Monday, August 10, 2015

A Standing Indignity

It was the sort of day the summer sun is ornery towards everything below it. The sun's sour disposition was infectious, making the occasional winds harsh, hot, and arid. It was like having the calls for relief answered by a spiteful individual who's only solution was to sporadically shoot you in the face with a hair dryer at full blast. On this particular August afternoon in Union City, I was 15, and on my way to Bronco Billy's pizza parlor for both a peperoni slice, and to play the 'Marvel Super Heroes' arcade. With me was two of my best friends, Dolos, and Archon.

We were taking the same shortcut a majority of kids living in that area used; the railroad tracks. On hot days like this the rocks, metal rails, and brick walls visibly wafted with heat. This path shaved off a significant amount of time when going to the local park, school, or stores, but always in exchange for noticeably dusty shoes, making it a smart choice to keep an old rag, or cloth on your person to use at walk's end.

We exited the railroad tracks to the snarl of sluggish traffic that was common at that time of day. Dolos, and Archon were talking about a music album when I noticed a motorcycle cop. I would have mostly ignored him if he had not dramatically slowed his vehicle, and watched us far too closely while passing by. At that moment I instantly became host to a sinking feeling something unpleasant was about to go down.

“Hey,” I called to both friends over my shoulder.

“What's up?” Dolos asked while laughing about something.

“I think we're about to have a problem.” I explained after coming to a stop.

“What?” Archon asked as he began looking about. “What's wrong?”

“The cop that just passed by is going to come back.” I informed them.

“What?” Dolos asked skeptically. “What makes you say that?”

Just then the officer made an apparent U-turn from around the corner, and began driving directly for us. I frowned with bitter resignation. I doubted he was returning to introduce himself, or ask for directions.

“Does that answer your question?” I replied to Dolos without taking my eyes off the motorcycle cop.

“What the fuck did we do?” Archon asked tensely.

“You mean besides for being Black? I honestly have no idea.” I answered truthfully.

“Great. Because we need this.” Dolos laughed with vexed disbelief.

Pulling to a stop at the curb only several feet away from us, the cop immediately dismounted his motorcycle, drew his sidearm and took aim in our general direction. While it was scary to have a gun pointed at me this sort of aggression was not new, or even surprising. Maybe I was just very cynical at that age. Or maybe I had a firm understanding how U.S society operated when you had a bit more pigment in your skin. Despite Oakland, and Union City being two wholly separate cities, the situation I was facing made aspects of them identical. Even when a play is constantly preformed on different stages, with a constantly changing cast, that does not make it a new story, as the characters, costumes, and script always remains.

“Keep your hands where I can see them, and get down on the ground.” The cop quickly commanded.

“Well, isn't this a sonofabitch.” I muttered to myself while beginning to begrudgingly follow the given command.

“Wait! What did we do?” Dolos asked in utter surprise.

“What's with the gun? We haven't done anything! And we don't have any weapons!” Archon angrily chimed in.

“I said get on the FUCKING ground, NOW!” The cop demanded more aggressively.

“Don't give him a reason.” I called to both friends on my knees.

Living in Oakland, I had witnessed enough overzealous, violent, and frequently racist cops to know how quickly the situation could escalate over even a perceived minor insult. The miserable irony is that this is exactly how the gang-bangers in my old neighborhood operated as well. “Disrespect them” and they will hurt, or even possibly kill you. The only difference is one side is punished for such a mentality, while the other is awarded, and praised for identical behavior.

“I said face down!” The cop harshly added. It would seem even on our knees, with both hands behind our head, the deadly art of negro magic meant we were still somehow a viable threat to him. We of course complied.

So, there we were. Lying face down on a dusty, very hot sidewalk, in the middle of the late afternoon commute, as little more than a spectacle for every passing motorist. To this very day I can only imagine how many adults, saw three Black kids being held at gunpoint by an overzealous cop, and simply figured we were guilty of something that made it perfectly acceptable to point an instrument of death at us. Perhaps, the same way they automatically assumed my friends, and I, were guilty because the color of our skin, they also assumed the cop was justified by nothing more than the office he served.

“While we're down here, is it too much to ask why this is happening?” I called over to the cop.

“Quiet.” He replied harshly before pulling his radio free to begin speaking with someone.

“Bullshit. Complete bullshit.” I heard Dolos mumble.

“Good job, officer.” I heard a woman suddenly call out from the street. Looking over, I saw an older White woman waving at her new hero from the car she was driving, before rejoining the natural flow of traffic. I cannot begin to describe just how reassuring that was. To know there was an adult, happily congratulating another adult for forcibly detaining us kids for nothing, while pointing a deadly weapon at us, was indescribably uplifting.

“Yo, this sidewalk is really hot.” Archon voiced unhappily.

“Deal with it.” Was the cop's only reply before he returned to whatever it were he was doing.

This situation lasted for a long while. Us lying there while traffic slowly rolled by staring at us. Just as I was beginning to wonder if this was all a secret experiment to record what would give out first; our skin on the hot sidewalk, or our sense of dignity in the face of such humiliating treatment, the cop acknowledged an update over the radio then returned to us.

“Alright. You are all free to go.” The cop said as breezily as one would say; 'Hey, thanks for stopping by. Catch you later.'

“Now, can you please tell us what this was all about?” I asked after getting to my feet, and beginning to dust off my now very dirty clothing. My palms, and forearms were stinging from having been on that hot pavement for an extended amount of time.

“Five suspects broke into a house. Reports said they were potentially Latino or Pakistani.” The officer explained with a straight face.

There was a palpable moment of utter disbelief that silently ignited between Dolos, Archon, and I, as we exchanged looks of bitter skepticism. It was Dolos who began laughing rather humorlessly as he turned and began walking back towards the tracks.

“Right.” I said after looking between my friends and then back to the cop.

“What?! There are only three of us, we're Black, and-- fuck it. Never mind. Not like you give a damn anyway.” Archon waved the explanation off and began following after Dolos.

“I am only doing my job, kid.” The cop replied with an unapologetic tone while slipping on his mirror shades.

“Whatever gets you through the night, officer.” I shook my head, then turned and followed after my friends. After all that, none of us were in the mood for pizza, or video games anymore.

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