America is not a safe place for the Black American. It's an obvious but sad truth, one every Mike Brown (and every Eric Garner, and every John Crawford, and every Oscar Grant, and…), every news story about weekend violence in whichever city you're from, and every memory of how your life is impacted by a general lack of feeling safe reminds you of if you dare attempt to forget.
We posed a simple question to the VSB contributors: How safe do you feel in America?
Here are our responses.
My wife and I have lived in our apartment for a year and a half. It's truly a great find — a converted brownstone with two floors, 11 foot ceilings, large windows, updated appliances, and hardwood throughout. The rent is also amazing (our landlord could easily charge double what we're paying) and the location gives us relatively easy access to each of the major highways in the Pittsburgh-area.
So why have I spent an hour each day for the past month on Craigslist and Trulia, trying to find a new place?
I don't feel safe here. More specifically, I don't feel like she's safe here.
Although I wouldn't characterize it as dangerous, our neighborhood is somewhat sketchy. The street in front of our house is nice. But two alleys intersect behind us, and both are often the source of drug traffic and police attention. There was a shooting thirty feet away from our place last summer, and a rumored carjacking three blocks away last winter. And, within the last month, there have been (at least) three shootings within a half-mile radius.
I would be fine here by myself. But the only feeling that rivals the love I have for my wife is the fear I have of losing her, and I just can't stay much longer in a place where I worry that a wayward bullet will find its way through our large windows.
So I'm looking at places. Buildings, mainly. With secure entries and security cameras. And without first floor windows so close to the street.
This weekend, my apartment hunt has been interrupted by visits to Twitter and Facebook, checking for updates on the murder of Mike Brown. We all know the story: unarmed Black male murdered by police officers. It's Eric Garner's story. And John Crawford's story. And Oscar Grant's story. And, well, you know the rest of the names.
It's a story that taps into a fear we all have; reminding us of why, even if you didn't personally know Eric Garner or Mike Brown, it remains so fucking scary: It could have been Damon Young. Or Panama Jackson. Or Maya Francis.
One late night traffic stop because you forgot to signal. One instance of you fitting the description. One misunderstanding with a scared or overzealous cop. One ill-timed reach for a wallet. One interaction with the police is all it takes to make any one of us the next protest sign, hashtag, and funeral program protagonist.
When thinking about this, and how so many things that threaten our safety — from street harassment to stop and frisk — are such prominent parts of many of our existences, I wonder if any Black American is ever truly safe..anywhere.
Obviously, the concept of "safety" is relative. There are parts in the world much, much less safe than even the most dangerous parts of America. And anyone — Black, White, whomever — can be struck by violence. Bullets don't redline.
I guess what I'm getting at is more the feeling of being safe, the peace of mind that comes with feeling protected. I can't think of a situation where I — or anyone who looks like me — would have that. There's no real safe haven for the Black American.
Maybe no one has one. No one in America, at least. Maybe I'm hoping for an ideal that doesn't exist. And maybe this feeling of perpetual discomfort is so ingrained, so much a part of our time here, that we've accepted it as normal.
I was thinking about this last night before I went to bed. On cooler nights I make sure my bedroom window is opened nice and wide to let in a breeze throughout the night; I live on the ground floor of my building. The neighborhood I live in is safe in that way, and I rarely have had a 2nd thought about it while living here. A few months ago, I, like Damon, lived in an area with enough unsavoriness to make want to move out before summer started - Philly can get ridiculous when the temperatures warm up. But, my new neighborhood, which is mostly White, can make feel "unsafe" for other reasons at times because of the micro aggressions that can (and have, in the past) happen when you're one of few people of color in a residential area. A few years ago, I had a "Where are you headed and why?" conversation in the middle of the night with a police officer who pulled me over 5 blocks up the street from here. Two year ago, I used to live 3 miles from here in an area with a similar demographic as this one and had a neighbor that prefaced her statements to me with clauses like, "I don't know where you come from but…" while harassing me at my door about loud music from a stereo that didn't exist anywhere in my home. So in a city like Philly where neighborhood characteristics are so distinct and Black bougie folks mostly live in twin and single-family stone house or in tiny boxes I don't want to have to sell blood to move into, I find myself wondering about the lesser of the evils. I think physical safety wins, but sometimes… I'm not sure.
