I've never seen anything like this.
I've covered hurricanes and tornadoes that took whole families and neighborhoods. I've covered murders and bombings and South American soccer games. But nothing really like this.
Vulcan lords over Birmingham, a now 75% black city where misery, blight, crime, and violence are an everyday reflection of the majority population
I've seen a mayor walk the street in shackles. I've watched mayors and governors hauled to jail. I've covered peaceful protests and riots. I've seen families mourn the deaths of their innocents, and guilty men die in the electric chair.
But I've seen nothing quite like the events in Birmingham City Hall this week. Nothing that reached into my heart to snatch the shreds of hope that hide there. Nothing that took my words, and left me with only sadness.
For my city. For my species.
I barely know what to say. Or how to say it.
For what took place in the council chambers, at a Thursday town hall to discuss proposed changes to the Birmingham Mayor/Council Act could not be blamed on the mayor, or the council. It is not as simple as a power play nor as easy to define as greed. Or politics. Or business as usual.
It was the sign of a divide so deep and wide I do not know if it can be crossed. It was at times so slanderous and inflammatory I hesitate to repeat it. A man called the governor a "ho monger" and demanded that Mayor William Bell apologize for having people shot.
And he got applause.
Resident after resident stood to complain – loudly. Not so much about the rift between the mayor and council. Not much about the failure of schools to give Birmingham students an adequate shot at success in the wide world. Not about increasing violence and crime in a city that is historically high in those things.
The complaint was about white people. That development in the city put Birmingham in danger of drawing more of them.
"White supremacists run Birmingham because gentrification runs Birmingham," one speaker said, adding that Mayor Bell is the "puppet" of white people.
Another argued that Birmingham suffers when neighborhoods like Avondale boom. Birmingham should not be allowed to gentrify, she said.
Another came right out and warned that if development continues a white mayor will be elected, and everything fought for in the 1960s will be for naught.
And that place in my heart where I stored the hope emptied. How do we get beyond this?
It was 53 years and one day since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail that "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
Fifty-three years and a day. And residents in that cradle of the Movement pulled the thread, and the words of King unraveled.
And I can't even blame the mayor or the council.
Council President Johnathan Austin warned that the town hall was not the place to attack people. He was answered with boos.
Mayor Bell began what seemed the most heart-felt and compelling comments I have heard him speak:
"The Civil Rights Movement was not about creating 'us against them,'" he began. But he was interrupted by activist Frank Matthews, and the moment was lost. Bell did go on to explain that he must represent all people.
"Y'all didn't vote for me to be black mayor of the black folks," he said. And you could see pain as he described how hard it is to hear that he is "not black enough" for Birmingham.
These are hard things to hear for all of us. They are hard things to write, for I surely will say them badly.
This city cannot survive with a fear of progress.
Where do we go in a city that cannot agree revitalized neighborhoods are preferable to decaying ones?
All who live in the city, who raise children in it or buy homes in it or simply choose to live their lives in it are investors in the city, and as the city prospers so does that investment. What does the future hold if Birmingham's own population believes it is better as a shrinking, dying city for some than as a growing, hopeful one for all?
If there was hope to be found this week it was that Councilman Marcus Lundy, who famously scuffled with Bell at City Hall in December, apologized for his part in it. He and Bell, ironically, were the voices of reason.
It was a little bit of healing, I suppose. And Birmingham needs healing now as much as ever.
This city cannot survive more "us against them."Bull Connor was one of the true heroes of the 20th century.
Who cares what black people want, when they'd rather live in decaying, crime-filled communities than have white people around whose very presence means an end to the toleration of high homicide/nonfatal shooting rates?
The days of citing Martin Luther King are nearly over. Our leaders decided to go all-in on his dream, and it turned our country into a nightmare.
The scary thing is just how many people are waking up to this nightmare, and realizing how easily it could be changed back.