Saturday, June 6, 2020

Texas Notes: Searched


"New Kids on the Block," by Norman Rockwell. This ran in Look Magazine in May, 1967,
with an article on Park Forest, Illinois, known as a model of integration, with a
human rights committee that would smooth the way for new black residents.

     This singular national moment demands that writers respond, or become irrelevant, and Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey, as always, rises to the occasion.    


     In grammar school a handful of kids in my class had to take a bus to school from the next neighborhood over. Meanwhile, my childhood friends and I carelessly met on corners to walk or we “doubled” on banana seat bikes — two passengers on one bike — to get to the same school, which rested in our safe enclave of what we called West Rogers Park. 
     We’d show up wearing matching Izod Lacoste shirts and tapered jeans, looking like some kind of feathered-hair squad in an after school special. We saw ourselves as friendly to everyone but seven of us in particular were quite the clique. We even poked the tips of our fingers with pins to draw bright red bubbles of blood and rubbed our bloody fingers together to become what we said were real sisters. We walked to each others houses at lunch time and made sandwiches of Wonder Bread, bologna, American cheese and mayonnaise that we tucked Doritos into on our more daring days. We drank cans of Coke and finished boxes of Twinkies and Ho Hos while we watched All My Children, then ran back to school just in time for the bell to ring. We could barely focus on classwork much of the time and our teachers called us the Seven Social Butterflies. Our biggest concerns at school were whose Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers flavor was the best and how many pastel colored puffy stickers we had to decorate our Chandler’s daily planners. As we got older we progressed to obsessing about the cute older boys and holding hands with the guys who were much shorter than us in our own grade. 
     While all this was happening we were unaware that some of our classmates were having a very different experience. One classmate recently shared with me that as a young black man he felt so scared coming from his neighborhood over to our school that he only lasted one year, and then demanded to be allowed to return to his old familiar school the following year. While we traipsed around braiding each others hair and sharing secrets, we felt perfectly safe and sound and had absolutely no idea how to truly welcome the new kids into our world. Appearances might have indicated otherwise, but we did not truly integrate our school — it was just a surface fix.
     As we got older we learned that one of our black classmates had died a violent death near Sheridan and Jonquil Terrace, and yet another the same fate not too far from there. In retrospect I now see that we had absolutely no idea what it must have been like to be a visitor in what felt like our home away from home, Philip Rogers School, from a world so different than ours that it was inconceivable. These kids lived a life much different and often much more stressful than ours.
     The first time my car was taken apart and I was searched was when committing the crime of driving while with black men in the car. Did you know cops can easily remove all of your car’s seats for a thorough search? A few friends and I were trying to get down to the lakefront near the Arie Crown Theatre on a rainy afternoon. As a young driver I’d accidentally turned onto the wide, paved bike path, just an honest mistake. Two white cops pulled me over and I thought it would be the usual “officer, I am so sorry!” and they’d laugh and tell me to be more careful next time. Not so this time. Their countenance was threatening, they were unsmiling and they were going to teach us a lesson. They had the four of us, two teenaged white women and two teenaged black men get out of the car while they exercised their will upon us, notwithstanding the letter of the law. There was no probable cause. There was no warrant. There were just four scared teens standing in the rain for an hour or more while they shamed us, terrified us by their stony and methodical silence, and tore my poor 1978 Chevrolet Caprice Classic station wagon apart. Poor girl, she had no idea what was happening. She’d never been treated like this before. Once the cops realized we were clean as whistles they had to let us go with nary a murmur of apology.
     The next time I witnessed harassment of a black man and was harassed for being white while caring for a black person was during the detainment of a light skinned black male friend who was having a mental breakdown. He had started to decompensate into a manic episode with psychotic features at his father’s house, and his father and I tried to talk him into a better place, and into getting help. Instead, in mental torture he ran away from us down the street to his own apartment and we followed him. By the time we got to the scene unfolding in front of his building he was barefoot and bare chested since he had flung all but his jeans off during his manic episode. He was leaning back against a marked police car smoking a cigarette the best he could with his hands cuffed in front of his body, a heartbreaking scene. We later learned that he had called the police himself on his way home, telling them he was a danger to himself, so they had met him there.
