Is Beauty Ever Enough? -- The Flying Lady
I hurried into the
Leaning on the doors, I felt guilt for not staying there for not telling them with my eyes that no one is above the law. My choice to leave wasn't made out of fear but selfishness. I'm a virgin. For black men, being stopped and frisked by the police is a rite of passage. But I've never been touched by a cop and am proud of it. Over the years the anticipation has built and now, I want to save my first stop-n-frisk, my first arrest for something momentous like a riot. Losing it on a subway platform isn't romantic.
It's a risky game of tease. I try not to look safe, instead of a corporate crew-cut four foot long dreads flap around me. Yet somehow, I've eluded what amounts to state sanctioned groping. A stop-n-frisk is hands feeling up and down your body, fingering pockets and cupping arm-pits. It is a physical act poorly translated by statistics.
Recently, the New York Civil Liberties Union analyzed 2006 data and issued a report that raised common sense to legal knowledge. Half million New Yorkers were stopped and frisked by the NYPD but only 50,000 were issued summons or arrested. The police sift the city like a miner looking for gold but their endless shake downs only get a few guns and drugs to fall out. In that half million 85.7 percent were Black and Latino, which means the NYPD is continually fondling our bodies.
I never asked my friends if they've been stopped and frisked. Are they virgins, like me or are they more experienced? When my roommate Ese Ovueraye came home, I asked him. "My first time, hmmm, I was buying loosies from the bodega. When I left and walked home two cops rushed me," he said "The female cop warned me her partner had a gun and I was like what are you going to do, shoot me?"
Anger pulsed through his words. It was more than a memory. I shook my head and felt how terrifyingly easy it is to imagine black men being shot. Our bodies are sprawled in a pool of blood in so many movies and TV shows and I know a few of those bodies. Ese works at Robinson's Artist Management and we watch black actors being killed, given another life in a new series only to be killed again. Even the black men who live for whole seasons, who wear a badge on TV are not protected by their celebrity.
In my note-book was actor Wendell Pierce's number. He plays Detective William "Bunk" Moreland on the HBO series The Wire. On my last trip to
Standing in the light, we measured with our words the weight of so many ruined lives. Around us was a destroyed city. We shook hands, traded numbers and went our own way as if returning to tunnels we dug through the rubble. Now I read his number and called him. Pierce answered and I asked if he'd ever been frisked. "Not frisked but some close encounters," he said.
It was the summer of 1986, Pierce was at Penn Station in
He asked for help and witnesses called the police, who came but oddly took the taxi driver inside. Later the officer went to Pierce and said "Calm down, calm down." Dazed with fear, he tried to explain, "Officer this guy tried to run me over!" The cop baited him, "So what you want to do?" Pierce didn't get it, the words didn't line up to the feeling. "I want to press charges," he said.
The cop fingered his gun, stood nose to nose with him, "Now, what you going to do?" Pierce stopped trying to link the words and felt the unspoken threat. "Oh now I get it. I'm on the next train to
His story sucked the hope out of me that money or fame could guarantee protection. I needed air and while putting on my coat, looked at Ese and visualized the police handprints on his arms, shoulders and thighs. Another question opened my mouth. Does the violence leave a stain on the skin? Can you feel safe in your body after someone handles it against your will? Instead, I asked why no cop has ever stopped me. Ese smiled, "Take off your glasses and wear a hoodie. You'll get all the love you want."
When I left the apartment my suitors were on the corner, badges flashing as they watched the street. Years ago, cops were rare and Myrtle Avenue was known as Murder Avenue. Then the 90's came and gentrification, which means white people and cops are the shadows of white people. When they move in, police follow.
As brownstones go for sale in Brooklyn, the owners look at the calm streets and see stop-n-frisks and zero-tolerance as insurance. When long-time residents complain at having cop hand-prints all over them, the problem is directed back at them. It's not the policing it's the policed. Heather McDonald wrote in City Journal.com that the cause of the stop and frisks was the high-crime rate in Black and Latino neighborhoods. She wrote, "Blacks are nearly 13 times more likely to commit violent crimes than whites. In light of this massive disparity in crime rates, the police stop-and-frisk data are not just reasonable but inevitable."
