A few things to know before we start. The neighborhood I live in is basically Mayberry. Despite the fears of relatives that my proximity to the Big Bad City means I am destined to be raped and murdered at any time, I have never had a serious problem with crime of any sort. I regularly do dumbass shit like walk and ride my bike around at all hours by myself, leave my car unlocked, forget my wallet or phone in the car, and the metric ton of Kick’s things that wind up scattered all over the courtyard despite my best efforts would stun a team of oxen in its tracks. I have never had a serious problem with any kind of crime.
Kick and I walk Mr. A to the train in the morning if the weather is fine. Kick is an outdoor baby; if she’s outside, she’s happy, singing to the birds and trees and squirrels and invisible things only she can see, bouncing in her stroller and waving at the whole world. People who see her get her biggest smile no matter what they look like, and almost to a person they smile back, say good morning to us, and go on about their days.
This past week, she and I were walking back. We were walking about half a block behind an African-American man; I couldn’t see his face to see if he was young or old. He had headphones in his ears, and the morning was chilly. He had his hands in his pockets.
I live two blocks from the police station, so there are cops all over the place, at all times. When a loud siren interrupts Kick’s nap, I soothe her with a story about the people that siren, that police car, is going to help. “They’re good guys,” I say. I get to say that to her.
Probably lots of them are.
The morning we were out walking, behind the dark-skinned man whose face I couldn’t see, two officers were chatting on the corner. To me it looked like a couple of guys shooting the shit and drinking coffee before work. There are all these things I don’t have to think about.
Here’s what I know: We all take the world apart and put it back together the way we need to, in order to stay alive. All the crap spewed by all the commentators this week about Baltimore — all the “poor people are to blame for their poverty,” all the “this would never have happened if white people could say the n-word,” all the “you cannot disapprove of executing a dude unless you disapprove even MORE of burning down a CVS” — boils down to, “I have decided that for me not to fall apart, the world has to work like this.”
The world has to be one where poor people deserve their poverty, so I won’t be afraid of being poor. The world has to be one where we all have license to everything, because then I won’t ever be denied. The world has to be one where those wronged do not react, do not strike out, do not fight back, because then I can act with impunity, and the onus is on them.
And then we don’t have to work, we don’t have to change, we don’t have to love and rage and get better. We can stay in our houses, our boxes, our families, and our lives won’t get any bigger. I get it, in a way. Everybody’s tired, everybody feels screwed. If nobody is supposed to fight back, I cannot be shamed for not doing so. I don’t have to feel bad, for perpetuating the system, if I don’t acknowledge its existence. I don’t have to swing the sword, if I don’t pass the sentence. I can worry about me and mine, and “mine” can get smaller every day.
I get it, in a way, because I most often encounter the police while pushing an adorable baby in a stroller down the street in broad daylight. I don’t have to see them as sinister, not if I don’t want to; I’m a middle-class white woman. I am able to close my eyes. I am able to do so without being harassed or followed or stopped or attacked. I live my life without suspicion, directed at me, directed at others.
The man walking in front of me that morning passed the cops by before I did. They didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t say anything back, at least not that I heard.
But he took his hands of his pockets very slowly as he approached them, and held them by his side. Held them fully open, fingers spread, as if in a gesture of powerlessness. A display that said, I will do nothing to make you consider me a threat. Once he was past them he put his hands back in his pockets. The morning was chilly, after all.
The police officers smiled at me as I walked past them a few minutes later. One of them waved at Kick and she waved back.
“Have a good morning, ma’am,” the other one said, smiling.