Thursday, December 4, 2014

Hunger Games in America

This past week I’ve been watching the first two Hunger Games movies in preparation for the third that will be in theaters soon. The story is set in the future and it follows the lives of Katniss and Peeta, 16 year olds who are "tributes" in the annual Hunger Games. These games have been going on for 74 years (in the first movie)in the country of Panem–which appears to be a futuristic reconstituting of the United States and Canada -- and consist of choosing a male and female tribute from each of 12 districts, chosen from all those between the ages of 12-18. It’s call The Reaping and each eligible child’s name is place in a bowl; one is randomly chosen to be that year’s tribute.

The tributes are then sent to the Capitol where they are trained, interviewed and generally paraded about for the entertainment of the citizens of the Capitol. Finally, they are released into a computer controlled "natural" environment where they must fight each other to the death until only one remains: the Victor.

Why would the world allow such a horrific nightmarish version of "Survivor?" It’s simple. There was an uprising over 75 years ago, with the 13 districts attempting a coup over the controlling Capitol. The districts were forced back down, district 13 was annihilated, and the Capitol initiated the Hunger Games as a way of keeping the districts in their place, a reminder that for those outside the Capitol, life is dangerous and unkind and the only way to survive is to fight one another rather than the forces of greed and power and domination that comprise the government and citizens of the Capitol.

So for over 75 years, the people of the different districts have lived divided lives; they separated from one another by what their districts offer in terms of supporting the Capitol. Three of the districts are known as Career districts; they are wealthy because their services are in high demand (perfumers, masons, supplying seafood) while the remaining 9 districts supply coal, technology and other things but live in abject poverty. The Capitol will give extra food to a family who is starving, but at a cost. Their eligible youth will have their names added more times in exchange for this small amount of food and grain. Because the three Career districts don’t have to worry about their day to day survival, they actually train their children for the Hunger Games and eligible youth will volunteer to be the tributes each year. They have the highest amounts of victors.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I have been thinking of how we live in our own version of Panem in these days. We live in a culture in which those with power and money and the right skin color control those of us without those things. We live in a culture, in these days, in which every day there is a Reaping among the less fortunate and people are killed in some unofficial Hunger Game which rewards those with the most violence, those who use what little power they have (such as the Careers) to defeat and dominate those who have even less.

We live in a culture, in these days, in which we are pitted against one another as surely as the districts are in the Hunger Games and, as long as we are forced to fight the other tributes, we remain blinded to how the Capitol–those with money and power and influence– is the greatest threat to all of our well-being.

Twice, in a 10 day period, we have witnessed Grand Juries refusing to indict white police officers for their murder of black unarmed citizens. When you consider that of all the Grand Juries convened in our nation, only .01% come back with a decision not to indict, it is hard to imagine that race had nothing to do with these two decisions. When a black tribute is taken down by a Career tribute (police are not part of the Capitol, they just come from a more privileged District and have trained for this fight) and there is no outcry, it is because we are too busy trying to survive in our own corner of the Hunger Games.

Oh there are exceptions, of course. In the first movie, Prim, a first year 12 year old girl, is the one chosen to be the District 12 tribute, but her 16 year old sister, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. At the end of the first movie, Katniss and Peeta, her male counterpart from District 12, are the two remaining tributes. Rather than one of them kill the other, they choose to take their lives together, as an act of solidarity. The Game Maker immediately stops the game and declares them both Victors.

And while the person selecting the names in each District always begins with the saying, "May the odds be ever in your favor," of course the odds are not equally weighted. There are those with more chances of being picked because they traded that possibility for more food, and each consecutive year you’re eligible, your name is added again, so a 13 year old has his/her name in twice, a 14 year old, 3 times, and so on. So that the odds are increased that you WILL have to play this game simply by virtue of you having survived another year.

And this is definitely true for young men of color in particular and for all who don’t fit into the Capitol’s norm. Even those in Career districts who are comfortable and feel secure are being manipulated by the powers that be. You know this is true if you say, "Well, they looked menacing. They were in the wrong neighborhood. He was shoplifting! He was selling untaxed cigarettes!" As if this would excuse the way in which the officers shot down one and killed the other in choke hold that has been outlawed for 21 years. Do you see how similar that is to saying, "She was asking for it! She shouldn’t have that short dress? She shouldn’t have been walking alone in that neighborhood?" when we speak of rape victims? Say rape victims of young white high school athletes who are demonized while the perpetrators play in Friday night’s big game? Do you see how that plays into the Capitol’s hand? ***

This is also true if you say, "A white person in the same situation would have had the same results." This ignores the fact that the odds aren’t equal and that some folks (people of color, the poor, queer folk, trans folk, women) have their names in that particular bowl a hell of a lot more times than others. ***

When we do these things, not only do we turn a blind eye to the real problem of systemic racism and sexism and heterosexism that controls this game, we also fail to help those tributes who "win" like Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo escape this game we’re all in. They are victims of this manipulated setting as well.

And, like Katniss and Peeta, many have found ways to break free; to choose another way than that proscribed by the Game Maker. #### As a reviewer on said of the movie:

"this film is first and above all about much more important things: how to keep hope, not lose the courage and preserve humanity and dignity under a totalitarian oppressive regime."

And this is the star shining brightly in the darkness of these days: that there is always hope, if we work together, if we agree to stop fighting other people and instead fight the system that has held us down, that wants only to keep our attention on fighting one another so that we won’t threaten their power and wealth.

The third book is being made into two movies. The first one, as I said, is coming out soon. Having read the series, I know how this particular story ends. The one in which we are currently living though, depends upon us. Which way will we go? What plot line will we carry through? How will we end our own Hunger Games so that the odds are always ever in all of our favor? Only we can determine that. Choose well.

*** If these statements make you feel uncomfortable, I highly recommend these following articles that break down the statistical realities of racial profiling and racism inherent in our system:
Repetive Motion Disorder; Black and White Denial in America

UU World aarticle by CLF Minister Rev. Meg Riley

Article by on the ground UU minister, Rev. Krista Taves

####Click these links for articles on those who have broken free of the Game
Story behind Devonte Hart and white officer hugging

Story about white St. Louis officer gaining trust of black community without military gear

Story about someone who succeeded and hasn't forgotten those still in poverty

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