A letter to my Mother, who said, “The victims of the Oakland Fire deserved what they got…

…because they refused to get real jobs and instead chose to break the law with their illegal party.”

You use yourself as an example of how people should be… how no one had to die if they’d have just followed the rules.

Can’t afford where you live? 
Stop living in the most expensive city in the world and move.

Don’t want to move? 
Stop “doing art” and get a real job that affords you the luxury of living in the most expensive city in the world.

Don’t want to stop doing art? 
Well find another way to pay your rent, without breaking the law.

You can’t find a legal place to throw your parties?
Well maybe there’s a reason for that and you should find something more productive and profitable to do with your time.

They should stop breaking the law and freeloading and expecting handouts, while the rest of us sacrifice nice things and work our asses off at jobs we don’t like, just to keep supporting art which none of us wants or needs.

Mom, you talk of how hard it was to be pregnant at 16 and to survive with my Stepdad, working a minimum wage job cleaning kennels while he toiled away as a mechanic… over and over again you talk about how you never got a handout, never got any advantages in life, that you started with nothing and worked hard and played by the rules, so no one else has an excuse for not doing the same. People are poor and struggling because they aren’t working hard enough, and you’re tired of taking care of these so-called slackers with your hard-earned tax dollars.

Mom, I want to share something with you. I’m sure you’ve heard it, it’s become something of a buzzword lately among the more liberal among us, and it’s given me a lot more empathy for others. I’m talking about privilege.

I’ll start by reminding you, as I have before, that things were different when you were a knocked-up 16-year-old. In 1976, a young couple starting out together with minimum wage jobs could probably manage to pay rent on a modest apartment, put food on the table, and have basic necessities covered… those conditions exist nowhere today in America. 
 
But forget that part Mom, YOU didn’t start from nothing. You had every advantage from birth; and your success in life is directly tied to all the advantages you had being born as a white child and adopted by a loving, stable couple who made certain you wanted for nothing. Let me illustrate some of these advantages which you did not earn:

  • Both of your parents were able-bodied, smart, resourceful, and skilled in their professions
  • You were born free of learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental illness or physical defects, so you never had trouble learning in school, and never had mobility problems
  • You never had to watch your father beat your mother, so you never went about your days fearful of being harmed or killed by a parent
  • Your parents didn’t abuse drugs or alcohol, and you learned the dangers of doing so, and their parenting style reinforced that (i.e. Mom would KILL me if I came home smelling like pot)
  • Your mother cleaned and father maintained your home, so you always had working toilets and showers, clean sheets, clean clothes, a nice backyard to play in, clean water free of pollutants, and the utilities were never shut off for lack of payment
  • They set good examples as adults, so you knew what society expected of you from as soon as you were old enough to do a load of laundry or budget your allowance
  • Because grandma and grandpa were able to buy a home in a safe neighborhood, you could form friendships and play with children of similar socioeconomic status, and you could play outdoors safely, which was important for your emotional and physical development
  • You had a mother who didn’t work for most of your childhood, and a father who only worked one job, so there were mature, stable adults always at home, to make sure you ate well, teach you how not to be an asshole, and give you all the knowledge you needed to do basic life shit like applying for a job, keeping a job, managing money, cooking food, and generally taking care of yourself
  • You were fed three healthy, wholesome meals every day, so you were never hungry, and that enabled you to stay healthy and in turn do well in school and receive positive feedback and experiences, which reinforced your sense of self-worth and confidence as a human being. Children who go to school hungry can’t focus and can’t learn. Doing poorly in school can erode self-confidence, further contributing to the cycle of poverty.
  • Your father got excellent health insurance through his employer, so your health was always prioritized and attended to, especially during your young pregnancy and childbirth. Teen mothers often go without access to basic maternity care because #insurance
  • You grew up in a very nice 2-bedroom home, in a conservative, middle-class suburb with well-funded, high-quality schools, which gave you the advantage of a strong K-12 education. You didn’t need college to get a job after high school.
  • Your parents never sent you to school hungry, dirty, or sexually/physically abused. You always had all of the school supplies and other things your teachers expected you to bring to class, because your parents had the time and money to make sure you got what you needed
  • Your schools probably had a lot of parental support and involvement. Every child probably had a textbook of their own, parents who participated in the PTA and came to open house. I’m sure teachers were provided everything they needed to teach by the school. Most of the students were probably well-behaved, so your classes had minimal distractions or time taken out for the teacher to discipline kids. There weren’t any shootings, or need for metal detectors, because kids didn’t bring weapons to your nice, white, suburban school.
  • Your teachers were paid fair wages for their work, and they had a parent’s support when they needed to discipline a child, so they were able to do their job and teach everyone, rather than fearing retribution from crummy parents.
  • You naturally liked clothes, music, sports, and hobbies that are considered mainstream and socially acceptable, so you were fully accepted among your schoolmates, coworkers and peers. Maybe you were a tomboy but not to the effect that kids made fun of you or threatened you for “being gay” or a “homo” or a “nerd”
  • As a heterosexual, white, cisgender female, you have never faced discrimination because of the color of your skin, religion, sexual orientation or gender orientation
  • As a thin and attractive young woman, you reaped untold benefits which cannot be easily quantified. You’re statistically more likely to be offered jobs than more qualified women who may be considered less attractive by male employers. You were statistically less likely to suffer emotional trauma from being bullied for your weight.
  • Your parents drove you and your friends around and you had healthy social connections; they threw birthday parties for you every year, you had a Christmas tree and presents underneath every year, you had Easter Egg hunts, and fireworks on the Fourth of July, and valentines to trade with kids at school. Those occasions enriched your life; you got a diverse range of sensory experiences in these times; and the rituals they embody contributed to your sense of place, of family, and of self.
  • You had grandma and grandpa supporting you through pregnancy, instead of being tossed out on the street on your ass, like many teenage mothers
  • You had a free babysitter my entire life. Most people working two jobs have to pay for full-time childcare.

