Sunday, March 20, 2005
A Kind of Justice
I’ve been doing poorly with these essays, I know. It’s supposed to be a new one weekly. Too much life going on, I guess. Or not enough . . . however it works. People, please start sending your own thoughts in to go up here. I’d love to put them up (unless you’re fascist).
I’m sitting here trying to think of what to say and I’m going, “I want to write about this, nope can’t; or about that, no can’t do that either; well, how about . . . uh, no . . .” Self censorship: it’s an ugly thing. It’s a killing thing.
I sat here a couple more minutes and you know what? I think I’d actually like to break one of these many censorships and piss some people off. What do you think? Should I go for it? Hmmmm . . . Well, why the hell not after all?
OK, I suppose I could make it hypothetical, huh? Sure, why not?
Let’s say there was a 14-year-old girl who attended the wedding reception of a cousin. The father of this cousin, the girl’s uncle, was tending the bar and every time the girl went through the room, the uncle held out a glass of wine to her, coaxing her to take it . . . The girl certainly wondered at this because it was a strange thing to be given wine when she and her friends usually had to try very hard to get a hold of any alcohol and only rarely could, because adults didn’t seem to think it was good for teens to drink. But this uncle by marriage did obviously think it was good. At least for her. She didn’t see him giving any to the other young cousins or her sisters, so he must think she was more adult. It was a kind of affirmation maybe. Even though his eyes looked strange. Every time he held out one more glass to her, and one more, his eyes looked strange, kind of deadened and excited at the same time. It felt uncomfortable, but she didn’t know why.
She ended up very, very drunk, this 14-year-old girl who had actually not drunk enough before to know what the limits were. Passing-out drunk. At one point she came to, naked in the basement shower, feeling embarrassed with her mother standing nearby. Her mother was expressing stern disappointment as she helped her to stand and wash off the vomit.
And then, later, there were these strange fuzzy memories of being in the garage with that uncle and he was talking to her, and what else? What else? These half-exposed pictures of something . . . And then even later, hell, years later, the pictures seemed more developed and distressing. What was he doing with his hands where they shouldn’t be? And she couldn’t even stand up, she was so drunk. She couldn’t go away, her head kept swimming and going under.
And then, when she first talked about the incident to her family, one of her sisters said, “Yes, I remember going into the garage and seeing you there with him.” But everyone decides not to speak about this in the larger family. The mother, for years afterward, is very distant to her sister’s husband, but she’ll never say a word about the incident. Nobody likes to make trouble. It’s . . . well, it’s just not nice. After all, the uncle is a born-again Christian, constantly going to church and prayer meetings and everything else. He’s accepted Jesus into his heart, he’s saved, blessed, going to heaven, halleluiah!
Strangely enough, some of the man’s children have symptoms of sexual abuse and strange, jumbled memories of a man without a face. And when this 14-year-old girl-woman announces that she was sexually abused growing up, the family begins to mutter. The uncle and much of his righteous family decide that she must be crazy, delusional. Yes, it must be admitted that she has no symptoms of craziness except for saying these things, but talking about such things is enough proof, isn’t it?
Afterward, at one large family meeting, the 14-year-old girl, now a woman, is sitting on a sofa when that uncle comes along with that familiar look in his eyes and a sort of smug self-satisfaction. As he begins to sit down next to her, he asks, “Will you behave yourself if I sit next to you?” This woman is too shocked to respond initially, so he continues with, “What would you do if I sat next to you?”
At this point, the woman unfreezes and stands up, says, “I’d shoot you,” and points her camera at him, which sure enough captures that same smiling dead-eyed look, a predator’s look, a smug predator, absolutely certain that all the unspoken rules of the family and society will ensure that he never gets called out.
Let’s pretend also that his name is Bob Long and he lives in Oregon, Illinois, near Rockford, and that when he dies, which should be fairly soon, he actually won’t be able to lie with a smile anymore.
Let’s say that for this particular situation, simply being able to tell the truth in public is a kind of justice, finally. Amen.
