When the Bulls-Eye is You
More than thirty years ago I lived in a lower-middle class suburb where people were friendly. The houses we lived in within our neighborhood were suburbanly stacked almost on top of each other along a gently winding hill: tidy cracker boxes rimmed with carefully tended strips of garden. My house was happy golden-hued.
I had friendly relations with everyone until July 29 of 1981 when I brought my foster son, Dexter, home from the hospital to live with us. I was excited to bring him into the little neighborhood because it was such a sweet contrast to the hospital rooms that had been his home for the entire two years and ten months of his life. I felt everyone in my neighborhood would be supportive of what I was doing, because the decision to take this child had felt so good, and right. Which it was; in retrospect I can add that it was one of the very best decisions I ever made in my life.
But soon I would discover that the only outstretched arms were across the street in the form of the Blessed Virgin statue our religious, but intolerant, neighbors featured in their front yard garden. The elderly neighbors to our right closed all the curtains on the side of their house that faced ours and kept them that way until I moved away years later. From that day forward, though not everyone was mean, we lived on the periphery of neighborhood life.
One afternoon as I walked with Dexter down the street, I passed a man standing at the edge of his fenced yard as if he were waiting for us. Just as I was about to pass, he spat on the sidewalk in front of us. I pretended not to see it. In the next several years, other episodes of harassment would occur, like the ice blocks thrown at our front window. Whatever happened, I would just clean up, step around it, or repair it. My kids still had friends, we went through long stretches of blessedly being left alone, and my own extended family was a great support.
Only once those years did I step forward to raise a ruckus when I filed a formal complaint against a local shopping center security guard who used the N word within my earshot on a plaza filled with children, including mine. Upon questioning by the agency that employed him, even he agreed that a man with that sort of attitude didn’t belong “guarding” a place filled with children, especially not carrying a gun. He lost his job.
Flash forward many years later into this scene: I am working with a youth group at a church at the edge of what was once Cabrini-Green, the infamous Chicago projects. My then-teenage daughter, Tami, is with me. A group of the kids, and my daughter, decide they would like to go to McDonald’s so we pile in two cars to get a bite to eat. I am driving one car with kids, and Tami is squeezed in the backseat of the car driven by Jamal up ahead. I let Jamal lead the way in an area that isn’t familiar to me. Soon a police car whizzes around me to stop Jamal. The young man stops immediately. I park behind the police vehicle but do not come out. I only wait. And wait ….and wait some more. I see the police officer finally pull out Jamal by his collar, and then I get out myself.
“Who are you?” the officer demands, obviously uncomfortable. I explain that I am the girl in the backseat’s mother, I am with these kids. I demand to know why they were stopped. I know Jamal wasn’t speeding.
“Just checking things ma’am,” he says. I press as much as I dare to, but Jamal looks at me with a pleading look that tells me to let it go, so I do. The officer releases Jamal, no ticket is issued, and that’s the end of the strange episode.
At McDonald’s we sit around and talk. Everyone has a theory about why they were stopped. The back brake lights might be defective, they might have been driving with the brights on. They settle, though, on the most logical reason: the problem of the white girl in the back seat. It didn’t matter that Tami explained these were her friends with a church group. Cops just don’t like to see that.
I ask everyone, my daughter included, why that alone is a reason for being hassled. I witnessed a lot of the officer talking, but there had been no search. They shrug. My daughter is angry and wants to go to the police station and give them “what for.” I agree—“We shouldn’t stand for this,” I say. Secretly, I want to save them from society’s stupidity, which is a very arrogant assumption. As if I could make the world-weary officer, or anyone, see.
The guys know my motive, and won’t hear of it. “If we registered complaints every time something like this happened, we wouldn’t have a life,” one of the boys tells me. I let it go, until later when I discuss the incident with a minister who knows them all. He sides with them.
“They made a good choice for you,” he tells me. “They really are good kids. They know they are. The cops hassle them, they understand they are always under watch, and they let it go.” He adds: “If you had gone in and intervened you could have made life much worse for them.”
I haven’t thought about these incidents for a little while, but the matter regarding the death of Trayvon Martin made me think about context…what drives us in this world to be un-strategic or downright thoughtless when faced with a person or situation we don’t immediately understand. I admit I am mostly just another liberal-thinking white woman with an opinion; but I do have a little experience with wearing the bull’s-eye, albeit on behalf of a little black boy I loved with all my heart. I won’t, however, pretend for an instant that my experience is anything like being African American in places that aren’t friendly or tolerant. (The latter is a word I don’t like at all, by the way. I use it because our vocabulary, along with our sense of cultural humility, is bereft of appropriate language for this. On the same topic, I know that not all blacks are African American. We still have such a long way to go.)
I do understand how a boy with only a pocketful of candy, a hoodie, and a cell phone in his hand would take stock of his terrifying circumstance and simply walk on.
I was also passive when I walked quietly through the spit wad on the sidewalk, and my silence on such matters brought me some measure of peace, I suppose. And Jamal, his friends, and the minister convinced me later of the wisdom of a philosophy of “head down, move on.” I got it. But if we are always like that, we aren’t helping anyone, least of all ourselves.
When I hear Trayvon’s parents speak I hear echoes of what my black friends have told their kids. One of them, a big guy named Terry, graduated from Northwestern University and played on the NU football team. He told me that while his friends could freely roam the streets of Evanston, IL, at all hours of the day or night as long as they weren’t making trouble, he could not. “I was always stopped if I ventured out, if only for a snack,” he said. He shrugged, pretending it was not such a big deal, but we managed to discuss the subject for more than an hour.
As well, I think, we should. Every one of us.