Open hearts, empty seats

It’s a shame when words of wisdom are repeated into banal platitude. Perhaps no historical figure suffers this injury more often than Mahatma Gandhi. This fact notwithstanding, we owe it to ourselves to let one particular quote sink in: “Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.”

Those citizens gathered at the most recent town hall meeting saw a beautifully tragic example of people who have taken the tenets of non-violent living to heart. Three local middle schools students addressed the huge room full of adults.

As each one rose to share their thoughts, painful truths became inescapably evident: We have raised more than a generation of children for whom gunshots, drugs and despair are matters of everyday life. We have neighborhoods all over town where parents turn up the television at night so as to drown out the gunfire. We have neighborhoods all over town where litter is more eternal than spring daffodils. We have neighborhoods all over town where empty rotting houses mock the families forced to endure their presence.

We’ve all heard the phrase “so plain, even a child can see it…” Our children have seen it. More importantly, our children have lived in its great foreboding shadow. Their fear is palpable. If ever there were a clarion to action, this is it.

Children should be scared of imaginary boogeymen hiding in the closet or under the bed. They shouldn’t be scared of real boogeymen selling drugs and murdering people. That they are should frighten all of us.

Perhaps for the first time in many years, most of the city’s officials appear to be on board with a new strategy for Pine Bluff. If nothing else, the majority of city leaders have turned out at the 2013 town hall meetings. While they might rather be somewhere else, they sat, listened to public comments and answered the citizens’ questions.

Pretty early on, it was evident that there were more questions than answers. Then again, a couple of well-attended and well-intentioned meetings can’t erase decades of bad habit and poor government.

On the matter of poor government, three seats on the dais were yet again empty. Those seats had city council nameplates in front of them: Glenn Brown; Thelma Walker and; George Stepps. It’s patently obvious to anyone who has attended a recent city council meeting that these three council members have little interest in working with Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s administration.

So be it. There is nothing in their oath of office that compels them to like, agree with or work with any given mayor. In fact, it is likely a sign of communal health if they have regular reasoned disagreement with her. We’ve seen the wages of groupthink. We need not go there again.

Even so, their consistent absences signal a profound lack of respect — not for the mayor and her agenda — but for the rest of us. It is a fundamental right of a free people to confront their government. In fact, all week, the Commercial has been commemorating “Sunshine Week,” the annual homage to governmental transparency. While we’re all for a transparent government, an invisible government is just a little overboard.

This commentary opened with a quote from Gandhi. He worked to end oppression through non-violence and passive resistance. We need more of that. What we don’t need is non-accountability and active disinterest. At the next town hall we expect all the seats to be filled — on both sides of the dais.