Tag Archives: violence

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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Soap Box: but just a small one.

As I observe the world it sometimes feels as if there is me, and then everyone else. So let me just say this:

Dear world,

 

Without having to take a stance on any sort of “should” related value statement, please remember, or learn, that outside of the situation where one is a victim of rape, NOT having sex is always an option. Always.IMG_7732

 

Human genius is not a recent occurrence. Smart people have existed as long as humans have existed. (I do realize that many who espouse a belief in continuing human evolution may think this a dumb statement. I accept this with the rebuttal that there is within such theories a debate as to when what I am calling “humans” began their existence. Consider my statement applying to that point in time/evolution). Just note that you, all of you, are not by nature smarter than everyone who came before you, no matter how long before you it is that they came. Also, please know that there are smart, and even good, humans who disagree with you.

note- this also means stupidity is not excusable simply because it was in the past.

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Violence is always bad. Before you respond with some “defense of family and the innocent”, keep in mind that such defense would be unnecessary if there wasn’t some other initial violence. Stop glorifying violence. Strive to end the initial violence. There are occasions where it is excusable or forgivable, which forgiveness or excusing is only needed because it is bad.

 

Justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive nor should they be just plain exclusive.

 

There are surely such things as bad ideas but ideas themselves are not bad. We should only be afraid of the idea of having ideas when there is only one idea to choose from or if all ideas are coming from a singular source. Many bad ideas are easier to identify when they are placed in line with other ideas, no matter the quality of those accompanying ideas. This also means that good ideas, even if there is for some reason only one source for all the good ideas, are best identified and most appreciated, when standing in contrast to bad, or just plain less good, ideas.waterbuffalo

 

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BLM, Police, and Kids These Days

When I was 14 my friend Matt and I were supposed to be sleeping over at Eric’s house, but we all snuck out the window. We didn’t have anywhere to go, or even anyone to meet, but it was summer, we were bored, and we were going to manufacture some adventure in any way we could. In my pocket I had a brick of firecrackers my dad had brought back from Wyoming where they were legal. We headed off for the gully where it was rumored devil worshipers held strange ceremonies involving kidnapped children. Where else would adventure seeking suburbanites go? When we got there we did not find the pagans, but we did find a lone cop, sitting in his squad car with the windows rolled down.usguys1

Eric told me to wait in the bushes and he would be back in a minute. I dumbly complied. About two minutes later a string of firecrackers lit up the inside of the cop car. I could hear the officer shouting in shock even louder than the pop-pop-pop of the Black Cats. Eric came hurdling over the bushes and ran down the street not waiting to see if I was following. I was.IMG_0496

That was more than 20 years ago and I have told that story a million times to thousands of people. Eric is a responsible well employed adult now- no harm no foul. Funny thing is this story gets different reactions depending on who hears it. Most of my white friends laugh in wonder at the foibles of youth. Most black people with whom I tell are at best, annoyed. Some are quite upset.1923755_1165089124994_2895697_n

You see, most of my white friends, more than you might think, counter with their own stories. Thanks to them I have quite the collection of stories about idle vandalism and general teenaged delinquency; enough to re write American Graffiti ten times over. But this would be a very white movie. None of the black people I know have the same sorts of stories. No, that isn’t quite true. They do have those stories but the endings are very different. The black stories I hear trend towards much less actual destruction and much more police involvement. It is possible that the black people I know are just lames. Maybe they were blerds. I of course have not met all black people, nor do I represent all white folks, I am just a middle aged collection of anecdotes. But with that being said, we, my black friends and I, are all Americans but we did not grow up in the same world.

This reality was made even more clear to me, and more alarming, last night.IMG_2749

I attended a local public forum on race and policing. Up on the stage were a row of chiefs. There was the local police, the county sheriff, even the school district pd. The mayor, a black woman, sat there too, joined by another row of pastors and local clergy. Out in the auditorium the public lined up behind two microphones to ask their questions, make their comments, and the chiefs gave their answers. It was a mostly cordial event. I support having more of them. Yet there was a theme coming from that stage that troubles me.

