Black, White and Mute

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I wrote the following paragraph back in August – a few days after teenager Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson on an otherwise ordinary summer day.

As a white person you shake your head at the television screen when you watch the police in Ferguson, MO tear gas mostly black protestors who are on the street because an 18 year old African American male with his arms raised in the air was shot six times and killed by a white patrolman who seems to have been allowed to vanish into thin air.

We have since learned and experienced quite a bit. Among them is the officer’s name, location and story of what happened – which directly contradicts that of several eyewitnesses, one of whom law enforcement officials did not bother to interview until many days later.

... what Amy said

… what Amy said

We have also gotten to know Mr. Brown’s family through numerous television interviews and statements (well, as much as you can) and have seen their pain publicly projected across the world courtesy of our uber-advanced, ever-evolving global communications systems.

We have done even more.

We have observed as numerous political figures from white and black communities have demanded that once and for all we attempt to address why it is so many young black men seem to be getting shot these days by white male authority figures while we have noticed almost simultaneously the white male authority figures in Missouri, led by Ferguson’s district attorney and the state’s governor, digging in their heels and indignantly railing against the protestors who dare to question and cross the line in frustration as their anger explodes through the streets.

Asking the right questions

Asking the right questions

We have also participated, virtually and otherwise, as this anger spreads to most major cities across the country where other indignant authority figures are no doubt lying in wait trying to control events from their offices and court houses so as to avoid the inevitable next racial and very public catastrophe.

As if the latter is even possible – especially with that strategy.

So what is next and advisable? On the former point, probably a lot of chatter and attempts at some legislative adjustments until the next shooting happens. What is advisable? Well, shutting up and listening without speaking would be a start. This is not cynicism but merely fact based on recent history. And it’s mostly directed to the white people reading this.

The New Yorker nails it with their recent cover

The New Yorker nails it with their recent cover

As a very white person I’m angry and, quite frankly, don’t even know what to think or do about any of this. After all, Ferguson, MO, like Sanford, FL, the city where another black male teenager, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was murdered last year by a neighborhood watchman, is not Alabama or Mississippi – the historical epicenters for the gunning down of unarmed young black men in the U.S.   Heck, neither one of them are even in the Deep South.

I don’t know what you do or think about all of this if you’re black – especially a young black male. Though I would imagine back in August that at the very least I’d have been on the streets and would probably have stayed there past midnight. (Note: Even before I first became a teenager at the tail end of the turbulent 1960s, curfews were never my strong point). After the exoneration of the man who shot Trayvon Martin, followed by exoneration of Officer Wilson from any wrongdoing in the shooting of Michael Brown, which, only several days later, was followed by the shooting of a 12 year old black boy in Ohio by a police officer because the guy thought the toy gun the kid was pointing was real – well, at the very least I’d now not only take to the streets but would try to destroy something, or even someone. Though in my case, it would probably be through nasty, sarcastic, cutting words. This is understandable because those are the weapons I grew up around and have been trained with. Had I had another kind of life, well… who can say?

A different version of "bad breath"

A different version of “bad breath”

What I did do in desperation was email a former student and friend/writer colleague of mine – who happens to be tall, African American, male and in his mid-twenties – and pled with him in a caring yet somewhat humorous way to “please, please, please be careful.” I did this because I felt as if I had to attempt something concrete other than to rant and rave. Besides, I know that sarcastic, cutting words are, to a large extent, also his weapons of choice. And he brandishes these weapons quite well, almost as well as I do. My fear is that as a journalist covering those events, or as a twenty-something guy in the Midwest buying a smoke or even a soda at his local convenience store, he’d launch his ammunition in exactly the wrong direction. I couldn’t let that happen. In my mind, this was perhaps one small thing I could prevent. Though in retrospect my gesture feels awkward and ill-advised. Still, it’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. Or will do in the future.

