“Hey, Bubbles has a gift for you. He’s been looking for you, since you saved his life,” my neighbor said casually. I was somewhat surprised; Bubbles (not his real street name) was a young man whom I met while administering first aid for an injury sustained on my block. Bubbles had a critical wound to his chest, and though there was a crowd of people surrounding him when I arrived, the only emergency personnel available was a single police officer in a T-shirt and a Kevlar vest that was trying to apply pressure to the wound. I tore frantically through the medical kit I got on e-bay, pulling out some topical thrombin bandages to stop the bleeding and trauma shears to expose the wound. That was about all I did: nothing particularly heroic or even advanced compared to the paramedics who arrived about ten minutes later. In fact, the police were among the quickest and most helpful responders, clearing the area and assisting in stabilizing the wounds. My role was fairly minimal in comparison.
So it completely surprised me when my neighbor then said, “Yeah, you definitely saved his life. The police, they would have just let him bleed to death there.” He paused, then to drive his point home, he said, “They wanted him to die.”
I grew up in the suburbs where police came to your classrooms to talk about drugs, scolded skateboarders in the local park, and gave you speeding tickets and traffic warnings and other such things when you were more than marginally bad. They were role models in the community: people who put their lives on the line to keep ordinary citizens safe. I have worked with police officers in the hospital whom have always been courteous, helpful, and protective. I continue to admire and respect the work they do.
But I have also seen them through the neighborhood’s eyes. Shortly after I moved into the block, police set up a “random” checkpoint at an intersection down the street from me (which, coincidentally, was the exact location I would be tending to Bubbles two years later). At that checkpoint, they had several squad cars, a white unmarked van, and policemen milling about. I stood with the neighbors nearby who watched from their porches, arms crossed, as the police stopped and searched random cars while frisking their occupants. Every now and then, they would escort someone to the van and, when it was loaded up, drive them “downtown” for processing/jail. I have no idea what they were arrested for: perhaps it was marijuana possession or perhaps driving without a license or insurance (which I can sympathize with, as my car insurance went up substantially after moving into the neighborhood). It was bizarre because it felt simultaneously random and targeted, casual and punitive, senseless and full of implication.
A neighbor’s house had a drug bust and the police beat the door in. This was a completely justified raid, one that made our community safer by removing a violent criminal. And yet trust and control are fragile things; for those in power, it only takes one false presumption to ruin a life and set tensions on fire. A year prior, I had been driving down the street and saw police cars parked at a different house. I pulled over and got out my e-Bay medical kit to see if anyone needed medical help. I was greeted at the door by a drug-sniffing dog and a policeman, both of whom politely declined medical services. It was obviously a bust, and as I hurriedly walked back to my car, I heard neighbors outside saying, “See, they’re wasting everyone’s time, including the paramedic.” For every successful raid there are others that merely frustrate and heighten tensions, and every time I look at the sad patch in the door, I see what it means to live in fear, both terrorized from within and invaded from without.
Alice Goffman lived in the inner city of Philadelphia to study the impact of high incarceration rates on the community. A sociology graduate student at the time, she summarized her fieldwork in the book “On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City”, and the NYT reviews it this way:
Though written in a sober, scholarly style, “On the Run” contains enough street-level detail to fill a season of “The Wire,” along with plenty of screen-ready moments involving the author herself, who describes, among other ordeals, being thrown to the floor and handcuffed during a police raid, enduring a harrowing precinct house interrogation and watching a man be shot to death after exiting her car.
But Ms. Goffman, a 32-year-old with a headlong speaking style that dares any note taker to keep up with her, is wary of putting the spotlight on herself.
“It just feels morally strange to talk about my own experiences when a whole community is dealing with violence and getting arrested,” she said in an interview in a Greenwich Village café this month, after giving the keynote address at a conference at New York University. After all, she added, “I could always just leave.”
We litter Facebook with passionate exchanges about the issues of justice, race, and civil society over the death of Michael Brown, and to a certain degree we should; it is one way in which we can engage and change. But most of us do not wear the vests or enforce the law; we do not bear the heavy burden (as in healthcare) of worrying whether our actions will protect or harm, will preserve one person’s life at the expense of another’s liberty. Similarly, most of us do not live in houses like Ferguson. We do not fear having our doors beaten in and our family dragged away, of being robbed at gunpoint by teenagers, of having our teenager shot, of riots in the streets, of being attacked while trying to defend others, of being subjected to random searches and curbside arrests, of being presumed guilty on the basis of our skin color or urban domicile. Our interactions with the police (or with other residents) are primarily positive or at least benign, and we often take that intrinsic trust for granted. We have difficulty understanding how complex justice can be in communities that suffer from deep roots of violence, fear, mistrust, and neglect.
I have been told many times by my neighbors that the first race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. began in Wilmington, Delaware and spread to many other inner cities and predominantly black communities. Is any urban city much different? Earlier this year, a man was shot in a robbery in Wilmington and, as police were doing CPR, someone began throwing rocks. Earlier this year, a man was shot in Ferguson, Missouri by the police and a riot began and continues today while the city burns. Three years ago, I would have read these news reports with bewilderment. Today, I read them with grief and a sense of despair.
Our home was broken into. Twice, and less than twenty-four hours apart. The violations were some of the most harrowing experiences of our lives, and my wife and I were deeply grateful for the police who investigated the crime. And yet even as they crossed the threshold of our house, even as our cat purred and rubbed himself up against the officers’ hardened boots, we felt a certain tension. “So… what are you doing here? Why are you living here?” they asked with curiosity. The context was plain: why would a Chinese man and his Caucasian wife choose to live in the middle of a violent, African-American ghetto? As we told them our story, they shook their heads in sympathy and anger as if to say, “And this is what your neighbors do to you?” How could we then explain that most of our neighbors were peaceful even as our minds raced in that moment to wonder if any of them had betrayed us?
Are we powerless in the face of violence? Is justice nothing more than a contention between force and wills? Must we regard one another, guardians and charges alike, with suspicion and a short fuse for animosity? Is there a way in which to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly all at once? The internet is awash with hashtags claiming that #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter, but the real issues of race and justice and violence cannot be so easily abbreviated.
Oh Jesus Christ, rebuild our ancient ruins! We are a people of no mercy, who are no longer a people, a nation confused and set upon itself. Restore us to yourself, as foreign and sin-soaked as we are, that we may learn to love one another as we learn to love you. Teach us to exercise humility and to seek the holy community in which conflict is not ignored but a reminder of the brutality with which our sin offends God, in whom restitution is found through the atoning sacrifice, in whom we find true peace (Philippians 2):
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
* This is an update from an initial draft originally published in August, 2014.