Sunday, August 24, 2014

Block Party/Police

stoop sitting

Yesterday was block party day in New York, it seems. It's the end of summer, and it's been a beautiful warm summer.

We moved to our block just one year ago, so we missed the block party last year. Our block is small, and most of the homes are owned by couples in their 40's or 50's, or older.  We are one of two white families here; everyone else is West Indian/African American. When we first moved here, I was worried, I will admit. I was worried about moving into a neighborhood where I was the minority. I was worried about moving into a neighborhood where I didn't know anyone. I was worried about crime. I was worried about how our unusual trans-racial/adopted family would be treated.

I was wrong to worry. Our neighbors have been friendly and kind. Our children have been looked after, kept safe and been handed treats to give to pet dogs. We've had to deal with some late night loud music, yes. I have been that crazy white lady complaining about the blaring music at 1AM. (Yesterday at the block party a group of old ladies passed me and said, pointedly but with smiles, "Are you enjoying the music?")

Yesterday at the block party I saw the older teens teaching my son how to do a skateboard trick. They included even the smallest boys and the oldest grandpas in a basketball game. When I couldn't find Lily in the crowd 5 people pointed her out to me.  The party started off slowly (there was rain, the block down the avenue had a bouncy house)... but by dinner time most folks had dragged their barbecue out to the front and started grilling and passing out food. Andrew and I sat in front of our home and ate some snacks and drank a beer. We were completely, utterly at ease. And I thought, not for the first, I'm so glad we moved here.

In the reality of racially segregated New York, we had a stark choice before us last year. We could not afford to buy anything in the one or two multi-racial neighborhoods... the ones that provide the backdrop to "Girls" or "The Cosby Show." We could afford to live in either an Asian neighborhood, a white neighborhood, or a black one.  Either we are all the minority, Andrew and I are the minority, or our children are the minorities. The choice was easy. We choose to move into a black neighborhood. Our children, adopted away from a black country, growing up in a mostly white family and a mostly white church, deserved to be the ones who fit in where we live. Luckily for us, the neighborhood we choose also had a good train, nice homes and a decent park nearby.

I'm so glad we moved here. Because I have learned over the past 3 weeks of watching the news from Ferguson in horror, that I am inadequate to the job of raising my black son. I cannot find the words to teach him how to deal with the police; how to be safe in a country that seems bent on killing him or locking him up.  But my neighbors can.

Last night, just as the barbecues started to glow and the plates of food started to get passed around, the cops arrived. They parked at the end of the block. One small boy rode up on his bike yelling, "The police is here!"  I hid my beer. The two officers walked, not aggressively, up the block to speak to the DJ/block captain. It turns out, the block party permit had expired at 6PM. This time, there were no problems. The cops moved on, and we all hustled to take down the barricades and move the toys and basketball net out of the street. The music was turned down.  I took the kids inside for their baths, thinking.  All those neighbors, even the smallest kids, knew exactly what to do when interacting with the cops.  Stand still, talk quietly, smile.

When it is time, and the time is coming soon for my son who is growing tall so fast... When it is time for "The Talk", I know who to ask. All I have to do is look to my neighbors.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I don't know what to say


I know there are some people who are wondering 'what is everyone there so upset about!?' There are people who are disgusted by the looting and protests in Ferguson. People who somehow, incredibly, think 'he must have deserved it.' 

To those folks, I say, then please come to my house and explain it to my young black son, because I'm having a hard time doing so. 

Yesterday on the way home I had the news on in the car. The Michael Brown story was retold. Daniel asked me "Who is that? Why did he die?"

Many, many words got stuck in my throat. I try not to lie to my child. I also do not want him, at the tender age of 8, to be afraid of the police. I do not want him, at the tender age of 8, to be scared of or hate his own brown skin. He already wants to be "white like you." 

So I told him, through tears I tried to hide, that the police in Missouri made a big mistake. That a boy died, and his friends and family are very upset because the police did not say they were sorry. *

* This child- size version of events isn't so far from the truth as I understand it. A police officer made a big mistake, somehow believing that an unarmed 18 year old was dangerous. The people in the streets of Ferguson chanting "No justice, No Peace",  are demanding accountability, answers, and due process. 

Then my son asked me (showing how a boy who loves superheroes mind works) 

"How do bullets kill you? 

What do they do? How do they get inside you?

And, "How could the police make that mistake? Why don't they just say sorry?"

And my words failed me. I don't want the words "bullets" and "my child" in my head at the same time. I have too many terrifying images of other mothers' sons in my mind's eye. Bullets ripping through them, their bodies left in the street for hours. It is far, far too easy for me picture my son in Michael Brown's place.

I have learned, as mommy to a black son, some very hard lessons. And more, I'm sadly sure, will come.

When he asks if he can bring his water gun to the park, I hesitate.

When he wants to ride his bike around the block alone, I freeze.

When he asks what they are saying on the news? why am I crying over my Facebook feed?.. my mouth is dry.

