunteers would be brought into the neighborhood, supervised, and protected by the RPO. The housing would be made into co-ops, and once completed, turned over to the residents on the basis of need.
Countless other things could be done within this 30-square-block area at low cost and within a relatively short period of time. Drug rehabilitation centers could be set up in an area where none now exist. Pressure could be applied to get greater city, state, and federal budgetary priority. Known big-time drug dealers and other enemies of the people could be punished corporally or otherwise discouraged from coming into the neighborhood. The city police, fire, and sanitation departments could be pressured, again through access to the media and the politicians, into increasing their protection and performance within the area. The books of the antipoverty organizations could be audited, and so on.
The structure of the RPO would be elitist. Decisions and policy would not be made by any kind of communal democracy. No community meetings would be held, and there would be no votes in the Lower East Side community center by show of hands. The greatest travesty perpetuated against poor people during the golden age of the anti-poverty agencies was the ill-conceived, tragically executed policy of maximum feasible community participation. Based on the liberal notion that nobody could solve the problems of poor blacks and Puerto Ricans but other blacks and Puerto Ricans, it was and remains a total disaster. People with no administrative experience or social work training were thrust into leadership positions; there, they predictably failed to alleviate any poverty with the possible exception of their own. Bitter squabbling for federal crumbs began. The goal of the typical agency became not what it could do for the community, but the amount of executive salaries and the area of its influence. The era bred a new breed of bourgeois poor person, the anti-poverty pimp. Worst of all, it eventually created an ugly breach between blacks and Puerto Ricans. The concept was so bad that it was almost as if somebody had predestined the failure so they could say: “Look at this corruption, this mismanagement and waste. The concept of fighting poverty with government money is wrong.”
Well, the age of the poverty pimp is ending and there is a better way. The power of the RPO would be concentrated within a small, activist central body. It would be drawn largely to reflect the cultural and economic background of the community it was to serve, but this would not be a sine qua non. The most important requirement would be an understanding of the realities of the system, coupled with a sensitivity to the people of the neighborhood.
The workers would be the young people of the neighborhood, including the junkies, who, once detoxified, have shown that they need only a cause and a reason for existing to become functional and productive.
The RPO wouldn’t save the world, and its effectiveness would be limited by the energy and organizational abilities of its founders. But given the liberal instincts and guilty consciences of most people in the media, the government, and much of the private sector, coupled with a willingness to confront and exploit them by the RPO, it could at least change 30 square blocks of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 28, 2011