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
Trained to Hate
Note from Gail: The following essay about racism is by a white alternative high school student I once had. Although it’s highly disturbing in many respects, I believe it also contains much hope about the possibility of human change. The essay first appeared anonymously in the school literary magazine.
Well, my story takes place in Minnesota in late 1998 and in 1999. I lived in a regular town of mixed races—blacks, whites and Asians. It was in an old part of my town where about 95% of the neighborhood was white before any of the other races started moving in. Me and all my buds were satisfied with life and felt like we were in the safest neighborhood. Nothing could go wrong because everybody knew everybody.
But one day something did go wrong, something went very wrong. Me, Matt and my other friend Jon were at the park playing basketball, having a blast. Four black boys approached us and asked if they could play. We told them we were about done and heading home. They all looked at each other and then at our bikes. We never thought about locking up our bikes because nothing like having bikes stolen happened in our neighborhood. So before we knew it, they dropped their bikes, which were the ugliest bikes I’ve ever seen, and took off with ours. We were in so much shock that we didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that my favorite bike ever was stolen. My dad bought it for my birthday and it was about an $800 bike and it was gone before my eyes, and my friends’ bikes as well. That’s when my anger began, with the simple incident of getting my bike stolen.
One month later, I was walking to an indoor pool around 6 PM, expecting to have a fun time with my friends. As I was walking, I noticed that a group of Asians were just sitting at this park smoking, about seven of them. As I was passing by, they all gave me a kind of glare. I got a little nervous because they were all silent, not saying anything. When my back turned, I heard them speaking in their language. That’s when I began to get really nervous. I heard footsteps of many people and turned to see what was going on. They formed a circle around me and one of them came up and pushed me. I was an extremely skinny person and easily conquered in combat. They beat the shit out of me for no apparent reason. I had a swollen jaw and bruises all over my body from the beating. I never told my parents because they would call the cops and probably make me do counseling, which I refused to do. So they never knew about it, nobody did.
After that, I never trusted anyone who wasn’t white. I refused to help them in any way. Like an old black woman was in a wheelchair and having difficulties getting in the door or something like that, I refused to help them, even if I was the only one around. Sometimes when I saw a black or Asian person go inside a store and there were no cameras in the parking lot, I’d spray paint on their cars or key the hell out of them, slash non-white kids’ bikes and other pranks. It was my way of saying, “I got you back.” It was sad but it made me feel better every time I did it.
Two months later, I thought I was some tough shit because of what I was doing. Then one day my dad bought me a brand new bike again. It was a hot item at the time and I biked back to the indoor pool to go for a dip. After the pool closed, I was walking to my bike and there was a group of black people walking around my bike. I was really scared and didn’t know what to do, so I turned around, pretending it wasn’t my bike. I heard footsteps again but they were moving so fast I didn’t even have time to turn around. They hit the back of my head and asked for the key. I was knocked to the ground. They asked for the key again and I said no because I wasn’t going to let them get it that easily. So they kept kicking me until I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I just handed them the key and watched my bike disappear again.
The anger inside of me was no longer anger but hate and rage. I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t know what to do. One day I was at school talking to some buds of mine and I heard my friend Jeremy say something about a meeting at his house. I asked him what about and he didn’t say. All he said was to come over and it’d be fun. So I went. His house was only two blocks from mine. There was a meeting in the backyard with about 55 people and they were all white. Everyone was greeting everyone in a nice atmosphere and I felt welcomed. We drank pop and had food and lots of great socializing time.
When night came, Jeremy’s dad came out of the house and it grew silent. He lit the bonfire and everyone formed a circle around him and the fire. He talked about how “n*****s and g***s” were taking over the neighborhood and how we as a group had to put an end to it. They introduced everyone to me and most had their share of stories of things that people of color did to them and some didn’t. Some said they were just born to hate. Most of the guys hated immigrants the most, saying that they robbed our country of money. As Jeremy’s dad continued, he started talking to us about how “the n*****s brought trouble to our country” and how they made our country the way it is today. He was giving us the statistics from a source of information that says 67% of all crimes were of the “black community” and 13% of immigrants. He didn’t say anything about white people in it. He just kept blabbering on about how “they fucked us up.” Then he moved on to political crap. Talking about how if we had a “colored” president, he would increase the welfare checks and how that money was coming from our paychecks. That made anger rise in me, and I could tell it made everyone else mad, too.
