At the beginning of last Thursday night's episode of "Hill Street Blues," a black cop overhears a coworker diligently urging a fellow cop to invest in a fallout shelter in case of nuclear attack. After the friend crudely rejects the offer, the black cop, interested in a chance of post-Holocaust survival, eagerly inquires about the possibility of owning a shelter. In a stuttering, stumbling, apologetic tone, the cop answers, "Sorry, the fallout shelters are all sold out."
The arms race and the issues of nuclear war are subjects blacks feel strongly about but from which many feel excluded. "Black people ain't supposed to know nothin' about that stuff," Samuel Hyder, a 37-year-old TV technology instructor at Howard University, says mockingly to a group of black intellectuals who regularly gather at the Howard Inn's Blitz Lounge on Georgia Avenue.
"It's an issue that concerns everybody," chimes in Randy Gunter, a director for Upward Bound, a special program for high school students. "The bombs don't have names of special groups written on them." Melanie Bailey, a government worker facing a RIF, taps her pen idly on the bar and says of government monies being redirected from social programs to defense: "The arms race is putting a lot of us out of work."
Earlier this year, a group of D.C. residents, deeply involved in the peace movement, organized the D.C. Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze with a goal of generating a grassroots movement to take a stand against the arms race. So far, that movement has not broken the mold and developed a widespread appeal to the black community. As a result it draws little interest, even from such concerned citizens as Hyder, Bailey and Gunter.
Yet if the campaign is to Y succeed, it must "break the mold" of intellectual movements primarily controlled by and directed toward the educated, white middle class.
I think a good symbolic place to start is with the relocation plan, admittedly an improbable document, that is supposed to take effect in the event of an imminent threat of nuclear war. A draft of Washington's proposed crisis plan calls for moving residents to "reception centers" according to wards. Persons without cars who must take a bus provided by the city are slated to travel to different centers from those residents of the same ward who own cars. That has an odor of class separation, made even stronger by the fact that nondrivers are to be moved by bus to locations significantly closer to the "risk area." It is known that moderate winds could carry lethal radiation up to 150 miles, which could make the bus trip a futile exercise.
The point here is not that crisis relocation is ultimately workable, but that the government planners made preparations that endanger poor people to a greater degree than others. If it were possible that anybody would survive, it would be most likely be those with cars and money.
Even though knowledgeable people such as those in the D.C. Campaign aren't taking crisis relocation seriously, a symbolic disavowal of such thinking would appeal to a black community that feels an alienating strain of hopelessness--a feeling that resonates as strongly in the heart of workers as among intellectuals.
At 14th and Shepherd streets A NW, one of Washington's many neighborhoods where all sense of being in the nation's capital ceases, a cool spring breze carries the smell of barbecue up the block. The sound of pinball machines comes from a storefront arcade. Under a golden-orange sun, John Lezama, a proud, sienna-skinned Trinidadian, stands near the counter of Mark's Market, a small corner store. Lezama, a security guard, is frightened by the prospect of nuclear war. But of the freeze campaign, Lezama confesses, "I want to be optimistic, I wish it could succeed, but I'm doubtful. I'm not satisfied, I'm worried, but there's nothin' I can do."
Inside the market, James Haman works the cash register and feigns bravado: "I don't worry about nuclear war. I'm not afraid. I haven't lived this long worryin'. "
These people are the silent ones, united in living daily with a threat they feel powerless to oppose. They may be ignored so far in the grassroots movement spreading across the city and the nation, but maybe they have been silent too long. The movement should recognize that they have much to offer.