Another interesting thing Damon brought up is concerns for one's S/O. It can be worrisome to have an awareness that your (Black) man is a target, or at times, a bystander in a city that has significant violent crime stats. When I was in a relationship, simple things like his late-night runs to the store, or nights out with his boys riding around in a car late at night, would to put me on edge at times. especially when there'd been a lot of news reporting about the city's homicide toll (which was making top headlines here for a good while). When the headlines start to include intersections you grew up on, and the names in the paper are old classmates or play cousins, things are put into perspective. It adds to the sense of danger because you just never know.
When I lived in Brooklyn (Crown Heights) I would get off of the 2 train and there would be police officers lined up and down Norstrand Ave on every corner. I lived in a new building, I lived in a sketchy neighborhood like you Damon. Although the neighborhood wasn't deemed the best I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe where I lived. I walked home from my train stop at all hours of the day and night and never had an issue. Ironically I only felt uneasy when I saw the police around. Perhaps if they were police officers of color and not Irish and Anglo Saxon decent I would have felt differently.
Last night I was out to dinner at a trendy Asian fusion restaurant with a bunch of Black women celebrating a friend's birthday. A few of us at the table had gone out the night before for drinks (with our boyfriends in tow) - I left early while the others had gone out to party some more. I learned at dinner that 3 of my friends (in 2 different cars) had been followed on the highway the night before. My friends were going in the same direction. The stranger car started following my friend who was driving solo - she noticed every time she moved from one lane to the other, the stranger was right behind her. She started making random lane changes, and he was right there. She got off at an exit past the exit she would normally get off of to see if he'd follow her. Instead of following her, he stayed on the highway to follow my other 2 friends. My sober male friend, who was the driver, had pulled out his gun and was prepared to confront the front the stranger creeping behind them. My girlfriend - the birthday girl - was in the car was scared and worried how the situation would play out. They got off at their exit, and the stranger followed them. My friend turned the car around to confront the creeping driver, but he drove off. When they got home, they called the police to report a strange car following them. They later learned that the police had been called on them - reported for drunk driving. The police had even shown up to their house to question them about being pinpointed for drunk driving. After hearing the story, at least 3 other women at the table had echoed having a similar experience of being reported for drunk driving - one had even been forced to go through an entire sobreity test, despite having a blood alcohol content below the legal limit. I was shocked, angry, and scared to learn that this was so common place, especially for women! I was even more disturbed that someone would go so far as to so closely follow a person on the highway, even after calling the police. Must of gone to the George Zimmerman school of citizen patrol.
As we were leaving the restaurant, we walked through the bar/lounge area. I couldn't help but notice the many blatantly drunk white people, many of whom were stumbling around, slurring their words as they talked to each other or made comments to us as we passed. I couldn't help but wonder if any of them would be followed home or be reported to the police for drunk driving. I drove down the same highway my friends had the night before, alert and paranoid. This morning I made sure to tell my boyfriend the cautionary story about what happened to my friends, and implored that he be very careful when he's driving around Portland at night, and to pay particular attention to his surroundings. Though I've walked a mile to my house on a dark, poorly lit street in the middle of the night more than once, I'm most worried about the threat of police abuse and reckless citizen patrols.
Safe? Not entirely. But, I am one thing. I'm tired.
I'm tired of having significant anxiety whenever a group of men are walking toward me. I'm tired of worrying about whether my nephew will ever be seen as fully human. I'm tired of fearing the very people who have branded themselves to "serve and protect." I'm tired of non-compliance leaving our children dead… and then, compliance leaving our children dead. I'm tired of our emotional reactions being seen as animalistic when there lies the fact that a surrendering Black boy was hunted down like game. I'm tired of fighting, but something in me won't stop. Even if it doesn't feel safe. The way I see it, I don't feel safe simply for wearing this skin, I might as well use it as armor.