     He smiled at us and cracked a joke, his fight and flight chemicals quieting down, and perhaps relieved that he might be getting the help he sorely needed. Suddenly an unmarked burgundy sedan came screeching up and a gigantic burly undercover white male officer jumped out of the car in what looked like a manic episode of his own, and right up into my five foot four skinny friend’s face. The cop ripped the cigarette out of my friend’s mouth and threw it to the ground. His face crumpled. I said “the other cops said he could have a smoke!” As soon as I said it I realized my grave error in trying to stand up for my friend in the face of an adrenaline filled maniac. He marched over to me, nearly bumping his bullet-proof vested chest into my head, glared down at me and demanded to know who I was. I backed away and said “I am his friend.” I cautiously retreated into the street away from this beast. Then his stocky white female partner approached me and demanded to know my name and to see my ID. I clearly said “I am doing nothing wrong and I do not have to show you my ID.” She told me that I could not stand in the street and I said “yes I can. I am doing nothing wrong and I am allowed to observe this arrest,” shaking as I acted bravely. She backed off and they took him away to the hospital. I was lucky that day. I realized later that it could have ended up a lot worse for me, and I recognized my good fortune in the fact that I somehow found the right words and used them to protect myself and also that this would have gone very differently without my white skin.
     As I look back at my life I recall time after time when I witnessed mistreatment of black men and was mistreated myself for being with them. Since George Floyd’s murder many such stories have been flooding back. They all occurred it the 90s and mostly in Chicago. There was the time I was with a white woman and a black man driving my car near Belmont and Damen. While stopped at a stop sign a group of white skinhead type males surrounded my car and thumped their fists on the windows and hood, causing me to tear off onto Belmont as quickly as I could. They could have caused an accident. We shook and trembled as we left the area, furious but also too scared to do anything more but flee.
     A black man and I were walking to our car from a grocery store on Division and Clark and a white man drove by and shouted “jungle fever!” in a menacing tone, upsetting the previous lightness of our day.
     An Asian woman and a white women picked up two black men, all friends of mine, on Howard Street to get some dinner when the driver noticed flashing red lights behind her. She pulled over to yield and let them pass. Instead of the officers passing, she shockingly realized she was being pulled over but had no idea why. The cops did not explain but told them all to get out of the car. They were scared and complied. The men were patted down and they were all made to stand in the rain waiting for a female officer to show up to pat the women down. The cops thoroughly searched the car. Since there was no illegal activity going on they were let go. In a conversation this week the Asian woman told me that she was terrified that the cops would find somehow find contraband even though there wasn't any. She recalls the surreal feeling of being stopped and searched when none of them had done anything that might have seemed suspicious, other than the color of their skin, which in the cops’ eyes was commensurate with a crime.
     It would seem I might run out of such stories, but alas no. Another car taken apart and this time a strip search by Canadian border patrol as a mixed group of us tried to get to Carabana Festival in Toronto one hot summer weekend. One of the young men had forgotten his identification, and rather than humanely turning us away we were detained for hours. Seats were removed, door compartments forced open. I had no idea my car had such possibility. The most unpleasant part for me was being taken into a small room and mandated to bend over naked and cough as two female officers watched, to be sure I was not smuggling drugs. Of course nothing illegal was found and we were finally let go, but the officers told me that they would keep my license plate number and if I ever tried to enter Canada in that car it would be impounded. I may never forget the visceral feelings of anger, powerlessness and humiliation of that day.
     My stories are nothing in the scheme of things, except to further illustrate the fact that systematic racist policing definitely exists. Until people including me figure out ways to contribute to ending this culture of abuse it will not change. It’s not enough to read about it, to protest, to educate. What will it take to create a just world? For now I have distributed lists of food sources throughout Chicago to friends there, as countless grocery stores and corner stores remain boarded up in the aftermath of or to prevent looting. I attended a days long training about intersectionality and institutionalized racism especially as it pertains to healthcare access here in Austin Texas, where I sat on the hot seat and started to learn how to check my privilege and become a listener. I know that I will do whatever it takes to contribute to the demise of our intrinsically racist society and I will have to come up with every and any way I can think of as well as ally with others to contribute in a meaningful way. Just as I know the stars are in the sky I know that I do not want to live in a world absent of ethical humanism towards every single person. After all, as Dr. Cornel West brilliantly surmises, “justice is what love looks like in public.”


16 comments:

  1. Caren, thank you.
    Recognizing white privilege, especially when it is our own, ain't easy - but it is relatively small step in the right direction.

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    1. So true that it's not easy, and hopefully trying can make us more of an ally.

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  2. Today is the 76th Anniversary of the largest seaborne anti-fascist operation in history. Due to the pandemic, there few remembrances at Normandy today.

