T-Dubb-O sees the big picture
It can be telling being a Black man living in a very White environment. Inasmuch as you share all the physical characteristics of those many in your community fear, you are known. They know you. The familiarity makes one forget who you are within the general scope of the immediate society. The familiarity lowers barriers because familiarity allows one to go beyond racial and socio-economic realities. Familiarity can make us one, absent the cancer bred by the externalities of our national reality.
Ultimately the real world is more than the cocoon that one may live in, the discrete times of fallen barriers and true understanding. Ultimately an ill society can still suffer contagion.
A dear friend’s son told a story as we celebrated her birthday this week. Her kids and my kid, all Black, grew up in the White Kingwood, Texas bubble. They are all twenty-something adults now. My friend’s son was driving in the back seat with two of his White friends. Unbeknownst to his friends their registration on the windshield had expired. The police pulled them over. What really made her son upset is that inasmuch as he remained completely respectful, the police began questioning him in a condescending and rude manner. He was asked to show his ID and interrogated for no reason but for a purpose. His friends were treated with respect and kindness. The police then left without any tickets given. Through my eyes it was obvious why they were pulled over. What do you see through your eyes? What do you see through my eyes?
When Trayvon Martin was murdered by the vigilante George Zimmerman I wrote an article titled “I was Trayvon Martin the day I came to America.” In the article I said,
I remember being stopped many times by the police. It’s not that I was a bad driver. Most of the stops seemed to have only to do with a desire to question me. It was never confrontational. I did as I was told. You see, where I am from, Panama, a dispute with an officer guarantees a cracked skull with no legal recourse, so the cops in Austin likely thought I was a model citizen. From a young age, I always knew when and where to engage. I adapted.
I was running a bit late to KPFT 90.1, a Pacifica radio station where I do several radio shows a few days ago. The flashing lights behind me led to that sinking feeling. The stop was for an illegal lane shift. The fear for a simple traffic stop was palpable. Ultimately, the encounter with the police officer was surprisingly pleasant so much so that I blogged about it when I got home at midnight. The day after I got an email from the Houston Police Department informing me that the officer received a commendation that was placed in his file because of my blog post about the encounter. Through the eyes of many there was nothing special of the encounter. Through the eyes of Black men like me it was a big deal.
This week the US Attorney General Eric Holder released the Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson police. It found no irrefutable evidence that a prosecutor could use to charge the police officer, Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown. The second report however was an excoriation of the Ferguson police department. The report documented the inhumanity many went through not only at the hands of police officers but at the hands of a justice system that economically harmed an entire people. Their actions caused people to lose not only jobs and money but their sense of pride.
Ed Schultz interviewed Ferguson activist T-Dubb-O on Thursday (I interviewed him on my show Politics Done Right while he was at the White House after meeting President Obama). When asked about the ‘shocking’ report, T-Dubb-O could be paraphrased as ‘you are now seeing my world through my eyes.’ The report is not a surprise to any Black or Brown person in the country. It does however give activists like T-Dubb-O a sanctioned document to corroborate the tenets of their activism. Ultimately T-Dubb-O sees the bigger picture. “We have to save our own community,” T-Dubb-O said. “For so long we fought to be in a house that doesn’t want us there, into a system that is designed to keep us in this position. And that’s the reason we are in this position now. … What we are doing here in St. Louis is we are working on programmatic responses.” He went on to enumerate the community base tech programs, reading programs, and other empowerment programs effected from the grassroots.
Nikole Hannaj-Jones wrote a prescient article in Politico Magazine titled “A Letter From Black America” that is worth a read. She recounts a story where someone shot into a crowd while she and some family, friends, and an intern staying with her were strolling down the beach on Long Island. After they ran far away from the shots the intern was on the phone. They were disgusted as they thought she was talking to her mother. She wasn’t. She was talking to the police. The take of these four professionals were probative.
My friends and I locked eyes in stunned silence. Between the four adults, we hold six degrees. Three of us are journalists. And not one of us had thought to call the police. We had not even considered it.
We also are all black. And without realizing it, in that moment, each of us had made a set of calculations, an instantaneous weighing of the pros and cons.
As far as we could tell, no one had been hurt. The shooter was long gone, and we had seen the back of him for only a second or two. On the other hand, calling the police posed considerable risks. It carried the very real possibility of inviting disrespect, even physical harm. We had seen witnesses treated like suspects, and knew how quickly black people calling the police for help could wind up cuffed in the back of a squad car. Some of us knew of black professionals who’d had guns drawn on them for no reason.
Whether it is through T-Dubb-O’s eyes, the son of my friend’s eyes, Nikole Hannaj-Jones and her friends and family’s eyes, or my eyes, those that do not live the reality of a real fear of police interaction should pause. They should aspire for an empathy that allows them to see the world through the eyes of others. Then and only then will we see the same dress with the correct colors. Then and only then will we really change our country and the world.