Saturday, May 6, 2017

The more things change, the more they stay the same~

Seems like these days you hear news a of a young black person being shot by the police all too often. A few years ago when we lost Trayvon, it became clear there are a lot of young men living a completely different reality than their white peers in this country.

When I set out to write Crawdad, I was focused on Jamil's dream of becoming a musician against all odds, but as I wrote the story of what might befall a teen hitchhiking across the South, I couldn't ignore the fact that profiling does happen.

At several points in the story, people discriminate against Jamil because of how he looks.

A white guy with a purple feather duster and a bright red vest walked by me and started wiping off some Gulf Coast pelican figurines. He looked like a past president of the high school chess club – uptight and no friends. At least none that I could imagine. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.
“We got security cameras,” he said. “Watching every move you make.”
At first, I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me, so I kind of ignored him. I was looking for maps. I went down the aisles until I finally found them, tucked in a corner on the back wall like nobody would want them. Maybe truckers all have GPS now.
I carefully tucked the water bottle under my arm and squeezed the hot dogs in one hand so I could open one of the atlases with my other hand. It didn’t work too well, but I finally opened to a page with Alabama, Florida and Georgia on it.
Charleston was in South Carolina, I knew that, but which was the best way to get there? Searching the map for Charleston, I started getting this creepy feeling like I was being watched, but not in a scary movie sort of way. Just a “someone’s hanging over your shoulder” sort of way. I looked behind me and sure enough, there was red vest guy, surprised that I’d caught him watching me. He stuck his pointy chin out like that would make him look tougher.
“You gonna buy that?” he snapped.
“I can’t look at stuff?”
“This isn’t a library,” he said like I was an idiot or something.
“I know that. I need to look at something to decide if I’m going to buy it, don’t I?”
“Well, hurry up.”
Truth was, I didn’t want to buy it at all. I just needed a minute to memorize it.
“Is the store closing?” I asked.
“It’s a twenty-four hour store, genius.”

“Then I guess there’s no rush is there?” I pointed out. 

Many people experience the same treatment everyday in real life. It's hard to believe in 2017 it's *still* happening, but it is. It's not difficult to understand why young black men would be angry.

Little kids playing on the curb stared at me like I was some kind of homeless drunk coming to get them. They reminded me just how bad my face looked. I tried to ignore it, but pretty soon a cop car pulled up behind me and turned on the siren. Scared the crap out of me. I jumped left and bumped into an Impala parked on the street.
“You’re supposed to walk on the sidewalk,” the cop barked at me from his open window.
“I was just going around those kids,” I told him, which was the truth. I knew I looked scary so I was avoiding them.
“What happened to your face?”
I shrugged.
“Got beat up,” I said.
“No, sir.”
“Did you report it?”
“No.” That made the cop frown.
“How do you expect me to do my job if you don’t report crimes?”
It was a weird question, like I was personally responsible for giving him stuff to do. I shrugged again. Mama warned me about cops. Do everything you possibly can to stay away from them, she’d said. I just thought she meant to stay out of trouble, which I normally did. I knew my daddy had been in jail and she probably didn’t want me to turn out like him.
The cop took off his sunglasses so he could get a better look at me. His eyes were too small for the size of his face somehow, little black specs almost covered by his giant forehead. You could tell he had to squeeze into his flak jacket. He wasn’t good looking like the cops on TV. There were people on the curb stopping to watch me now, just what I didn’t want.
“Where you going?” he quizzed.
“Charleston,” I said, like a dumb ass. I should have made up something else.
“Isn’t that a little far from home? How old are you?”
I paused a little too long before I lied.
“Nineteen.” It was kind of true. OK, not really, but someone once told me I looked older.
“Got I.D.?”
“No, everything I had got stolen.”
“Where are you from?” His eyes narrowed down to tiny slits, like I was really bugging him now. Just then, another cop car pulled up behind the first and an officer got out. I really didn’t want to tell them I was from Alabama. What if they thought I was a runaway or something?
“Am I under arrest?” I asked.
“Not at the moment,” said the first cop. The other guy smiled big and smacked his gum in his mouth. He had his hands on his hips, like he was ready to give me a lecture too.
“Well, I think I’ll be going then. Nice talking to you.” I tried to smile, but it hurt my face, so I settled for a wave. I turned toward the sidewalk. Maybe if I got on it, he would be satisfied, I thought.
“Woah, woah, there. Not so fast,” said the second officer with the square jaw and square hair. He grabbed me by the shoulder to spin me back around but I had enough experience with fights to be ready for it. If he’d been a kid at school hassling me, I’d have punched him hard, but that definitely would have got me trouble so I just pulled away and got to the curb.
“I’m getting on the sidewalk, see? Walking on the sidewalk. Ain’t no law against that.”
I tried to be nice about it, but it was hard not to be angry. Why should I have to ask permission just to walk down a stupid street anyway? The cop got mad too.
“When I tell you to stop, you stop!” he shouted. He had his hand on his gun, like he meant to pull it on me.
“I ain’t done nothing wrong!”
“We decide if you’ve done something wrong, not you.” They were both out of their cars, coming at me now.
“Don’t you have something better to do?” I snapped. I felt my fear turning to determination, hardening in my brain like concrete. Hadn’t I been through enough already?  I got beat up by bad guys. Now I was getting beat up by cops? What else could possibly go wrong?
“Go find some junkie. Go find a car jacker. Not a black man walking down the street!” I was yelling now and waving my arms.
“Just calm down,” said one of the cops.
“I will not calm down. I have had the night from hell and now I want to take a walk. That’s all I want to do. I thought this was a free country.”

“Not for people like you,” said the shorter cop, pulling out a gun that looked like a plastic toy with a cord attached.

Crawdad has a hopeful ending despite all of this because I can't bear the thought that we can't get through this without tragedy. Maybe its naive of me, but I know it's possible to change the world, even if it's only a little bit at a time. I want there to be more Jamils and fewer Trayvons. For everyone's sake.

~Now available on Amazon~

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