Friday, July 19, 2013

Reflections from a Camden City Bus

My life can be a little self-contained.  Sure, I'm well traveled, having visited 6 continents and lived in 7 states.  I've lived in the slow-moving small town south, in the hyper aggressive big city northeast, in the laid back west coast and many places in between.

But most of my life follows a particular pattern.  I hang out in upper-middle class neighborhoods.  I eat at nice restaurants.  I work in an office and I live in a neighborhood where I forget to lock my doors a lot of days and it doesn't worry me when I do.

Sometimes, random events in life disrupt your routines in ways that you don't expect.  And sometimes you learn things from that seemingly random disruption that you would have never learned as a part of your routine.

Such was the case on Saturday night.  My wife and I had just had a fun day in New York City and were riding a comfortable evening BoltBus (a very nice Greyhound bus line in the Northeast US that provides direct transit between major cities, for those of you from elsewhere) back to the New Jersey Philadelphia suburbs.  Late in the ride, it became evident that we had accidentally boarded the wrong bus as we whizzed by our stop at the Cherry Hill Mall (if you aren't form New Jersey, Cherry Hill is the famous destination of Harold & Kumar in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, despite the fact that there has never been a White Castle in Cherry Hill.)  The driver informed us that we were on the "express" bus and that he wasn't allowed to stop until 30th street station in New Jersey.

With a car at Cherry Hill Mall and a physical presence at 30th street station in Philadelphia, I quickly scoured the internet for a transportation plan to rectify the situation.  What I found was the 406 bus from Philadelphia to Cherry Hill, which was not a direct route but got me back to the car.  Off we went!

The 406 bus route winds through part of Philadelphia, a large portion of Camden and ultimately on to Cherry Hill.  It goes through some pretty rough urban neighborhoods in Camden and basically the entire ridership of the bus on this particular Saturday night consisted of myself, my wife and a group of Camdenites that didn't own cars.  They were mostly working class or unemployed and all African-American.

"They let Zimmerman off!" proclaimed a heavy-set woman on the bus part way into the ride, sharing the news that broke that day.  I could not have been in a better location to gauge and understand the black community's response to the verdict.

What impressed me on bus 406 was how complex and nuanced that response was.  There were no calls for violence and retaliation.  To be sure, it was a more liberal than average crowd and most disagreed with the verdict, but the responses were rational.  One man said, "I get he might not have been guilty of murder, but he had to be guilty of SOMETHING.  I mean, the 911 operator told him to stop following Treyvon and he didn't."  fair enough.  Another man recalled growing up in rural South Carolina and how they "castle law" there allowed his mother to shoot a crack addict that was breaking into their storage shed without fear of retaliation.  "Okay, that makes sense" said another passenger, "but Treyvon wasn't on Zimmerman's property.  It's different if someone comes on your property."  So it is.  "Why does everyone assume that a black boy in a hoodie is a criminal?" asked one woman, "well, I heard a bunch of black kids had broken into homes nearby" said another man on the bus, "that doesn't make it right!" shot back the woman.  No, it doesn't.

The discussion quickly turned into a broader political discussion and talked turned to Chris Christie.  "Chris Christie cost my wife a ton of money", said a man whose wife was a teacher in the Camden Public Schools, "He raised the fares on this bus!" exclaimed another man, referring to the New Jersey Transit fare hikes that Christie pushed through as part of his push to eliminate the budget gap, his first year in office, "couldn't rich people just afford to pay a little bit more in taxes?"  "Yeah" said another man, "but they'd never pay, they'd just move to Pennsylvania" reflecting a frequent talking point of the GOP in the state.  "I like Christie" declared a woman with a young child, "but only because he is pro-life."

Black voters and the black community in general tend to get painted as a monolith.  They are obviously a voting block that has gone heavily (and increasingly) Democratic in the past two election cycles.  What was reconfirmed for me that night in Camden was that such a view is a dramatic oversimplification.  Black voters, like any group, have a complex set of political leanings that run the gambit of electoral politics.  Their views are varied and nuanced.  Some even vote Republican, but almost none are straight-line liberals.

Perhaps rather than choosing political sides in things like the Treyvon Martin case, both parties would be better served by taking a little time to understand the underlying social nuances in a case like this.  And Republicans would certainly be wise to start inviting them to their party.

By the way, I agree with the man on the bus.  Treyvon Martin does not appear from the evidence to have been guilty of murder.  But he was guilty of SOMETHING, most likely criminally negligent homicide, a less severe felony.  Had the prosecutor charged him with this more appropriate crime, perhaps the outcome would have been different.  Or perhaps not.

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