How Safe Are “They” From “Our” Fear?

I’m in a Facebook group. It’s a sort of neighborhood watch for the development in which I live, and it has shown me more about where I live, than physically living here ever has.

When we first moved here we took home baked cookies to all the houses on the block with no observable consequences. People were friendly enough, but we haven’t had a follow up conversation with anyone since, at least not in person.

Our real introduction came last Thanksgiving. I saw a notice from Facebook that the group had new comments. I opened it up to see a long thread of mean-spirited notes about parking. It included a story about how multiple complaints had been previously made, there were accusations of inconsideration, and lots of rhetorical questions of how stupid someone must be to park such a way. There was absolute consensus that not only was this bad parking and bad form, but that something must be done. Yes, the abuse had gone on too long and gone too far.

The best part of the thread was the photo of my car.

There it was, plain to see, with passenger side tires on the sidewalk. I had indeed parked it that way- and did so on a regular basis. But there was also another car, my next-door neighbor’s, right in front of mine, parked the same way.

The day we took our initial tour of the property as potential tenants I noticed that this block parked on the walk. I thought it a bit odd, but funny enough, not new to me. I had previously lived 7 years on a narrow block where one had to park similarly in order for cars to have room enough to pass. That was back when I first learned that rear view mirrors folded in for reasons other than the car wash. But that was then and there, here, in my new suburban community with a gate out front, the road was wider, but I shrugged and followed suit. I did as the Romans without asking why.

And here were the Romans ready to turn me into pre-revolutionary Spartacus.

I posted an apologetic comment with a promise to reform, and a deferential request that if I offend in the future, that I would be happy to atone-especially if my errors were in fact brought to my attention.

The thread did a turn-about. There were apologies and discussions about actually getting to know each other in person. One of our neighbors even brought us over a Black Lives Matter yard flag and the moderator of the group even changed its name from a “watch” to a “community”. I appreciated that act. The online reform was sort of nice.

Sort of.

Since then, I have seen things.

Mostly complaints about the front gate not working. There was that one time someone posted a picture of a crane, like the long-necked bird, walking through the subdivision, and then the images of stray trash cans after a windstorm. But I also saw doorbell pictures of the neighbor’s children who I knew, with the heading “beware white car using children to steal packages.” I know those kids from church. They were delivering gifts to the homes of other members of our congregation. I saw a blurry image of a kid on a BMX bike with the text, “Does anyone know this person? He is suspiciously riding around the neighborhood.”

I didn’t know him nor could anyone from the image quality. Photos of cars are posted regularly being declared suspicious or unknown with the caution to beware. I have seen pictures of teenagers hanging out at the park with the caption “troublemakers hanging out at the park being disrespectful.”

And then there was that one time someone posted a video of what appeared to be a teenaged girl wearing a bikini and slippers standing, and sort of dancing, in the middle of the street.

The person taking the video was asking the girl to identify herself and repeatedly asked her if she lived in the community. She refused to answer. The person who posted the video, who I am guessing was the videographer, was asking the community if anyone knew her and insinuated the girl was on drugs.

I wondered to myself why the avenue of the filmer’s inquiry was bikini girl’s address. She was being asked to prove where she lived, insinuating she didn’t live here, which in tun insinuated that the acceptability of her behavior hinged on her residence as well as the assumption that people who own these homes are incapable of acting that way.

Curious. The nature of poster’s question disturbed me much more than the girl’s exposed stomach and legs.

The video was quickly taken down.

Just yesterday there was a complaint about illegal fireworks that inspired the moderator requesting decorum.

The resulting comments included a man who insisted this online group exist as a watch, because people are too dangerous these days to speak with in person. I, not exactly naïvely but with misplaced hope, offered that in order for community to exist, we must be willing to engage each other directly. He did not agree.

He aggressively countered with “Have you ever had your life threatened?” because he of course had. “Had I ever had someone threaten to kill me just because I asked their children to get off my property?” Because of course he had, and he will never talk to anyone with whom he doesn’t already have a relationship, because people will shoot you for no reason these days.

I withdrew from participation on that thread without pointing out that no one had in fact shot him for no reason in his anecdote. Nor did I post the local crime data I Googled.

Our little city does indeed have incidents of crime; packages are stolen from porches, houses get burgled, and someone painted a penis on the picnic table at the park. Last year, 2 people were murdered. That gave us a 2.2% murder rate, compared to a national average of 6. We have an assault score of 194 compared to a national 282, robbery at 60 compared to 135 nation-wide, and burglaries come in at 329! The national average is 500.

All of these scores have declined since 2017.

I am having trouble understanding my neighbor’s fear.

In fairness, part of this, or even most of this, lack of understanding comes from me not actually knowing my neighbor.

Another part is fed by where I lived before.

My previous neighborhood’s murder rate was 22%. Not 2.2, that is where I live now, but rather “twenty-two”. Assault scored 486, robbery 331, but then burglaries were closer, coming in at 409 (note, Philadelphia is below the national average in burglaries!!!). I was there for almost 8 years, experienced several conflicts with neighbors, and yet, unlike my suburban neighbor, no one threatened to kill me.

I am not relating this to win, danger is not a contest, but more because I worry about fear. People make poor choices when they are afraid, or rather, we are willing to go to extremes when danger is perceived. And fear is a feeling, a perception, not an analysis of data.

I experience danger and fear differently than some. I am just over six feet tall and a bit more than “just” over 200 pounds. I am an adult white man who appears middle class. I walk the world, both corporate corridors and back alleys, knowing that I am physically more imposing than average people and that if cops are called, they will likely see me as an ally or at least they will listen when I speak.

Not everyone has these privileges.

But my fearful neighbor does. Unless he is using a misleading avatar, he is a grown white man just like me. But he is afraid – of me. I don’t think he is anomalous.

I have never hurt anyone, nor even attempted to hurt anyone (sports don’t count) in my life, and yet my Facebook neighbors feel fear. The data show that the things to be feared, are not likely. I do not know what has happened to all those who live nearby, but I can calculate the likelihood. But that isn’t the issue as much as their impressions are.

Now, as I go outside for some COVID fresh air, and ride my bike, or cruise on my long board, or walk with my kids, I know that behind those doors are people who see me first with suspicion and possibly as a threat. Me, and I don’t feel welcomed or safe.

And then I imagine what it must be like for those who aren’t large middle class white men.

How welcome are Black women or brown men? How safe do those who aren’t physically imposing, or whom the police don’t assume are safe, feel? If you are so afraid of me that we cannot speak, how do you react to them?

How safe are they from your fear?

If I don’t know you, or if we won’t get to know each other, how can we fix this? And also, most disappointingly, because of who is afraid and how fearful people act, it looks like it is completely up to those who are feared to attempt building bridges.

We can be better.

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