Resisting arrest

It was maybe ten years ago that I was in my apartment complex’s pool with a friend’s young daughter. She was not a good swimmer at all, and was reluctant to go into the deeper end of the pool without my help. At one point, I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, (I do have a habit, even to this day, of letting kids use my back as a surfboard in the pool. Note to self: just because you’re in the water does NOT mean it is not going to hurt like a @%# later.) but whatever we were doing, she was either on my back or on my shoulders. We crossed over the point between the shallow and the deep end, and in her panic, she was holding on to me more and more tightly, pushing me down underneath the water.

With my head under the water, I could not explain to her that she needed to let go so that I could get my footing and thereby get us both to safety. I have very little understanding of fear of water, having spent my summers swimming in my grandmother’s backyard pool since before I could remember, but I can understand that it must be terrifying. Her panic was palpable, and yet, in order for me to regain control of the situation, I had to wrest her hands away from my grasp.

It was probably a mere 15 seconds, and I don’t really think that we were ever in any serious danger, but it frightened me nonetheless.

My friend’s daughter was like any other human. When faced with an immediate threat, real or perceived, her mind and body reacted, and her only instinct was to stay alive. It’s an instinct all of us have. It’s what keeps people going in the face of almost impossible odds…it’s why we refer to people with cancer as “fighting bravely”…it’s what makes suicide more difficult than people who haven’t been in that place can imagine. We are human, and our instinct is to stay alive.

Which is why I am so, so tired of people saying, “well, if _______” (insert police brutality victim of the week here) “hadn’t been resisting arrest, they wouldn’t have had these problems”.

These words are usually spoken by people who, even if they were in an encounter with the police because they themselves had broken the law, would never have to experience the abject terror that people of color – whether they have or have not done anything wrong – face every time they have an encounter with the cops.

As a white woman, being stopped by the police is an annoyance at best, albeit triggering in terms of my unresolved crap with authority figures. However, I can think of very few situations in which a random (or not-so-random) police stop would leave me fearing for my life.

I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color in this country. I don’t know what it is to feel some unidentifiable combination of anger and terror at the mere sight of someone in law enforcement. And because I don’t know what that feels like, I am in no position to say what I would or would not do in that situation.

If you know anything about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you know that it can lead to a state of constant fight-or-flight hyper-alertness. I imagine that living with the trauma of so many difficult encounters with police over time, either in one’s own life or as a witness to this violence, might lead someone to act unpredictably in the face of this threat. It’s not even accurate to say that this is a “perceived” threat, because for too many black and brown Americans, this is a reality borne by experience after experience after experience.

When my friend’s daughter was pushing down on me in that pool, pushing me further into the water, she was not trying to “resist” my instructions, or my efforts to contain her. She was, rather, trying to resist drowning, to somehow keep herself from the threat she was facing. That threat was very real to her in that moment, and so she thrashed and fought back against my efforts to free her hands from my shoulders and flailed and shouted.

She thought she was in immediate danger of dying, and her body reacted. She did what humans do. She fought for her life.

So now imagine that you are facing an immediate threat. Perhaps you are angry, and you don’t watch your words as closely as you should. Like a child talking back to a parent (unsettling image, but the power structure is set up in such a way that I’m often reminded of the children’s book Matilda: “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”), you open your mouth, or you move in the wrong direction, and you are suddenly and painfully aware that you have provoked the rage of this authority figure, and you may very well be killed.

Or maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity, and yet you are taken to a police station and repeatedly sodomized and beaten…or maybe you simply grew up in the shadow of incidents like these, both the larger cases that are publicized in the news as well as the ongoing narrative in your own community of confrontations large and small.

If you don’t know what it’s like to live in that world, then you ought not speak of “resisting arrest”.

What they are resisting is death. What they are fighting against is the generations of brutality and fear that are seared into the flesh of this nation’s history. However they are reacting, it is all they can do in that moment. When you have a police officer’s knee in your back, or his gun to your head, it is not the time for calm; it’s the time to figure out how to stay alive.

If you resist, they may kill you. If you don’t resist, they still may kill you. And the definition of “resisting” is ever-broadening and not easily defined. And if you are a young black or brown man in this country, you don’t stand a chance against these changing definitions. You certainly do not have the luxury of trying to guess whether this is the day you will die at the hands of the officer who is approaching you.

They aren’t resisting arrest. They are trying to stay alive.

And they are doing this because this is what humans do.

What if everything you’ve ever been told is wrong?

The churning I am experiencing means that everything I have to say will not fit neatly into a single blog entry. But let me start by saying this:

It’s not about what you think it’s about. Or rather, it’s not that simple. If nothing else, remember that. There is so much going on beneath the surface.

