This afternoon, one day after the murders of Dallas police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith and Lorne Ahrens, two days after the murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota and three days after the murder of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my beat-up Subaru Outback in a parking lot outside the Inner-City Arts building blocks off Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. I’d just spent a couple of hours with my Street Poets’ co-workers preparing the theater there for our biggest community open-mic event of the summer, and was catching up on some work-related emails. Suddenly, a man appeared at my window. He was a Latino brother in his 40s with bloodshot eyes and a scarred face and neck dotted with some familiar gang tattoos.
“You’re a fucking cop, aren’t you?!” he snapped accusingly, and then, before I had an opportunity to answer that no, in fact, I was a writer, or a poetry teacher, or a director of a non-profit organization, or a mentor to ex-gang members who’d committed to turning their lives around, or father of two, he flipped me the bird with such venom that I actually flinched in response. I eyed him warily as he high-stepped away from the car and joined a jittery woman who’d been watching bug-eyed from the sidewalk nearby.
During the 20+ years I’ve spent visiting my mentees and their families in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods where clean-cut white guys without guns and badges are a rarity, I’ve been told, often laughingly by my hosts, that I’ve been mistaken for a cop, or a parole officer, or even (when I was younger) a Mormon missionary. But this was the first time in all my years in LA that I’d ever been met with open hostility.
That hostility, the rage I saw in that brother’s fiery eyes, may have been drug-fueled, but it was real and raw nevertheless. As I drove out of the parking lot, I found myself contemplating how that moment would have played out differently had the middle finger he pulled on me been a gun. The bullet would have entered my skull behind my ear and exited out my face through the windshield. I would have been murdered for being something I’m not — which I realize is a fear that our Street Poets youth, and most black and brown people in America, live with every day, every time they’re stopped by police.
Then I found myself reflecting on my own discomfort at being misidentified as a police officer after so many years spent earning what my mentees refer to as my “ghetto pass,” the trust and confidence of the individuals and communities with whom I have been privileged to work. During those years, I’d developed my own wariness of police, especially of a particular gang unit cop who’d entered a law-abiding Street Poet’s bedroom one morning without a warrant and stuck a gun in his face. That said, I’ve met activists fueled by the same fear-based racism and hatred that fuel crooked cops. Sadly, this contagious disease does not discriminate. Hate is hate, regardless of its packaging.
So how do we move forward together – recognizing once and for all, that we human beings are much more intimately connected to each other than any of us care to admit? How do we learn to see our city, our country, our world as one body with the same bruised and beating heart? Because it will take our whole body to staunch the open wounds on the streets of East and South LA, as well as the festering cancer buried deep beneath the glittery surface of Beverly Hills. It will take our whole body to silence the bombs dropping on Syrian villages and Afghan hillsides. It will take our whole body to neutralize and transform the virus of terrorism. It will take our whole body to stop the violence our corporations and governments do every day to a world continuing to spin toward environmental crisis. It will take our whole body to recognize that the violence against women in our institutions of higher learning and beyond is mirrored in our daily raping and pillaging of the earth.
We need each other. Our body is sick and abused, traumatized and numb. On some level, we are all angry, fearful, frustrated, faded, feeding on whatever inflammatory stories our heat-seeking media offers up. And we will all die someday. But until we all recognize the white police officer in us, until we all see our son in the brown or black face of Philando Castile or Alton Sterling or Michael Brown, until we all understand that the only blood we can spill is our own, then we will remain just as my angry brother found me today, half-asleep at the wheel, buried in a smartphone, waiting to be woken up.
by Christopher Henrikson
Founder/Executive Director, Street Poets Inc.