By Leah Grady Sayvetz. Leah grew up in the Ithaca Catholic Worker community. After some years away she has moved back to her home town to join efforts in local social justice organizing, starting at the local level to effect change in the world.
On a Tuesday morning in early November, on my way driving to work, I was stopped at the bottom of Elm street by a traffic jam, not atypical for 8am on a week day. Thinking nothing of it, I patiently waited for vehicles to move on so that I could pull out onto Floral Ave. The car ahead of me seemed somewhat thoughtless in how they had stopped across a lane of traffic on Floral and did not appear to be moving. An elderly black man turned up Elm, having just come from the Martin Luther King Blvd bridge, and stopped his car next to mine to let out his passenger, a middle-aged black man. As I saw these two men say good bye, I realized that the driver of the car ahead of me, a white man, had just jumped out of his vehicle and was now pointing a gun at the younger of the two black men. It suddenly became clear that we were surrounded by undercover police. The cars behind us and ahead of us, the car which had just turned onto Floral Ave from MLK Blvd, and other cars waiting in line before the Floral Ave stop sign all carried men in regular dress who jumped out and surrounded this man on the side of the street. All of these under cover officers were white men. Many of them carried guns, some pointed their guns at the black man who had just gotten out of his friend’s car. I recognized the man being surrounded as someone I see a lot in my neighborhood- he is a neighbor who I know by face but not by name. The cops all wore civilian clothing of various styles, one man had long hair in a messy pony tail and a scruffy beard, they all wore calm and business-like expressions on their faces. Their demeanor communicated to everyone around that this was just business as usual: nothing to be alarmed about.
But I found there to be everything to be alarmed about. I was brought back to films about fascist regimes when every car in our traffic jam suddenly produced an armed agent who wore no identifying uniform or badge, this group of secret police suddenly surrounding my neighbor on the sidewalk. My first instinct to start filming the scene around me was squelched by a sneaky fear which crept in quickly and I constantly questioned: would they take my phone and smash it? Would they arrest me? If I produced a video recording device, would those guns then turn in my direction? I am disturbed that such fears even crossed my mind- isn’t this supposed to be a free country? (Although I would not delude myself by pretending that it is). If I, a white person, who is not poor, am afraid of the police, how bad is it then for my neighbors who are poor? who are people of color? As I watched my neighbor stand perfectly still and put his hands behind his back, I felt sick at the message this scene projected to everyone driving by: Here is a black man surrounded by the police. This immediately sends the message that he must be guilty of something (how many of us ever remember that we are innocent until proven guilty?). Here is a black man with a large group of white men circled around him pointing guns at his head. This sends the message that black lives don’t matter. I felt sick in my complicity.
As soon as the police realized I was in their midst, they waved me through. I pulled over as soon as I could to call a friend. What can I do? Should I have filmed what I witnessed, after all? What are my rights as a witness with a video camera? Do my rights even matter in a situation like that, surrounded by men with guns who are no doubt on edge (and who knows what they’d do)?
I was on my way to work, and I continued along my way, but I knew that I couldn’t just do nothing. I committed to writing something as a small first step. I want us all to stop and think about what happened at the base of Elm Street that morning, and to ask ourselves, where do I stand?
What kind of a community do we want to be? One where commando-style force used against our own community members is seen as normal, as acceptable? One where poor people and people of color routinely experience much higher rates of policing and police violence than white or wealthier folks? A community that condones policing of its own people while Wall Street and The White House get away with grand theft and murder? Are we the community that lets Shawn Greenwood’s killing by officer Brian Bangs go un-prosecuted because we, as a community, have not demanded an independent investigation? Do we, if we’re white, if we’re not poor, assume that someone stopped by the police is guilty? And what if my neighbor who the police ambushed last Tuesday were to be prosecuted, even convicted of a “crime?” What do we as a community allow to be called and prosecuted as crimes? How do we, as a community, show that Black Lives Matter?
To the police officers:
Last Tuesday, did you feel like you did your job well, pursued justice, kept our community safe, by staging this surprise arrest of my neighbor, a black man? Had you been told- perhaps you yourselves had even collected evidence to suggest or confirm- that this individual was committing crimes? Did these supposed crimes have anything to do with illegal drugs? Were they violent or nonviolent crimes?
