Milk passionately believed that the "true function of politics is not just to pass laws, but to give hope." note 14 If the problems of the cities are not addressed, he warned, America's cities will plunge headlong into "the real abyss that lies not too far ahead, when a disappointed people lose their hope forever. When that happens, everything we cherish will be lost." note 15 The machine had betrayed the inner-city, selling it out to "carpet-baggers who have fled to the suburbs," leaving behind omnipresent "fire hazards" in every inner city neighboorhood irregardless of ethnicity. Milk viewed American cities as smoldering tinderboxes, which--unless defused, from the inside out--would continue to violently erupt, until the entire urban infrastructure of America was consumed by flames of rage.
In his campaign speeches of 1973-1977, Milk outlined his plans to bridge the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots which "machines" across the country were creating. The core of Milk's populism was the simple belief that "the American Dream starts with the neighborhoods--if we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods." note 16 The city could only be saved by the industry of its residents, Milk maintained, not "governmental charity." Rather than "face the problems it's created," and taking "responsibility for the problems it's ignored," the machine sought to bribe the urban poor with welfare programs. note 17 Instead of empowering the urban poor, these programs had actually trapped them in "concrete jungles," caged within a vicious cycle of dependence. In order to break this dependence, Milk maintained, the neighborhoods must firmly grasp the reigns of power, in order to lead the city "down the route no major city has ever tried:
that is the route that has little room for political payoffs and deals; that is the route that leaves little in the way of power politics; that is the route of making a city an exciting place for all to live: not just an exciting place for a few to live! A place for the individual and individual rights. There is no political gain in this nonmonied route and, thus you do not find people with high political ambitions leading this way. There are no statistics to quote--no miles of highways built to brag about, no statistics of giant buildings built under your administration. What you have instead is a city that breathes, one that is alive, where the people are more important than highways. note 18
By reprioritizing government spending, Milk believed, the neighborhoods could begin the process of rebuilding the city from within, by utilizing the resources which the machine had squandered. Simply by mandating that all city employees must be residents of the city, the neighborhoods would have taken a giant step forward, Milk argued. From a fiscal standpoint, it made no sense to do otherwise, since city employees are paid with the tax revenues the city has raised from its residents. If the employee lives in the city, the money he is paid does not leave the city, but is recycled within the neighborhoods. Furthermore, exclusively employing residents of the city would ensure each distinct neighborhood that its policemen, firemen, ambulance drivers, etc., spoke the same language as it did, shared its values, understood the subtle nuances of its culture, and respected its way of life.
The city could not afford to do otherwise, Milk warned:
Unfortunately for those who would like to flee them, the problems of the cities don't stop at the city limits. There are no moats around our cities that keep the problems in. What happens in New York or San Francisco will eventually happen in San Jose. It's just a matter of time. And like the flu, it usually gets worse the further it travels. Our cities must not be abandoned. They're worth fighting for, not just by those who live in them, but by industry, commerce, unions, everyone. Not alone because they represent the past, but because they also represent the future. Your children will live there and hopefully, so will your grand-children. note 19
"You can't run a city by people who don't live there," Milk warned America, "any more than you can have an effective police force made up of people who don't live there. In either case, what you've got is an occupying army." note 20
Harvey Milk lent the power of his eloquent voice not only to the voiceless invisible minority, but to all minorities, whose voices are often lost in the gale winds of conformity that sweep the American cultural landscape. Milk often said that all he ever sought was "to open up a dialogue that involves all of us." note 21 Tragically, his assassin's bullet not only quelled his voice, but his populist vision as well. The machines ground on and the apocalyptic cycle of inner city despair against which he battled has repeated itself in Homedale and South Central Los Angeles.
Industry and business has made our country the greatest military and economic power in the world. Now I think it's time to look at our future with a realistic eye. I don't think the American Dream necessarily includes two cars in every garage and a disposal in every kitchen. What it does need is an educational system with incentives. To spend twelve years at school--almost a fifth of your life without a job at the other end is meaningless. Every ghetto child has the right to ask: Education for what? note 22
Until his voice is ressussitated, his piercing question will remain unanswered.