LET'S TALK ABOUT our recurring numbness: Malcolm X was once talking to an audience that included a number of black men. He had just seen a scene from Selma in the 60s, a white policeman sitting on top of a black woman's chest, he said.A few faces appeared puzzled, the audience grew deadly silent, but he shattered the stillness when he told the men, quietly and matter-of-factly, "You saw it. You're just trying to act like you didn't see it because you know you should have done something about it and didn't!"
Forget Jimmy, the 8-year-old with the 3-year-old heroin habit whose startling story has captivated a whole community. Look through the myriad of concern and emotions that the story has generated and you have to forget Jimmy, not because his plight doesn't matter. Clearly, it does. But because Jimmy's World really isn't news. It's a very familiar story. We're trying to act like it's news because we should have done something about this Jimmy and all the other Jimmy's long ago, and we haven't.
And that's not news, either. The growing number of people entering the alien world of hard drugs, a subculture gone awry, know that most of us don't really give a damn. We who are so shocked by the case of one stark example refuse to act upon the knowledge that it is merely the tip of the iceberg.
I've talked with people in neighborhood after neighborhood who know the problem exists, and that Jimmy's World is but one instance in the universe of a growing problem.
It is clear that the world of hard drugs is a different world from our own, but each is filled with its own contradictions and confusions. Those in the middle-class would pay lip service concern with the idealistic credo, "If there's hope, there won't be dope." Those in the other world, where heroin is real, see things differently. "Dope is the only hope," they answer. And therein lies the distance.
Poverty, idleness and hopelessness fashion their own environment and their own values in a world shunned by and shut out from the values and the caring of the broader society. And the harsh fact is that many people are numb to the problems raised by Jimmy's World, and others of us hide behind contradictions and confusions.
Contradictions like that of some middle-class blacks who worry more that revealing the child's plight is "demeaning" to the image of blacks than they are moved to act upon the terrible indictments the story delivers. It clearly indicts a school system, for example, that fails to notice the Jimmys and act upon the knowledge.
We are numb, but the other world is festering, from lack of jobs, housing, from lack of hope.
Listen to another voice, a former addict who operates in the 14th Street area as an informal one-man, drug rehabilitation "program":
"It's hard to explain the pressure that you feel out there now. I saw young kids in a restaurant on Seventh Street in a booth shooting up. It's almost like genocide that is going on around this country. It's a matter of self pride and worth, and it's missing. There is no such thing as a range of age . . . . They'll sell it to anybody. It's time that people get outraged."
People are outraged. But will we get outraged beyond cranking up the same old machinery to care for one child if we can find him, and then quietly retreat to what we consider our safer, other world? That might not be wise, because there is not as much distance as some would like to think between the middle-class world and this scary subculture.
A friend of mine who lives in a remodeled house near one of the centers for drug distribution, 9th and O streets NW, told me he regularly sees kids thrusting out scrawny arms, indiscriminately tapping car windows, selling Bam, diet pills, heroin, you name it.
He introduced me to a neighbor who added, "People come here in cars and a lot of them have white faces and Virginia license plates."
Listen to a former addict, now cleaned up through a veteran's drug treatment program:
"You should see some of the people I see up on 14th Street. Some are people who once never used anything harder than a reefer. Some are your people who once had jobs and are laid off. Some are so unskilled they go in a shooting gallery and pay somebody to shoot them up . . . . Everyday I'm seeing new ones. We're losing a lot of intelligent people. Once they get a Jones, all the things they bought on credit go and you look up [and] they got like an empty apartment.
"The next thing you know, they form new alliances on the corner . . . . They learn how to survive in the streets to get what they want. It's not just the people who come out of the project. Some have gone to college . . . but have just given up . . . . You'd be surprised what would happen if they had a decent job that gave them the self respect . . . ."
So what is needed is not only an outpouring of concern about Jimmy, but about the overall problem. We really have to get past our numbness, past our confusions and contraditions to look to some new solutions here.
We in the straight world persist in mouthing, "Where there's hope, there's no dope" and for many reasons avoid committing our resources of time, energy and money to providing the hope. In that vacuum, the other world will continue to see hope only in dope. Both worlds know the latter is a lie, but in the absence of a life, every person must choose his own death, albeit at a disastrous social consequence to both worlds.