I was away on vacation last week.
We rented a car and drove to the Berkshires where we stayed in a lovely house overlooking the Housatonic River. The water was high and fast, making splashing and rippling sounds as it went by. Birds came and went from the feeder.
We had plenty to eat and wine to drink. We enjoyed the beautiful days and gentle camaraderie of friends. We didn’t give a thought to the luxury of feeling safe and unscathed by the world around us.
But on Friday, when I answered the phone, I was jarred into remembering that my sense of peace and safety was not to be taken for granted.
Parallel Universes Diverged
While we had been sitting with our wine, watching the river in Massachusetts, my friend Clemetin was sitting on a park bench in the South Bronx with his girlfriend, also enjoying the beautiful day.
While they didn’t have a river to watch, they were relaxing in the sunshine and watching the people as they came and went.
But our parallel universes of calm and enjoyment diverged from one minute to the next when three policemen bore down on Clemetin, grabbing him roughly and dragging him into the nearby public rest room where a woman had been caught using heroin.
They emptied his pockets, dumping his keys and identification into the sink and accused him of having sold heroin to the woman who was using.
Soon, Clemetin was in handcuffs and pushed into the back of a windowless van. The van drove around from four in the afternoon, when they picked him up, until one in the morning. Occasionally, it would stop and another handcuffed person would be shoved into the dark back of the van. One of the officers told the prisoners that they wouldn’t stop until they filled the van with the required ten people!
Imagine Knowing that the Legal System Won’t Protect You
No bathroom. No food. No light.
No reasonable explanation.
Just a nightmarish sense that guilt or innocence didn’t matter. And a huge anxiety of not being safe.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that Clemetin has a long criminal record. So when the police pick him up and check his record, they don’t stop to wonder if he’s actually done anything wrong. They assume that he’s guilty of something.
To the police who picked him up, it made no difference at all that the woman who did the drugs said that Clemetin had not sold them to her. He was a likely suspect for something, if not that.
I know that Clemetin doesn’t sell drugs.
He has a penchant for shoplifting, but he doesn’t do or sell drugs. That’s never been his thing. Shoplifting? Yes. Drugs? No.
So when my phone rang in the Berkshires and I learned what had happened, my heart ached for Clemetin. And I realized that my own sense of safety and control is not to be taken for granted. It’s an unearned privilege of my race and class.
Clemetin has no sense of safety, even when he’s sitting on a bench in the park enjoying a summer afternoon with his loved ones.
His life experience has taught him that he’s not safe unless he stays inside his apartment. But if he must stay in his apartment day and night, he might as well be in prison!
Clemetin was released without bail 36 hours after he was picked up. But because it was a Saturday, he couldn’t get the keys to his apartment back until Monday when the office was open.
So where did he sleep on Saturday and Sunday nights? In the park near his apartment where he was arrested. You can imagine that he did not sleep soundly.
Clemetin has a court date in late September. There is no proof against him except the say-so of the police officer who was trying to get ten people in the back of his van so he could go back to the precinct.
But for Clemetin, a lack of evidence doesn’t guarantee that he won’t be sentenced to years in prison. Sadly, his fate will be determined by the capability of the attorney assigned to him and the mood of the judge who hears his case.
Clemetin’s case will probably take no more than 3 or 4 minutes to process and he will either be free with a $200 court fee to pay, or sent to prison for months or even years for a crime he didn’t commit.
Why am I Sharing this Story?
Because most people like me who have been dealt a life of unearned privilege forget that even here in this country, a huge number of people — particularly poor men of color — do not feel safe.
And their fears are justified.
The system you and I rely on often doesn’t protect them.
Imagine Yourself in Clemetin’s Shoes
Imagine yourself in Clemetin’s shoes — even for just a few minutes.
Imagine that you can’t trust the legal system to protect you from injustice. Imagine living in a neighborhood where the police troll day and night to meet their quotas. Imagine feeling that you are only safe when you are inside, in your own room. How would that make you feel?
The next time you walk by a man who is likely to be less fortunate and has dark skin, remember this story.
Please do share your thoughts below.