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To those who want to categorize my musings as pseudo liberal crap or white guilt (or both) let me brutally honest. I respect both the law and law enforcement and imagine that being a beat cop in any city in the US is a scary proposition these days. And let’s be even more blunt, it’s probably more than a little bit scary for white guys who patrol black neighborhoods given how these white guys are perceived and dressed. And given reality. But what also seems a given, more than a given, is that if you are a trained policeman there is no reason in the world to shoot an unarmed 18 year old 6-10 times (the latter being the number of bullet shells found in the area) in order to prevent him from…well, doing anything. I would think three or four plugs from a decent officer would do it and even if he weren’t a very good shot. Wouldn’t you?

That being said – here’s the truth. I’m sickened and embarrassed for my pigmentation. Seriously. As a gay, Jewish, somewhat short guy (Note: That’s triple minority status), I have tried through the years to reason with fellow whites on the privilege of being in the majority and the marginalization of “the other.” I particularly did this with my parents’ friends when I was younger and as you can see – well, a lot of good that did. I have even continued to do so through the years though nowhere near as vehemently. Then again, you find that as time goes on you don’t have the energy to do everything – or really, anything – quite as vehemently.

... and social media only makes it worse

… and social media only makes it worse

That being the case let’s try a new tactic. And that would be to spread the word for white people – and particularly our political leaders in Missouri, Florida and Ohio (the latter being the location of the most recent shooting of that pesky 12 year old) – to NOT SAY ANOTHER WORD. Rather, hand over the stage to the protestors – preferably the non-white kind, and HEAR what is being said. Do not simply listen, but HEAR. And then, HEAR some more. Continue on and then… ZIP IT. Zip it GOOD. Because now you need the time to THINK AND REFLECT. Make that a long time.

I have no idea what to tell the black community to do at this point. Which should be a welcome relief to them – especially coming from a white guy.

The Absence of Logic

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Do we now live in a country where we can decide that if a teenager looks suspicious based on skin color, clothing and stance we can follow him against police orders, approach him with unwarranted questions and then, when we don’t receive the response we want or are met with hostility, shoot him in “self-defense?” Apparently yes.

I don’t get it.  Why is an adult like George Zimmerman carrying a gun in the first place?  He’s not a police officer.  He’s a neighborhood watch guy who wasn’t even on duty when he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Black boy who was carrying nothing more than a cell phone and Skittles at the time. And forget the legal right to bear arms argument.  Use logic.  What is the point of carrying a gun with you when you live in a gated community and are going on an errand?  To pretend you’re an action star?  To derive some sort of gleeful macho joy, or booster confidence shot?  Or maybe it’s just that little bit of an extra upper hand when you’re trying to make a point and the other kid, I mean guy, is not listening to you?

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Skittles and broken dreams

I decided not to become a lawyer in my third year of college when I realized that legalese, memorization and cleverness in word twisting often trumped logic.  So I’m going to simply state it this way:  When Mr. Zimmerman called the police about this questionable kid they told ole George not to follow him and wait in his car.  But instead ole George got out of his car and tailed him, grumbling that these “punks always get away.”   What happened after that is anyone’s guess.  Except that one was a white person with a gun and the other was a Black kid just walking home, minding his own business.  Do the math.

Mr. Zimmerman’s defense attorneys loved pointing out that there is no law against getting out of your car and following someone.  Well, okay.  But if you’re walking along and being followed for no reason and are carrying a licensed gun, does that mean that you can then shoot the person following you?  What is harassment anyway?  Who has the right to shoot first?  Is this the Wild West?  Or just a Florida suburb where racism rules the day not only on the streets but also in court?  I’m not talking about law.   I’m talking about logic.

I am SOOOO tired of people saying race has nothing to do with this case.  It has EVERYTHING to do with this case.  White people think tall Black teenage boys and young men are suspicious and potentially menacing.  In fact, when I was a teenager, in the late sixties and seventies in New York City, it was often thought that if you saw one of those guys on the street and they approached you they’d either rob you, knife you or, worst case scenario, rape your girlfriend while pointing a gun at your head.

Flip the script.

Flip the script. Trayvon and George.

Except not always.  Not if you didn’t choose to think that way.

