Style Weekly, Richmond, VA, August 24, 2004:

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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
      Phone: 804 358 0417

                          The Dark at the Bottom
                             Travis Charbeneau
                              slug "richcrim"
                                 898 words
     PULL QUOTE: "Kids are ignorant, not dumb. They see the priorities. Why
should _they_ value education when, plainly, we don't."
     Amongst other afflictions, I'm a lap steel guitar player. My job
involves going into saloons and getting people to drink more alcohol by
assaulting them with live music. I've never liked the seemingly hard-wired
connection between bars and live music, particularly when my comrades and I
succeed to the point where the customers drink enough to produce their
pistols, threatening to mess with the "live" part. The general rule is to
keep playing. And if we play loud enough, we can often divert attention
from anything but actual gunfire -- at which point, like everyone else, we
begin hugging the floor (assuming we haven't wet it).
     Lately, I've been playing in a mellow duo accompanying the soon-great,
always-wonderful Ben Jordan, and back in July we got a gig at The Canal
Club down in the Bottom. I had played there before in a band and liked it
for being a big room where the stage was roomy and the crowds usually large
and attentive.
     But, unknown to us last July, The Canal Club was almost dark, as in
"closed." The big upstairs stage I'd enjoyed before _was_ dark. We played
downstairs to perhaps five people, two of whom were "with the band," such
as we are. Apparently, there had been recent incidents of more than usual
success in the live music/alcohol consumption/pistol-producing department.  
The prospect of mayhem and death had dampened enthusiasms. Once more, crime
was eating the people and profits of Richmond!
     But my exclamation point is flaccid. Crime has been taking a bite
outta Richmond for many years now. Last year's bite is written into next
year's city budget -- and into your personal Profit & Loss statement. 
Whatever your "enthusiasm," in terms of conducting business in Richmond,
the prospect of mayhem and death will surely dampen it.
     The only enthusiasm not dampened by crime is what Eisenhower might
have termed "the Criminal Justice/Corrections Industrial complex," now a
power lobby in every state and federal body. The CJ-CI complex easily
out-lobbies interests in education and social programs, because tough laws,
mandatory sentences and, most of all, Prohibition II: "the Drug War," have
created demand for a supply of police, bricks, mortar, guards, bureaucrats. 
This enriches a very Big Lobby that is against crime and for motherhood so
explain your vote against _that_, Sen. Smith!
     It's a perpetual motion machine: skimping on social services and
schools to pay the CJ-CI complex assures the creation of more angry,
illiterate criminals who can only go ... to the CJ-CI complex. We're caught
in a downward spiral of botched priorities.
     We don't want to pay a few dollars up front getting decent schools and
help for single working moms. We prefer paying millions of dollars on the
back side, "correcting" the predictable result of our front-side folly:
trigger-happy kids with nothing to lose. Recently, gang activity is up,
gangs, and the CJ-CI lobby, being the only institutions actually investing
in our children.
     I understand that the Swiss keep assault rifles in their houses as
part of a simple national defense plan, to wit: who wants to attack a
mountainous country where everybody has a machine gun? The Israelis, awash
in terrible violence on a daily basis, are likewise armed to the teeth,
but, like Switzerland, England, Canada or New Zealand, their murder rate is
insignificant compared to ours.
     I forget my Michael Moore, but "Bowling for Columbine" re-related the
familiar statistics, with a few dozen fatalities for all those other
countries, and thousands of shot-dead citizens for the US. It's not _just_
easy availability of firearms, though that doesn't help. We apparently
prefer it this way -- unless we are personally popped. Or someone we love.
Or our particular gig goes dark.
     Otherwise, we enjoy electing "tough" politicos who build a bigger
prison where we need a better school. In Richmond, the minute any child of
sufficient means reaches school age, it is whisked away to our local
versions of Columbine, CO; suburbs where the stars shine, schools are
whiter, and the delusion of "safe" soothes the savage commute back to the
bleeding city.
     Opponents of educational spending and social supports say caring is
for wimps. They don't know why we kill each other in such outlandish
proportion to other nations either, but, whatever it is, it ain't no
education and social supports. It's an erosion of traditional values by the
liberal media -- or too much gun control, taking the firepower out of the
hands of law-abiding citizens who might otherwise provide triangulated
counter-fire from across the bar, literally lighting up those dark clubs
and taking out the bad guys.
     But this is crazy. People learn the vast majority of their behavior,
good or bad. And learning involves teaching, both by our despised teaching
institutions, and by the day-to-day example of a society that despises
teaching: everything from teachers salaries to the derisive platitude,
"Those who can do, those who can't teach"; the burgeoning home school
movement; and the vouchers -- few can be unaware of American disdain for
its public schools -- especially in cities.
     Kids are ignorant, not dumb. They see the priorities. Why should
_they_ value education when, plainly, we don't.
      Crime, gangs, violence -- it always gets back to teaching, the
business of creating citizens instead of problems. That answer is as hard
to run away from as a bullet.