Monday, August 25, 2014

My police tale-- a very rough draft of First Impressions

So today another family will bury another black child in front of the nation.

We did this two years ago in Florida. Then we wore hoodies. This time we take selfies with our hands up and hold signs that say “Don’t Shoot.”

In Missouri a woman buries her child, while I sent my children to school. They smiled, they laughed as they jumped into the card loaded down with school supplies, Kleenex and Clorox wipes. They were happy. I couldn’t’ help but think of Lesly McSpadden as my kids ran into their building.

Lots of people will have many things to say today. There will be pundits, politicians, journalists, and “ordinary” people who have opinions on what happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

As I type this I shake. I feel feverish. I want to stand on my desk and yell at the indignity of a child not going to school ever again, and a mother having to sit through two hours of talking. And more talking, when all she wants is for her child to wake up. Just wake up one more time, so she could say she loved him. Or tell him she was sorry for something little she had yelled at him at earlier. Just one more moment. Just one. It’s a good thing I’m at work, I can’t lose my job…yet. But I need to talk about this. I need to feel this.

Not because Michael Brown is black and I’m black, and I have black children, and I’m mourning along with his mother and I worry about my husband and children in our very “diverse” neighborhood and whether the police station down the street will stop them on Glenwood Avenue in our bright red mini-van and have my seven year old get out of the car and raise her hands while officers yell, “guns down, guns down” while my husband is cuffed in front of them. Oh no, it’s not that.

And it’s not because I have a charismatic son who cracks jokes in serious situations and my husband and I have already started to tell him to become serious and focus and be calm. Oh no. It’s not that either.  
It’s because I too have a police story.

I had a charmed childhood. My life was filled with books, and family, and summer camps.  My family was middle class. We lived in a middle class building in a middle class neighborhood with lots of different people. My mother gave me the same speech that lots of children received, “If you ever get lost or you’re in trouble find a policeman. They’ll help you.” My mother was and is a believer in “People will do and be the right thing at the right time.” The police were our friends.

And in our neighborhood it was easy to find one.

They were always on Burke Avenue in front of Three Boys Pizzeria. The only restaurant or business in the area not to have been robbed or bothered by the mob or anyone else for that matter. Sometimes the police van would be parked outside the pizzeria, and 5 or 6 cops would be sitting inside eating pizza.  The policemen walked around our neighborhood. I’m not sure if they knew me or not, but I passed them every day.  

When I was sixteen a man I had known all my life pulled me into his car after I refused his advances. Once he had pulled me in, I started screaming and was able to get the window down. The man told me if I kept screaming he’d kill me. But it was too late, the policeman was walking towards us. He wanted to take off, but didn't. He warned me again to say nothing. The policeman came over and asked if there was a problem. The man I was with said no. Then he lied to the cop and said my parents had asked him to pick me up for them. That I was mentally unstable and He was taking me home. I kept saying he was lying, had tears in my eyes and was begging him to open the door. Instead the police office said to me gruffly, “Quiet! He’s not going to hurt you!” Then it dawned on me: they knew each other. Then he said to my captor, “Yeah, these girls can get out of control sometimes can’t they? You go have a good time.” Then he looked at me again and said, “Behave yourself!” And then he walked away. I was stunned and just cried more. A policeman had thrown me to the wolves. This is not the way this was supposed to happen. Not even taking the time to think about what was happening didn't look normal. Or that I was 16 and the man was at least 45.  To the police officer I was a non-entity. The rest is a blur...for now it is.

Do I blame the police officer? Yep. But it’s also made me wonder what type of people make up this force that is supposed to be taking care of us or watching over us.  I was 16. Yes I had done some stupid shit as a kid. I had shoplifted bubble yum from the pharmacy on the corner, and had taken quarters out of my father’s side bag when I was younger, and I had forged my mother’s name on a note when I was 7.  But did I deserve to be ignored by the policeman? Was I really unimportant?  I had rights didn’t I? But ultimately I’ve realized:

That cop failed me on that day.

But the institution of the police is failing all of us, not just Black people. There is a fundamental problem with the institution of policing. We all think we can do it. We all think that we can just get up there and put on a uniform and judge what is right and wrong and enforce the laws as we see them just because we go through an academy with admissions standards lower than some of the worst for-profit colleges in the country.

The reality is, we can’t all be the police.

Being a police officer is a thankless job (in no way am I supporting the police with that statement). But it’s a job that comes with a very nifty accessory, a gun. A gun that puts power in the hands of people who refuse to recognize that they police human beings, not perps. And the reality is that many of our police force are doing a job that others don’t want to do. That’s a fact. I don’t see Harvard graduates trading in their degrees and becoming police officers.  So what happens when there is job that others don’t want to do or feel that is beneath them? You get people who are not equipped or unable to get the education that’s needed to look after a diverse (I hate that word) population. You would think from the way the media talks about the black community and the Latino community that being a policeman would be a fantastic job for us. But they’ll never feel comfortable giving people of color that many guns.

The police need to know there are human beings in these neighborhoods. That’s why when Captain Johnson came out and said, “This is my community.” So many people were awed and impressed. He lives here? He knows what’s going on? He wears a police uniform? And people gravitated to his space, they wanted to tell him their stories. He wasn't intimidating and scary and off the beaten path. He is a smart man with an understanding that human beings live in these neighborhoods. That there are TAXPAYERS who live here, and that there are young people who are in pain. What’s wrong with demanding that police officers live in the cities they police? I’m from New York. I can’t tell you how many of my friends tell me of their family members who are police who live in Long Island (which is not a borough) or in Yonkers, or Westchester.  I’m not saying live in the city to punish the cops, but to see the people they police as their neighbors instead of criminals. Be able to see 17 and 18 year old boys simply as boys who get in trouble from time to time but aren't the next coming of evil.  I’m not asking for the White Shadow motif, I just think that if you have a gun and you’re willing to use it, you need to know who you’re using it on, and when you should use it. 

Last week I watched men, women, and children get tear gassed by the police. Hell, I didn't even know the police had tear gas. Tear gas? In 2014? Really?. In the United States of America I saw Americans tear gassing other Americans. I heard the same tired refrains about tragedies, and how Mike Brown deserved to be killed (by the New York Times no less) and how the officer was within his rights. I watched a woman have to talk about her child, again, and again, and again to the media as though he were an object and not a child. I saw an unrepentant media (with the exception of Elon James White and others in the independent media, not you  Don Lemon) prop this boy up as the poster boy for all their manufactured fears of black men and boys in this country. I felt nauseous as I thought of one of my own children lying on the ground.

And I’m petrified of them. Partly because I don’t believe they’d protect my children now, but also because they hadn't protected me then.