More than one officer, and a couple pastors, even one black officer from the crowd, talked about how the youth are different today. They talked about how the youth of today don’t respect the police. One officer suggested kids are responding to things they see about cops in the media and two pastors said this is all a result of the lack of Bibles in school. There was a common thread that the police wanted to understand, more so to be understood, and that they are constantly frustrated by the public’s lack of cooperation.IMG_0503

The challenge of policing in a violent racialized society is definitely complex and difficult. I get that.

But I also get that American Graffiti was released in 1973. I also know that I knew all the words to that Officer Krumpke song from West Side Story when I was ten.  That movie was released in 1961. I know that all through my youth the cops were the ones who got mad at you for throwing water balloons or eggs, chased you when you hopped the neighbor’s fence, and cops were the ones who stopped your car when they got calls of possible gun shots coming from a black Tercel. The car was blue, not black, and the sound wasn’t gun shots, it was the noise made when a bat hits a mailbox.

We were never respectful, we were too annoyed that our spirits were being oppressed.IMG_2750

But maybe I haven’t spoken to enough young black kids today. Maybe they are the ones who have changed. Maybe it is the black people of my generation who would never have dared to throw a lit firecracker into a cop car or who got arrested for being out too late. Maybe the black kids today would hit the mailbox or would throw the egg.

Does this mean things have gotten worse?meandpetedisco

Maybe bad guys and cops have both been pulling triggers for generations and the only thing different now is cameras. Maybe the black folks who never threw eggs back then are more afraid of bullets and are now willing to throw bricks. I know that plenty of the guys I grew up with, the ones who did the same things as me, have grown up to be cops. These are great guys. I love them.choirhazing2

But did we forget? Where is the empathy? Why has the phrase “kids will be kids” been replaced by the word thug? Is it because these kids today, these thugs, are worse than we were? We, the Dazed and Confused kids were just messing around but these thugs are a real danger? Really?highschoolgroup

I struggle with this. I struggle because in 9th grade I watched my classmates smoke weed and shoplift. In 10th grade I watched a bunch of kids hop out of a car at a strip mall and beat up a stranger for no reason. I saw one kid beat another with a bat behind the movie theater over a girl. Jed got stabbed at school. My good friends did meth, dropped acid, sold coke. Stole a car, drove drunk, walked away. I saw all of that. But we are all older now and we have learned our lessons. We have matured now and we teach our children better. We were kids.highschoolgroup2

Really, the biggest difference I can see between us back then and the kids today, is that for the most part, we were all white.

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Whose Life Matters?

I was mostly offline for more than a week. Then I came home…

A friend of mine posted the question “I see people shutting down traffic on highways to protest the death of black people, why aren’t they stopping traffic for the police who get killed?” I didn’t respond  on Facebook. I normally don’t. Occasionally I will push back against something I see that is blatantly off base, but for the most part, I just post pictures of my family and observe. But I will respond here:IMG_0936

A regular part of life in Philadelphia is to have the freeway blocked for long stretches of time to let a funeral procession that includes hundreds, actual hundreds, of police cruisers, sirens blaring, pass as they escort one of their fallen brothers or sisters. Any time an officer was shot in the line of duty all the porch lights in my neighborhood would install blue bulbs to show their support. Protesters don’t shut down freeway traffic for fallen officers because the freeway already gets shut down for them.

In Philadelphia I never saw a freeway shut down for a murdered black kid.

I see that a number of states and officials are trying to get harming a police officer listed as a hate crime. These states and organizations believe police need extra protection. I do not, nor do I know anyone who does, advocate killing cops. But I do recall watching on the news as a group of officers severely beat a man suspected of shooting a cop. Turns out it was mistaken identity. None of the officers faced any charges in the beating and public sentiment brushed it off. Any time a cop got shot, the public stepped back and let the police handle it any way they saw fit even if it meant beating the wrong person. The cops were allowed to protect themselves.

