I will never forget the day I got it. A bright day in my majority-black neighborhood in Southeast DC, police swarming the street as they finally busted the woman who had sold drugs out of the bus stop for months. My neighbor and I standing on our porches watching the aftermath. The police were milling about, mopping up, done with the action and starting the paperwork.
My neighbor, a black man, was better educated than I and worked a professional job probably making more money than me. He and his wife filled their home with music and art, kept their yard meticulously orderly, traveled the world.
As an aside, this may sound like a “very articulate” statement, an expression of surprise that such a black man existed, or singling him out as unusual, but he wasn’t. Perhaps he was a little on what I believe is called the booshy side, but there was nothing unusual about him. Most people in our neighborhood were like most people across America: Hardworking citizens living their lives, raising their families, tending their business in peace.
I describe my neighbor as a real person I knew. I cannot imagine he ever had trouble with the law, at least not of his making, and I am certain he had no warrants or probation to worry about. Yet as I stood to watch the police in action, he said, “I’m not going anywhere near that mess,” and fled into his house.
It was the look in his eyes. It was primal and afraid. He knew deep in his bones that he needed to keep away from police. It was instinct, something deeper than rationality.
It puzzled me because I, a white woman, knew deep in my bones that the police were there to help me. If I ever got lost, hurt, or afraid, I merely needed to call them and they would rescue me. I remembered once, as a girl, coming home to my suburban neighborhood only to find birds had broken into the house and were roosting on my grandmother’s silver. Naturally, after I failed to shoo them out, I called the police. Naturally, they came and flushed the birds out the window. It seems so silly now.
It Was Hard to Feel the Police Cared
But things were different in my majority-black neighborhood. I had never called 911 in my life, but I had cause to in that neighborhood. Me, on the phone in the wee hours of the night, more scared than I have ever been, pleading with them to hurry as screams came from my front yard. A man siccing three pit bulls on another man, standing, watching, approving as they bit and clawed. Yes, they were both black, victim and perpetrator.
Me, hiding irrationally behind the bed even though the men couldn’t see me, terrified the dog would tear the man’s throat out before the police came. No sirens in the distance. Just an eventual roll-by, arriving after the attacker had taken his dogs home, a single officer who did not get out of his car. He handed the bleeding victim a paper towel and called an ambulance. No charges were ever filed.
It was hard to feel the police cared. But then again, why would they? The victim would never testify against the thug who harmed him, probably did not even tell the officers who it was. A code of silence protected such people. I saw other things, too: Juries refusing to convict men who had been caught dead to rights selling drugs, juries putting thugs back on the street to victimize the community. The complicated and byzantine relationship between the community and the law, and the police are on the front lines. Hostility and need, disappointment and great heroism.
I saw women who had perhaps once had lovers or husbands but who were now alone, raising children, pouring themselves into the neighborhood with incredible dignity and strength. Men who preach, serve, and fight to bring peace to their neighborhoods. The incredible everyday heroism of this most American of stories, I began to see.
That heroin addict was not a heroin addict. He was Kevin, who had wrestled in high school, had had talent and gotten an athletic scholarship, who had hoped to compete in the Olympics, his eventual death of overdose a blow to the family who loved him. The beggar by the metro was not just a beggar but Mr. Jackson, a would-be musician consumed by alcohol. Shattered dreams do not hurt any less if you have a hand in shattering them.
I Don’t Blame You, But There Has to Be a Better Way
One Halloween, I was surprised to meet a teenager living across the street. I did not know he lived there—his single mother working two jobs made him stay inside for fear of what would happen to him on the streets. He might be attacked by thugs, seduced by thuggery, attacked by police, killed by a senseless act of violence, so he stayed inside always. He was a burly young man with a genial face, the type of young man a violent teen would attack just to prove himself. I remember thinking simultaneously that I didn’t blame her and that there had to be a better way.
I saw that the young men, and a few young women, who died each week were not just thugs gone wrong but Carla’s grandson or Sammy’s cousin or the kid of someone Yvonne went to high school with. I saw the young men, about one a year, who were killed because they dared to do well in school, dream to be better, and, even more insulting, lumped in with the violent by people who didn’t bother to distinguish one black victim from another.
So I began to understand, just a little, that the black community lives in a constantly unfolding nightmare. They can see it coming from far off in so many lives like a wave, and are powerless to stop it. They see a little boy, a precious child of theirs, grow into something lost. Someone’s baby, someone’s grandbaby. And they think “not another one.” They see a little girl with hope in her eyes fall to violence, and they say “not another one.” They see a man, a good man, gunned down by police, and think “not another one.” This chorus goes through their minds: “not another one.”
White America lives in another world where they never think that, never feel that in their bones. Yet it is something to be felt deep in the bones, something to breathe in and out. If we see a two-line obituary about a teenager killed by gang violence and do not see the tragedy of it, that is on us. If we see prisons bursting with broken dreams and do not see the tragedy, that is on us. If we see a man who dies for no good reason—even if the police are justified in wrongly thinking he was a threat—and do not see it for the tragedy it is, that is on us.
This is a problem for all Americans. I do not think white Americans are guilty, as more militant people believe, of wanting black people dead or repressed. I also believe the answer lies in conservative principles and rule of law as opposed to socialism. But I do think white Americans are guilty of willful blindness, of thinking a problem has been solved when it hasn’t, of living in a bubble and not seeing the struggle of their fellow Americans.
We lack compassion, we lack empathy, we do not see our brothers and sisters in their distress. The police are not the problem. We all are. And the solution will only come the American way: citizens working together toward a common goal of peace and prosperity.