The Sound of the Police

24 Oct

One of my earliest memories, I must have been four years old, is playing with my older brother on the porch of our house on a street optimistically named “Lehigh,” like the college. The other streets also had names–like Yale, Notre Dame, Colgate, Stanford–that taunted the blue collar residents of Inkster, a Downriver suburb of Detroit. This was an area in decline. The auto industry was relocating jobs to the south and elsewhere to preserve its profits, and the workers were in decline due to drugs–first heroin, and later crack.

It was a late summer night, after our baths, and we were playing some made up game of mine or his when we heard the rattle of cicadas. We both stopped, wide-eyed and stilled. It’s the police, I said. My brother gravely nodded. We were somewhere between terrified and in awe.

I remember that every time I hear cicadas. Two black boys, 4 and 8, unable to imagine the source of this vaguely malign sound as anything other than the sound of lethal authority, unable to imagine ourselves as those the police might be coming to save, protect or serve. I doubt we knew that motto yet. We knew the police from television, and they always seemed to be cleaning up the streets by killing indiscriminately blacks and poor whites, which lived in our neighborhood in abundance.

I was reminded of this yesterday with the news of the young man arrested for buying a ludicrous accessory store clerks thought he could not afford, and more gravely hearing of the police who shot and killed a boy holding a toy gun. My brother and I were not allowed to have toy guns because even then, decades ago, stories circulated of little black boys shot dead because they had a gun that looked a little too real. Later, when toy manufacturers started making their gun replicas in unambiguously artificial colors, we still were not allowed to have them: why play at killing?

I sometimes worry that focusing on this or that outrage, without a larger plan or vision for a just world, we just wear ourselves out. We must witness–every Trayvon Martin, every Jordan Davis, every Troy Davis, every Andy Lopez Cruz, every injustice we are too weary to name–but it is a witness to bear.

We must ask how did two black boys come to understand themselves to be threatening to the world of which they were just learning. How does that knowledge, like street names that proved cruelly ironic for most of us, communicate a world you might desire, but be unable to attain? I don’t particularly care why a person would buy a $300 belt, but I suspect it’s related to all of this, part of a desire to demonstrate on sight that you do not belong to those who may be senselessly murdered, and that crime go unpunished.

Some say class is more important than race. To my mind, that is just cynicism. Or, perhaps a misplaced optimism that ignores the tenuous grasp many blacks have on the middle class, by design. (Ta-Nehisi Coates has been posting brilliantly about this. His writing on housing is worth your time.) And increasingly people have noted the effects of our unequal distribution of wealth and income. The routinization or banalization of black death adds to the larger issue: the unequal distribution of democracy in this country. Not voting, democracy. And every story is a reminder of this basic problem.


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