There were no special light bulbs for any of the black kids who were regularly killed.

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I have seen several of my Facebook friends state, or post a link, saying something to the effect of “The biggest danger to black people isn’t the cops, it is other black people. Why don’t #blacklivesmatter spend their time on that instead of those who are trying to help?” Black people have been crying out for help and justice in the inner cities, and everywhere else they live for that matter,  for decades. That is part of the point. The amount of unsolved murders in black neighborhoods is ridiculous and it has nothing to do with black people not caring or making attempts to address it. It has much more to do with poverty and lack of power. This community’s lack of power is part of what makes policing so problematic. There are black people crying out for help and justice, but instead they are disproportionately arrested and injured. When you are law abiding and the system treats you as if you are not, it is hard to have faith in the system.IMG_0937

Quite a number of my friends push #alllivesmatter when confronted with conversation, Facebook posts, and news stories dealing with #blacklivesmatter. These are good people, most of them white, who really want a more racially harmonious society. They don’t hate anyone and are put off by the hatred they see in the world. I also know quite a few people, a lot really, who are active in the #blacklivesmatter movement. Every single one of them-every one- believe that in reality all lives matter, even the blue ones, but the entire point of #blacklivesmatter is that despite all lives mattering, the black people’s lives, are not currently treated as if they matter as much as the lives of others. Hence the need for the hashtag. Everyone in the movement I know gets this. So to my friends who feel that #blacklivesmatter is reverse racism, just know that for that to be true, you would have to argue that racism against black people doesn’t exist in our current system. Are you, those of you who feel #blacklivesmatter is racist, prepared to argue that black people are treated fairly in the American criminal justice system? If so, then let’s have that conversation.copandfire

Being a police officer is one of the most difficult and under-rewarded jobs in America. I respect those who engage in this work. We need cops. We need good cops. We ask too much of them and pay them far too little. But this job, this role in society, is so important that the answer to our undervaluing them cannot be lowering the bar or lowering our base expectations. When we give someone a badge and a gun, with the understanding that they will approach danger on our behalf and indeed protect and serve us, we are placing in them a high level of trust. This level of trust is so high that if that trust is breached, the fall back down to Earth can, and I say should, be somewhat devastating. But I say, seriously, that if that trust is breached, there should in fact be a fall. That is what I am advocating for. This is where I stand. If you want my opinion here it is: There are millions of black people who are law abiding and some who are not. Some law abiders occasionally don’t. Just like all the white people I know. I place a great faith in the police to enforce the laws that exist. I respect them and their work. We should pay them more. I have seen data, and had multiple personal experiences, that have shown me that black people are not policed fairly. White people like me are not policed the same as those who are black. This crushes the spirit of every day black people. This places black people not only in in fear for themselves and their families, but places them in fear of their own governments. Sadly, this fear is repeatedly justified. This is every day folks. People who didn’t sign up for it. People who just want to mind their own business. They aren’t on some payroll for being black, they didn’t go to an academy to get their black skins. It is in large part because of this fact, that the bulk of the responsibility for improvement lies on the shoulders of those who DID apply for the job, for those who ARE on a payroll. Those who are given a gun and a badge are justly given a higher level of responsibility, and should be given, more accountability. That is what I believe.

If you kill someone who posed no threat to you, that is a murder.

If you are overly afraid of your job, don’t do it. Get another job.

Those empowered to enforce the law should never be above it but rather be bound much tighter to it.

I am not a cop. I get that. Do I “get it”? Probably not. I cede that point. But When I, who am neither black nor an officer, stand back and look at who signed up for this and who holds the power it becomes obvious to me who already matters.

So I agree with those who believe that it still needs to be pointed out, that

Black

Lives

Matter.

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