I have so much to say and it pains me so much to say it and it is going to take me a while. But let’s start with this phrase: “Implicit Bias”.

Got a minute? Take one of these tests. Or a few of them. Then ask yourself how you came to believe the things that you believe. The things that you don’t even *know* you believe.

This mess we’re in came from somewhere. We want to believe that we woke up one day with our enlightened, post-racial selves and that we are not carrying the baggage of our nation’s history. And why can’t people just get over it?
A poem by June Jordan, called “Jim Crow: The Sequel” is haunting me these days. It was written roughly in the Clinton era, and I think I came across it in an issue of Essence magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

But for two hundred years this crazy
land the law and the bullets behind the law
continued to affirm the gospel of
God-given White supremacy.
For two hundred years the law and the
bullets behind the law, and the money and
the politics behind the bullets behind the
law affirmed the gospel of
God-given White supremacy/
God-given male-White supremacy.

And neither the Emancipation Proclamation
nor the Civil War nor one constitutional
amendment after another nor one Civil Rights
legislation after another could bring about a
yielding of the followers of that gospel
to the beauty of our human face.

I know that the phrase “white supremacy” will upset some people, but please know that I am not talking about someone with a Klan hood in their closet. In fact, I am not talking about individuals at all. And I think that before I can go further, I will need to define a few things, will need to explain why I label myself a “recovering racist”. As disorganized as my rants may be, I would be so grateful if some of you would be willing to see through that and to join me as I continue to wrestle with these issues.

Of leather belts and broken cutting boards: Why I don’t believe in spanking

***trigger warning***

(This started out as a comment on a Facebook post that shared this article about the difference between black and white styles of parenting. But then I found myself seven or eight paragraphs into it without being anywhere near done, so I decided that this might as well be a blog post…)

I am glad that the article points out the difference in the “why” here. Sooo intrigued by the idea of permissive parenting as white privilege…profound and absolutely true. I get “those looks” when I am out with my black godson in public…it seems that I might be a leeeeeeeettttttttttttllllllllllleeeeeeeeeee tiny bit overly permissive…but I get that children of color, and particularly black children, need to be raised differently. I “get it” enough that I never try to tell them that the police are their “friend”. I know that they can’t afford for me to teach them that lesson.

(My godson was in his second year of Head Start – so maybe four years old?-and he was telling me about a policeman who had visited his class (in what was likely a “policemen are your friends!” and/or teachable moment about safety type of thing) and the first words out of his mouth were, “He didn’t do nothing to us, though”.

Four. years. old. This is the world a black boy’s parents have to raise them in. And Mona ([Cecil] Elijah’s momma) and I disagree sharply about spanking, but I have to admit that he is a really good little boy and I struggle sometimes with how much the threat of physical punishment has shaped that (in a positive way).

BUT I also subbed in a classroom yesterday where a five-year-old, two weeks into her kindergarten career, punched another child in the nose. Children are taught in school that hitting is not okay, that we shouldn’t put our hands on each other in hurtful ways–but then purportedly go home to quite the opposite message. A neighbor of a friend has a girl of maybe 14 watching her younger cousins, third and fourth grade. She was walking around the street yesterday, in broad daylight, with a man’s leather belt, threatening (half in jest, but there was a seriousness underneath it) to handle them if they didn’t get it together.

I was mortified the other day to hear that 75% of Americans think spanking is okay. (This study from 2013 shows the numbers to be even higher.) This was presented as sort of a side note on NPR, and I don’t know if there was any differentiation between “open hand on bottom” and the myriad of other ways that children are disciplined. But it’s not okay to me, and it never will be. I know of a child who was punched in the eye, but because he was pre-verbal, there was no way of proving it. I feel the same way about physical punishment of children that I do about any other form of violence (war, guns, football itself): Those who live by the sword” (or the switch, or the leather belt) “will die by the sword”.

And here’s the thing: I KNOW that this all comes from my own scars. I clearly remember two spankings (white folks’ verbiage?!) I received as a child. I suppose there were more, but maybe not…who knows. One was my mother in a rage, cursing (which I never heard her do) and hitting my bare bottom (it was summer, and I was running around the neighborhood in a bathing suit) with one of my father’s leather belts. This was followed by her telling me to leave the house and not return.

I can’t remember if I was 7 or 8 at the time, but I was either going into or just out of second grade.

The other spanking I remember is from my father, only because it was done reluctantly (my mother had delegated it, since whatever I had done she deemed to have needed a heavier hand). I remember that one because he did it reluctantly. It might have been the only time he ever spanked me. And he did it without being in the rage I saw him in whenever he beat my brother.