I grew up in Harlem, and now live in Flatbush. Eighty five percent of the time, as the esteemed laureate French Montana would say, I ain't got no worries. I know my neighbors well enough, people are friendly, and all is well. But there is that fifteen percent - when I go home late and can't justify dropping a dub on a cab, when folks are posted up on my block and I don't recognize them, or if I feel eyes boring into my skull a little too long - where I turn my keys into extensions of my knuckles, lower the volume of my headphones, hold my breath and pray I don't meet my Maker that day.
I hold no delusions that an increased police presence would help anything. I mean, if I get on guard whenever an unfamiliar Black person imposes their presence in my neighborhood, I can't imagine dealing with (more) cops where every Black person would be an unfamiliar (read: threatening) face to them. Doesn't help that I've had more than my fair share of poor run ins with the NYPD. When you go for an innocuous run and end up slammed into the back of a squad car and yelled at for not having your ID on you, you tend to kind of give the boys in blue an eternal side eye.
When I hear these stories of young boys who have their lives taken from them it hits me so viscerally. I have a 6 foot 3, 215 lb bear of a 17 year old baby brother who goes about his life as unbothered as an average teen could be, while every minute after 9 PM, my mom is pacing around her living room until he is safely home. We make sure to stress to him that he doesn't have the privilege to be a foolhardy teen, but why doesn't he? I don't know what the answers are here. I don't know what it'll take for society to value Black lives just as much as nonBlack ones. I don't know how to shake the guilt I feel whenever I get nervous at an unfamiliar face. Something's gotta give soon. Until then, I'll just stay low and keep firing.
“To be a Negro living in America, and to be consciously aware, is to be in a state of constant outrage." - James Baldwin
Of course, this quote has been online running rampant for a while now. It's hard not to be outraged when so many of our people are being chopped down by the very folks PAID to "protect and serve." Amazing how relevant it will always remain. Amazing and sad. Ignorance truly is bliss. I wish, at times, that I didn't have a distrustful view of the police. That every time I walked by a cop I didn't side-eye him while simultaneously hoping he didn't see me since "justifiable force" is the most nebulous catch-all phrase in history. I wish I didn't always have my guard up, whether in my own neighborhood or in anybody else's neighborhood. I wish I didn't feel like my life really was just borrowed time and that I have to prepare myself to go at any time since because of where I live and the things I do - benign as they may be - death literally could always be around the corner. Yet, I've lived this life for a very long time. I've had the luxury of living in some very nice areas and similarly of living in some of the worst areas known to man. That dual knowledge has taught me a lot about survival.
But those lessons I've learned aren't necessarily ones my loved ones have learned so I share similar concerns as Damon. I remember getting visibly PISSED at my ex-girlfriend every time she'd walk into my house while having some conversation on the phone or while she was walking home at night. Because I know she wasn't paying attention to anything else going on. I live in the poorest ward of Washington, DC. And while I'm sure my neighbors are all stand-up citizens when they're not having 12 hour block parties complete with multiple DJs and light shows, I don't trust any of these motherf*ckers. I know I SHOULD be able to walk into my house without worrying about anything, but I've also been robbed by my next door neighbor before (in ATL, shouts to my n*gga James on Peyton Place, SW).
Kick that awareness up 1000 times when you have a child whose entire existence is dependent upon you for safety and security and I literally look at any and all situations as possible crimes in wait. Now this isn't to say that my every waking moment is filled with paranoia, but that paranoia also probably keeps me safe. It's second nature to me at this point, so much so that I don't even pay it any mind. It's just part of my being. I don't even expect to have a safe haven here because some of our own people are as destructive as the institution of policehood that gets carte blanche to continue to lay siege on people of color. Who will survive in America? I have no clue. That's why I've got my paranoia with me at all times. Even in the safest of safe surroundings.
