In the immediate hours after I posted last week, the general consensus was WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL THE COPS?
One or two people acknowledged that they understood, or could relate to, why I pushed away so hard from that idea while facing a man who wouldn’t just let me walk home, but ultimately, the consensus remained, NEXT TIME, CALL THE COPS.
At home Monday evening, Monique and I talked it out in the kitchen.
First, she assured me that I wasn’t crazy, by way of a comment left on her shared post of my last piece on Facebook. “The part about not wanting to call the police bc the guy following her is black is so true. I don’t want him following me but I don’t want him getting killed by the nypd.”
I’d also left some comments on the post, in response to some other woman I’ve never met referring to my actions as “stupidity.” Ordinarily, I do my best to not engage because I’m too old to get into arguments on Facebook about shit people are wrong about.
But this woman didn’t know me, and she really had to reason to critique my reasons, nor judge my intelligence, and, most of all, she just didn’t get it. And I couldn’t let that stand. I had to explain my position, to try to make this person see where I was coming from.
Monique said, as we stood there in our kitchen, “I feel like, unless someone has been in an interracial relationship, it’s impossible for them to understand.”
Wholeheartedly, and with gusto, I agreed.
The next day, another friend mentioned over chat that he wanted to dig into my reasons for not calling the cops, when we had some time to talk about it.
“Okay. But don’t lecture me.”
“well, it isn’t exactly a lecture…
it is more of a sociology discussion”
Rather than wait for a convenient time to talk, I encouraged him to share his thoughts.
“the boiled down point is essentially that white guilt/privilege — intended here to solely mean your awareness of a problem, but you exemption from living it — shouldn’t come in front of your personal safety.”
I bristled. I’d been waiting for that.
But I was also… a little confused. I wasn’t sure I’d expected that accusation to come from him. Not that it was even much of an accusation. It was brought up in a much more civil way than similar allegations were usually brought up, say, at my college. He just laid it out, as something for me to consider. And that’s all fine and good; he’s entitled to his thoughts and feelings, and his critique is valid. As a white woman, what good does it do if I refuse to call the cops on someone so utterly intent on being intimidating and potentially dangerous, simply because the police in this
town country consistently, fatally, fail men people of color? Who am I helping? Not calling the cops (potentially, but given statistics, likely) did more harm than good.
It’s my privilege to even have the choice — to act on the thought process that was able to play itself out. I understand that.
The next night, I met Monique for dinner before seeing HAMILTON (basically the best play in the world, forever), and talked this out a little more.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about interracial relationships. I was thinking about this from R’s point of view, though, from what he said, and he has been in interracial relationships. I think the difference is, that he’s the man in these relationships. And being worried when your son, or brother, or nephew or cousin or boyfriend steps out the house because the state fears and feels a need to control him, is what we’re talking about. It’s just a different kind of fear.”
When men worry about a woman’s safety, they’re preoccupied with potential attacks by other individuals — or maybe a group of individuals. When women are worried for the safety of their men, we’re worrying about state-sponsored, institutionalized violence. Our fear isn’t that another man (or woman) is rolling up on him with a gun, it’s that someone toting a badge is doing so.
But that brings up another point; the narrative that women, specifically women of color, are not victims of the state. Through grassroots efforts, the deaths and maltreatment of women of color is being brought to light in a way this country’s probably never before seen. So to think that the fear only works one way — could only work one way — is preposterous. Because the state isn’t only against black and brown male bodies, but is against all black and brown bodies. Our institutions were not built for equal protection of all, and though policies might have been enacted, and Amendments ratified, to untangle that giant historical clusterfuck, well, the tiny knots throughout necessitate tweezers and a more dexterous touch.
So, though I don’t usually believe in explaining myself, I do believe I owe an explanation for this lapse in judgement. And here it is.
There was the time I woke up to my boyfriend, AB, covered in light bruises and a couple of scratches. When he finally woke up (he worked late nights), he told me of how he’d been leaving his friends and walking down Roosevelt Ave., alone in the wee hours that morning.
A small gang of cops poured out of a paddy wagon and, led by a diminutive Dominican woman yelling insults in Spanish about “illegal” Mexican immigrants (which she wrongly assumed he was), proceeded to restrain him and beat him about the face and neck, also stealing his tips from that night out of his pocket.
AB took note of her badge number, which she made no effort to hide because she believed he’d opt out of action as an undocumented worker.
Just as it looked like they’d get away, a police captain happened upon the scene and investigated. AB pleaded his case, yelling to the captain about what the group had done, and in a rare turn of events, the captain listened.
He spoke with the leader of the gang, who’d already taken the driver’s seat and made to depart. He then walked over to AB, handed him back his money, apologized, and sent him on his way.
Some months before that, and shortly before Thanksgiving, 2008, AB had broken up with me, telling me to “be out by the end of the month.” I was distraught and did my best to stay out of the house for the weekend. On Saturday night, my friend J confirmed I could stay with him at his uncles’ house on Staten Island, and I got myself to the 11:30 p.m. ferry.
J picked me up at the station. The drive to his uncles’ place is about 8 minutes long. It was dark, and frozen, and I wore a puffy NorthFace coat with a fuzzy hood. J pulled up to park in front of his uncles’ house, an old, sweeping Victorian building with a beautifully landscaped front yard, and saw lights flash in his rearview mirror. The son of a cop, and having been stopped countless times before, J knew what was up, and immediately dialed his uncle upstairs.
“Uncle, I’m being pulled over, and I’m right outside the house.”
I heard his uncle through the phone. “What?? Where are you?”
“I’m in front of the house. Look outside!”
