Today, while riding the train home, I️ was suddenly confronted by an unpleasant scent — a mix of vomit and urine, and maybe hints of alcohol.
It made me want to vomit.
There were others in the train car who also smelled the fumes, who covered their noses with their shirts, jackets, and hands, in attempts to minimize the stench — all of us looking around the car to trace the smell's source. Looking around me, it was clear that my nose wasn't just being sensitive, and there was a consensus among this mutli-ethnic, multi-class group: The train car smelled. And it was because of the homeless man seated in our train car.
As we all rode along, his odor encroaching on our olfactory nerves, many tried to indirectly, maybe politely, request that the man relocate, but to no avail. No direct statement was made about our desire for him to remove himself from the car, nor did we direct our attention to consider how he might’ve gotten into this situation.
Instead, our instincts were to immediately demonize him, denigrate his presence, and be reviled by his being — to try to ignore him and his stench, and to impatiently wait for our stops while simultaneously being irked that he'd selfishly inconvenience us in this way. We refused to wrestle with the strong scents of exclusion and addiction emanating from his seat, likely interwoven with stories of personal pain, trauma, and injustice.
While this moment might have been inconsequential for many, I was forced to wrestle with my personal convictions and values, the impetus for much of my "justice-minded" research. In fact, having just finished an Urban Sociology seminar during which we discussed the Right to the City (a la Lefbvre), and how it's necessary for us to re-think and re-frame who is entitled to the use of public urban space, or else we further exclude the disenfranchised (such as the homeless), I was confronted by the lessons from class today, and forced to further reflect on my own biases, expectations, and convictions.
I asked myself:
Do I️ feel entitled to a world removed from unpleasant scents? When there is a sensory invasion on my life, and I come face-to-face with the stench of injustice but instinctively want to flee or protect myself, what is the "correct" response? What should be our collective response?
Truthfully, I’m not sure where to go with these questions just yet. It is this interplay and struggle between the individual v. collective that makes justice so hard to grasp. But I also wonder if it's helpful to have these real-life run-ins that force us to sit and "smell the roses" (or lack thereof). To come face-to-face with social inequality, injustice, and exclusion, and not be removed from their existence, and persistence.
On this important day of elections across the nation, I'm also forced to wonder if this is an important lesson for a large portion of our politicians, and whether or not they are grounded in the everyday experiences of the American people.
From my vantage point, I question if our current government officials truly seek a society that's inclusive and just, or just exploitative. For instance, the GOP's recent proposal to tax graduate students for their tuition waivers is a prime example of putting profits over people, and having no sense of the realities we face. Essentially, the bill states that, due to my tuition waiver, I should be taxed at an income level of $90k/year, vs. the $30k stipend I actually earn. Oh, and many of the richest elites get tax breaks... This proposal not only endangers higher education and graduate students, but it builds walls of exclusion in terms of who can access higher education and be intellectually credentialed in our nation.
Thus, looking back on my day, I ask:
What would it take for the GOP to smell injustice & marginalization? How do we get their attention?
How do we force them to sit in the stench of the American people?
As I sit and ponder these questions, I'm encouraged by the results of the elections: of a trans woman's victory over the "bathroom ban" bill writer, the election of a civil rights lawyer to the position of chief prosecutor in Philly. These are my type of politicians: people who are fighting for justice, and grounded in the struggles that may not be their own, but strive to address injustice and foster inclusion.
May their positions not remove them from such experiences but allow them to address inequality & injustice, and may we come alongside them in choosing to sit in those places with them, and to help in the dirty, smelly work.
What do you think? Does this tax bill make you want to vomit? How do we, individually and collectively, continue to tackle issues of injustice, both large and small?