I called Marc Morial about that and he said, "What cuts against that view is that policing is not just the police but their relationship with the community. If people don't trust you, if they don't show up to juries, if no one offers information then police can't solve crimes." He says that stop-n-frisk create a climate of fear and resentment. Evidence of this was seen last summer in the Stop Snitchin' t-shirts that young men wore like a shield.
Morial says conservatives conveniently forget half of crime reduction is economic justice. "In a suburban context daddy can pay for their child's sport league membership, gear and drive them to practice. In the urban context parents who are working-poor can't afford it. The most important part of policing is prevention. Stop-n-frisks are not as effective prevention as investment in after-school programs."
As he talked the question came to me. Was he a virgin too? I asked him if he was ever frisked. "You know I haven't thought about it for 30 years," he said and talks of his first time. It was after a football game. His friend was driving. Police-lights flash in the mirror. They pull over. The cop orders them out and leans them on the car. He frisks them up and down. Instead of finding evidence of crime the cop leaves it on their bodies. "I felt violated," Morial said. As he drove home the question rang in his head. What was that for? We weren't doing anything. "I never told my parents," he said, "I didn't want them to think I had done something wrong."
Morial said growing up, school was a safe haven and I feel what he's saying. My choices took me from high-school to college to graduate school, learning new dialects of English as I went. Black men do that, learn to be multi-lingual, to speak street-slang, intimate home talk and corporate English. It is a tactic among ambitious brothers to radiate the signal that you are not dangerous. Sometimes it's a choice made so long ago its now unconscious. Sometimes it's a choice we make every day, not ever knowing if it's the right one.
I asked my friend Leron Brooks if he'd been stopped-n-frisked. We've known each for years at CUNY graduate school. "I never had the pleasure," he laughed. Leron is tall, dapper and after years of Aikido training can snap a man in seconds. But he's untouched. "It's how you carry yourself," he said. "I don't wear my pants around my knees. When I see brothers doing that it reminds me of March of Penguins."
Scrolling through the numbers on my cell phone, I called ex-Black Panther and current City Councilman Charles Barron if he's ever been frisked. "I won't allow it," he asserts, "If a cop tries to stop-n-frisk me and I haven't committed a crime. We're going to rumble." Barron admits he's not a good example being a councilman and before that a political celebrity. Still, the irony. One of the most militant voices in New York is a virgin.
Yet Barron spent 45 days in jail so he can't wear pure white. Rather he's a V.I.N.O or Virgin In Name Only. Often he rides around East New York providing a knightly service by policing the police. "If I see someone's is pulled over, I get out of my car and tell the cop there are violating constitutional rights." Barron sees stop-n-frisks as racist. "We have a right to move freely. Being a black man in the hood is not probable cause," he says. "They are not stopping criminals they are stopping innocent men and look what happens. Sean Bell is dead."
Barron sees crime as an effect of economic inequality and he doesn't mince words on which side he's on. "If I see brothers on the corner in Hip-Hop clothing and on the other corner rookie white cops with guns," Barron said, "I'm walking by the brothers."
It is the perfect image of the choice many of us have to make. There is always this one street that divides the working-poor from the moneyed, the bad schools from the good, the candle-lit restaurants from the bodegas. It is the invisible class border circling whitening cities in a darkening nation where the wealthy recruit the poor to guard the gates against the barbarians. It is always, one street, with two sides facing each other. On this side are police with guns, badges and a code of silence. On the other side, black men, angry and betrayed with "Stop Snitching" T-shirts. Depending on who wins the name of the street will change from Myrtle Avenue to Murder Avenue and back again.
Yet for those of us who live behind that line of scarred black men, who love them but are afraid for them and even worse, of them; the choices are few. My friend TRUE told me, "One time, a car pulled up on the sidewalk. Cops got out and frisked me." He was left with the same ringing question. But why, I didn't do anything wrong. Yet he says, "I own a home in Bed-Stuy and even called the police asking for more patrols so I'm happy they aren't apathetic."
TRUE jokes that as a 6'3 tall black man with dreads not many people test him. If he doesn't feel danger his friends, especially those who are gay feel profiled not by cops but by black men. Near the Utica Avenue stop, gay friends had been cursed and beaten. TRUE helped organize BE SAFE or Bedford-Stuy's Safety Alliance for Everyone. "We met at the park where the gay bashing, muggings and non-theft beat downs took place," he says, "I wasn't there but Lloyd and this kid got into it. They did the I'm-gonna-fight-you dance but no blows." He told me how a mutual friend, a bi-sexual black woman, avoids certain streets because men curse her. She said just holding hands with a woman can cost her life.
