Tag Archives: crime

What the Police Told Me: “they will kill you for being white”

Back in 1995 I lived in an apartment on Bankhead Highway in Atlanta. My roommate and I were the only white people in our complex, on our street, and as far as I could tell, on that whole side of the city. We got a lot of funny looks, were the subjects of quite a lot of loud jokes, but no one ever gave us any real trouble- but then there were the police.

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They never gave us any real trouble either, but they surely gave us a lot of attention. We used to ride the subway and I could tell every time the transit police changed assignments, because the new officers would without fail, ask us if we missed our stop once we passed the Georgia Dome. They were trying to be helpful, they usually looked concerned. The regular officers knew better, we were easily recognized in that we were Mormon missionaries in white shirts and name tags in addition to our whiteness. There was one instance where a veteran interrupted a new cop mid inquiry, by hitting his shoulder and rolling his eyes, waving the new guy to move on down the train. But always, there was a well-defined line which when the train crossed, the white people needed protection. They never asked the black kids if they missed their stop.13bball

There was that other time when a cop car pulled over to us as we were walking down our block. “Hey! You guys lost?” the officer asked. “No we are fine. Thank you.” Was my reply. “No. I mean what are you doing here?” He followed up. When I explained to him that we live “right over there,” the officer responded by calling me stupid. That is the word he used. I had at this point lived in that apartment for 7 months, and as a 19 year old I probably was in many ways stupid, but I remember clearly what the police officer said, “You are stupid. You shouldn’t live here. These people will kill you just for being white. Don’t call us when you are in trouble for being stupid because we won’t come help you. It is your own fault.” Then he drove away. I never did call the police and no one ever killed me for being white.

Since that time I have heard countless stories from white people, who were at one time in their personal history functioning in a majority black or brown environment (school, work, neighborhood) and were warned, sometimes by school officials, that they would be the target of violence. These stories are almost always told as a means to build the story tellers credibility or first-hand authority in matters of American race relations. There is normally an implied, though sometimes spoken, statement of the teller’s toughness for having endured the dangerous circumstances of being a white minority and the warning of how race really works in the world. These stories happen after a driver takes a wrong turn and finds themselves driving through an area full of brown people, or that time when they were 12 and had to go to a mostly black school and every time the point is that the white person was in real danger.

Yet none of the stories ever include a white person dying. I can recall about three stories (out of 30) where the school kid got in a fight, though none of them required medical attention. The black people on Bankhead never hurt me and none of those I have met who took the dangerous wrong turn, were ever actually assaulted. Where are the dead white bodies? By the persistence of these stories there should be graveyards filled with white victims of racial oppression. I suspect that white people reading this are simultaneously searching their memories to find their examples of actual black on white violence to refute my question. They (we) are looking for their anecdote to support this idea, that a brown or black majority is synonymous with anti-white violence. But it isn’t really necessary because the idea that it could have happened, because it is perceived as a possibility, is always enough to prove the point.

Why?

Is it true that white people in black spaces are in danger, so these stories are simply a practical warning? The data does not bear this out.11church

Does the data not back the lore because the warnings have been heeded? If the white folks had not fled when black people moved into their neighborhoods would there have been great rashes of black on white beatings? Are white people not accosted while driving through “bad”, aka black, neighborhoods at significant numbers only because the white people are listening and driving the long way home? Perhaps the myth is only a myth because it is effectively serving its purpose. Maybe.

I have wondered this quite a bit since 1995 and it led me to do a lot of looking. I have looked all the way back to the 1600’s and I will admit, I found some stories. There was that time in 1675 when a bunch of white people found themselves settling in a brown neighborhood called Plymouth and the brown people started burning villages and killing people for 3 years before they were permanently defeated and almost completely, exterminated. There was that time in 1831 when Nat Turner tried to kill all the white people in his neighborhood, or 1859 when John Brown riled up some black people and they killed 5 white people, injured 9, but were then themselves crushed by Robert E Lee. There was that time after the civil war in 1898 when the whole state of North Carolina, including Wilmington, was a black neighborhood. Violence broke out on voting day- and 100 black people were killed, black homes were burned, yet strangely no white people died.

There have been race riots in Atlanta (1906), St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Tulsa (1921), Harlem (1935), Detroit (1943), Watts (1965), and on and on up till today there has been violence when black and white collide. Yet in every single one of those situations, including the ones back in the beginning, the primary casualty has always been the brown or black people. The white people win every time so why in all the stories people tell me, are the white people the ones in danger?

Maybe the persistence of this story, this trope, grows from the collective suppressed white awareness of how truly mistreated brown people have been, and the logic that says that this violence will inevitably be reciprocated whenever the opportunity is presented. Perhaps that is it, though that would be some seriously collective subconscious logic at work, but I think individuals should spend some time thinking through this logic and all of its implications and lessons.

But whatever the cause or origin of this line of story telling, that white people in brown or black places are in physical danger, what concerns me most, is when this idea is perpetuated or enforced, by those in authority- like cops. Or teachers. This concerns me because I have yet to find any tangible set of facts or events that bear out this widespread idea, in fact I have at least 20 years of first hand experience refuting it, but we as a society are trained to believe and trust police and cops. Or maybe I should just say white people are trained to trust these authorities.

Maybe thinking about this sort of storytelling can help us understand why there is a gap between who trusts the authorities and who does not.