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    1. Thank you for this reminder- my great uncle Thomas Daniel was there on D-Day.

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  3. "To contribute to the demise of our intrinsically racist society" is a weighty goal, one that compels us white folks to act against our apparent best interests. Hey, I'm comfortable here; cops don't bother me...most of the time. My education is respected and I'm automatically classified as an elite without evidence of accomplishments. Why should I work for change? I've seen the chaos of rioting and looting before. It went away after a bit and everything went back to "normal." The reference to "justice" helps. A couple months ago, a visiting priest at my Southwest Side church in his homily, took a novel approach to the rich Nicodemus and the poor Lazarus parable. He said that the poor don't need alms, charity, a few bucks that we don't have anything else to spend them on; what they need, what they and God demand is Justice (better known as fairness). Every child not long out of the cradle knows what fairness is or rather recognizes unfairness when such is visited on him/her. Nicodemus wasn't comfortable in the flames of Gehenna. Neither should we be in the chaos of today.

    john

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  4. Yes. Justice for all. Thank you John, thought provoking words.

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  5. I love this post. Thank you for sharing, capturing the livlness of being a white city kid in a local school versus the busing of black kids into white schools. Your attention to detail brings the story alive. John's above comment moves me with the parable. And yes. Justice is what love looks like. Another great and timely article.

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  6. Saddened and sorry to hear all these stories of police harassment, but as a native Chicagoan, this is an old story to me. Chicago coppers have pulled guns on me and one tried to choke me after the Cubs blew the NLCS at Wrigley in 2003. I was 56 years old, for God's sakes!

    I'm a good deal older than you...I was in the '68 riots, where I saw the same shit, in a different century. The old style gassing and macing and kicking and beating and clubbing...the police didn't have all the sophisticated flash-bangs and "non-lethal" projectiles (which can kill, and have) back in the day...they just knocked the crap out of people who got in their way or pissed them off.

    Following '68, Chicago's Finest also terrorized anyone who looked like a hippie for years. I used to get stopped and threatened in East Rogers Park, on the way to the Jewel on Morse Avenue, for walking with long hair.And after Kent State, I was beaten and arrested by Illinois state troopers. Oh, yeah, I know about cops.

    Not so long ago, a stocky white female Cleveland cop threatened to "kick my ass" and made me wake up my sleeping wife "to check for bruises" after a false report from a neighbor who disliked me. My cop stories are neither unique nor unusual. Not anymore. It's life in these United States...or in Occupied France.

    And I know all about car searches...at gunpoint in San Diego and also at the Canadian border. Not by Canadians, but by our own border police. Everyone else was from Detroit, but when they learned I was a Chicago native and resident, I was taken aside and grilled. It used to be easy to enter Ontario. Getting back into one's own country is a whole different ballgame, and has been for many years now.

    But enough. Let's look at the 1967 Norman Rockwell image instead. This time I saw details I had never noticed before. White shoes on the black boy, black shoes on the white girl. The black girl has a white cat, while the white boy has a black dog. Makes me wonder if the artist knew that Bob Dylan lyric: "I saw a white man...who walked a black dog." Perhaps.

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    1. Touching words Grizz, thank you. Also thank you for using East Rogers Park. :) AND for reminding me to look more closely at the Rockwell image.

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  7. There is also Rockwell's poignant painting "The Problem We All Live With". It's about Ruby Bridges, a six year old black girl, that had to be escorted by US Marshals to school in New Orleans, after a desegregation order, went into effect.
    The painting was & is still controversial due to the inclusion of the "n" word & KKK as graffiti on the wall in the background.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Problem_We_All_Live_With

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  8. What a full life you’ve led Caren. This problem is far from over. On the horizon in my small city of Melbourne, FL is the the Gregory Edwards case. He had a public PTSD episode, was restrained and then taken into custody by the Brevard County Sheriff.
    The next day Mr. Edwards, an African American military veteran was dead. Now, the sheriff is refusing to release video that recorded the activity that caused his death.
    This is similar to Chicago’s “Sixteen Shots”. Sooner or later the video will be released and unfortunately more of what we are seeing today will happen again.

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    1. Too much. https://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/2020/07/17/brevard-nurse-first-witness-speak-publicly-gregory-edwards-death/3254408001/

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  9. Abolish pd's; pay social workers the kind of a salary and benefits that would take existential worry off the table so they can do their job. Just as a start. Onward.

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