In 1978 I was riding with my girlfriend down Route 9 on the way back from Marshall’s in Poughkeepsie. We were chatting enthusiastically about the bargains accrued when a white policeman pulled us over.
“Why are you stopping me?” I asked.
His reply, “You were so busy talking to your boyfriend here. You weren’t paying attention to the road.”
My friend, a black woman with short hair, her cigarette down to the butt, looked away out the window. I gave the policeman hell — called him a racist pig, and said I would report him for pulling us over for no reason at all. My friend, wordless, let the cigarette burn her fingers.
“You have white privilege and can back talk to a policeman. I let my fingers burn. You don’t move your hands at all. If you’re black, he might think you are reaching for a gun and kill you.”
When I was 18, I attended the March on Washington. I memorized excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches. After the assassination of Dr. King, I believed I had the right to mourn. I went to a rally here and was asked to leave.
In the 1960’s I hated the police. We called them “pigs.” That was the politically correct attitude among the anti-war activists. My favorite bumper sticker from that era was: “If you hate the police so much, the next time you are in trouble call a hippie.” Now that makes sense. The police are who I call to protect me.
Last week I returned home from a business trip to find the back door wide open and all the lights on. I called the New Paltz police. Three policemen came within minutes — one a person of color, another a young woman and the third was a student, when he was in sixth grade, of my husband Sam Slotnick. They told me to sit in my car while they took the risk of searching my house for an intruder.
When I was newly married, living in what was then called the Huguenot Apartments, we heard pounding and screaming at our door in the middle of the night. A young African American student had been raped and fled to the nearest door, ours, begging for help. I called the police. The officer, also young, treated the student with so much love, sensitivity and compassion he changed my opinion about policemen forever.
Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, a professor in the SUNY New Paltz Black Studies Department and a linguistics scholar, was asked by her son’s teacher, “If you don’t understand, I can explain to you what the English Standardized Test is about.” The teacher was apparently parent profiling.
Margaret attended a dance class I taught. She began to bring friends from her church. “Suzie, (she is the only person who ever called me by that name) once the number of black women in your class reaches a critical mass beyond what whites are comfortable with, all the white students will quit.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I said.
A few weeks later, the only white person left was me.
After Margaret died I did not have a loved one to talk to about race with her perspective. The shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the protests, talking heads on television, evidence or lack of it, and grand jury procedures would have supplied us with issues to unravel for days.
Now all of my friends “of color” (the term they prefer me to use) are in prison.
Every year the men invite me to speak for Black History Month. For such a long time Margaret shared her opinions with me. I know exactly what she would say about this: “Suzie, can’t you get a black person to speak?”
One year I tried. I located a black professor. During our first conversation he informed me that he was against diversity and all its permutations. He also had a theory which was way beyond my understanding that explained why only black “men” would go to heaven. That’s what he wanted to speak about in the prison. The men running the black history program rejected his topic since that year the theme for the month was diversity, inclusion and equal justice for all. So I went instead. This will be my fifth year presenting for black history. Besides me, I am still looking for a black person to present, also.
In the prison
Almost all the men I teach were perpetrators and victims of black on black criminal behavior while they were teenagers. Many often say going to prison saved them from certain death at the hands of the other neighborhood “thugs.” According to one prisoner, the chant by the protestors — “black lives don’t mean anything” — has to include the thousands of black people who kill each other every year, if we are really caring about black lives and not just digging our heels into adversarial positions. They believe that black-on-black crime is a product of racism, the fragmentation of the black family which had its origins in slavery and economic disparity, which causes hopelessness, institutional racism, the pattern of social institutions — governmental organizations, schools, banks and especially in the courts of law where many of them were victimized by unfair treatment. Nevertheless, they also strongly believe in personal responsibility. Of course they do, after all, to them, the argument that Michael Brown should not have robbed a store, continued to walk down the middle of the road when the cop commanded him to stop and according to the so-called evidence — if we can believe it — tried to grab the officer’s gun though the police car window, is to them a deeply personal argument. With some exceptions, due to innocence, the decade’s long time out for bad behavior they are enduring would have been avoided if they had just obeyed the law and not hurt anyone. So many, almost all of the prisoners I know, aspire to work with young black children upon release to prevent black-on-black crime and the long-term incarceration of youths. They are not holding their breath waiting for society to correct its massive injustices. They want to take action now.
I have read about the cases and listened to the commentators. With each interpretation I am panning further and further away from a perfect position to take on either side. There simply is too much we cannot know and have no way to definitively discover.
Nevertheless, indictments should have occurred. Evidence should be public. People are angry.
A formally incarcerated man of color who was also once a NYPD officer said, “I knew many white policemen who worked in terrible neighborhoods and never drew their gun during their entire career. It’s complicated. Even with the video of Garner, we still don’t see what was going on in the surrounding area, what exactly transpired. If a crowd gathers, we are trained to bring altercations to a conclusion very quickly. People are at odds with each other. There’s not much understanding or effort to understand.”
Not a lot of love either these days between people of divergent opinions or a groundswell movement emerging to provide it. I suppose it’s corny of me to think that love is the answer. But at least I am in good company desiring it:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King