I'm having trouble finding the words to help him be safe while also holding his head up high. I want him to be a strong, proud black American man. I also want him to stay alive.

We live by the myths in this country that everyone is treated fairly, justice and punishment meted out equally, rewards given to those who work hard. They are such lovely myths. So many of us believe in them, despite so much evidence to the contrary.  Life is not fair. Justice and punishment not meted out equally. Rewards come to those who are lucky and born into privileges.  At what age do we dispel these wonderful, wholly untruthful stories for the Santa Claus tales they are? What stories do we tell instead? That is my work as mommy to these children: find the stories that will uplift and inspire them to live up to their amazing potential, while also helping them navigate the tricky, sometimes dangerous world we live in. 

I wonder what the end of this Ferguson story will be. I'm praying, I'm praying that it ends with more justice, with more wisdom, with someone saying, "We made a mistake. We are so, terribly sorry."

What would you say?

What DO you say to your black child?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

this crazy state

Yesterday I went to the post office to pick up a package. I stood in line between a woman talking on her cell phone (the woman happened to be Muslim), and an older man grumbling about the wait. (The older man happened to be Jewish.)

The grumbling man went over to some grocery bags sitting under a table next to us, and nudged one of them with his foot. The woman on the cell phone spoke to him sharply, saying those were her bags, and why was he touching them with his foot!? The grumbling man grumbled that he was just checking to see if it was a bomb. The man and the woman argued for a minute. He insisted that she not leave her bags under the table. "It could have been a bomb!" and the woman complained about him touching her groceries. Finally the woman went back to her phone call and the man went back to grumbling about being in line so long.

So this is the world we live in. We think grocery bags on the floor of a sleepy post office in a sleepy little part of the city might contain a bomb.  (Never mind why nudging a bomb/bag with your foot would be a good idea in the first place...) This is the world we live in.

This is why I hate the "See Something/Say Something" ad campaign that the police department has been waging at us for the past decade.

The odds of there being a bomb in a grocery bag under a table in a post office in a quiet neighborhood  (or under your subway seat or next to a garbage bin) are ridiculously slim. In fact, I don't know of any instances in which this ad campaign has led to an actual bomb or threat being reported and stopped. I know it was led to countless false alarms and terrifying waits for parents picking up kids, as it did to me last year.

I'm reminded of this great New Yorker cartoon, published in the months after 9/11.

We are all properly terrified, thank you.

I remember well the days after that one terrible day. I remember being told to "help the economy". Go shopping! Don't let the terrorists win! We would have done anything for our country then. We would have done anything for each other. We lined up by the thousands to give blood those days, even when we knew there was no one who needed it. But, instead of being told to help, we were turned away. Go shopping! And be scared. Be scared of your fellow passengers, be scared of white powder, of packages left by mistake in train cars, of anything "out of the ordinary."

Which is why we now have old men and harried shoppers arguing in post office lines over imaginary bombs, and we take our shoes and nearly everything else off to board a plane, and we have suburban police departments with tanks and machine guns.

Oh if only we had been all told on 9/12/01 to help each other. To sweep the dust off our neighbors' sidewalks, to gather at our chosen place of worship, to have community picnics or to visit the sick.  Instead we were turned away at the blood banks and sent to the mall.  Now we are collectively in debt, both material and spiritual.

Congratulations. The terrorists won. We are all completely terrified. Weapons drawn, we stare at each other over police barricades and imaginary bombs.

I have a fantasy of how that interaction in the post office might have ended... I imagine that the woman hung up her phone and laughed at the grumbling man's fear of bombs. That she picked up the grocery bags and showed him the fruit inside. Laughing, she offers him a pear, and smiling now, the man accepts, and takes a sweet bite.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Things that make me want to move to Ethiopia.

 Lately there has been a lot of bad news coming out of Africa. The tragic Ebola outbreak, the political instability in Egypt, ongoing wars in Sudan... There is a lot of bad news all over, it seems. But the news coming out of America is what is breaking my heart right now.

And making me pause a little bit longer on the "maybe we should just live in Ethiopia" thought than seems logical. Something I've thought about before.

It seems like America is pretty stuck. We're stuck in the blame the victim mode. Stuck in the 'War on Drugs'. Stuck on the "poor people deserve to be poor" mode. Stuck on the "guns protect us" mode. Stuck on the "black boys are dangerous" mode.

When we initiated our adoptions from Ethiopia, we went to lots of trainings. We read a lot. A LOT.  And a key part of the training was to prepare to have The Talk with our black son. Not the sex talk, the 'surviving as a black man in America' talk. How to keep out of trouble, deal with police at a traffic stop, not get into trouble at school.  How to be perceived as "safe" while black. I started having this talk with my son when he was 6 years old.  But now, I realize, there's really not much point these talks.

Because it seems like even if he was on his "best behavior", even if he was a good student, and stayed away from drugs or gangs or dangerous neighborhoods, he could be shot.

He could be trying to make a couple of bucks.

