My column last week was written in response to what has become the typical claim of the political class during election season: Increasing numbers of Americans are helpless victims whose problems can only be solved by government.
Using homelessness as an example, I compared the expensive failures of government in cities like Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, with the success of Community First Village, a privately funded initiative in Austin. Starting small and focusing on the needs of a few, Community First has grown in just three years to the point where it is preparing to house and help 500 people -- nearly 40% of Austin’s chronically homeless population.
This week saw another example of the “can-do” attitude of private citizens. Scott Presler, a young conservative activist from northern Virginia, used his substantial social media following (he has over 300,000 followers on Twitter) to organize a one-day trash cleanup in Baltimore -- a city whose problems have recaptured the nation’s attention since President Trump tweeted about it being “rat and rodent infested” two weeks ago.
I spoke with Presler two days after the cleanup, which was, by any definition, a success. Presler stated that he was motivated to call for citizen action when he noticed that “politicians, pundits and prognosticators” criticized the president, but “no one was offering to put on gloves and go help.”
Using the hashtags #BaltimoreCleanup and #AmericansHelpingAmericans, Presler offered people the opportunity to volunteer or donate through his website, ScottPresler.org. One hundred and seventy people from Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Ohio signed up, but Presler estimates that perhaps 100 more showed up on Aug. 5 to help in the west Baltimore neighborhood at the intersection of North Fulton and Westwood Avenues. Working in two-hour shifts, volunteers -- including local residents -- cleared out 12 tons of trash in 12 hours.
Presler and his team of volunteers remind me of the Cajun Navy -- dozens of Americans from Louisiana who took their boats to Houston for rescue operations when state and federal government agencies were overwhelmed after Hurricane Harvey’s deluge. Unofficial branches of the Cajun Navy have popped up all over the country.
One would think that such efforts would be uniformly praised. But an NPR article raised questions about the Cajun Navy after the fact, asking whether the members were “heroes or hindrances” to government relief efforts. It sounds a little like sour grapes -- private citizens make the government look bad. But participants in those volunteer efforts said that government responses to crises are, as the article said, “broken, or, at best, inadequate.” And even the most effective government cannot do everything.
Presler’s critics strike the same cynical tone. The Baltimore Sun wrote a snarky editorial in which it questioned Presler’s motives and griped that his efforts reinforce “the tired image … (t)hat the poor people in this dilapidated city can’t take care of their own neighborhoods and all the public officials around them have failed as well.”
Perhaps the author(s) should talk to Presler or the residents themselves. According to Presler, residents of the neighborhood where he and his crew cleaned said that the city of Baltimore actually owns many of the abandoned buildings where the trash piles up but that city trash haulers come by only about once a year. Locals made clear that they love their city, but many are elderly, and while they can and do keep their own properties tidy, they cannot handle the volume of illegal dumping that takes place at empty buildings and lots nearby.
Is that not a failure of government? Presler’s own experience with Baltimore city government was no better. Despite multiple inquiries and efforts, he was unable to get permits to have dumpsters at the cleanup site. The permit applications weren’t denied, Presler explained; nothing was done at all. Private donations paid for the dumpsters that were brought to the site (lack of a permit notwithstanding), filled and carried away one at a time, as well as the portable toilets, food and water needed for the volunteers. (Presler says he finally heard from the city of Baltimore two days after the cleanup; his permit request was denied.)
Presler is an unabashed conservative, but he is adamant that this effort is apolitical. “It’s an act of love,” he said. “Just Americans helping Americans.” Residents of the neighborhood who are the beneficiaries of the help certainly seem to get it. And local business owners offered to help with this cleanup, and future cleanups. “The response warmed my heart,” Presler says.
Positive responses aren’t limited to Baltimore. Presler told me that he has been overwhelmed by the reaction. “We’ve already gotten inquiries from Atlanta, Houston, Detroit and Los Angeles,” he said. No doubt more will inquire. But that is precisely what should happen -- one small act inspires dozens more.
Presler’s main message is philosophical, not political. He is unfailingly optimistic -- a sentiment that is refreshing in a political climate fraught with rancor and vitriolic accusations. He points to the helpful and grateful attitudes of the cleanup participants and west Baltimore residents alike as proof of what Americans are truly capable of. “Don’t look at the color of our skin; look at our actions,” he said. “One person can make a difference. One tweet from me started a movement that’s taking the country by storm.”
Presler’s enthusiasm is matched only by his sense of humor. He closed saying, “I’m just trying to make America clean again.”
Even a small number of upbeat, committed activists like Scott Presler can transform America. And no, we don’t need the politicians in order to do it.