Thursday, August 14, 2014

Embarrassed, confused and scared

I'm a middle-aged white man who grew up the son of a policeman in a small Midwestern town whose population consisted almost entirely of black people. Riots in Benton Harbor, Michigan, caused the city to burn in the '60s, the '90s and again in 2003. Abject economic despair will do that. It's not like the times in between those outbursts were laden with milk and honey.
I remember one day as a small child, I was out with my father running errands. We were at a hardware store. A black man approached my dad and engaged him in conversation. "How ya been, how's the wife and kids"-type banter that failed to hold my interest. I stood there, bored but patiently polite as is expected of children, until he left. Curious, I asked, "who was that, dad?" and he replied, "He's somebody I arrested a long time ago." Even as a small child, this interaction struck me. Here were two people that had, at least for a time, been on opposite sides of the law and probably never had very much in common. Yet, they shared enough for them to be able to speak to each other with mutual respect and civility. Without being asked, my father further clarified, "he made some mistakes, that's all."
A few years later, I was still little but dad had worked his way through the ranks and was a detective. However, due to some bureaucratic policies, he had reached a dead end that would hamper his ability to advance and his earning potential, so he quit. I took it hard. I had always identified with the police and had been really proud to be the son of a policeman, knowing that what he did for a living was cooler and more important than what most other kids' dads did. As a result of this turn of events, I pitched a miniature societal rebellion, manifested mostly by rooting for the bad guys in cops and robber TV shows and movies. That never felt right, though, and I outgrew it pretty quickly. Over the years, there have been a few stories about villainous police officers, but for the most part, when cops are portrayed as bad by Hollywood, they're unwitting, misguided, faceless pawns in a grand scheme that's beyond their comprehension and they're mostly just kind of in the way of the real heroes. If they knew what was going on, they'd never take the stance that they do, but as it is, if a few of them have to get knocked around en route to a triumphant resolution, so be it. Overall, I came away from all of that with the belief that The Bad Guys may not always be bad, but that The Good Guys, while not perfect, were always good. I still identify with the police and keep my dad's badge as a proud souvenir today.

That belief was forged a long time ago, but it's been strongly challenged recently. I don't know what to believe as the events in Ferguson, Missouri continue to play out. Police officers, better armed and armored than troops we send into combat, trampling the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens gathering to protest the shooting of yet another unarmed black man. I simply don't know how to process that as a reality.

Growing up where I did, when I did, with whom I did, I consider the social education I received outside of the classroom a tremendous blessing. I had the fairly unique opportunity to be able to experience life as a minority while maintaining all the inherent advantages of being a Caucasian. I can't say that I know what it's like to be black but I feel like I can safely say I know some definite aspects of what it is to be a minority. Growing up under these conditions, I had black friends. My first face-to-face encounter with racism occurred when I was (again) very small. I was spending a weekend being babysat by my grandparents. I went out to play and met two black kids, Petey and Andre, on the block behind my grandparents' apartment. We tore through Andre's house for hours like the maniacs that we were until Andre's mom understandably reached her breaking point and kicked all three of us out of her home. No problem, I thought, and invited the boys back to my grandparents' apartment to play. My grandmother was less than accommodating. She wouldn't let us in and at one point screeched, "They would never let me in their house, why should I let them in mine?". I remember thinking, "Well, no, not now. That's why we're here." I was shocked and embarrassed, never imagining that would happen. Andre's mom hadn't reacted to me like that when I showed up at her door and proceeded to run around her house like an animal. Petey and Andre didn't seem to think it was that big of a deal, kind of like they expected exactly that to happen. That was something I never forgot.
Years later, while in high school and working as a busboy at one of the nicer restaurants in town, there was a night when we were short a dishwasher. Tom, the head chef told anybody within earshot to get somebody, anybody, to fill in. I called my friend Tony, a skinny black guy I ran around with, who had been looking for a job. Tony came in, did fine and was hired long-term. At the end of the night, Tom took me aside. "When I saw a black kid show up, I was ready to kill you. But he did a good job so it all worked out." Gee, thanks... I guess? You're telling me that you were admittedly desperate to fill an opening but you were still almost willing to run your kitchen at a substandard level rather than let a black guy wash dishes? Wow. Also something I never forgot.
During my whole time growing up, I was never once treated by any black people I dealt with (friends, their parents and siblings, adults in positions of authority) the way I personally witnessed my own family members and employer treat black people in those instances. I'm not making any kind of proclamation that one group of people is better than another, these are just my personal experiences. They're things that happened and shaped who I am and how I think about stuff today.