I want us to stop and think, first, before even answering these questions. Before even asking them, really. For here we are on a Tuesday morning in rush hour traffic and here is the scene you have staged for everyone to watch and learn: You are armed white men pointing guns at a black man. What message does this send to those of us who happen to drive by? To those of us who are white, does it perhaps reinforce the myth that blackness is criminal? To those of us who are white does it perhaps reinforce the myth that black lives don’t matter? I would claim yes. To anyone driving by who is a person of color, does this scene perhaps reinforce the very real fear that they or their loved ones could be stopped by the police at any time for little or no reason at all, to have guns pointed at them, to be interrogated, dehumanized, shot, killed? What about black and brown children in the car being driven to school, who see you with your guns pointed at a black man this morning? You know that these children hear the news so often of yet another black body slain by police or security guards with no criminal prosecution of the murderer. What kind of fear do you think your show of force this morning instills in these beautiful children? A real and founded fear.
Ok, now if you’ve thought about that, but you still feel justified because you were doing your job to “fight crime,” I want us to have this conversation: How can you call ANYTHING that my neighbor may be accused of a CRIME, when the real and monstrously enormous crimes of our governments and corporations go unchecked, unaddressed? I want to offer you an opportunity to fight crime, to stand up for justice, to serve our community: We need human rights law enforcement! The real crime is every single mother, father, and child without adequate housing. The real crime is every child not fed good healthy food. The real crime is every youth, every adult, not employed, not employed meaningfully, not paid a living wage. The real crimes is mass incarceration of people of color, of poor folks. The real crime is the theft of trillions of dollars from US tax payers to build weapons, to invade other countries, to torture. The real crime is our governments’ complete disregard for Native treaties, leaving our Native brothers and sisters without land, homes, food, work, clean air, clean water, clean soil. The real crime is the imprisonment and slave labor of over 2 million people in our country, most for nonviolent offenses, for crimes of poverty, for the crime of being abandoned and targeted by the system, for the crime of being black, for the crime of being poor. The real crime is so many millions of Americans who don’t have access to health care. The real crime is Wall Street making billions of dollars off the whole mess, off of even our visits to the doctor. The real crime is mothers and fathers who fled here for their lives and their children’s lives, who are being deported and taken from their families. The real crime is our export of violence and poverty to resource-rich countries so that we can enjoy cheap fossil fuels and cheap factory goods. The real crime is our flying drones which kill children, fathers, mothers, blowing up wedding parties, tribal counsel assemblies, assassinating anyone anywhere in the world without due process. The real crime is our rape of the earth, our extraction of fossil fuels, releasing carbon into Earth’s atmosphere in quantities to ensure the planet’s warming and climate catastrophe. The real crime is White Supremacy which built this country by the massacre, enslavement and displacement of its original inhabitants, by the kidnapping and enslavement of 12.5 million Africans (“How Many Slaves Entered The US?” Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jan. 6, 2014. theroot.com). The list of crimes goes on, far beyond the end of this paragraph, beyond the end of this page. When will our law enforcement begin to address these?
As my mom so poignantly reminds us: to the extent that we as a society fail to hold our governments accountable for the real and giant crimes of grand theft and murder, we will continue to scapegoat poor people and people of color, here and around the world.
As a community, we can say that another world is possible. We can say: Not in my name do our police threaten lethal force against unarmed individuals. Not in my name does our police force send out under cover agents to ambush my neighbors. Not in my name does my city’s police force continue to act as if black lives don’t matter. Not in my name are law enforcement budgets spent to criminalize poor people and people of color instead of addressing the real crimes which our governments and multinational corporations commit against us all every day.
Sharing these words with my community is a small gesture in breaking my own silence, in recognizing my own complicity. I am grateful to so many in my community who name the real crimes and who actively change their relationship to the system. It is their presence and their voices which embolden me to become part of the conversation. I hope that my sharing can only encourage more voices to join in. Please make yourself heard. This is our community and the police salaries come out of our tax dollars. How do we want to see that resource and energy spent?