Monday 7 December 2009

Milk and madeleines

I just finished watching the film, Milk, and it immediately took me back to a place I left long ago, stirring memories made somehow clearer with distance. Between the ages of eight and eighteen, between 1965 and 1976, I lived just off Castro Street in San Francisco, and processed my way through the local schools. I owned that street in a way only a child can, and could easily have been one of the teenagers in the historical shots with which the film begins. I was the hippy jam in the sandwich between an older working class San Francisco, and the Gay community.

I liked the film, but more than this it put me in mind of that neighbourhood before the Gay revolution – the storefront theatres that showed silent movies to the overwhelming smell of dope; the Castro Theatre (25 cents for a double bill and a floor sticky with someone else’s spilt coke), the Italian deli, the five and dime; the old fashioned candy store and the green and white street cars and electric buses – the smell of the ocean, wet wool, and fog.

But, as well as being a bullied hippy in the local schools (in retrospect my habit of riding a unicycle to school in a top hat, while wearing a peasant smock, was ill-advised), I was also part of a wider community. My mother and grandparents were Italian, and that meant I had some connections with the Irish, Filipino and Chicano communities, which with the Italians, were knitted together by unionism and the church, and which dominated the neighbourhood. My school friends were all confirmed, and to ignore St Patrick’s Day was to invite serious physical abuse. I never wore the local boy’s uniform of Ben Davis black jeans, a white shirt (a blue striped one for work), blue canvas jacket, and shiny black shoes, but I knew I should have done. I also went to James Lick Junior High School (Castro and 26th St.) – an institution designed to produce boys and girls able to work on the docks and in light manufacture, as electricians and carpenters, ship's pilots and engineers, and as secretaries and seamstresses. Carlos Santana is the school's only famous alumni.

Milk is a great story of the political liberation of the Gay community – all those kids running away from Minnesota and Kansas; small town Mississippi and rural Oklahoma. The rise of identity politics that it charts is a wonderful one that needs to be celebrated. But, the new community created in the process was located just in my neighbourhood; just in those few streets I thought were my own.

It is not my sense of loss, however, that strikes me now. I used to be angry that the ‘New York street games Olympics’ was first held at my school in San Francisco (the notion that there was an equally vibrant local kid’s culture was simply laughed at). Instead, Milk brought to mind that older working class, Irish, Italian, Filipino, and Chicano community that was destroyed in the process of creating this new politics of identity.

What is not reflected in Milk is the pre-existence of a wider working class politics, and union based socialism that had been at the heart of local San Francisco politics for sixty years (in hard-fought competition with big-money republicanism). Harry Bridges, the leader of the communist inspired San Francisco general strike and west coast dock workers action of 1934 was still living in the neighbourhood in the 1970s (I met him once and his daughter was a contemporary of mine at James Lick Junior High).

The killer, Dan White is used to represent all those traditions. And at some level, I cannot help but recognise in him the Catholic firemen and policemen, plumbers, painters and electricians (and managers of clean-room silicon chip manufacturing sites) that my schoolmates went on to become. But these were not illiberal bigots. They were inheritors of American socialism; of the dream of seeing working people able to care for their children; to see them educated and secure.

Harvey Milk was a Republican, a small business man, a libertarian; and identity politics is libertarian in its very marrow. The problem, for me, for the morality I learned on the streets of San Francisco, is that those identities and that politics don’t seem to leave a lot of room for working men and women, for children and old people, for all those individuals whose ‘identity’ isn’t quite special enough.

Towards the end of the film Milk is shown parroting the rightwing line of the decade – America, “love or leave it”. I left it in favour of the Western European welfare state, and I have not a single regret in having done so. But the film made me want to pay homage to and to mark the passing of a working class politics that once held sway in San Francisco. If it was in part socially conservative and intolerant of difference, it also cared for the weak, and sought to make simple labour and social contribution something that defined a life well spent.