Friday, May 8, 2015

Speaking Their Language


As a student I lived in what might be described as a tough area. My roommate and I were the the only Anglos in a long block of row houses lining Racine Avenue. I walked to school along Taylor St.  past a series of low rise housing projects. On the other side of South Loomis, a working class Italian American neighborhood held its ground. Black folks from the projects, it was said, knew better than to be caught on the other side of Loomis after nightfall.

When the weather warmed I would join our neighbors on the stoop, sit and chat, drink beer and watch the world go by. One of the neighborhood kids, Mario I'll call him, would sit and talk about his plans. "I'm going to be a doctor like you" he would say. Skeptical, I would ask "Are you doing your math? And how about your chemistry?" "Hard at work Doc" he would reassure me with a grin that suggested otherwise. When his pals came by he would whisper, "Doc let that school talk go now. Can't have my boys think I'm into that."

One day a cruiser car came by and pulled up alongside the curb beside us. The cop in the passenger seat gave us a long look. Something was up. The guys around me started to rise. The cop's face darkened. "Easy guys" I said. I turned my back to them and walked over to the cruiser. "Good afternoon Officer. What can I do for you?"

"Cover your containers," directed the cop. Our beer cans were open and visible, a minor but unequivocal violation of Chicago's public drinking law. I nodded my head, mumbled "yes sir" and went into the apartment to grab paper bags. The car took off without waiting to see if I would comply. They knew, of course, that I would.
"You stared him down!" Mario exclaimed. "No no I didn't, " I answered. "I just spoke his language." I was respectful as a matter of course. I had nothing at stake except our safety. I knew that if we complied it would all end well. There would be no being thrown against the car, no epithets, no search, no beating, no being hauled off in cuffs. My skin color and my deference to his authority would ensure that.

This was of course, before the Drug War, before the the number of African Americans incarcerated (most for non violent offenses) quadrupled, before Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddy Grey, before smartphones ended police impunity. The outcome of such an encounter today between a neat, polite, white boy and a city cop would likely be the same. The viral videos tell us that the outcome for many others is very different.

Now once again race and class, blame and responsibility,  hope for justice and fear of change, step out together, partners on the dance floor of the nation's consciousness. We have been here before. I wish I could say that now will be the last time, but I doubt it.


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