He could be in the toy section at Walmart.

He could be hanging out with friends.

He could be going to the store for an iced tea.

He could be killed because he is black, and therefore a threat no matter what he is doing.

selfie, age 5

And here's the thing: I think the police are stuck too. It seems that overly aggressive, brutal and violent policing methods specifically targeting African-Americans are rampant in many places across the country, including our home town. We moved into a mostly African-American neighborhood a year ago. I have lived or worked in 7 different neighborhoods in New York (middle class, working class, wealthy, immigrant, mixed up and in-between) and I never seen so many cops around. We pass a cop car, or 3 or 8, at least every day just driving home. I was pulled over for the first time in my life (for rolling through a newly installed stop sign) in this neighborhood.  I, as a white woman, am not in danger, but I tell you, it's very anxiety producing to see so many cops so often. And I don't think, for a minute, that there is more crime in this neighborhood.  Just more black people.  The police never seem to be doing anything, just hanging around waiting.

The theory is that if the police stop small crimes, big crimes won't have space to develop. Kind of like weeding. In practice, though, it means that cops hang around in "certain" neighborhoods.  They've got data to file and quotas to fill. The cops have a metaphorical gun trained to their heads about getting the numbers up or down in the correct columns.  They are looking for trouble, and wouldn't you know, they find it.  So we end up with neighborhoods like mine and like St. Louis filled with cops and neighbors and mistrust and fear.  Mistrust and fear leads to violence and senseless death.

Why is this? "All cops are racist" is too simple an answer and doesn't make much sense anyway. All people are racist, to varying degrees.  Racism is an inescapable part of our culture.

I think it's because we keep trying to solve the problem of inequality with the wrong methods. We try to solve inequality with education. As if learning to read better and early eliminates children's need for a loving, stable family, a safe home and nutritious food. We try to solve inequality by fighting a "War on Drugs".  Fighting against drug abuse with mass incarceration (three strikes, mandatory minimums, etc) is as futile as trying to carve the wind.  We try to solve inequality by "eliminating the welfare state". As if by magic, poor folks will be able to find jobs, affordable quality child care and affordable housing because we "cut the apron strings".

I worry about affordable, quality child care and I'm a tenured professional! 

We are throwing weapons at a problem, and all we are ending up with is a pile of weapons. A police state, jails filled up with black and brown folks, a fake "educational crisis", a society with a safety net made up of moldy lace.

The problem is that not everyone has the same amount of money. The problem is that it's the same folks who have all the money who also have all the political clout and control over the media. The problem is that most of the folks who have most of the money are white, and have been since we arrived here on three Spanish ships.

I'm praying for us to get unstuck. I'm praying we start trying to solve the actual problem we have: unequal access to resources and opportunity. I'm praying that cops realize that they have been pushed to use violence and aggression to solve a problem that is not their responsibility and perhaps, doesn't really exist.

Meaning, dear police officer, if you see my son 10 years from now, browsing the toy aisle and playing around with his friends, I pray, I pray fervently, that you will smile at him and keep walking, because you know,

he's not dangerous.

Playing impromptu coach to a group of 3 year olds. He wants to be a gym teacher when he grows up.

Friday, August 8, 2014

How To Eat An Elephant

one bite at a time.

Obviously. :)

This is what a dear friend reminded me when I fell into a whining despair over this:

What we liked to call the Zombie Apocalypse playground.

Because what I envision my backyard looking like is a little something more like this:

yup, if you just squint really hard, my backyard looks like this...

So it is important that I remember that this was once the view from my kitchen window. 

Midway through renovations our garage was a "storage site". Please notice the 1/2 dead plants.

What doesn't come across in these photos is the smell... which is decidedly CAT.  Did I mention that I once saw a possum wandering through the backyard? And that we found a termite "family" living in the garage?

So lately I've been doing google searches like this:

How do you keep stray cats from pooping in your plants?

(Quick Answer: With diligence, hard work and perseverance you might be able to persuade them to poop elsewhere, temporarily.)

Are you allowed to burn brush in your backyard?

(Quick Answer: NO.)


(Quick Answer: Shudder. But, they do kill rats. So... there's that.)

I am a wealth of information. Thank God for Google. And for the pest control specialists, tree removal service, fencing contractor, cable guy and telephone guy who have all paid visits to our house in the last 2 weeks. We finally finished tearing down that termite infested, humongous garage, and now we are dealing with what remains: 1/2 a broken fence, four dead trees, a whole bunch of rubble, tangled wires and mysteriously, a giant pile of broken glass.

The good news is: Not all of our potted plants died. Possums rarely come out during the day. And, that garage floor that we can't afford to have removed right now is going to make an awesome basketball court.

This afternoon our backyard looked like this:

Which, is like, at least 1/2 an elephant's worth of progress.

Someday I'll have my Zen garden. This summer we are going for a safe place to shoot hoops, and maybe grow a few flowers. 

So come on over! We are about to set up the barbeque!...