My Dear Friend,
I’m writing because I can’t seem to reconcile the controversies I’ve been seeing in the news about police brutality, violence against police, Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, black, white. Especially here in “Chi-raq,” these issues have a palpable presence. I took the time to look into the Black Lives Matter movement and I’ve been following the stories in the news as often as time allows. It is about fighting racism and police brutality, to give a voice to marginalized individuals in this country. I agree with that. I get what they are doing, but when the movement got seized by the media, it seemed to take an ugly turn, despite the desired publicity. Police brutality and crime seem to be related-but-separate issues to me (bear with me on this one). I know the racism and brutality is real and I’m glad to see that some have finally listened and started new training programs in Chicago and around the country to teach police officers how to handle dangerous situations better. I’m glad when a bad police officer loses his (or her) credibility, job, and is off the street. But, at the same time, there is no excuse for crime, especially violent crime, and that includes crimes against police officers.
I admit, I got caught up in the media hype and I got angry. I couldn’t believe the fucking audacity of some people to justify their very real and dangerous criminal actions, or the actions of their family member, because a police officer had to shoot them in the line of duty when the officer’s life, the lives of their fellow officers, or innocent civilians were threatened. I worried for the police officer in my family and asked him if he considered changing careers because of the way people were feeling about the police. He said, “every day.” He’s a good cop, and he’s not going to stay on the beat any longer than he has to. One less good cop to help when it’s needed.
How can someone like that, someone who has decided to steal cars or deal drugs to poison his own community, get support from the black community? That asshole is nothing like other, honorable, proud, African Americans. Can you support that guy and back him up with Black Lives Matter after everything you’ve been through to make your life your own? You were a preacher’s son from Gary, Indiana who decided long ago that he was going to define his own life, not according to what anyone told him he should be because of his surroundings. You made your choices and found your way, despite losing both of your brothers in the same night in that horrible car accident. You didn’t lose faith and you kept your pride. You knew white and black, you just never let it have power over you. You got out of here. You found your love, you moved west, you made your life. When I consider the man you are I can’t stomach that fucking car thief calling himself black, when he gives proud black men a bad name on national news.
I don’t think I ever told you about this, but when I was little, our house was robbed twice and our garage, twice. When I was about six, my mom and I walked in on the guy, but he had been running out the back door while we were coming in the front. My mother later told me that she just couldn’t place what was wrong with the front door while she was turning the key to let us in. She only realized after we were in the house that there was a gaping hole just below the doorknob. How the thief managed to gouge a hole in a wooden door without attracting attention, I’ll never know. We left the house and called the police from a neighbor’s. I remember feeling afraid. As soon as the police arrived and gave us the okay to go in, I ran straight to my room to see if they had taken any of my plastic earrings or necklaces that I loved so much. It was such a relief to see that they hadn’t. But I was mad, even then. Crime had touched me right where I lived and it hurt.
Later, my mom told me that the robberies were likely committed by a young neighbor boy my father had taken under his wing. He was white and although not from a very poor family, broke like the rest of the teens on the South Side, and he took advantage of my dad’s kindness and exploited his disclosures about himself and his own belongings.
The next time crime touched me was in 1996 when I moved to the city, leaving my mom alone in the house in Cal City. You know how the neighborhood was around that time, Dalton too, more crime all the time—car thefts and burglaries especially. It never crossed my mind that it was because of more black people moving into the neighborhood. I swear to God. I just knew crime was worse and I was worried for my mom being alone. I came to visit one day and saw a young black boy, maybe late teens, in broad daylight with no one around except me, just looking in the window of each car parked on the street, four or five seconds at a time, one after the other. He had absolutely no regard for me when I pulled up in my car and parked not far from where he was methodically approaching. In my city neighborhood on the North Side, someone would’ve called the cops, so you didn’t see that kind of thing during the day. It happened, I’m sure of it, but after dark. I suppose there’s at least a little respect in that, some fear in getting caught by the person you’re hurting. But this kid, didn’t give a fuck. That hurt.
Several years later, my mom…you know my mom, nervous, giddy, always afraid of getting lost…got mugged in her own kitchen by a young black boy. It was about 4pm in the summer, so again, broad daylight. She had parked her car in the garage, walked through the backyard with a bag of groceries, unlocked the back door, and bam! He pushed her from behind onto the kitchen floor. Her little dog (remember Frisky? I loved that stupid dog), started barking, and in the scuffle, the kid took her purse and ran. According to the police, it was likely a gang initiation that had already been successful in and around Cal City. The kid was going for my mom’s car keys, to steal it right from the garage, but when she fell, the keys flew, and with the dog barking, he panicked, stole her purse, and ran. That hurt. That hurt most of all. She would tell me that it was hardest because it happened in her own kitchen. That if you get assaulted in a mall parking lot or something like that, you don’t go back for a long time to avoid the pain of that place. But my mom, she couldn’t do that. Every time she got up in the morning to make herself a cup of coffee, there he was, that little fuck, throwing her on the floor all over again. That hurt lasts, I’ll tell you.
