I Am Not Safe

I was going to write a different post this morning, but not much different. Following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Knox in Falcon Heights, I planned only to reiterate two important points. The first was made by Marc Lamont Hill on Democracy Now!:

“I don’t doubt that George Zimmerman really thought that Trayvon Martin was violent and dangerous. The problem is there was no reason to. But, what happens is, when we see someone with Skittles and a hoodie and we decide that they’re dangerous, or we see someone with their hands up and we decide that they’re dangerous, or we see someone with CDs in their hand and we decide that they’re dangerous, we simply reinforce the idea that black bodies themselves are inherently dangerous, and then when we let them off as jurors, or as grand jurors, we ultimately normalize and codify irrational white supremacist fear of black people.”

The second, by Máximo Anguiano on Latino USA:

“The difference between Blacks and Latinos is a boat stop. The same detention officers that put their hands on us are guided by the same law that allows municipal officers to do the same. We’ve both been scarred by colonialism and imperialism. The history, fate, and experience of Latinos and Blacks in this country will forever be intertwined. Our issues are more alike than dissimilar and we need to stand in solidarity with each other.”

But instead of dwelling on such platitudes, however much they bear repeating, I want to talk about something much more crucial.

Last night, as my partner and I were unwinding, news out of Dallas began to spread over social media. My wife is always on her phone, so she told me and I turned on the TV. With one eye on the screen and the other on Twitter’s #Dallas feed, I frantically tried piecing together the details of what was happening. Then I spotted a Tweet from director Michael Moore:

Moore wasn’t kidding. While the anchors on CNN were trying to keep their viewers calm (relatively speaking), Fox News was whipping the faithful into a frenzy. Whereas MSNBC had already identified Mark Hughes, the Man in Camouflage Carrying an Assault Rifle, as merely another innocent bystander, the mob at Fox News wouldn’t clear him of guilt till much later, allowing the doubt surrounding his identity to stir up even more fear and loathing. One female witness told a reporter that the Black Lives Matter protesters had been chanting “Fuck the police!” moments before chaos ensued, which only bolstered Fox News’ ready-made narrative that the march through downtown Dallas, though supposedly nonviolent, was far from peaceable. As I imagined what the average Fox News viewer must’ve been thinking as he or she learned that three police officers — then four, and then five — had been shot at a Black Lives Matter protest, I began to fear for my own safety and the safety of every black man in America. “This is only going to lead to more shootings,” I told my wife. “Now police officers are going to be really scared of black people.”

Then it aired — a video showing what appears to be one of the suspects firing at officers, killing one at point blank range and shooting him a few more times once he’s down. My heart dropped into my intestines. “Oh fuck,” I muttered. “They got it on video.” I looked over at my wife. The look on her face is indescribable. I’ve only seen it once before — nearly two years ago, when the streets of Ferguson were on fire. “There are lynch mobs forming tonight.”

I made sure the front door was locked and fired off a hasty tweet: “Be safe.” But a friend of mine saw the tweet posted to Facebook and checked me, saying “You don’t get to make this statement. Not after multiple ‘Fuck the police’ tweets. You don’t get to say ‘stay safe’ after this.”

He’s right, of course. Not only have I publicly made critical remarks about the U.S. police state, I’ve also described them as the enemies of progress. Here are the comments I’ve made in just the past 48 hours:

Of all the police-related comments I’ve ever made, however, “Stay safe” is the one I regret. It’s impossible to “stay safe,” not as a young black man. To stay safe requires that a person is safe to begin with, and every black man in America has known since boyhood that he is not safe. Not ever. He’s afraid of the police, and he’s afraid of other black men, those who’ve been ghettoized and dehumanized. His fear of police is obvious and based on experience. He’s seen black men like him, black men better than him, shot for the thinnest pretense. When a police officer kills a school cafeteria worker beloved by all for simply reaching for his wallet during a traffic stop, every black man in this country is put on notice. You too can get touched, and you can never know when or where it might happen. Nobody but Obama can feel safe, and not even him.

I am not safe, and if you’re a person of color or an immigrant or a Muslim or a woman in America, you’re not safe either. These are not safe times, nor is it the time to “stay safe.” American racism, which the pundits told us was in decline, is rearing its snarling head. The racist system is slowly being dismantled — through the election of the nation’s first black president, and a Black Lives Matter movement attacking the racist foundations of society — but America’s preeminent bête noire won’t be subdued without clawing and biting. Police officers, as agents of the state and protectors of its order, are the racist system’s first line of defense. There’s no getting around that fact. There’s nothing about a badge that makes the wearer a good and well-meaning person (and I know this because my father was a Chicago police offer, and he wasn’t a good or well-meaning person — not for a few years anyway). That isn’t to say all police officers are bad people, or racists, or deserve to be shot at random. But under a system as fundamentally racist as America’s, police officers are recruited to serve and protect the racist system. America lies to itself if it pretends not to know the reasons behind what happened in Dallas last night. Then again, lying to itself is America’s favorite pastime.

There’s more to say — much more — but as a writer, I defer to those who have said it best:

“It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, good-natured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves. He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed. He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated — which of us has? — and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it. There is no way for him not to know it: there are few other things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people. He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in two’s and three’s. And he is not the only one who knows why he is always in company: the people who are watching him know why, too. Any street meeting, sacred or secular, which he and his colleagues uneasily cover has as its explicit or implicit burden the cruelty and injustice of the white domination. And these days, of course, in terms increasingly vivid and jubilant, it speaks of the end of that domination. The white policeman, standing on a Harlem street corner, finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it — naturally, nobody is — and, what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him. Even if he is gifted with the merest mustard grain of imagination, something must seep in. He cannot avoid observing that some of the children, in spite of their color, remind him of children he has known and loved, perhaps even of his own children. He knows that he certainly does not want his children living this way. He can retreat from his uneasiness in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.”

I quote Baldwin’s July 1960 essay not with any glee in demonstrating prophecy, but with a burning resentment in realizing how little has actually changed in America since these words were first published. What Baldwin described so many years ago is still true, and it has always been true. Will it ever be different? Maybe. I hope so. But until then, I am not safe, and it’s dangerous for any man of color in America to pretend that he can be safe, much less “stay safe.”


Featured image: Alan Gradilla/Flickr