< Running on Empty / A Friendly Neighborhood Reflection >
Written the week of July 10, 2016
My whole body is still sore from chasing after the young dude into the next neighborhood over. The hands are raw from ripping chunks of skin on a wooden fence where he waited for me, where I quit the chase. Let’s replay the motions. Let’s confront my truth.
I should’ve acknowledged him before it all went down. Woulda, coulda. What’s it take for a young woman to turn around for some brief eye contact, anyway? Shouldn’t be much in a place like this. I say that now.
Grief was already heavy on my bones. The weekend saw a series of murders at the hands of bullies with lethal weapons and legal permissions on people who could have been my family or friends. I locked my eyes onto the screen for an encouraging headline, but it never came. Instead, the pests in my house’s walls clawed their way into my kitchen and catapulted me back into the world to buy a deterrent. Leave it to nature to drive me out of my own house. The last of the cash on my bus card sent me away, with the passing car sounds drowned out by the sound of my thoughts.
Pest spray secured, the walk back was almost charming. A crack fiend twitched his way a comfortable distance behind me for several blocks, some kids without shirts shoved each other over a ball. Seeing smooth roads where there were potholes for so long kept me warm when that cool breeze hit. I was both irked and awed by the range of economic representations of family life in the summertime. I cringed at the dolled-up houses behind flashy For Sale signs; they stood simultaneously beautiful and sorrowful, like a woman who started wearing makeup to appease her new, wealthy husband.
Finally: a call from my boyfriend, who woke up covered in bumps too many mornings ago and has been self-quarantined since. (A man exits his car talking into his phone.) The medical volunteer at the free clinic just surprised him with a diagnosis. (A family packs up a car with camping gear.) He felt uncomfortable as the clinic personnel mentally undressed him from across the room, before he examined his naked body for whatever he was looking for. (The looks we got as he followed me were a dead giveaway.)
On this quiet sidewalk still warm from the day’s light, the pattern of his footsteps struck me as peculiar — loud, then soft and rapid, then really loud shuffling — before he smacked his hand on mine to pull my hand, then phone, away from my ear. My only way for clients to contact me, my only way to get paid, ripped from my own grip. This must be a misunderstanding. The new shirt I’m wearing was given to me, and not a representation of some imagined wealth. Each of us were oblivious of the complex lives occupying the warm bodies we brushed in that disjointed fraction of a second. He erupted into a sprint, as did I after him, instantaneously enraged and frantic. Zero to sixty.
The world around us faded out; it was all me versus him now as the pursuit began. A tumultuous trail past off-guard elders in their lazy Sunday attire, curious children playing in the driveways. Someone interrupted from the soothing sound of water running from their garden hose.
Cars are not allowed to drive when you’re running with that much adrenaline! We careened blindly around corners with no time for sidewalks. Fury pumped my legs; my income would directly be impacted by missing the phone calls and texts to that very phone at any second, with any timely replacement in impossible view. My heartbeat raced desperately with this realization.
Our sneakers bounced off the pavement loudly in a strange syncopation, interrupted periodically by my furious howls, praying a neighborhood sprinter with nothing better to do would bolt to my aid. But my dude disappeared after a sudden corner, and a subtle nod from a family guy across the street pointed me to him, breathing hard behind a tall wooden fence. Soon enough my hands were bloodied from a doomed-from-the-start climbing maneuver, and my anger fizzled to a pathetic yet determined ‘Come on, man.”
A car packed with elderly women paused beside me, asking if I wanted to talk to the police who were on the phone. Them? A department so corrupt they cant keep a head in office for more than a week? A human with a job title backed by so much political power, funding and artillery that they proceed to stop and kill with little to no reason nor consequence? (When I was living at the Fruitvale BART Station, it was Oscar Grant’s death that taught me that a mere affiliation with police allows for the legal protection to determine which lives are worth more than others.)
From where I stood I heard an edge on the man’s voice on the other end of the call that made my incident much more insignificant. That voice was too eager, with the gun by his side. I moved on. Meanwhile, the thief was still running ahead, and he and my phone shrank to a microbe on the horizon. The probability of me affording rent shrank right along with them.
I added a mental star to my desperate mantra: ‘…But somehow it always works out.’
One stop before home. I hit the nearby corner store with a physical description as a measly last attempt to make peace with a microbe. I know now it was my way to connect and make peace with a neighborhood official. Corner stores have that comforting effect on me. I left in tears: a salty culmination of financial duress, physical exhaustion, and the stunted incentive to take action. Am I really this weak? It was just a *phone*. But the phone was now a symbol of the way things were just yesterday: intact. Not to mention those bills. I was wronged, so why shouldn’t the powers that be make it right?
I didn’t like where this train of thought was headed; it was enough to condone such an oppressive presence to exist in my own neighborhood: physical power, political power. Up to that point it was always me versus the thief, not a militarized government agency versus a dude. It did not have to come to that. A trigger-happy bureaucracy doesn’t exactly scream efficiency where our safety is on the line. Our sense of community — what little we have of it left amid gentrification — would get lost in the process.
I flashed back to the way his baggy red shirt wagged in the wind of his speed when he turned to face me, and then proceeded to gaze at me until I could’ve caught up. Then what? Grab him? Throw my newly-acquired pest spray can at him? He was just as tall as me, if not taller. His upper body strength alone would validate my decision to let it go. Living broke should outweigh not living at all. But why did he turn to stare? Something here was not as it seemed. Did I know his family?
Suddenly, a pair of cop vehicles with at least five men between them, blazoning identical sunglasses, interrupted my disgruntled self-talk to ask if it was I who called them. I moved on, shooing them away with my hands like a preoccupied grandma.