I believe that I am scarred emotionally by my own limited memories of being the recipient of that belt, but much worse was what I witnessed in terms of my father’s behavior towards my brother. (My brother who, like me, was adopted. I never saw my oldest brother, their biological child, get hit, but granted, I was six years younger. Maybe he experienced it when he was smaller. I’ve never asked him.)

What I remember of my father, in contrast to his reluctant and almost gentle spanking in my case, was his rage when he beat (and I use the word “beat” because to me, it was more than spanking) my brother. I remember my brother being on the roof of the garage and my father dragging him down (his own parents were there, and I have a vague sense of feeling like he was more angry that my brother was acting up in front of them). I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing a wooden cutting board, broken in half and bloody. My brother, who has a “tough guy” exterior and has been in all kinds of situations in his life, told me not too long ago that he was never in his life as terrified of anything as when there was a bad snowstorm and he had to call our father for help with his paper route. He was maybe 12 at the time. He is 48 years old and he still remembers this as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Part of the difference in our case is that we were not having these experiences in the context of any knowledge or certainty that we were loved. We knew that we were what people in our community called “lucky” to have been adopted. My parents “got” my brother when he was about a year old, after another failed placement. No idea what happened there; I just knew that his bronzed baby shoe was much bigger than mine and my oldest brother’s. What I have learned from my brother, and only in the last dozen years or so, was that when he was younger and misbehaved, my mother would sit him down in the back porch and tell him that they were going to send him back. My father would come home from work, and apparently would join her in shaming him. “We’re going to send you back wearing only a diaper, the way that you were given to us”.

It’s safe to say that both my brother and I came into this family with attachment issues, something that wasn’t talked about in those days. With that said, I am still bewildered by the fact that my parents passed whatever constituted a home study in those days, and wonder often if they ever would have been approved in this day and age. But I digress…

In my early twenties, I would watch young black mothers (on the ferry or the train going into the city) interact with their children. What I saw was something I couldn’t fathom. They would be so harsh and strict with their children, but at the same time, I could tell that they loved them. Five minutes after a scolding, they would smile or laugh at something the child did. I could not reconcile this in my mind. Would I feel differently if I had been spanked as a child by people whose love I was certain of, by parents who didn’t have the threat of “sending me back” to hold over my head? I don’t know.

And I read these words as well, and they resonated with me:

The pernicious, toxic and inescapable lifelong effect of being disciplined physically – either to the point of abuse, or to the point that the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable blurs in your mind – is that you almost have to say you turned out fine, just to redeem the fact of being who you are. That you “turned out fine” is the only way to make sense of having once felt total terror or uncontrollable shaking rage at the sight of one (or both) of the two people expected to care most for you in the world. The thought that you might have ended up relatively OK or perhaps even better without all that fear is almost unbearable: the suffering only doubles if you admit that it truly had no purpose.

The thing I always say is that I (almost) can understand physical punishment if it is separated from rage. But I don’t believe it ever is. I think it’s a rare thing for parents to lash out at their children in a calm manner. with perhaps the exception of Michelle Duggaroh wait. And again, maybe it’s different for children who have some level of confidence that they are loved by their parents-but the above quote seems to prove otherwise (although I don’t know for certain that the author is actually a biological child of his parents).

AND I cannot say this often enough: I get that I don’t know what it is to be raising a black child in this society. But this doesn’t mean that I think that a belt, or a switch, or anything else used against a child (I respect, to some extent, a parent’s right to use an open hand on a bottom, but that’s as far as I can take it), is okay, no matter what color you are. (<—-the recovering racist in me shudders at the use of this phrase, as I know it’s not that simple…but then, in some ways, it really is. I could take this further and talk about the generational PTSD that people of color are dealing with, but like the author of the original article that started this rant, I still don’t think it’s okay.)

A thing people sometimes say to me when they don’t agree with my views on something is “You are just seeing this through your own scars”. Yes I am. That’s because those scars (in my case, more emotional than physical) are still there. I was spanked. And it wasn’t okay.

Apparently 75% of Americans disagree with me. But I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean that I will ever stop speaking out against what I consider to be child abuse, pure and simple.

A football player’s actions have sparked a heated debate in this case…but lots of kids are living this on a daily basis, and that’s barely in the news. I am speaking out, not because I want this to be about me, but because I need to let it be known that some of us do NOT think it’s okay. Not for any parent, at any time, famous or not.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in this society, but I certainly know what it’s like to carry the scars of childhood abuse. And I hope that this somehow gives me, white as I am, some credibility in speaking about the subject.