True story.  I can remember as a 13-year-old walking home from school in Jackson Heights, Queens one day when a Black teenager a couple of years older walked up to me fast and demanded my wallet, sort of motioning through his coat that he had either a knife or a gun.   The weapon in the coat looked a bit suspicious but I reluctantly gave him my wallet anyway because, well…you never know.  But then something funny happened.  I was compelled to ask him if he really wanted my wallet, since there wasn’t a lot of money in it, and how come he was taking it.  He replied that he needed money.  I told him okay, that I didn’t think he was a bad guy and asked how come he picked me.  He looked at me and said he didn’t know.

Queens tales

Queens tales

Then something even funnier happened then.  He didn’t run away.  He kept on walking with me.  So we continued talking.  He asked me where I went to school and I asked him stuff about himself.  He didn’t answer all my questions but I felt, as I walked home a few more blocks, we were getting to know each other a little better and I was proving that I wasn’t a racist – which was the worst thing a Jewish liberal kid in NY like me could be in 1968, or so I thought.  Also, I Just didn’t think this guy was so bad.  He didn’t have a killer look in his eye.  Nor did he have, it turned out, a gun or a knife.  Certainly he didn’t have a cell phone – though he might have had some candy that was the equivalent of Skittles.  In fact, I’m almost certain he must have.

I’m not any kind of young hero for making these choices because, as my mother later screamed in my ear when I told her this story: “YOU COULD’VE BEEN KILLED! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU??!!!”  (Note: I was smart enough to not tell her this story until many years in the future so I suppose I do deserve some credit for intuiting that).   Rather than heroic, I simply think of myself as someone who, even though I was young, was mature enough to take the temperature of a tricky situation and approach it with calm and logic.

Calm, logic and maturity is something we should all employ when faced with potentially tricky, or difficult, situations.  Even when there is some risk involved.  You don’t stop an ant from eating your picnic food with a rifle.  Nor do you shoot the neighborhood dog chewing on your rose bush by blowing him away with a lit cannon.  Or stop the guy trying to steal your car, even if it is a Porsche, with an AK-47 and a round of 10,000 bullets.  It’s a machine, for god’s sake – not your sister.  Or someone’s son.

One more story.  About 15 years ago my boyfriend/partner/lover/not yet husband and I park our car in Beverly Hills and are walking a block towards the Writers Guild Theatre for a movie screening.  Suddenly, a group of young guys drive by in a revved up car and YELL at the top of their lungs, FUCKING FAGGOTS!  It all happened so fast that there was no time for reason, bitchy retorts or violence.  All I remember is that I was about to scream back at them – a scream that they probably wouldn’t have heard (but still…!), when my partner grabbed me and looked me in the eye, as if to say:  Why?

Why, indeed?  This is the first question I’d ask George Zimmerman if we were family, or even friends, something I know we will never be.  My second question would then be: if he saw the 17 year old gay boy me in the locker room at the gym while we were both changing and thought I looked at him the wrong way, would he start questioning me, too?  And what if I started yelling back at him?  And then a fight started?  If this were a Florida locker room, somewhere that I likely would have never frequented (but still!) would he be justified in shooting me too if things got heated and I defended myself from his harassment? (Uh yes, gay guys are frequently known to be shot dead for a single inappropriately bitchy retort).

This is not stretching the metaphor.  It’s all the same metaphor.  You can’t profile someone because you’re suspicious of their race, or sexual preference, or height, or gender, or weight.  No matter how many times you might have been challenged by a fat kid, or a short kid, or a gay kid, or a, well, colored kid.

I don’t give a shit what a jury said, what the law says, or how well a team or grandstanding, self-satisfied lawyers argue the case.  It makes no logical sense.  And it’s wrong.

Oh, coda to the wallet story.  Before he left, the kid gave me back my wallet, with my money inside.  Again, that doesn’t make me a hero.  But it does make me, as a 13 year old, a hell of a lot smarter than George Zimmerman.  Not a high bar, granted.