I’ve been trying to reconcile my emotions about this incident since the story first broke. Beyond the anger, there’s such an intense and overarching sense of ennui that’s it really difficult to describe.
Here’s the thing: in order to exist in America and go about my life, I need to basically forget that things like this happen with an alarming frequency. I need to forget that they tend to happen to people who look a lot like me. I need to forget that if the worst does happen, people are going to try to reverse-engineer my life so that it’s my fault I got shot by a cop. I try to tell myself that I’m different. I’ve got a good education, I’m firmly entrenched in the middle class and I’m married to boot. But I’m not different. I am Trayvon Martin. I am Micheal Brown. The fact that I pretend I’m not is just a useful fiction to get me through the day. Because to really sit and think about what these incidents mean in a larger context makes me want to draw the blinds and never leave my house. Of course if you ask the Chamberlain family from White Plains New York, even that isn’t enough to keep you safe. The point is none of my privileges, which are many, mean much when people run up on you with a gun. Case in point:
So, I’m about thirteen years old and mom has this cough that will not quit. I remember being slightly worried because my mother called out of work that Friday. And she NEVER missed work. For context’s sake, 20 years later we had to make her stop working while she was going through cancer treatment. What’s a little chemo and radiation right? But I digress. Anyway, mom was sick on Friday and still not feeling well on Saturday night when we run out of cough medicine. Our normal bodega is closed but there’s another one up Broadway that’s opened 24 hours. So I get dressed and head out to Alternate Bodega and I barely get two blocks away from my apartment when life starts to get…interesting. Suddenly, a car comes to a screeching halt onto the curb. Four men dressed in plain clothes with their hands on their weapons start barking expletive-laden orders at me. Conflicting orders mind you. One was saying something like “Show me your fucking hands.” Another “Don’t move!” But it’s all loud, garbled and confusing. My fight or flight response gets totally fucked inside my head and I just freeze. You know how in television shows police officers always identify themselves? Yeah, well that doesn’t always happen in real life. Again, I’m frozen in place not knowing what I should do. Too scared to do anything really. I still don’t know who these random dudes in an unmarked car are. It wasn’t until what turned out to be officer number two in the back passenger seat showed me a badge and told me to slowly walk towards their car that I knew that they were police at all. My legs finally start listening to me as I slowly plod forward. They question me and check me for weapons. I of course have neither. No ID, either. What I do have is a story that must have sounded ridiculous to them. I mean sick mother? Really?? So what was this all about anyway?
According to Officer #2, there had been a spate of push-in robberies in the neighborhood. I just so happened to “fit the description.” Man, skinny nerdy looking kids with glasses sure do look dangerous. They let me go with a warning if you can believe that. I think about that night and many others like it whenever one of these cases happen. The sheer randomness of it all. The what-ifs. Like if I had run like I wanted to, would I be here pontificating online? What if Officer #2 wasn’t there to vaguely calm the situation down and actually identify himself as a police officer? Officer #1 had the look of a man who’d really like to take his aggression out on you. I think about it all. I think about it because I was pretty certain that I was going to die that night. And if you’ve never thought to yourself that you’d die in a hail of bullets for no other reason than leaving your house, you my friends are very privileged individuals.
What an amazing world to live in that must be. A world where the authorities take the whole ideal of To Protect and Serve and applied it to every community. A place where I could get, if not the benefit of the doubt, at least a modicum of respect and self-restraint. But that’s not the world I lived. I exist in a world where my very presence alone is considered suspicious. Dangerous even. I walk around knowing there’s a good chance that I will be stopped, harassed and have to give an accounting of who I am and what exactly I’m doing wherever I happen to be. Now let’s go back to my childhood anecdote and change a few elements — just starting with the neighborhood and my own race. Let’s say that there was a spate of push-in robberies occurring on the Upper East Side of Manhattan rather than an area synonymous with urban blight like the neighborhoods in Brooklyn where I grew up. If you think a white kid in Carnegie Hill would be rolled up on the way I was, with officers cursing orders at him, guns ready to be drawn, before even identifying themselves, I kindly encourage you to take your head from your ass.
People look at the police overreaction towards the people of Ferguson Missouri as a shocking image of the over militarization of the police. And that subject deserves its own post. But as usual the media is focused on the wrong element of the story. All of the SWAT gear, the gas masks, and armored personal carriers roaming the streets are definitely worth mentioning but that’s not the real essence of the problem. It’s the mindset and attitude that has so-called peace officers screaming “BRING IT, ALL YOU FUCKING ANIMALS. BRING IT!” that’s really at issue here. It’s the casually pointing assault rifles at unarmed civilians that’s the problem. Particularly when yelling things like “I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU. GET BACK!” The heavy artillery makes for dynamic videos and still pictures for the press. Just like in the movies, the bigger the artillery, the more people are likely to pay attention. But the underlying power dynamic here is the real threat — and I can tell you from personal experience that the mindset and attitude where those we’ve charged with the task to “protect and serve” seem to be hoping for a reason to ruin your day and possibly your life. It’s something I’ve dealt with way too many times. And in those moments, whether they have a standard issue Glock 19 or an AR-15 Bushmaster Assault Rifle is almost besides the point.
