“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Privatized Firefighters for the Wealthy: Kardashian and West Save Mansion
Many wealthy clients pay more for private firefighters in 6 months than civil servant firefighters earn in a year.
With the Woolsey fire having scorched almost 100,000 acres and claimed 59 lives as of Thursday, some homes are safer than others. Private firefighters in the employ of select insurance companies protect homes of those who can afford the fee.
Take Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's $50-60 million home, for instance. When the fires approached the closed community of Hidden Hills, California where the Wests and other high profile figures reside, private firefighters were able to save the community from ashen ruin.
Kardashian West shared her fears and gratitude on Twitter last week, posting, "I heard the flames have hit our property at our home in Hidden Hills but now are more contained and have stopped at the moment...God is good. I'm just praying everyone is safe."
I heard the flames have hit our property at our home in Hidden Hills but now are more contained and have stopped at… https://t.co/XXBip2KS1x— Kim Kardashian West (@Kim Kardashian West) 1541803079.0
While no one begrudges the preservation of home and personal safety, the elite community's usage of private firefighters sounds alarms of celebrity privilege out of control, capitalist evaluation of human life, and class differences demarcating who survives natural disasters. Insurance companies are already built on predatory privatization, but some like AIG and Chubb offer private Wildfire Defense Systems. In California, Chubb runs 53 engines to protect around 1,000 fee-payers' homes.
Yet privatized firefighting is far from novel. In fact, the practice invokes a shameful history of privatized life-saving services that dates back to 18th century London. In the U.S. before governments became centralized to fund public services like fire departments, those jobs were seen as a civic duty. Volunteer "fire clubs" were respected pillars in society wherein men were proud to defend their local communities.
However, reviving private contractors to specialize public-goods services speaks to concerns about quality and accessibility–not to mention elitism. Author and historian Amy Greenberg surveyed the legacy of fire departments in her book Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City. In an email to The Atlantic, she finds the notion of celebrities' firefighters alarming.
Greenberg stated, "This isn't a story of the kooky Kardashians doing things in the most publicity-friendly manner possible. It's a story of the ramifications of economic disparity in this country. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted." She continued, "Firefighters are consistently ranked the most beloved public servants, not just because they look good on calendars but because they treat everyone equally. Rich people don't get their own 'better' firefighters, or at least they aren't supposed to."
Are private firefighters better? AIG's firefighters are certified through state or local authorities. According to AIG's website, "The Wildfire Protection Unit is not a private fire department; it's a loss mitigation service designed to pre-empt damage well before a wildfire even ignites." Policyholders qualify for private services by paying premiums of at least $10,000 to protect homes valued at $1 million minimum. In return, approximately 256 private firefighting companies offer services such as "complimentary" at-home consultations, ongoing monitoring from 24/7 "specialists" who track fire conditions, and treatments of their property with flame retardants, in addition to dispatched "wildfire mitigation specialists" in the event of fire emergencies.
NBC reports that 42% of Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans are enrolled in AIG protection.
After Hidden Hills was spared from fire damage, Kardashian West followed up with a tweet commending and thanking California firefighters, urging those who can to support and donate the California Fire Foundation, which is a non-profit organization that supports state-employed firefighters, their families, and communities.
Grateful for the heroic @CAFirefighters battling the #CampFire #HillFire and #WoolseyFire and getting people to saf… https://t.co/Al7zr1k6l7— Kim Kardashian West (@Kim Kardashian West) 1541886262.0
While the message is universally agreeable, the messenger would be laughable if it weren't so egregious. The firefighters who saved the Kardashian-West neighborhood were private employees for clients who can pay at least $10,000 per month for their protection. While no less courageous, they were not civil servants. According to Business Insider, the approximate 13,000 California state firefighters laboring to contain loss of life and property earn an average yearly salary of $58,000, or $33 an hour.
- Kim and Kanye hire private firefighters to save neighborhood ›
- Kim Kardashian and Kanye West Hire Private Firefighters to Control ... ›
- Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hire private firefighters to save ... ›
- Kim Kardashian and Kanye West 'paid for private firefighters' during ... ›
- Kim Kardashian and Kanye West Hired Private Firefighters to Protect ... ›
- Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hire private firefighters to save ... ›
- Kim Kardashian and Kanye West Pay for Private Firefighters While ... ›
- Kim Kardashian and the Rise of Private Firefighting - The Atlantic ›
- Kim Kardashian, Kanye West Hire Private Firefighters for Woolsey ... ›
- Kim Kardashian and Kanye West Hire Private Firefighters, Save ... ›