Sunday blogging against . . . myself?

It has to have been seven or eight months since this happened, but it has haunted me ever since. So much so, in fact, that I have resisted writing about it here out of my embarrassment and shame. But, delinquent blogger that I am, I have to write something, and so here goes . . .

I was in the food court at the mall, and because I was still recovering from my ankle surgery last year, I was maneuvering with the help of Speed Racer. Sara had Elijah and was getting herself settled with him, and I was trying to get Chinese food and make my way back to the table. Yes, on one leg and while trying to maneuver a tray of food.

An African-American woman at the next counter over saw me struggling and had compassion on me. She told her son (who was about 9 or 10) to come over and offer to help me, which he did.

I was not paying attention to my surroundings, as usual, and so did not notice this sweet young man coming up to me until he was right next to me. When I realized he was trying to speak to me, I jumped . . . as I was trying to get his words to translate from my ears to my brain (something I tend to have trouble with under any circumstances), I looked at him with a panicked, forced smile and shook my head while sputtering something like, “no, thank you, I’ve got it, but I appreciate the offer”. I think I then said something about how I was shaking my head “yes” while saying “no” with my mouth–something like, “I know that I’m shaking my head the opposite of what I am saying”–but I don’t know. maybe I’m not remembering that part correctly.

I know I am remembering the forced, automatic and fake smile, though. My facial muscles still ache with self-condemnation every time I think about it.

I have so many excuses for why I jumped out of my skin when he approached me. Primary among those is the fact that having both ADHD and PTSD means that I both zone out easily and startle easily. One of my coworkers, after having seem me react that way one time too many, has taken to using very deliberate footsteps when she approaches me. I hate when I am jumpy like that, because it is never in any way the fault of the person who has (unintentionally) startled me, but people quite often take it personally.

But I have no excuse. This sweet, polite young man had absolutely no  reason to interpret the look of terror in my eyes, combined with the fake, plastered smile and meaningless words, as anything other than what I fear it really was.For this young man, and for his mother, my personal history was not even a factor. I am certain that they could only assume I was reacting in that over-exaggerated way because of a fear or a distrust of black men. How could it be interpreted any other way?

I still wish to this day that I had gone back to them and said something. I sometimes fantasize that I’ll somehow run into them again and will be able to make my apology, even though I barely remember what they looked like anymore. And I don’t want to give a complicated justification for my actions–“It’s unconscious–it’s a learned response”, blah blah blah, shut up, Lorraine . . . I just want to tell him how very, very sorry I am.

All I know is that in that moment, I wounded the heart of that little boy, and somehow sent the message that, no matter how many kind things he might do in his life, that there are always going to be white women reacting in unfounded fear at the very sight of him. And as I sat down for dinner with my own precious brown-skinned godson Elijah sitting next to me, my heart broke at the thought that he too will grow up in a world where people will instinctively and automatically jump in fear when they see him coming . . . even if he is the sweetest little boy in the world, and even if he comes with the most altruistic of motives . . . because at the end of the day, the inheritance we’ve all carried down through the years is one of mistrust, of irrational fear, and of unconscious, yet immediate judgments based on appearance.

I do not want Elijah to have to face the reality that I subjected this boy to . . . this young man who only wanted to be helpful, but who got only disdain and disrespect in return.

I can’t go back to that day and change my actions . . . all I can do is to continue to fight this monster of racism that rears its ugly head so often. I owe it to that young man to do so. I owe it to Elijah. And I owe it to myself, because this below-the-surface racism is a poison that needs to be eliminated from my body, mind and soul.

I’m so sorry, young man, wherever you may be. I’m sorry that you have to face a world filled with people like me. But I have to thank you as well, because your kind gesture taught me so much more than you will ever know.

been too busy to blog . . .

keeping up with Mona in the hospital . . . your prayers are (still and always) welcome!

and struggling with myself . . . is it that I need to be the savior? Is this my internalized superiority at work?

people who don’t know my sister Mona don’t understand the relationship. It’s hard to put into words what Mona gives me in return . . . most simply put, I suppose I would describe it as “unconditional love” . . . but I know that she is in my life so that I can learn from her, too. I don’t want the relationship to be so unbalanced. I don’t want it to seem like I am the Great White Savior. [WARNING: THIS LINK’S BLOG TITLE USES A WORD I DON’T LIKE TO SAY!] I want people to understand that God has formed us as sisters in a way I can’t even describe or understand, and that Mona is in my life (and I in hers) for His purposes. 

But I still question my own motives at times . . .