Yes, I’m Jewish and lesbian. These make me part of historically persecuted minorities, and I don’t make the mistake of thinking “it couldn’t happen” to me or my family. Yes, as a woman I’m not an equal everywhere and all the time. But the significance of these things pales in contrast with the combination of my skin color, middle class up-bringing and earning power, and sometimes my gender.
We got home one afternoon this Fall, almost haphazardly, since we decided not to take Middle Son for a haircut till later. The phone rang. It was our friend, a tall, large, and gentle (at least around my family) African-American man who lives in Albany. “They’re arresting me,” he said. What I said to myself can’t be printed.
He’d been looking for returnables, cans and bottles that could add up to enough money for a meal. He’s between jobs and between homes. He didn’t have time to tell me the story then, but here it is: He hadn’t even started collecting, he was just walking down the street in the neighborhood of Beth Emeth and Albany Academy. A cop stopped him and asked him where he was from. He didn’t tell me if the cop was black or white. Doesn’t actually matter.
“Oh, a wise-ass? Where do you live in Albany?”
Something about “I’m tired of downtown people coming over here…” and “I’m going to arrest you.”
“You’re going to arrest me for Walking While Black?” For all of you who haven’t heard this before, it’s a variation on the infamous DWB: Driving While Black. It doesn’t matter what you’re driving or how conservatively or expensively you are dressed, black men (it’s men in particular) get pulled over for being in the “wrong” neighborhood all the time. Sometimes it’s the neighborhood that they live in. If you’re shocked, if you think that this happens only occasionally or to people who look suspicious, then learn from me that it doesn’t. If you’re a middle class white person and you have any middle class black friends, ask them if this ever happens to them.
My friend says that the cop told him he had no right to ask why he was being arrested. He says to me, “I do have a right to ask!” Technically he’s right, but I keep thinking, “Just be polite, don’t insist on anything, don’t confront the racism and ignorance, get safely out of there!” And I suppose that that is what we will teach Youngest Son, if we are fortunate enough to adopt him — actually, we’ll teach it to all our children: If you do tangle with the police in any way at any time for any reason, say “Sir” and “Ma’am” and be polite and respectful and for heaven’s sake, call us as soon as possible.
But Youngest Son is African-American, and he will need to know in addition that certain kinds of jackets or headgear might make him more of a target of suspicion; that it’s more likely to happen to him no matter what he’s wearing; that if he’s stopped, he needs to move slowly and keep his hands in sight at all times, because his life may depend on it. That’s just not likely to be a problem in the life of Older Son, who is Caucasian (do we call him European-American?) and blonde.
And all our children need to know loud and clear that while this is real, it is not fair. Not fair to our child(ren) whose skin color means that they might be watched and suspected more, and not fair to our child(ren) whose skin color means that they may have special privileges not available to their siblings. (Like walking down the street in an affluent White neighborhood.)
So the police officer arrested my friend, at which point he called us. Thank goodness we were home instead of getting a haircut. He called us because we have a friend who is a Detective in the Albany Police Department, and he couldn’t remember this person’s name. So we gave it to him.
And he said the name. I don’t know exactly what he said, but he tells it like this: “I said the name, and the handcuffs came off.” Then they told him to get out of there. Which, all in all, is probably the best ending he could have gotten at that point.
I listen to this and I am shaken. He said a name and the handcuffs came off? They had handcuffed my friend, my large and gentle friend with the wry sense of humor, my friend whose voice and demeanor lets you know that he’s lived close to the streets, my friend who’s gentle and respectful of people who respect him, my friend who has a bit of a temper and will not stand by while his personhood is disrespected? I keep wanting to tell him to keep it in, that it’s not worth it, not to antagonize the police by verbally sparring with officers … But what right do I have to say that? It’s his dignity that’s on the line, not mine. And honestly, if everyone who’s stopped for DWB, or this apparently new crime of WWB, follows the script of polite and respectful, what does that teach the police department about what’s acceptable or not??? If no one ever challenges this behavior, then they learn that it’s all right.
I am grateful we were home. I am grateful that we had made this connection in the first place, so that when challenged as to whether he really knows this Detective he could say, “Well, call and find out.” I am grateful that he’s all right.
And the only word that describes what it feels like to talk to my friend about this, from the safety of my home and my family and my entire experience in life, is “surreal.” It’s just not going to happen to me. Not like that.
I sat on this story for long enough that I feel safe publishing it; hopefully there’s no way that it will jump up and bite my friend. But I worry anyway.