Paranoid is my norm. But I've come this far on faith and paranoia so I think I'll just ride this hot streak out.
I think my story takes a reverse path from most of those shared here, but somehow still ends up at the same destination. I shared in my piece last night that the Mike Brown tragedy and subsequent riots took place not far from where I was born and spent summers as a child, but I grew up a colored boy in South Dallas familiar with the happenings of local gangs, drive-by protection procedures, and an inherent fear that's contributed to me being a chronically light-sleeper. It's true that when you're exposed to certain situations as a child, when a particularly violent reality is what you live with daily, you come to be more tempered to certain things that fall below the threat threshold you've become accustomed to.
As an teen we left South Dallas for the safer pastures of North Dallas and neither then, nor as an adult now living in Bushwick (Brooklyn, NY) have I had anything remotely akin to the troubling stories you all have shared about interactions with police officers or White counterparts in general. I count myself blessed in that however, the fear still lives and my reaction time has a trigger like a hairpin. Not because of my own experiences, but because it's been proven time and time again that simply minding my Black ass business is no guarantee that my journey from point A to point B won't go uninterrupted.
As mild as my experiences have been, my brother who's twice my size has seemingly been the recipient of all the harassment that I've been able to miss. At 5'6" and 120lbs soaking wet, maybe I'm not seen as "threatening" enough. At any rate, I keep my guard up because I know ALL of that could change on as simple a trip as me paying for my own skittles and Arizona iced tea.
After reading these responses, it feels like our perception of our own safety is dependent on who depends on us. Basically, we tend to feel like we can take care of ourselves. But when you introduce a significant other, or a sibling, or a child to the picture, we start becoming more aware of and concerned about our environments.
A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a White guy where he casually mentioned spending the weekend at his wife's family's cottage deep in the woods somewhere in the middle of PA. I joked that I was good on spending the night at any deep woods cabin, saying "that shit would be too still for me." What I was really thinking was "Nah. Being the only Black person in a 20 mile radius aint exactly my idea of fun."
But, when you think about it, there's no environment for us where we can sit back and turn off that paranoid switch Panama mentioned. If you live in the city, you have to deal with crime. In the suburbs, you might have less crime, but now you might have to deal with the stream of micro and macro aggressions that come with not being welcomed. Oh, and racial profiling, police brutality, and overall racism follows you everywhere. No one, not even Oprah "I'm actually rich enough to box with God" Winfrey, is immune to that.
I feel safe in my neighborhood, but as a woman, I don't always feel very safe, in general, when I'm out and about. I've been aggressively hit on by cab drivers, including one who tried to take advantage of me when I hailed a cab after partying too much one night and was drunk. I had a guy once try to drag me off in crowded Times Square who I ran away from and hid inside of a CVS until he moved on. I've had more than my fair share of men shouting lewd things at me on the street, trying to convince me to get in their cars (who falls for this?), following me for two blocks trying to get my phone number, asking for hugs when I'm on the train, trying to grope me in clubs, so … in general … I pretty much don't trust any man I don't know all that well who looks of a certain "type." I always feel bad about stereotyping every sloppy, poorly dressed man as my future rapist/murderer, but considering society tells me it's my own fault if I get murder-raped, stereotyping makes a sort of primal sense, even if it isn't logical. (Statistically I'm much more likely to get murder-raped by someone I already know.) But considering what I've outlined above, a stranger doesn't seem so much out of the question either.
I've never called the police, ever, in any of the situations where I felt threatened. Mostly because I didn't think they'd care since I'd managed to avoid assault in all of these cases. Also, police don't care about some guy shouting you what he wants to do to you sexually, while trying to coax you into getting in his van. They don't care if your cab driver molests you. They don't care if you had to hide from a guy in a CVS in Times Square. Nobody cares unless you've been beaten up or actually violated and even then, there's a strong chance no one will care after all that either.