"There is a conspiracy of silence in black communities," says Bill Fletcher, former president of TransAfrica forum. "People want to say 'I want the cops to be here' because we are more often victimized by crime. But we don't because when it's said aloud it gets folded in with a Right wing attack on black men."
Of course, I ask him if he's a virgin. "My first time, I was a senior in college. A man in a leather jacket came up to me and screamed, 'up against the wall, you fit the description.' I was freaking out. I was already a political activist and was rationally prepared for being stopped but not emotionally." There was another time, he was driving and a jeep cut in front of him. Fletcher thought he was going to be assassinated. White men came out of the jeep and flashed a light in his car. "This isn't the one," the cop said and they left as the drumming in Fletcher's chest slowly eased.
He knows about profiling and balances it against the profiling that happens within black neighborhoods. Men who are bitter and hungry, who don't have the money to settle the question of their manhood, target the weakest among us. Women and gays are preyed on for the crime of reminding men of the one power they have left, their fists. "We have to challenge the criminal as role model," Fletcher says, "A community is created by individuals interacting and if they can't interact the community is destroyed. We have to see crime as a counter-revolutionary act."
His words made me look at my self again. Not only has no police officer ever touched me, neither has any criminal. I've never been mugged, hassled for money yes but never mugged. I walk the streets at night and brothers see my dreads and tell me stories of prison, of women they lost, of knife fights that carved scars into them that never feel closed. It's as if they want to entwine their lives in the hundreds of years of history my hair symbolizes. Sometimes they just ask me to use my metro-pass and get them closer to home.
But home is hard to go to when too many people live in it, when you're being chased out by high rents and un-payable bills and escape means being wandering in the maze of city streets. And on those streets, you are exposed to the rough hands of the police. The same violence the police use to clear the working-poor from neighborhoods the middle-class want is translated by black and Latino men into street-level machismo. If the right of passage for us is being groped by the police then the rite of passage for black women is being groped by us.
My ex-girlfriend would call me on the way to the
Every sister I know has been through the gauntlet of sullen men, who yell at them less to be answered than to prove their power. Every sister I know has a tactic to deal with male desperation, a quick nod and "no thank you" to give them the small victory of being heard without the sacrifice of being had. Some wear a mask of stony silence and force their way through the web of taunts, pleas and crotch-grabbing. Some trade barbed jokes to let the men know pain isn't private property. And some are caught behind closed doors are forced to be the evidence of his manhood.
An artist friend, Marta Sanchez who I met at an Afro-Latino conference told me that years ago she had been raped. The attacker tore her sense of safety away, leaving her exposed. Slowly after years, she began to bandage her body with art, painting black women as angels.
Some had wings; some were grounded. The art healed her but it was a thin layer of paint covering terror. Once, we walked home from a restaurant with bags of food and brothers on the corner eyed her, one whistled. Her eyes locked and neck stiffened. Later, while eating she said, "They're always out there and they never let me feel safe."
When I left her house the men were gone but others took their place. Kneeling on the sidewalk, I reached into my bag for chalk and wrote. When you harass women they take it out on their children. The cycle of violence continues for generations. An older black woman walked by to say, "Thank you." Two younger sisters stood for a while, "That's so true." I gave them chalk and kept writing. Folks gathered and the men on the stoop got curious. They came and read the words but it was the open despair of the elders that shocked them. I offered them chalk but they laughed nervously and left.
It felt good to write but I knew words on the sidewalk could not help her. By time I got home it was raining and they had washed away. Leaning out the window to wet my face, I felt my political virginity, my clean body with no handprints from either a cop or a criminal to remind me of my weakness, of how quickly my virginity can be taken from me. How did this privilege become mine?
I looked at my college diploma and heard the elevated English of my private thoughts. The state had nothing to fear from me, it created me. My dread-locks lay in dark ropes in my hand. Angry black men don't hurt me because I open doors. The conflicting privileges of race, class and sex that crush so many of us, creates this upward wind that allows me flight. Marta shined in my mind. How lucky I am to have her wings.