Saturday, November 29, 2014

proving you’re not crazy: on ferguson, sort of

1. the body he lives in

There’s a trainee at Homeboy named Rudy. Recently he gave the Thought of the Day and shared a poem he wrote, about introducing himself for the first time in his memory as “Rudy,” instead of giving his gang nickname. It was a sweet and powerful poem that captured the intensity of rediscovering your own identity—the not-so-simple act of declaring I’m not who they say I am.

Rudy, shown smaller than actual size.
The first thing everyone notices about Rudy is that he’s close to seven feet tall. He has the girth to match and a deep voice. If he signed on with a casting agency, he would regularly get cast in fairy tale films. But in this world of modern fairy tales, he was cast in the role of tough guy very early in life. When I think about how long it took me—an average-sized white female whose parents never told me not to cry— to truly own my vulnerability, I can only imagine how machismo and other cultural forces must have tamped down the hurt little boy in Rudy. The fact that Rudy found his inner Rudy is proof of his true manhood, and because of the body he lives in, he has to prove it over and over again.

2. those who cannot remember the past are doomed to post ignorant shit on facebook

This morning, I read some posts about Ferguson on AK’s Facebook page, from some of her evangelical college friends. (If ever there were a recipe for an opinionated blog post from me, it would be Facebook + evangelical Christians + no coffee yet.) Most, though not all, of the commenters were white and middle class. The gist of the initial post was: Hey you guys, I never post anything political, but the rioting in Ferguson upsets me because cops have a really hard job. What’s wrong with these people? She got something like 68 likes and 33 comments, the majority of which were supportive. Yeah, we should respect cops! My brother’s a cop!!

I haven’t read many articles about Ferguson or even formed thoughts beyond a vague sense of sadness and frustration about how little has changed since 1992 or even 1965. And that’s a luxury I have as a middle-class white female. That whole Ferguson thing is sorta just over there.



The woman who set aside her no-politics stance to speak out on this very important issue ended up putting on a cringe-inducing performance of her own ignorance. Her post was genuinely baffled, and not hateful in its tone. Most, though not all, of the comments weren’t hateful either.

But they were putting the burden of proof—of proving I’m not dangerous as well as I have something to be angry about—on poor people of color, and that strikes me as fundamentally flawed thinking. The sum of lots of well-meaning-ish ignorant opinions is culture, is racism.

I don’t know Darren Wilson, and I don’t know whether he is a bad cop who should go to jail or not, and I believe he probably was afraid for his life when he shot Michael Brown. But the sum of lots of scared white cops, when added to the ENTIRE HISTORY OF AMERICA is culture, is racism.

3. statistically, it is much more dangerous to be a roofer or a farmer than a police officer, but i’m gonna play it safe and stick with writer

It’s true: cops have a really hard job. My uncle was a cop for years before he retired and became a psychologist. Today he works with the Long Beach Police Department to screen prospective officers and weed out the psychopaths and people with an ax to grind, racial or otherwise. He also counsels cops who’ve been involved in shootings, helping them grapple with all the intense, complicated experiences that happen before and after a trigger is pulled. I don’t think Robin and I see eye to eye on every issue, but I’m encouraged by his work, because it puts consciousness and empathy at the heart of police work.

As individuals, we can defeat racism by educating ourselves about history and interrogating our own thought patterns—i.e. the academic route—or we can live among people who look different from us and see them as they really are—the Father Greg kinship route. I am a fan of both, and I think both are two-way streets.

By “we,” I don’t just mean “we white people” because, ugh, that would be a crappy way to talk. What I mean is, it’s not just that white people need to stop seeing people of color as killers and thugs (although, as the party in power, we-white-people face the more urgent task), it’s that poor communities of color need to see white people who aren’t just cops, teachers or celebrities on TV. White people can be kind. White people can be non-authority figures. White people can struggle—and ideally they can do so without shitting all over people of color.

Police officers, whether kind and hard-working or racist or struggling or some combination thereof, at the very least see what goes on in poor communities of color. Unlike the evangelical Facebook posters, they don’t have the luxury of blindness, although they may still be ignorant and biased. But they’re getting their hands dirty, and in some ways they are bearing the brunt of white stupidity, if less so than the people of color who get shot.

"You and I, we have a lot in common. Like our dashing 'staches."
That Facebook thread went beyond a failure to understand history and context, and bled into a kind of willful ignorance that can only come when you dehumanize people. Not only could those posters not understand what protestors and rioters might be pissed off about, but they couldn’t even imagine that there was a piece of the story they weren’t imagining. That is literally the least we can do—when we don’t get it, we can hold the door open a crack for the possibility that there’s more going on here than we can wrap our little minds around.

4. the political is personal

This morning I talked to my friend Michelle, who is having a classic Thanksgiving visit home, meaning her family is lashing out in the wake of its collective inter-generational problems. Specifically, her dad is torn between smothering his grief over her mom, who died five years ago, and acting like a teenager allowed to run around un-chaperoned for the first time. He wants to rent the house to strangers, he only wants to hang out with his daughters when his new girlfriend is around. Michelle’s sister has her back, but even she prefers the Dive Into Something New school of coping to the Sit With The Suck school.

Michelle, who has been sitting with the suck, woke up this morning to an empty house. Everyone else had gone to breakfast and left her with a lone bag of English muffins.

“Even the toaster is gone,” she said. “What the fuck?”

After we talked for a while, she said, “Thanks for letting me know I’m not crazy.”

Actually, elephants may be a lot more enlightened than most of us.
In my own family and in my friend circle, I have periodically been the crazy one. I’ve felt others’ fear of the intensity of my emotions, and I’ve screamed at the top of my lungs, trying to get them to name an elephant in the room. It feels awful to be feared, and alienating, and I think that when people protest and riot, this is what they’re doing. They’re saying There’s an elephant here, and it’s huge and terrible, and it has been here for hundreds of years. Maybe this time can we talk about it? How many of us does it need to stomp on before you’ll stop calling us crazy?

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