On the night Barak Obama was elected, he threw out this rhetorical question: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…
I’d like a chance to answer.
Yes, Mr. president, there are.
Let me start with a story and then some facts:
Just two days before my daughters and I were leaving on a 5 week trip to southeast Asia, I heard a call come into my home phone. It was a collect call. My heart froze; it was from my son, who was being held in county jail, no longer a juvenile but now an eighteen year old “adult.” I was frustrated and confused. I could barely find out what happened because the cops were so unhelpful and condescending in my attempt to check on his situation and well-being. I was told that after he tried to evade police, they “subdued” him. Subdued?! What the fuck does that mean? I asked if he is hurt in any way. The officer said, ‘I looked at his mug shot and his face seems fine. Just a bloody nose.’ I couldn’t even talk to my son about what happened because the phones were monitored.
Then there were the other questions: should we still go on our trip? should we change our plans? After much discussion, we departed leaving his mother and the rest of our community to handle the situation, which didn’t appear to be over any time soon.
We had been in Thailand for just a week. It was a few days after New Years. We were at the point of feeling a bit homesick, missing our homes in Berkeley and Oakland, when a person whom we met on the road said, wow, you people in Oakland are crazy.
Oscar Grant had been murdered by BART police, unarmed and face down on the ground. He was shot in the back. In the aftermath, the people in Oakland took to the streets. Not knowing anything abut the situation, we made our way to an internet café and watched the video of his murder and of the protests on the streets of our home. My kids and I were stunned. We looked at each other, angry, horrified. There was nothing to say really. Until Ella, my youngest asked, how old was he?
Twenty two, I said.
Why’d they shoot him?
I shook my head.
Why does this happen? she continued.
I didn’t know what to say. What answers should I give her?
I don’t know why this happens, I responded.
She looked straight at me and declared, that coulda been Dylan, that coulda been our brother.
I know, I said, I know.
Some facts from the Ella Baker Center:
Of the 1,950 youth in California Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) prisons as of July 2008, 87% are young people of color. And virtually all of the kids inside are from low-income backgrounds….On average, children of color in California grow up with fewer services, poorer schools, more toxicity, more street violence and, as they grow older, fewer job opportunities than their white counterparts. These disparities carry over into the criminal justice system. When suspected of the same infractions, youth of color are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and jailed than white youth.
Since that day when my daughters and I discussed Oscar Grant, I have been haunted by my desire to answer Ella’s question with more than a head shake, a hug, and some lame phrase of disbelief.
I want to be able to look straight back at her with something to say.
I want to risk being honest with her.
Ella, this is why it happens.
We have failed you and other young people from the beginning. It is not about one cop killing one unarmed young man; it’s about the years of failure that many young people, like perhaps Oscar Grant, face in our society, from schools to jobs, from media representations to the courts.
This isn’t one isolated incident; this is a pattern.
And with pattern, there is usually design.
Ella, it happens because there is a war going on.
I know this sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true. Despite the “hope” and “change” we’ve been told will come from the top down like some liberal version of Reaganomics, if we just wait, the reality is that right now, right here on the streets of our cities, it is dangerous to be young. To be a teenager and a person of color can simply be deadly.
With the amount of consumer advertising budgets aimed at them, the pressure of social and gender conformity, and the economic stress of capitalist created desires, growing up is a constant battle.
As a young person, there is no room to test boundaries and make mistakes and challenge things that are given you. It’s a set-up. Community centers and after school programs close, so there’s no place to gather safely and legally; it’s prohibited to congregate on street corners and in parks past dark. We had to actually fight to get the local school playground open during the summer so that kids could play there during the day without get the cops called on them. It seems the only place safe to hang out is some shopping center, but you gotta have money to go there so you better hope you have job. Almost everything connected to youth culture, from skateboarding to the music you play, is seen as suspect, something to distrust, an excuse for adults to call the cops. Basically, for many young folks, they are guilty before they step out their door. And especially if that door is in East Oakland or Richmond.
Ella, it happens because young people are expected to be perfect.
If you are a teenager and/or a person of color, whatever you do, don’t fuck up. Don’t make a mistake. And don’t get caught. People wonder why there’s a “don’t snitch policy” in many working class neighborhoods and communities of color. Because getting caught up in the legal system is a nightmare. People know this. We live in a society in which mistakes are costly and if you the wrong class or color, those mistakes aren’t things you can simply learn from, but shackles that are extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive to free yourself from.
The end result is that, though African-Americans constitute an estimated six percent of California’s population, in 2008, a whopping 31 percent of the kids in DJJ were black. Latinos made up 36 percent of state residents but 55 percent of the DJJ population.
Here’s another story, an analogy.
I teach basic writing at the local community college. On the first day of classes, I sit for a minute in silence as they stare and wait for me to begin. But I wait. I wait for them to get uncomfortable, to shift in their chairs, to mumble something under their breaths about this crazy fool sitting in front of them. Then I say I’m just observing and thinking. I ask everyone to look around. What can we gather about our class? What do we see? After some playful remarks (usually about some cute girl across the room) someone will say, there ain’t that many white people in the class. Which is always the case.
And then I show them statistics from the school’s website.
For example: black students make up a quarter of the school population but more than half of the basic skills population. That success rates from basic skills instruction are dismally low. That the statistics of basic skills classes eerily mirror the statistics of the prison system.
That this the ghetto of the school.
This the reservation.
The interment camp.
How do they feel about this? Now, there is a different kinda silence in the classroom.
I try to be honest with my students. Because I believe with this knowledge comes the possibility of choice, comes determination, comes anger, perhaps action. It now is up to them individually and collectively to face these issues.
So I am trying to be honest with you, Ella.
Unfortunately, it is also your responsibility to face these issues. Someday soon it will be you out on the streets at night with your friends. It will be you riding public transportation home after some holiday celebration perhaps running a bit wild, perhaps getting into a little trouble. It will be you and your friends that will be seen only in relation to your age, your clothes and style, your color. It will be you or your friend’s facing the gun.
Ella, but it is also my responsibility to do something about it as well. To do my best to trust you. To be honest with you about the potential consequences you face. To love you unconditionally despite what the world around me says about teenagers and young people. To listen and believe and let go and support. To stand up for other young people who are dealing with these issues now. To not let things like Oscar Grant’s murder go unmourned. To remember the number of other people, both young and old, who might also raise their hands in response to Mr. President’s declaration. The doubters, the hell raisers, those trying to be honest in spite of the pressure to conform, to believe that everything for the most part is fine.
Ella, I wish I was there on that, albeit wonderful night, when President Barak Obama asked that question: Is there anyone out there who doubts…
And for you Ella, I hope I would have had the courage to raise my hand.
All statistics from The Ella Baker Center website http://www.ellabakercenter.org as well as the Berkeley City College http://vistawww.peralta.edu website. This article was also inspired by an article Cherrie Moraga wrote with the same quote.