In Mel Brooks’s hilarious 1974 send-up of classic Universal Pictures 1930s horror films, Young Frankenstein, the incredibly goofy Kenneth Mars (as Inspector Kemp) says to the mob with pitchforks and torches: “A riot is an ungly thing . . . und, I tink that it is chust about time ve had vun.” I thought of this scene as I watched the chaos in Ferguson. From a grant writing perspective, I agree with Inspector Kemp. The human tragedies and political/police incompetence are hard to watch. Having an urban riot televised endlessly in the new 24-hour news cycle will, however, eventually generate lots of grant opportunities for nimble nonprofits. Simultaneously, a nice riot enables grant writers like us to continue the urban mythology of economic despair and violence lying just below the false calm of many urban and suburban streets that are home to large African American populations. This is the stuff of which compelling needs assessments are made. Riot anecdotes and allusions should be larded throughout.
I remember reading Life magazine, which was the Twitter of its day, about the 1965 Watts Rebellion.* Over the years, variations on the Watts theme have played out across America: white cop arrests/shoots/kills unarmed African American, an urban riot ensues, the police/national guard overreact and the community in question is left without grocery stores. I’m surprised that this ritual racial drama still occurs in 2014. As noted above, the Ferguson Rebellion will be a boon for urban nonprofits and grant writers, as the government response will be, as it always is, more grant programs—which is sometimes termed the “do something disease.” As Bob Geldorf, of “We are the World” fame and professional do-gooder, once said: “Something must be done, even if it doesn’t work.”
Since the feds and State of Missouri can’t do much of anything else about the immediate situation except blame the obviously incompetent and probably racist Ferguson PD, they’ll make it rain grant dollars on Ferguson and other perceived African American communities, like amateur night at a strip club. I say “perceived,” because it turns out that while about two-thirds of Ferguson residents are African American, the rest are white.
Although the community has been trending African American for decades, Ferguson is hardly all African American. Also, at $37,517, the median household income isn’t all that much lower than the state median of $47,333. There’s a wine bar, craft brewery, several chain restaurants and retailers, and even a weekly Farmer’s Market and outdoor concert series in the summer. There’s a Starbucks right across the city line in Jennings and a Whole Foods nearby. What I didn’t find when looking at Ferguson Census and social indicators were the “Cliff’s You Buy We Fry” fish markets and the Mr. Jones Rotten Fruit and Dented Can stores typical in low-income African American communities. Ferguson, one of several similar first-tier suburbs north of St. Louis, is hardly a place of urban despair.
If one watches CNN, however, all one sees are relatively small groups of angry African American faces and the unfortunate image of the very white and not too articulate Police Chief, Thomas Jackson, looking like Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night. The media presents the situation using classic urban riot tropes. That’s fine with me, as this is exactly how we write proposals for clients in actual economically devastated and African American places like North Philly or South Chicago, as well as ones that are perceived as African American. For example, Watts, the original poster city for riots, is actually now only one-quarter African American and 73% Hispanic.
We’ve written lots of proposals for projects in Watts, including some in which the City of Los Angeles was our client, and, through the magic of grant writing, we always make it seem that it’s still 1965 in Watts. See this NYT article for a good example of writing the ghetto myth, not the reality. Just as we harken back to 1965 in many grant proposals, the author of this piece goes all the way back to the early 50s to somehow rationalize what is going on 60 years later.
Let me return to Young Frankenstein. In the movie, Gene Wilder, as the scion of the mad doc family, starts the movie by trying to run away from his myth-filled heritage. Eventually fate intervenes and he decides to live the myth by building his own “monster.” The monster, played by Peter Boyle, turns out to be rather more charming than menacing, but still generates the angry mob with pitchforks that started this post. This lesson applies to grant writing: it’s important to honor the mythology of the past, while creating a new bogeyman that can only be overcome with grants.
* When writing proposals about communities that have been rocked by large-scale urban disturbances, like the Watts Riot or the chaos in LA following the Rodney King trial, never refer to a “riot”—only use terms like “rebellion” or “disturbance.” This fits in well with the proposal mythology that low-income folks are not actually out of control, but rather are understandably rebelling against the dominate power structure. Think Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
EDIT: Commenter James observes that this post is cynical even by our standards, but we’ll point out that we’re assuming the voice and thoughts of politicians and policy makers. Think of this as a nonfiction version of what James Wood’s description of point of view.