I continued towards home. A flare of internal conflict was waiting for me there.
“Let the cops do their job,” I’m told.
As if it was a prayer that calling on particular individual on a payroll would be enough smoke and mirrors to allow me to forget about an unshakeable prison system of disproportionately imprisoned black and brown bodies that is keeping certain individuals wealthy under a sophisticated judicial system of loopholes that protects police misconduct and for-profit prisons.
“Let the cops do their job.”
As if their job is to protect some but not all, and oh well, let’s take our chances.
“Let the cops do their job.”
As if my phone was important enough to me to make the police report simply because it was MINE, and my sense of safety was violated.
I’m pretty sure he was smiling at me when he turned around to stare as I ran toward him yelling between breaths: “I don’t have a job without that phone!” Couldn’t he read the desperation in my voice? The insensitive asshole.
Wait a minute, I’m worth some justice. This voice. It was this voice who dialed the police with an address from a find-my-phone website, submitting a vague location of the crime with an even more vague description of the dude who took my phone. It was enough to garner a confident “top priority” label from dispatch. I didn’t even have to tell them about the imaginary gun at the scene of the crime.
Of course, once the clock struck 10pm in a city annually rated top-ten for worst crime nationally, it probably wasn’t so urgent anymore — especially for petty theft.
Dispatcher: “What was his race?”
That gut feeling. When you know you’re going against every grain in your body but do it anyway because the words don’t come against a steadfast status quo. Because it’s easier to go with the flow, with the things you grew up being taught, with the hope that maybe, just maybe, there is a power in the world that does not corrupt. In fact, it is ruled by a righteous heart.
It may seem like I was here at my weakest, but in fact, the opposite was true. In folding back these bubbling gut emotions and knee-jerk reactions, I reveal my truth.
Until now I held a lifelong subscription to the idea that filing a police report fosters a safer neighborhood. But the fog on my lens is only just clearing. Hundreds of lives ended at the hands of the police, jailed whistleblowers, bullying behavior under a guise of “protection,” acquitted murder trials, and scandals later, I realize that it was all an illusion to propagate a dangerous mindset. Ironically, the idea that police will protect us detrimentally robs members of the very agency that creates functional communities. It banks on our suspicions of each other, our financial and moral support of the established system, and our sense of collective powerlessness. When these falsehoods are exposed and challenged, we might then abolish the police force in lieu of community policing.
Cops who are trained for weeks on how to operate lethal weaponry — instead of learning about the lives they are policing — are symptoms of a broken community. Calling on the police serves a false sense of personal investment, safety, and sense of belonging that is required for a community because the cops don’t have our collective best interest at heart. Their department didn’t receive top funding from Oakland’s city Council for mending communities with their expensive technology, or even domestic violence training — if they got any. The department to save us from crime is not the one that is measured by how many civilian shootings they avoided so far this year. With the mayor’s expressed favor, their main role in our communities is to further political goals citywide, countrywide. Indeed, power and money continue to be America’s most beloved bedfellows.
If cops are really here to support the communities they “protect and serve,” their current role is useless when we begin to know our collective power. Alas, they have a reason to protect their existence before we realize this fact….
Three hundred and seventy-two miles from here, there is a privately owned parking structure where houseless individuals get high on illegal drugs in dark corners. When those individuals kick open the door of a privately owned residence next door while the inhabitants lie inside sleeping, the local police sides with the hierarchy of power in the land: the parking structure owner, for he also owns a lucrative 2-story gym that has awakened this sleepy corner of town with the smell of money for the past decade. He does not make a police report, so everything and everyone at the parking structure is barred from investigation. The message is clear. His economic contributions to the neighborhood outweigh the social capital contributions made by the people who actually live in the neighborhood. The security guards at the parking structure will continue to endure frequent death threats and then quit. The neighborhood will continue to live in fear of their neighbors.
Luckily, homeowners in the area who are familiar with the power hierarchy have demanded a meeting with the local sheriff, and a few days later a gang-related shooting death of a four-year-old corroborates their safety complaints. The residents may not have much money, but they have each other. They told other residents in the area who told other residents, and soon their solidarity not only garnered a meeting with the sheriff but also at last a compliance with his department. A department they give money to straight from their paychecks. A department that is sworn to protect and serve…everyone.
When it becomes a department of the government that favors certain lives over others, it becomes a system worth dismantling.
The land is not merely governed by written law. Property taxes. Skin color. These are too often the factors that are valued over the quality of human lives in this system. A woman arrested for not signaling and mysteriously dies in jail. A man tasered for not showing his ID before he was even asked to. A man murdered for taking out his ID when he *was* asked. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. Murderers sit at home on leave, paid to turn the Black Lives Matter protests off of their TVs, if it makes the news. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?
For believers of free will, there’s opportunity for everyone everywhere for every outcome regarding a dismantling of police. Even a violation on one of us — like a stolen phone — is a chance to willingly chip away at an inevitably unjust policing system by declining police involvement. Or, it’s a chance to ambivalently propagate it or even deliberately endorse it with a single phone call. It’s not always up to us to decide anything, but collectively speaking, it really is.
So here we are. Face it, sometimes reflections turn into exposés that turn your world upside down. If they’re any good they reveal a truth that you’re not ready to confront. Digging deep enough will do that, for better or for worse. A catharsis as a means of personal evolution. Ripping the band-aid to reveal a painful, raw flesh so it can air out to heal. Itchy scabs. Discomfort as a signal of healing, in true nature’s way.
If you’re already comfortable, a catalyst is out of the question. I get it. There’s too much at risk. There’s a reason why no one wants growing pains. As for me, it’s really only what I have been chasing after ever since he took that damned phone.
There’s dried blood on my palms to prove it.