Monday, August 18, 2014
First, there were our girls, Beatrice and Bryce, playing and having lots of fun at what they the “dinosaur” park (because of a climbable dark blue dinosaur statue), a fairly new playground nestled behind the Louden Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz. There were two other girls playing as well, and Beatrice befriended one of them, a sweet, soft-spoken Asian-American girl about her age who I’ll refer to as M. Bea and M ran back and forth across the new playground “safety” bark, with Bryce in tow, all of them picking imaginary plants to feed the dinosaur, as well as real dandelions, grass and some of the bark itself. The Mama and I sat on one of the park benches and talked while enjoying the girls play.
Second, before I even sat on the bench and when I was up and down from it, I noticed at least four young African-American males hanging out about 50 feet behind us near the sidewalk of the adjacent street. While not quite “media” embellished ganster drug dealers, two of them did light up marijuana cigarettes and the smoke wafted across the playground (please note that pot has been decriminalized in Santa Cruz). Rap music and guys’ laughter within earshot, nothing really gave pause to the neighborhood or others playing in and hanging around the park, including other parents, children, teenagers and a few homeless resting in the pleasant summer breeze caressing the afternoon shade. Other people drove up, parked in front of the smoking guys, chatted away with them, and then departed.
Third, a police officer driving along Laurel, the main street at the other end of the park and community center, seemed to slow and the officer (I couldn’t tell gender or skin color from my distance) looked up the street where the young black men were hanging out. But then I noticed that the officer had only slowed because of the traffic on the street. A minute later, the police car was gone.
All the while we were there, I kept imperceptible watch of the perimeter, quite aware where our girls were in relation to the guys, ready to call out “Bea and Bryce!” and literally go get them if they ventured too far away.
At some point during my watch I looked up and saw painted across the back of the two-story community center section nearest us a wonderfully vivid mural. It depicted a casual group of obvious locals, old and young, men and women, skin tones ranging from crème to dark chocolate, dressed comfortably and looking out over the park and playground from a faux balcony.
And most of them were smiling.
When we did leave the park on our own accord, nothing eventful had happened other than Beatrice making a new friend and Bryce being her daredevil self on the playground equipment. Not once did the Mama or I mention to each other the guys behind us, nor did we even flinch when we smelled the smoke or heard the music, nor did I keep my phone at the ready with an itchy trigger finger. My discomfort still hung in the air like the pungent pot smoke still swirling around the playground, though; they could’ve been Asian, Hispanic, Eastern European, Caucasian – it didn’t matter to me. But again, there was no need for parental action.
Who cares, right? Do we get a gold star by our names because we didn’t whisk our fragile little girls quickly away and back into our car because of the supposedly unsavory element smoking pot in the park?
No, we don’t. And I’m not asking for one either. They weren’t hassling anyone and I couldn’t tell if they were dealing or just “chilling out” with their friends and smoking doobie.
I also have no idea what it’s like to be a young African-American male in this city or any other across America. I have no idea what it’s like to be profiled, harassed or unfortunately sometimes killed because of ethnicity and stereotyped circumstance. I will never portend to understand growing up in racially divided socioeconomic environments (although I did grow up in a "poor" socioeconomic environment).
I do, however, know a little something of what it’s like to be a police officer, growing up in law enforcement as a preteen on, my step-father being a police detective (on the force for 32 years) and my younger sister years later becoming a police officer (on the force for about six years).
My dad used to tell me that there are good cops and bad, mostly good thankfully (he was one of them), and soul-crushing reality that it can be one hell of a stressful job when constantly keeping the community peace with the real bad guys (and gals) usually a half step ahead leaving mayhem in their wake, with all the others in between. He also always acknowledged that police brutality happens, and like real life there is an unstructured spectrum of when it occurs and why. Plus, the fact that innocent men and women are sent to prison every year, sometimes locked up for years until new evidence has proven their innocence otherwise.
The system wasn't perfect, and never will be, but it did work and does.
However, he most certainly would’ve argued with me if I would’ve had the chance to share Steven Pinker’s theory with him before he passed that worldwide violence is lower than it’s ever been in human history (backed up by lots of fascinating research data). The world of the 20th century, and even today, may seem like a big rabid beast held at bay by only rusted wire fence, but fortunately the combination of communities, democratic governments and our own collective higher consciousness and self-control, the beast has been quieted, an extended hibernation not seen since recorded time.
Except that when we’re closer to home and we read, hear and see the stories of young, unarmed black men being gunned down in the street by cops (most recently Michael Brown), regardless of what they did or didn’t do, communities are polarized, parents and families devastated, with the media underscoring the painful splits.
If that was my son? Or one of my daughters?
I remember watching the 1992 riots live on TV after the Rodney King verdict and thinking, “Holy shit. What if that was me being pulled out of the truck?”
All because of vengeful reciprocity and a longing for karmic justice. God help us all...
As we drove away from the dinosaur park, we passed the young black men sitting on the grassy knoll above the sidewalk. I only caught their images peripherally, because I wouldn’t look at them, couldn’t bring myself to, not really afraid but not willing to deal with my assumptive judgment and protective parenting either.
Was I ashamed? A little, but the picture I took of the community center mural prior to leaving had immediately wed to my higher consciousness, my self-control and my hope that diverse communities and law enforcement everywhere will continue to seek harmonious non-violent solutions to keep the beasts at bay, for our children’s sake and our children’s children.