It’s been said that fiction mirrors reality. Sometimes fiction, like a mirror, can also help us see our reality from different angles. The Deep Space Nine two parter “Past Tense” is one of those mirrors. I first watched it probably a year and a half ago. While listening to analysis of some current events I thought of it again and went back to re-watch. The first time through I thought to myself that I could definitely see something like this happening in our time. Now something like that has happened. “Past Tense” has some striking parallels to recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities in the U.S.
The premise of these episodes is that Commander Sisko, Dr. Bashir and Lieutenant Dax are transported back in time to San Francisco, to the year 2024. Sisko and Bashir are found by two guards and taken to a “sanctuary,” while Dax is found and helped by a wealthy businessman. Sisko explains to Bashir what the sanctuaries are; they are walled enclaves created for the poor, ostensibly to provide them with food and shelter while they find jobs. In reality they’re nothing more than a prison where the rest of society can keep them out of sight.
Sisko realizes they have arrived days before the Bell Riots, a watershed moment in 21st century earth’s history. Residents of the sanctuary are about to rise up, take district employees hostage, and demand change. In the process of pacifying the sanctuary, hundreds will be killed by government officers. This will cause outrage and lead to the closing of the sanctuaries and real progress. It’s the first step in a long process that leads to the future of Star Trek that we know.
There is a lot to unpack in these episodes. A guard attacking a “dim,” a person with mental illness of some kind, triggers the riots. Whether or not there was a just cause for this is unknown. For the people living in the sanctuary, it’s the latest in a long list of injustices they’ve suffered while forced to live there. A fight breaks out between residents and the guard, and then everything erupts into chaos.
This is eerily like what happened recently in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. The death of a black man at the hands of police caused outrage. The choking death of Eric Garner by New York police happened around this time, too. Peaceful protests were part of the reaction, as was violent rioting. Similar incidents happened in Oakland, California in 2009 after a white Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer shot and killed Oscar Grant, a young black man, and in 2011 in San Francisco after BART officers killed another black man.
Many of these have happened back to back and have gotten a lot of media attention. These aren’t the only incidents like this in recent times, but are some of the more well known. As in “Past Tense,” the people involved have been dealing with police violence for years. I’m not intending to argue whether the violence in any of these cases was justified or not, but rather pointing out the pattern. Black Americans have dealt with police brutality and suspicion longer than it’s been in the news. As B.C., one of the leaders of the riot, said in the episode, “When you treat people like animals you’re gonna get bit.”
Race, while certainly a huge factor in the incidents, isn’t the only issue. Poverty plays a large role. African Americans and other low-income citizens are frequently forced into poorer areas of cities, cut off from the resources they need to better their situations. Violence is a problem in poor neighborhoods, there is less access to quality food and healthcare, and the public schools are frequently overcrowded and under-funded. While we haven’t put walls around the poor in America, as they do in the sanctuaries, the circumstances they’re forced to live in are just as hard to overcome as physical walls. How do you go to college if your local school doesn’t prepare you? How do you get a good job if you haven’t gone to college, or even finished high school?
The way the characters in this episode portray the “Gimmes” sounds like our world, too. The name “gimme” says a lot itself. There is an assumption made that those on public assistance are lazy, not willing to work, and just looking for handouts. The “Welfare Queen” stereotype comes to mind here. The Gimmes in the sanctuaries get ration chips, and wait in long lines for the basics like food and water. Initially promised jobs, they are given nothing beyond the bare minimum to survive. With budget cuts to a lot of state and federal assistance programs in the U.S., this is becoming real for us.
The treatment of the mentally ill in this episode hits close to reality, too. The Dims, rather than being given treatment and rehabilitated, and are put into the sanctuaries to sort themselves out. Bashir says that even in this time there are effective treatments for many of their problems. They could lead normal and fulfilling lives if only someone took the time to care about them. I know that lack of mental health facilities is a huge problem in my own state. There are waiting lists for beds, and in the meantime, the mentally ill are either left on the streets or put into jails and prisons. I’m sure the same thing is happening elsewhere.
None of these problems are new for us. The national attention they’re getting through the protests and riots is, though. This is a good thing. Sisko explains to Bashir that the people in the sanctuaries are there because society has given up on finding a solution. They hope that if they just put them somewhere out of sight the problem will fix itself. Bashir says, “Causing people to suffer because you hate them… is terrible. But causing people to suffer because you have forgotten how to care… that’s really hard to understand.”
Everything wrong with the world seems so overwhelming that most people pretend it isn’t there and hope for the best. A huge part of why the Bell Riots caused real change in the Star Trek world was that the people were able to tell their stories. One of the most powerful scenes in the episode is a line of people walking up to the Net terminal and telling their stories to everyone around the world watching. They put faces and names to the suffering.
Jadzia is instrumental in getting the sanctuary residents access to the Net to tell their side. She befriended Chris Brynner, the owner of a technology company who helps her get them online. The government and media had portrayed the riots as unwarranted violence, with nothing heard from the people inside. This isn’t foreign to us. In 2011 BART blocked cell phone access in their transit stations in San Francisco to prevent protesters from communicating. The leaders of oppressive regimes in countries like Iran have done the same thing. They’ve cut their citizens off from the internet to keep them from organizing for change.
The Internet and social media are powerful tools. The modern media is not always independent or unbiased. Instead of hearing only the narrative given by them, we can now go to the internet to hear directly from the people involved. We can get different sides of the story. Cell phone videos have been instrumental evidence in the trials for many of these famous cases. They get posted online where thousands see them. And, like in “Past Tense,” they make people aware of what is happening and inspire empathy. The awareness brings outrage and the demand for change.
It may seem like these episodes are dark and full of hopelessness, but they really aren’t. They show that while terrible things can continue happening, eventually society will reach a point where change is inevitable. The deaths of hundreds of sanctuary residents leads to the abolition of the sanctuaries, and starts them on a path toward fixing many of their social problems.
The same thing is possible in our world, too. As long as we become aware of what is happening and have empathy for the suffering of our fellow humans, we can do good. When the real Gabriel Bell is killed and the timeline altered, Kira, Odo and O’Brien, in orbit on the Defiant, discover that Starfleet has disappeared. Without what happened in San Francisco during the Bell Riots, none of the future was possible. Which of those futures do we want? The one where we never make peace and leave our planet, or the one where we’re out exploring the stars?
Michelle lives in Fargo, ND, where she does normal people things by day and nerdy things by weekend and night. Her interests range from Star Trek, to history, archaeology, languages, fantasy and sci-fi, and cats.
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