Cook: Mayoral stance on Bessie Smith Strut

Cook: Mayoral stance on Bessie Smith Strut

April 23rd, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

"The mayor needs to be at the front of the Strut, holding a turkey leg and drinking a tallboy. He needs to be right in the front of it, dancing and having a good time.

"Otherwise, the gangs win."

This is my barstool buddy talking. I'll call him Groucho; he's an ex-Alaskan fisherman whose commentary is often too unwashed and vulgar for print. But at times, he speaks in ways wise and perceptive, and this line made me stop and think.

If the Strut stops, do the gangs -- and fear -- win?

The Strut has been pushed around a lot lately, beginning with Mayor Ron Littlefield's surprise announcement last month that the Strut had been canceled.

Then revived, in the hands of Friends of the Festival. Then canceled. Then possibly revived, in a hybrid of ownership, kind of like everyone is barely touching this, holding it like a hot potato just ... so ... much ... to keep it alive.

"Safety is the issue," the mayor said in an email.

I want to believe him. Part of me -- five-eighths or so -- does believe him.

But.

Why make the decision so late in the year? If Strut safety has been a concern for years, then why not talk about this last August, not April? And why make this decision unilaterally?

"The Bessie Smith Cultural Center was shocked as everyone else," begins the official statement issued by Irvin Overton, chairman of the center's board.

And all this recent talk of liability reminds me of another possible lawsuit pending against the city. Remember Paul Page? The sexual harassment claim against the former director of General Services was handed over a few months ago to the U.S. Department of Justice, which means a federal lawsuit against the city may occur.

Was sexual harassment not a liability issue, also?

The mayor said he wants the Strut to be in the hands of a capable nonprofit that can transform it into a promising fundraiser for the center.

"Like Wine over Water," he emailed.

Tallboys over Turkey Legs.

Which reminds me of Groucho.

"I may run for mayor," he continued. "On a tallboy and turkey leg platform."

We don't want that. Trust me. But here's what he means: If we take the mayor at his word -- that safety is the issue -- then that means that the Strut must happen, first and foremost, without any of us taking "no" for an answer.

Because, if the Strut is canceled because of safety, then the gangs win. So do fear and violence.

That's why the Strut must go on. Not mainly because it's fun, but because the Strut is more than just a Strut. It's both symbol and message, emerging out of a most appropriate musical tradition for the midnight crossroads at which our city sits.

The blues.

The blues are a musical answer to fear and despair, a box-guitar response that gives a rope to folks drowning in a violent world. You don't sing the blues because you're successful. You sing the blues because that's all you've got.

But in the singing, there is transformation and transcendence. The blues teach us that violence does not have the last word, and the only thing worse than gang violence is canceling the street party because of fear of it.

If the Strut happens this year, police will surround the place like tinfoil. Maybe Groucho will show. There's a chance some gang members will be in the crowd, too.

And the mayor promised he'd be there.

"I attended last year and have attended almost every year since the beginning," he said.

Good. We need him there, sending the message that this city can party. This city is not afraid of gangs or the threat of violence.

Unlike that midnight deal with the devil, we won't sell our soul for a quick fix.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@hushmail.com.