When my white body moved into black Atlanta spaces, the police felt I needed protection. Their actions and inquiries made this obvious. Maybe those officers really did have information I do not, or had direct experience that I did not (surely both are true in many respects), but what was clear in those moments, and in all of those stories, was that the authorities believed that black and brown people posed a physical danger to white people.

That is the whole point of these stories. And it makes me fear for those black and brown people when I consider that people with badges, or run schools, are the ones who believe and tell that tale. In this sort of reality who are the ones being hurt?

It isn’t the white people.

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Bad Guys With Guns

None of us think we are, or ever will be, the bad guy. Now sure there are some who set out to be such, but we normally know who they are before middle school and track them accordingly (this sentence was typed while firmly holding down my computer’s sarcasm key. It is right next to the snark key which is often pressed by mistake). But really, we watch bad guys on TV, the news, CSI, our laptops, and we contemplate ways to protect ourselves from them. We argue that protection comes from either confiscating, or buying more, guns. We call for more policing, or less, depending on whether we feel the cops are on our side or not. We argue a lot about how to best protect ourselves from bad guys, spend loads of money on locks and security systems, but in every case we are all convinced, that the bad guy is somebody else.

Have we ever stopped to think that maybe the bad guys weren’t bad until they actually did whatever horrible thing it is they did that got our attention?

And if that bad guy wasn’t bad until he did something bad, doesn’t that make every one of us a potential bad guy?seersucker walking

This thought was made crystal clear in my mind the day I looked over at the car stopped next to me at the intersection. The driver was holding a pistol. He wasn’t necessarily aiming it at anyone; he was just driving while holding it, and consequentially pointed the gun at whoever was to his right or left depending on where the steering wheel was turning.

It freaked me out. Made me nervous. I’m assuming the driver was carrying the gun because driving down this particular street freaked him out. Made him nervous. I had heard of people doing such a thing to protect themselves while driving through the bad part of town. It is a sort of public display of preemptive protection. Maybe he felt safe but driving next to him, I did not. On top of that, I had never considered this a bad neighborhood. In fact, this was my neighborhood. Wait. Does he think I’m the bad guy? As I was contemplating this I realized that my confused face looks a lot like my angry face and I was staring in confusion at a guy with a gun who doesn’t know me. When the light turned green I paused long enough for the car behind me to honk. I wanted to put some space between me and the guy who was protecting himself from me. It was my best means of protection.

As I thought about how I knew nothing of this guy, and he knew nothing of me, and neither of us knew anything about who was or was not dangerous, I realized I knew very little about my own potential. Of course I don’t think I am capable of any horrible act, but who is? Who, while buying a gun for self-protection, considers themselves a public threat? Who, when they see the mug shot of a shooter on television thinks, “Wow, that could be me one day?”

Did the shooter think that when he saw the guy before him on last year’s newsflash?bastilleantoinette

I think about this every time the killer’s neighbors are interviewed and they say, “He was a quiet guy who kept to himself.  Wouldn’t hurt a fly. I just can’t believe it.” Everyone always seems so surprised. Especially the family. Those who know the bad guy best are usually the ones who deny guilt the loudest. We like to chalk it up to denial. They just can’t believe little Johnny is capable of such bad things. I can’t blame them. I don’t think I’m capable of such bad things either. But obviously somebody is.

So how do we stay safe?

I have listened as one side, the side with superior skills of logic, informs me that criminals do not follow gun laws so they all have guns and that the only way to protect you from them is to also have a gun. I may not be smart enough to understand the algebra that proves gun plus gun equals safety, but those who argue this side are as sure of its truth as one plus one equals two. It is simple math. I am sure none of those who buy guns for self-protection will ever become a bad guy themselves. Of course not; they are Republicans.

Then there is the other side. They rely on science, and logic, and state protection. They point to other nations where not even the police carry firearms and the murder rate is so much lower. Why can’t we be more like them? Why don’t we model ourselves on these counties with homogenous populations a fifth of our size? This side trusts that the state will act in the interest of the citizen, despite worldwide evidence of governments killing their own populations. They are convinced ours would never do such a thing because we are America. We don’t do that. Of course these are the same people who are least likely to trust the police with anything.

And then there is me.drinking standing 2

How do I decide who is right? How do I know who the real bad guys are? Because the more I listen to both sides, Republican and Democrat, they are both convinced that the others are the bad guys. We should all protect ourselves from both of them.  From everything and everyone.

From me.

While contemplating the danger I present to everyone else, while I am still convinced I am in no way a bad guy, I thought that perhaps a lot of the bad guys used to be good guys. Maybe people aren’t always one or the other. Maybe we all possess potential for great goodness or horrible atrocity. Maybe the only way to protect myself from the bad guys, including my own potential to become one, is to figure out why people go bad and try to prevent that.

Better yet, maybe we should figure out what makes people good and help them become, or stay, the good guy. Myself included.

You think I’m a Pollyanna.

Not really. I just don’t see the bottom of the rabbit holes that both sides of this debate have dived into and I have no desire to follow suit. I won’t feel safer driving down my block knowing everyone I see has a gun, nor do I think the cartel will play nice once the cops only carry sticks. We have all gone too far.

Which is what makes me think I have the capacity to one day go too far as well. I want to prevent that. I think the only way for me and mine to be safe is if we all do the same.

It isn’t about good guys and bad guys… just guys.usguys2

Tune in next week when I tackle misogynistic rhetorical devices like the use of the word “guy”.

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