Every moment of your early life — from the moment you were born — you were loved and cared for, and had everything a child needs to thrive and develop to the full potential of your abilities. I’m not saying what you went through, as a teenage mother, was easy. But when we talk of politics, wealth inequality, socioeconomic issues, I will no longer allow you to assert that you started from nothing and earned all that you have by your own blood sweat and tears because as you can see above, it simply is not true.

That’s what I mean when I try to explain why we need use the lens of compassion when viewing those less fortunate than ourselves… we need to acknowledge that their history was probably different, with far less advantages, and that there are usually very legitimate and concrete reasons why someone isn’t making the same decisions, or living life in the way you think they could or should. This could be called empathy.

I don’t believe in handouts or letting people slack off and be coddled just because they can’t get their sh*t together. But Mom, if you try to imagine how your life would have turned out, without all the advantages you had from birth, you might see how unrealistic it is to inflict your own standards and expectations on someone who did not have those advantages.

It baffles me that you can’t comprehend the enormous privileges you started life with, that put you on a path to where you got to today. So your first job was cleaning dog and cat sh*t for minimum wage? And dad was a mechanic and you both had to work super hard but managed to support the three of us? I don’t know anyone who could pay rent on a minimum wage job anywhere in this country right now, let alone support a child and pay for childcare so they could go to that minimum wage job. Not everyone has parents or siblings who can take care of their child for free… So many people must work two jobs to have the most basic, dare I say, substandard quality of life in many cities (not just the Bay Area).

But back to the original discussion… this debate is tied to poverty, but ultimately is about artists who have been shut out of society, forced to live in these places to survive, or give up… If every artist and musician decided to just quit doing art and “go get a job cleaning dog and cat sh*t” so they could survive in the world, there would be no music, no art, no Lady Gaga [my mom loves Lady Gaga], no Queen, no David Bowie, no inventors making coffee tables that turn into TV trays for you to eat on in front of the TV [yes that’s a thing], no movies, no TV shows, no actors, no writers to write newspapers or designers to design the labels on your favorite beer cans… many of those people might have started out living in a warehouse not unlike Ghostship, at some point in time.

I agree that the owner of the building and the master tenant who were allowing people to live at and throw parties there, should be charged with criminal negligence to the full extent of the law. But the people living there, who died there?

Those are some hard working mother f’ers. Oftentimes working two or three different jobs, just to pay their overpriced rent so they can play music or paint some stuff for people on the side. I’d venture a guess and say very few, if any, wanted a handout from the likes of you or anyone else.

I don’t know where my sense of empathy came from, because I don’t recognize it in you anymore.