Do You Feel Safe Sitting on a Bench Enjoying a Summer Day?

Park Bench In Spring-Summer-LI 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.

ClemetinInForAndreaI 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’s Verdict

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.

TryTry ThisThis

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.

  • Yikes, Andrea. This strikes a nerve in me. This is indeed a sad and scary story. I have heard so often that it is hard being black in this country in a way most white folks can’t imagine. Hard being poor or for that matter middle class. And hard being a woman: I’ve had many women friends tell me stories of being groped, stalked, etc.; as they explain it, they have to assess men and situations for safety almost constantly. For good reason.

    As a rather large white man I’ve rarely felt unsafe myself, but the few times it has happened were super-scary. At least one of those times, I felt I was at risk from a NYC cop having a bad day. NYC cops worry me. And I don’t know if you caught the New York Times stories about Rikers Island and guards abusing prisoners, but it makes me angry. And sad.

    Hope Clementine is able to fight off these charges.

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Thanks, Randy, for this lovely, aware response. Amazing how easy it is for those of us who are white and with education and resources to take the sense of feeling safe for granted. Though a woman, I too have seldom felt unsafe. My very small brushes with being afraid make me wonder how Clemetin gets through each day.

  • bethraps

    Couldn’t we raise the money for his charges?

    Would you be willing to receive them for him if we sent $ to you? It would not really matter how much they were, any amount will help & more than enough would be great for him to feel our support. Some action is wanted deeply after reading your exquisite post!

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Thanks for your offer, Beth. I plan to be in touch with the attorney who has been assigned to him. I’ve found that many of the legal aid attorneys are very good and compassionate. Probably the best way for me to help is to get a group of people who know Clemetin to write supporting letters on his behalf. At least that would make his case stand out from the other. Most people in his situation have few people who are willing and able to stand up for them.

      I will keep you and everyone posted as the situation evolves. If you’ve never seen how these “high volume courts” work, you should sit in on one of them some day. It’s enough to make your hair stand on end–think factory assembly line with a kaching of the cash register for court fees after every 3 minute case!

  • Alison

    My heart aches for him – pls share with him that I believe his innocence and will continue to work with young people and systems to change this social injustice – Alison

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Thanks Alison. I’ll tell him. Your work with children and injustice makes such a huge difference!

  • Anne Phillips

    Andrea, thanks for this piece. Such an important perspective to share. Hugs, anne

    • Andrea Kihlstedt

      Hi Anne, So nice to see your lovely face peering out at me from your comment. I’m glad you like this piece. 🙂

  • Randy

    I feel bad for clemetin – I have seen this happen even in a smaller city like lancaster, Pa. My brother has had to go through similiar misfortunes. The good thing is – clementin can beat this and continue to work on positives things in his life. As you have said it really does go by what mood the judge is in that day and what connections his assigned attorny has.