J left the line open as cops approached the car from either side.
“Do you know why we pulled you over?”
“You didn’t pull me over, I was parking. This is my house.”
“This is your house?”
“Yes. I live here with my uncles.”
One of whom, the lawyer, burst into the yard at that moment. “He lives here! J!”
A cacophony of voices. “Stay back! Stay on the lawn! Hands where we can see them!”
Another cop (for this was another group patrolling in a wagon) was walking around the car as the first one asked for J’s license and registration. J asked me to find the documents in the glove compartment, and, shaking, I handed it to him.
“Do you own this car?”
“It’s my grandmother’s.”
“It’s your grandmother’s.”
“Yeah, but she lets me drive it.”
“Where’s your grandmother now?”
“So if we spoke to her she’d say you had her permission to take her car.”
“Yes. I’m the only one who drives it. Do you want me to wake her up?”
The cop took J’s license back to the wagon. The one who’d made a lap around the car conferred with the one running his plates, who then returned after a brief, whispered conversation.
He jerked J’s door open a few inches, threw his license back at him (despite the open window), and snapped, “You have a headlight out.” He slammed the door. As quickly and quietly as they had crept up on us in front of the house, they were gone.
Inside, J’s uncle went up to bed. Standing in the kitchen, unwinding with a much-needed cocktail, J exclaimed, “Man! Barack Obama is president and I am still being profiled!”
That was the only time I was with J to experience this firsthand, but he had many other stories of similar, or scarier, situations.
And then there was K. K and I were together when the cops shot up Sean Bell and his friends outside a strip club in a part of Queens that the media and NYPD tried its level best to paint as nefarious and generally useless unless one was up to no good. I was in college, and Bell’s murder prompted heated conversations in many of my classes, toeing the line between anger and heartbreak, dabbling in fury and the urge to rise up. I listened a lot in those classes.
K is one of two boys in his family. The other is his twin. They have four sisters, were raised by their mother and aunt, and their father died of natural but tragic causes when he was very young. K is never in trouble with police.
The one exception is driving. He’s a very good driver, but he’s a cocky driver, and when he was younger, he managed to rack up speeding tickets, and hand-held device tickets, and parking tickets on parking tickets on parking tickets.
Although there was no reason for it, we held our breaths through check points on Empire Blvd., because he was a young black man driving a Lexus, with a white woman passenger. Warranted or not, we got enough shit from people in Brooklyn that it still felt very relevant.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it was, or why it was, that I started worrying about K when he would have to pick someone up, or run an errand for his mother, on any weekend night. I felt it less on weeknights, because it felt like presence was less on weeknights; because we were fairly secluded in our little corner of Brooklyn (I didn’t live with him, but I was there all the time). There was a special drop in my stomach that wouldn’t repair until he walked safely through the door of the house. My heart rate would elevate in anxiety, but not the kind that makes you an outward basket case, the kind that has the potential to drive you crazy from the inside.
I don’t hold the trademark on this fear. Women of color have their own experiences with it; listen to them. Watch. I can’t tell their truths. I speak only to mine.
One weekend in August, I was on vacation in Wisconsin, at the annual festival/shitshow my hometown throws. With comical timing, my best friend Shorty was in New York for job interview the same weekend. K gamely offered to hang out with her in my absence, and on Saturday night, he took her to see a show at The Delacorte, in Central Park.
I was chugging beer in an open field, surrounded by almost everyone in town, when I got the call that K had been arrested.
On the other end of the line, my best friend’s tiny voice barely came through the clamor of the live band a hundred yards away.
He’d been trying to make a left turn where he shouldn’t have been, and was pulled over. The cop on duty was with his captain, who, on seeing K’s outstanding parking tickets, demanded the junior cop take K in. “If it were me,” I remember K relaying the junior had said to him, “I’d let you off with a warning to take care of those tickets. But my captain’s here.”
So they asked Shorty if she had a license, and if she could drive, and they took him away. Over the next couple of hours I contacted his sister and mother, and drunkenly tried to navigate Shorty through Manhattan and back to my apartment in Brooklyn so K’s mom could come pick up the car.
For a left-hand turn and some parking tickets, K spent 26 hours in jail. Considering how Sandra Bland’s lane change went, K’s lucky.
When I looked at this dude last Monday and was terrified he’d find out where I lived and try who knows what else, I also looked at him and thought “well, he hasn’t touched me. He’s not being overly aggressive, physically — he’s keeping his distance, for the most part, and he doesn’t seem too intent on springing into my personal space.”
The reason part of my brain tried to convince me that the cops weren’t even needed for this; that it was too small potatoes. And then the ex-girlfriend/best friend in me took over and thought about him being someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s nephew.
Was my train of thoughts ridiculous and twisted? Sure. Was it indicative of a larger problem I’m harboring? Most likely.
I don’t think — though you might still disagree, and if you do, I’d really love to hear your thoughts — that it’s coming from a place of white guilt. Privilege, I can grant. I try my absolute best to be as aware of my privilege as possible, but there are bound to be blind spots. Guilt? No.
It’s the memory of fear that the next time you see this person you love, it’ll be in the hospital, or in the morgue, or maybe just the next morning, wounded and angry with little recourse.
It’s the memory of the frustration and anger in their voices and in their eyes.
It’s the memory of the bewilderment in their faces and body language.
It’s, ultimately, a fear most people who look like me have never experienced and don’t have to worry about. It makes sense that not everyone would understand right off the bat.
At the very least, it’s important to understand that this fear is a real thing, and those of us who’ve known it aren’t crazy, or stupid, or guilty.