Before the turn of the century, my friends and I took spring walks from school to home, following the route of the M14D, which runs all the way down 14th Street from West to East and back again. Along the way, there was a little deli / convenience store along the way with the usual characters, including an dark-skinned man stocking up groceries in the back. While I searched for a Snapple and a pack of Oreos, the man just gave me the usual “What are you looking at?” New York before East Village gentrification lived up to its truculent reputation. Once the man realized I was a kid, his face softened, and he continued stocking up drinks.
My boys and I walked home with few things on our mind, least of which the small encounters we had with store owners we saw along the way. Then again, we had to have a certain nonchalance after the day we had. We were a band of brothers who grew up in the projects, but went to school with promising military personnel and coddled Irish and Italian kids from the far reaches of Brooklyn. Unspoken was a conservative set of values that assured we didn’t question the JROTC or the rituals we learned from the first orientation. Our gangsta hoodness was negotiated with our clean shaven faces and burgundy and khaki uniforms.
Somewhere in between these two worlds, I found a way to assimilate to these disparate environments. On most nights, I couldn’t sleep from the soreness I got from calisthenics or from the gunshots ringing out, young girls’ screams piercing my sensitive ears. As I got into my junior year of high school, I felt conflicted about the role police played in protecting against violence versus instigating the violence. FOX 5 would start the 10 o’clock news with another shooting in a neighborhood similar to mine, and the police were either investigating it or in the gunfight, victorious in nine of ten occasions.
Then, on February 4th, 1999, some of this changed for me. An unarmed convenience store worker was shot far too many times when all he did was pull out a wallet. Malcolm Gladwell attested it to panic and fear. People in my school secretly whispered that he deserved it for being so suspicious. People in my circle changed the color of their wallets, if they had any at all. Just as the reports and photos began to surface about this man, I saw a face I saw once before.
This time, I needed more than a freakin’ Snapple.
Amadou Diallo comes into my thoughts every so often because of this juxtaposition. Presently, I have so many friends from that high school who have become the people whose institution I can never stand by. Every two weeks it seems, more statistics come to the fore that place men (and women) like me at the center point of the bulls’ eye.
On one end, these are men I played basketball with, shared stages with, sung with, laughed with, shared homework with, told stories with, ate with, and graduated with so many years ago. On the other end, they may perpetuate the uneven targeting of Black and Latino youth and men for their institution’s clandestine purposes. It seems that for every one person of color who actually committed an offense, seven others are stopped, frisked, taken downtown, and released from mistaken identity.
How many news reports will divulge my statistics: Black / Brown Skin / 5’10″ – 6’1″ / jeans / sneakers? How many times have I walked down Harlem and felt equally suspicious of the undercover police and the black hooded men on the opposite corner? How many conversations have I had with friends already in law enforcement, or ones that recently joined because they felt they had no better option? How many of them do I see on Facebook, holding their children and sharing their families with me?
The cognitive dissonance comes into play when you’ve graduated from the same place, and live on the idea that there’s this intense part of your life you’ll always share with them, but that your ideologies about certain aspects of your life split passionately somewhere down the road. At times, when I post my more radical point of views, I get a comment from these friends the rest of society calls cops. Rather than point to their own tendencies of victim blaming, I instead remind myself that the only way for these officials to reform (and transform) is through understanding and respect. One might (rightly) argue that, so long as their crimes are protected by the Blue Wall of Silence, they’ll always have free reign to keep order by any means necessary.
Before there was silence, there was conversation. At least between these friends who are cops … and me. We reminisce on those times we shared a drink, the representative of Christ’s blood.
Jose, who has parent-teacher conferences tomorrow …