And then there were the nine years in East Rogers Park. You never lived up this way when you were in Chicago, but Rogers Park is what the demographics called “30/30/30/10,” that is, 30% white, 30% black, 30% Hispanic, and 30% other (I often wonder what it would feel like to be the “other.” Would it be offensive or a relief to be an outlier of the demographic norms? I think I’d like it, personally.). That’s why I wanted to live there, the beautiful diversity, everyone living in harmony by the lake. And that’s what it was like for those first few years after we moved in. I met people from all walks of life. One of our best friends there was a guy from Jamaica named Mike. He was older and hung out with two other, older black men who were always fixing and selling things out of Mike’s garage while they talked and laughed and passed the time. They were always courteous and kind and helped our family whenever they could with neighborhood news or advice. We helped them out too and it created a safe feeling, to know we were always around and always looking out for one another. We knew people from Wisconsin, Mexico City, Taiwan, New York, Pittsburg, seemingly everywhere. Then the housing market crashed.
When the market crashed residents began moving out of the neighborhood, from our building and from our block. The gangs started moving back in to the cheaper apartments and condos for rent instead of for sale. Young black men, all in white t-shirts (it’s how that particular gang identified itself), began gathering on corners and prowling on the streets and in the parks. I was coming home from picking up my 4-year-old daughter from preschool in September of that year and when I didn’t find a parking spot directly in front of our building, I turned the corner to come around the block. As soon as I turned I faced a group of high-school-aged black kids, at least twenty girls and boys, in the middle of the side street. I stopped the car and waited for them to move, watching as the center of the group argued intensely. They moved toward my car, following the girls at the center of the argument who were coming toward us.
The kids surrounded the car, so I couldn’t back away or move forward. Instinctively, I locked the doors, told my preschooler to unbuckle her car seat and get down on the floor, and I called 911 on my cell. As I spoke to the officer, one girl pounded another girl’s head against my quarter panel. I stayed calm and told my daughter it would be alright, just stay on the floor until I tell you. She asked me what was happening and I calmly told her, “some big kids are having a fight.” It seemed to happen in less than a minute. I hung up the phone and the kids dissipated, leaving room for me to leave. I put the car in drive and pulled around the block to my own building, only feet away from where the fight had happened. I got my daughter out of the car to go inside and noticed that I would need to clean all the blood off the car before it dried there. There wasn’t a kid in sight. It was like they vanished into thin air after the event, which was wise since the cops likely showed up ten minutes later to find absolutely nothing.
Those next years in Roger’s Park got worse and worse. As more gang members claimed our block for their turf, more families of other races left. It wasn’t “white flight,” it was everybody flight. When I would be out walking with my new baby girl in the stroller, I would cringe at the foul language coming out of their mouths, loudly, as I walked by. Black people, young and middle aged, would cross the street as slowly as humanly possible if we were waiting at a light or a stop sign in our car. I’d find more and more litter on the street and in the park. Businesses on the corner came and went, boarded up and failed within a year. More than once, I saw different women (mothers?) swearing and yelling at children under the age of 4, “get the fuck over here! What the fuck you doin’?” Our car was broken into twice.
My daughters liked to play in the gated courtyard in front of our building because it was grassy, while the back was all concrete. I had to tell them they couldn’t go out there anymore because two young black men started sitting on the bench in the courtyard next door, just next to our yard, drinking 40 ouncers, smoking pot, and swearing, using “nigger” in almost every other sentence. They didn’t care if my kids were in the yard or not.
When out on the street, I would get the stink-eye every day—out walking with my stroller, walking to my car, walking to our dentist (who happens to be black and had a practice with his wife blocks away; they are some of the most wonderful people on this planet and our family still goes there even though it is far from home now). Young, African Americans would give me mean, glowering looks when we made eye contact. Not older black people, just the young ones it seemed. Older black people were most often very kind and would stop to talk, ask about my kids. I could never figure out why the young people were so mad at me when I didn’t even know them. It never occurred to me that they might be racist, because I naively thought if I wasn’t racist, then the race issue would just vanish around me. We were no longer welcome in our neighborhood because we were white. That hurt.
Right after we moved, I had discovered that a young black boy had been shot and killed three blocks from our building that same week. Two weeks after that, another young black boy was shot and killed a half a block from where we lived. That hurt.
I never thought much about the differences between white and black growing up where we did. I knew lots of black people in the clubs and restaurants where I, we, worked. I didn’t think of black skin as any worse or better than Mexican skin, or Greek skin, or Irish skin, just different. We were all different, so different was normal. And I worshipped you. You must’ve known that. I didn’t just want to hang with you, I wanted to be you. You, who was always so fucking cool, so funny, never harsh or brash, so unlike me. I loved your friendship, everyone around you did.
It’s hard to know how to feel about these national black-white issues except to know that racism happens on both sides, and that has to be acknowledged; to know that abusing and marginalizing communities like minorities, LGBT, and those with disabilities, treating them like they have no rights and no voice, has to be acknowledged; police brutality, racism, and lack of proper training to save lives in dangerous situations has to be acknowledged; and to me, and here’s the controversial one in all this murky media, there is absolutely no excuse for crime against others, violent or otherwise—not poverty, not oppression, not desperation, and certainly not self-pity.
When I see you again I will definitely cross the street. I’ll cross over to throw my arms around you, kiss your cheek, and tell you how much I’ve missed you. Then we’ll both avoid the group of young black boys with their pants around their thighs. Jesus, that has to be the most uncomfortable fashion—wouldn’t it be annoying as hell to have to hike up your pants fifty times a day?