A week later, after going to Jeremy’s house, they had me convinced that any race besides white was the enemy. They said if you don’t stand up for yourself now, they’ll take you down, take advantage of you and rip you off.
Three weeks later I was at a meeting and it was a serious one. Everyone was wearing all black. I don’t know why but they were and I didn’t think about it. Jeremy’s dad came out of the house and everyone shut up. He came out to the fire and said, “A white boy got attacked last night at the park by one of the colored people. Are you going to let that go by? What if that was your kid and some black kids jumped him just because he’s white? Do you want this to happen anymore? Should we allow blacks to go to the parks at night? No, now let’s put an end to this. If you see any n*****s at the park alone or with a couple others, I want you to give them some shit.” Basically what he was telling us was that if we were together as a group and saw some black people in the parks, our job was to beat the hell out of them. Some nights we’d go to the park and just sit there and wait for them to come out or pass through.
I remember my first time beating the hell out of them. I was in shock. All the kid probably wanted to do was just to go home. But time after time, you got over the guilt. They loved beating on Muslim people, ripping off the women’s hair covers and watching them scream. The group I was with never got caught. All the cops in the neighborhood were white and probably thought we were doing the community good. One of our incidents made it on the news but it wasn’t that severe.
I was full of hatred and pride. One night I went back over to J
eremy’s house and back in the garage they were tattooing the swastika on everyone’s chest, arm or back of the neck. I was a little nervous because I didn’t know if I was going to be like this forever. But with in my luck everyone had to go home early so I didn’t get one that night.
The night after that was the one that changed my life. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. The guys I was with were in their late 20s to early 30s and they were pretty insane on a personal note. I can’t give out any nicknames or anything like that for confidential purposes, but it was a long day and they were really bored.
They noticed a woman walking with her kids, maybe 11 and 12. They looked like they were walking home from the grocery store. Our group got out of their cars. All they said was, “Let’s do this.” So what did I do to look loyal? I got out and walked over with them. The woman didn’t think anything of it. But in our eyes, a Mexican was a Mexican and they steal our jobs. So we pushed the woman over. The kids tried to hit us back but did nothing. So I turned and socked one in the face. As he fell to the ground, I was about to punch him right in the jaw but then I looked at him. I suddenly really saw that he was just walking from the grocery store and just wanted to get home. So I left him on the ground and went back to the car.
When I got in the car, I was yelled at violently and asked why I didn’t finish him off. At Jeremy’s house the Friday after the incident, I was brought into a room and questioned: “Why didn’t you finish him? What’s wrong? You a s*** lover now?” Then I got jabbed in the stomach. It hurt so badly I wanted to puke. But if I did, it would have made me look bad and like a chicken. So I managed to hold it in.
When I got home that night, I went to bed early, running my fingers down my shaved head, questioning myself, wondering why I was doing this, telling myself I got like this over stupid bikes. That I let something like that change me so much. That probably if it wasn’t me, it would have been the person after me to get their bike stolen. So I didn’t sleep that night. All I could see was the faces of the people we beat the hell out of.
The day after, I knew I had to get out of the gang. I can’t tell you the name of the gang because it would reveal the location of the incidents and cases but I can tell you it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.
I met up with the group the weekend after. I went to tell Jeremy’s dad about how I was leaving because I couldn’t take it. I got the shit beat out of me admittedly. Now, to this day, they think of me as “one of them n*****s.” Every time I drive by the house, they all glare at me but do nothing. Sometimes they vandalize my house. I know it’s them.
Note: This teenage boy changed out of my class the day after he handed in the essay. (Everyone knew how passionate I was about such things.) After talking to him, he returned. I believe he wrote it shortly after Allen’s speech (see last week’s essay). As this piece shows dramatically, some people do find the courage to confront themselves, to think, grow, change, and develop empathy. He had a number of friends of color at the time, and the next essay he wrote was a great one on the hip hop scene in Minnesota after seeing an Atmosphere show. :)