As for the whole being "Black in America" part, I felt this when my sister found out she was having a boy and one of the first things that popped in our head was what if he inherited the hot-headed temperament that runs on our mother's side of the family mixed with our father's side sense of pride and physical strength? Will he get labeled in school as "willfully defiant?" What if he's just boring and shy and he still manages to get shot or abused? He is a Black boy living in a world where he is seen as a threat just for existing. A White woman once avoided getting on an elevator with myself, my sister and her son when he was only a week old and we joked that she was afraid of the "Dangerous Black male" in a onesie, asleep on his way to the doctor's office. But seriously, if this woman thought two, short Black women with a newborn was threatening (and she did seem oddly frightened of us, but I'm from St. Louis and I'm used to the randomness of racism there), what would this woman think of a Black man? Would she have just avoided the building altogether and gone home for the day?
When I learned about the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., near where I grew up (I'm from Florissant, Mo.), I was devastated (and continue to be). Mostly because I knew a riot was likely to break out. The rage was pent up and had been bubbling for decades. Before Trayvon's case got so much publicity, some Black boy or man getting shot in the back while fleeing was just a regular occurrence. Like, literally, it seemed like it happened so often, there were so many stories, you almost get numb to it. But I was in tears reading about Brown and his family, how the vigil and protest got out of hand, how the police made everything worse (like they're wont to do) with police dogs and riot gear and about how some people decided to use Brown's tragic death as an excuse to rob and burn down stores. It was one thing to rob the heavily insured Wal-Mart, it was quite another to attack the locally-owned stores, run by Blacks and Koreans. There was one report of a Black man who managed to get to his store in time and warn off looters with his gun. but the Korean American man didn't get to his shop in time and everything was gone. And none of this will do a damn bit of good in my home town. In fact, it will make things even worse racially in St. Louis, a city that's already heavily segregated and racist, because now you've got a pantheon of White folks in power going "I KNEW IT!" and will use this riot as an excuse to be even bigger, more controlling dicks than they already are, using the riot as a reason to ignore that a cop slaughtered an unarmed kid.
Anyway, it all just makes me sad because it keeps us from being totally free, fully realized people. To have to modify your behavior in hopes it will save you from being raped or save you from being brutalized by the police and having none of your precautions mean a damn thing at the end of the day because if it's going to happen, it will happen, and you'll be unable to stop it, is pretty defeating.
I feel safest when I'm by myself, and this is after witnessing someone get jumped and robbed 15 feet away from me in my apartment complex. Admittedly, I didn't feel too safe back then, but at some point I realized one of the ironic reasons why I don't need to be as fearful as I used to be is because to some, I look like just as much of a threat. This is not to say I walk around with a tough guy demeanor, it's just to say, I have the size and frame of someone who dabbles in MMA, so it's like a home security starter kit. I have the sticker and stuff, but no real alarm activated in case someone tries me, I may or may not come out on top.
My safety concerns mostly apply to other people, as Damon suggested. When I'm with my lady, my head is on a swivel. I can tell by the look on some men as we pass them, if I wasn't around, she'd have to deal with their advances, cat-calls, micro-aggressions and maybe even macro ones. So when she wants to go to the store late at night to pick something up or early in the morning, I have to go with her or I have to go for her just to avoid my own paranoia.
The safety of my friends also remains a concern for every reason I have seen black men being shot by police. One of my boys rides a motorcycle, which we all know is dangerous as hell, and yet, I feel like he's somewhat safer than my other friends who drive because I don't see too many motorcyclists get pulled over simply because of the color of their skin. In other words, motorcycle riding may actually be safer than being Black and driving. In any case, I'm not even conscious of the worry I have for them, like Panama suggested, that worry is just there. Being Black and loving Black people is kind of like loving soldiers who go off to war, except the war is here, where Black men are viewed as a threat by police. And just like it would be sad but not a surprise to hear you lost a loved one who went to war in the line of duty, I would be sad but not surprised if that is one of my friends here in this country went out. It's a scary thing to exist like that.