It’s also impossible to reconcile how my friends and loved ones see me with how I’m perceived in America at large. Again, I have to try to not think about these things. Because it doesn’t really matter what fancy schools I’ve attended, what degrees I possess, or how fast I’m ascending the corporate ladder at work. None of that matters in the face of these other facts that I try in vain not to think about, but permeate absolutely everything. The fact that my life is worth much less than another person. The fact that my actions, no matter how innocuous, can be considered dangerous. Perhaps my picture on social media with me giving the peace sign will be attributed to me having some sort of gang affiliation. It happened to Michael Brown, the victim of this latest tragedy, and Police Chief Johnson. It’s a rare thing indeed when both the victim and the police chief are both accused of being in a gang. To be fair to the people that thought that the Police Chief was flashing gang signs, yes he’s an educated man with a sterling reputation, and decades on the force, but look at him. Doesn’t something about him seem gang-related?
And that’s the level that lots of this sort of thinking operates. You wouldn’t think that something as simple as a sweater with a hood on it, could be transformed into some sort of universal-dangerous-thug-uniform. But through the tortured mental gymnastics required to believe that we don’t have serious issues with race in America, why not. Remember when Gerardo Rivera said that the main reason Trayvon Martin died was because of how he dressed. And then, Bill O’Reilly joined the festivities later with that exact line of thinking. Remember, this was not, I repeat, not about race whatsoever. It was just about the way Trayvon Martin dressed. Certainly, those two hosts would never be seen styling themselves in the trappings of a gangster hoodies. Right?
Wrong. Man that looks dangerous. How did those two thugs penetrate the increased veil of security at the new Yankee Stadium? But despite that level of tone-deaf hypocrisy, I’ve got much bigger fish to fry.
The fact that if my life is snuffed out by the police or some random vigilante, my family is going to have to go to media outlets specifically to assert my latent humanity. Apparently, it would never occur to anyone that I didn’t deserve to die in the streets horribly unless my nieces are on TV telling folks that I taught them how to play chess, and play Just Dance with them. Having to assert your humanity is exactly the problem.
Speaking of children, how does one explain this to them? No kids currently but I do have two nine-year-old nieces who are under the impression that the world of full of nothing but promise and possibility. It seems cruel to disabuse them of that notion. To beat that sort of hope out of them. It seems cruel not to as well because they are going to have to deal with the world’s perception of them. How does one explain that we live in a world where James Holmes, the gunman who killed a dozen people and injured fifty more out in the Aurora Colorado theater was taken alive, but unarmed people who look like me are killed with frightening regularity? (By some estimates one every twenty-eight hours.) That Zimmerman got to Stand his Ground in the murder of an unarmed teenager but Marissa Alexander, who simply fired a warning shot into a wall, hurting no one, as opposed to into the body of her abusive fiance’ who was threatening her life, is facing three counts of aggravated assault and the possibility of 20 years in jail? That it was surprising to me Reneisha’s McBride’s murderer was actually convicted. Ms. McBride would be the young lady who knocked on a door looking for help after a car accident only to be met with a shotgun blast to the face. It should not be surprising when people are convicted of killing brown people they admittedly murdered. But when you say the magic words “I was in fear for my life” an add a brown face, that’s usually a recipe for an acquittal.
I hate to think about all of these things because to be a Blatino in America is consider your own death much more than polite conversation allows. It’s to regard a day that only has a moderate measure harassment as a decent one. After all, it could have been so much worse. It’s to forfeit the outward display of righteous indignation; no matter if the person harassing you has power bestowed upon them through the people via our government or just some random vigilante who appointed himself neighborhood watch commander. It’s to be pathologized with made up phrases like “wilding” and black on black crime statistics to make urban crime perpetrated by people of color seem oh so much more dangerous. A point satirized marvelously by Matthew Iglesias over at Vox. Yet somehow all of these things are never about race. Even when the Ann Coulters of the world bring up black crime in the context of mass shootings perpetrated by white men with white victims. Nope. Not about race in the least there. So let’s try something new.
As opposed to bending over backwards to attempting to avoid the sad realties of race in America ala Fox News and many other parts of the mainstream press, let’s go another direction entirely. They say admitting you have a problem is the first step. Let’s just get on with it already. I’m tired of being treated like an outsider in my own country simply because I have the temerity to leave my house.
America, I don’t think you know how this shit looks.
Categories: Random Rant
As human beings we do make snap judgements based on how things ‘look’, especially in tense situations (regardless of who made them tense in the first place). The question we should give some real attention is whether that’s a part of our psychology we want to keep. I know we as a species (or possibly just as a culture? another thing to look into.) don’t like to hear that we can and therefore should consider changing ourselves, but I guarantee we’ve made bigger changes to our mindsets between the time when we lived in caves literally fighting creatures 20 times our size to survive and the time when we came to see suburban living as normal. We can figure this out if we put some willpower behind it.