These days, most of my friends and the people I deal with on a regular basis are white. Not because I sought out more white friends when I became an adult. I just leave my door open and see who happens to wander in. It's all just by virtue of who happens to be around, really. Many of these people feel free to say things and ask questions, not knowing that the perspective and influences I gained as a youngster allow me to respond in ways they may not expect. The big one they ask these days is, "Why are black people so angry? All that stuff happened so long ago and I'm certainly not responsible for any of it. What's the point of dwelling on it? Why not let it go and look forward?". My short answer to that is "Why aren't black people angrier than they are?" 'All that stuff' actually didn't happen that long ago. Any black person with gray hair has probably personally experienced some of 'all that stuff' and they're going to tend to dwell on it. While contemplating that, ask yourself why you don't see more black people with gray hair. There are a number of factors. There are people whose opinion is that going forward and getting ahead isn't an option until they have an opportunity to catch up and get even. Not get even as in revenge but as in a level playing field. You can disagree with that if you want but that's their experience and it shapes their view and I don't think it can be categorized as right or wrong. Plus, how can anyone say 'all that stuff' happened a long time ago when what's taking place in Ferguson is happening right now? Frankly, I honestly wonder why black people don't riot more often. Considering the rhetoric I hear from some white people, I wonder if they'd show the same restraint and tolerance under similar circumstances?
Today, I live in Tampa, Florida, where I do not fear the police. I believe our chief, Jane Castor has done an exemplary job and that the officers under her command are well-trained professionals. Probably not all perfect, because that's an unrealistic standard, but overall, people doing a good job. For that, I feel fortunate. Because outside of my blessed little bubble, I question what's going on with the institution on a greater scale. I hate painting with a broad brush, but what's happening in Ferguson indicates failure on a systemic level, not the unfortunate errors of one or two unqualified, ill-equipped officers. It's more indicative of a shared mindset that has little regard for the citizens these officers are supposedly sworn to protect and serve, or their constitutional rights. And why does a small town like Ferguson have so much weaponry, including armored vehicles, drones and state-of-the art body armor, anyway? Also, do you really believe that Ferguson is the only place in America so equipped?
On behalf of my upbringing and what I still feel is a pretty strong allegiance to the police, I'm embarrassed.
As someone who served in the army, having taken a sworn oath to uphold the constitution, I'm confused.
And as I see how we continue to relate to one another after all these years, with what seems like a complete lack of civility and respect, I'm scared.

3 comments:

Michael Noble said...

Damn, dude:

I've read a lot of things this week - a novel, tons of posts and personal opinions regarding famous people who have died, not so famous people reflecting on those who have died, your subject and more. It's certainly been a busy reading week.

But few - precious few - of the things I've read have made sense.

Yours? One of those few ...

Capital.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Clark. I may ramble so forgive me first. This is all a little too close to home. We were at Tom’s aunt’s house on Sunday night. She lives one mile north of where everything took place. We heard the news in disbelief on the radio as we drove home then saw many police cars screaming up the highway to the area. Twenty-five years ago, I worked two summers on the overnight shift at one of the stores that was looted on Sunday night. I could not imagine being in those workers shoes, locked up in a room in fear for my life. The people that made our wedding cake, they’re Ferguson-based business was also damaged but nothing stolen.

Ferguson is a small municipality in suburban St. Louis, and it’s part of St. Louis County. There has be decline over the years especially in home value. Many of our friends still have relatives that live there and have been burglarized in recent years but were determined to stay. I was friends in high school with kids who lived in that area, which is only six miles from my dad’s house. Many people have left and moved west because of the decline and took what they could for their homes. My friend said now his parents probably couldn’t even get $20k for their nice home in Ferguson.

We don’t have a unified city with respect to services that most large cities have. There are so many municipalities within the three counties that make up the immediate St. Louis area, and the show of force and gear you saw was primarily County police. I believe Ferguson has around 53 officers, three of which are black. We’re shocked the department has that many officers at all. People complain that the racial balance of the force doesn’t match the 67% of the residents but that’s what happens when there’s a lack of folks entering the force, then those that do go to better paying municipalities or forces such as the County. I’m glad to see a shift in leadership to the State Highway Patrol of handling all of this effective today.

It’s very frustrating that people are jumping to conclusions instead of waiting for the investigation to conclude. A friend of mine has a relative very high up in the police force, and though I’d like to believe everything that has been relayed, I just as soon wait to hear the outcome. People are even calling for the removal of the excellent county prosecutor because his father was killed in the line of duty as a cop when he was a child and would have the cop’s back.

I am really fearful for our community as a whole, especially if it’s found the cop is not going to be charged. Sadly, people say that if he is not charged, “the city will burn down” is the sentiment. I’m also very worried for the cop and his family’s safety. If anything does happen to him, we have a great organization that takes care of the family and their financial needs for the rest of their lives. It’s sad we need that for our police and firefighters, but we personally know three people who have been beneficiaries of this disappointing need.

The sad part is people no longer take responsibility for their actions, and there’s no respect anymore for any authority. When I was teaching in a neighboring school district, I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “That’s not my child! My kid doesn’t act like that or do that!”

There were two things that were shared with me that were good stuff: a “rant” – for lack of a better word – by Johnathan Gentry in LA and Chris Rock’s video on How to Not Get Your Assed Kick by the Police (the latter is quite funny but mostly true for anyone). Would this have happened if the kids were lawfully walking on the sidewalk instead of the middle of a street? Just please say prayers for our metro area over these next few months and maybe years.

Your Lil Sis

Beyond The Political Spectrum said...

Love this peace.

--Also grew up in Benton Harbor (with a little help from Chicago).