I’m white, straight, and grew up middle-class in suburbia. Back then, the way society worked made sense, because the system was designed to work for me.
The first time anyone I’d ever met called 9-1-1 was when we came home from a walk to discover that our house had been robbed; I think I was eight years old. My parents filled out reports, the police were supportive, and the system worked – we may have even gotten some of our stuff back. The only other time was when a neighbor broke my brother’s ribs with a right hook. Same deal – the cops came, the ambulance came, the kid was arrested, and everything that could be done within the law was done.
Now I live in Mantua, West Philadelphia. I’m working class (straddling the line between Obamacare and Medicare), and, as a white person, I’m in the minority. This is a neighborhood I chose, a neighborhood I love, and a neighborhood filled with many people whose values match mine. But that doesn’t give me any illusions that I’m not an outsider. Even after 5 years, I’m still learning my way around Philly culture, and, even more specifically, around African-American Philly culture.
The other night, there was an argument outside my back window. The couple fighting were African American, and it sounded like she was a little fucked up – at least she wasn’t in her clear, bright, deal-with-the-wider-world kind of head. And she was threatening him. He didn’t sound scared of her, but he was trying to get her to leave – just to go home. And I was worried – worried that she might hurt him, or hurt herself, or that other people in the building or on the block might get hurt by accident if they two of them got physical.
And so I started looking for my phone to call 9-1-1 – to get the good guys to come and help break up the fight. To help calm this lady down, give her a ride back to her place, and keep the peace. Because that’s what the police would have done in the suburbia of my childhood, had they been called in to deal with a white couple arguing in public. But then, I started seeing videos in my head – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, James Blake. And I didn’t make that call. I felt that everyone would be safer without the police.
I have to write that again: I felt that everyone would be safer without the police.
Eventually, someone did make a call – they called an ambulance and the lady left in the care of a uniform without a gun. Which seemed like a great solution. I now knew a tiny bit more about this particular piece of society.
Which would be all well and good, if life was purely about me learning lessons in various forms of human interaction. Sadly for my ego, it’s not. Indeed, the idea that a workaround like this even exists is deeply fucked up. (And, I know – here I am, a white guy, finally understanding something about being a not-white-guy. Trust me, I know this isn’t the start of a revolution, and I’m certainly not looking for a trophy over the fact that I simply understand a tiny trick to make life easier for those around me.)
And all I can do is ask the questions I feel qualified to actually ask, based on my own experiences: What happens when the safety net has been woven from a mix of nylon and barbed wire? What happens when the structure of a society only works as designed for one part of that society? What happens when you can’t trust all of the people you are supposed to be able to turn to when you’re in trouble? And what happens when the weight of helping gets put on the wrong helpers? Hell, those paramedics aren’t supposed to be the ones to break up fights – they’re only there to fix folks up after the fighting’s done.
Of course, African Americans have been asking these questions from before there was an America. And they’ve been telling the rest of us about the situation, in words, songs, stories, poems, plays, visual arts – in any way they could, from the day it started.
I guess the thing that’s changed is that we white folks now have direct access to this part of the African American experience – the combination of portable video and the internet have made it possible for everyone else to know how broken society is – to really experience it, as long as we’re willing to open our eyes.
And yet, amid all of this suddenly visceral knowledge and sorrow, there is a glimmer of light, a strange sense of hope. Hope that the pressures we privileged folks have at our disposal might combine with the efforts that those already suffering have made for generations, and lead to something that actually be a change. Hope that we will take that responsibility on, and act on it. Hope that, one day, calling the police will simply be the right thing to do whenever any two people are having a fight.