Thursday, June 11, 2020

Black Lives Matter

I was in high school the first time I learned about the perils of walking-while-black in the USA.

Our family friend, Les, showed up at our house a little later than expected, and explained he was late because the police had stopped him. I was confused. Why would the police stop Les?

He explained this had happened to him often. He'd be stopped, spread up against a fence, frisked, and told he fit a description. He'd cooperate and then be on his way. The description was usually black, male, tall, about his age.

I was stunned. I was by no means naive. I'd grown up with plenty of poverty and violence nearby, and the neighbors...remember the (white) neighbors in the adjacent row house were always drinking, shouting, fighting, cussing, battling it out in the yard, and when they got more creative, one of them was arrested (in my attic) for firebombing a car in Georgetown. The police were actually quite helpful. My mother called them when those same neighbors tried to burn down our house. When my sister fought with one of them in the yard. When they traveled as a pack and assaulted my sister and mother walking to the supermarket. It's entirely possible my family might not be alive but for the Alexandria police force in the seventies and eighties.

This was long before the militarization of local police forces. I didn't get a clue about that until a vehicle resembling a tank rolled onto East 13th Street, beneath my window in early nineties in Manhattan. My childhood was even before the Federal deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. I'm not going to say things change, because change is always ever-so-slight. But militarization, hell yeah, that changed.

But I digress. I just digressed a lot, became puzzled about what I was thinking, and nearly lost my point.

My point was Les showed up one day in 1982-83 and said "Oh yeah, the cop made me stand up against the fence while he frisked me and questioned me. This happens all the time. It's called walking-while-black." He laughed at my innocence. Laughed and laughed.

None of what's happened the last few weeks is new. Is it the sheer volume of outrageous acts of violence against people guilty of jogging, sleeping, going about their business? Is it the video that laid bare the brutal, simmering inhumanity-to-man our country was built on? Combined with no one having anything else to do but have their eyes pried open by very public civil rights infringements and bias crimes?

Yes to all. And I keep going back to that moment in my own education. Walking-while-black is not a crime. It's been a helluva few weeks, full of hope in my opinion. This moment seems fraught but genuine. We can allow ourselves to hope just a little that this moment might bring actual change, a bit more than the usual slight movement of a second hand.

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