instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Blog

Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, and later knelt, during the anthem, before his team's 2016 preseason games. Since then "taking a knee" has become an emblem of resistance and protest for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and a controversial gesture of solidarity by police officers. This photo was taken by Roy Ramos, a reporter for WPLG in Coral Gables, FL.

 

 

A Police Officer Takes a Knee

 

 

Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.

 

― Homer, The Iliad

 

 

I was driving a back road in this season of falling leaves on the way to my dentist, the radio silenced, and no other cars in sight, when I remembered an undercover New York City Transit policeman, the boyfriend of an acquaintance, a caring individual. I wondered whether he'd retired, or was working the frontlines in the pandemic. I imagined him confronting protestors at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and suddenly "taking a knee" in the gesture of solidarity many police officers have made in recent months. He would have been capable of that brave gesture.

 

Memory spurts are unpredictable and unwieldy. What triggered this? I haven't been in touch with this guy for many years, but the image of the bulge in the small of his back as we walked the streets to a restaurant in our neighborhood one warm, spring Sunday afternoon has stayed with me. I had never noticed it before. As we stopped at a light, I couldn't resist asking if he was packing.  "Yes," he said sotto voce. Neither his girlfriend, nor my husband, had heard the question, and no one except for me seemed interested in his answer once we were seated at a table and I started my interrogation. That simple "yes" wasn't enough for me:

 

"Why carry when you are off duty?"  I asked.

 

"Because there are predators everywhere," he said.

 

 I looked around the restaurant.

 

"I don't see any," I said.

 

"That doesn't mean they are not there."

 

"Have you ever fired your weapon?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Have you ever killed anyone?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Did you feel remorse?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Have you had nightmares after discharging your gun?"

 

"Yes."

 

 

So maybe the trip to the dentist was the trigger. He's an excellent dentist, an artisanal dentist, and I am grateful to have found him. But his banter as he's working on my mouth is often politically far right of my center and all of it feels dissonant and unexpected. Of course, mouth open wide, there is no way I can respond, and I always want to respond. Did he say that the socialists will be looking for trouble as the election looms? Has he ever met any socialists he considers troublemakers? Have I? And so on.

 

Often, we meet people who confound us, whose background and working life is so different from our own that we struggle to find a place to meet, metaphorically speaking. And, so it was, with the transit cop. And, by the way, he referred to himself as a cop, so I will use that shortcut here even though I know that we were, at times, speaking a different language. "You see predators?" I asked him more than once that day. "I see ordinary people enjoying their Sunday afternoon. I see the bulge under your sweater in the small of your back. I worry a stray bullet may kill me or a bystander."

 

He was uncomfortable with my questions, and looked as if he was going to cry. He was afflicted, troubled. What he felt—in his heart—and what he had been taught to see and do were not in concert much of the time.

 

My recollections went into double loops as I was driving. I remembered an Iraq vet I had interviewed. He was from a modest background, and he'd been looking forward to completing his education after his commitment ended. But PTSD had wrecked his plans. He, too, was a sweet-natured guy who had been taught to kill, and he was tormented. The nightmares wouldn't stop.

 

The police officers in our towns and cities who have been issued military-grade weaponry and riot gear train to target "the enemy." They are no longer protectors, they are enforcers, soldiers. Police reform must start there, with the men and women in police departments across the country who have aspirations, religious principles, families, neighbors, pot-luck dinners, kids who go to school during the pandemic, elders who are isolated. They live among us. They are us. When they dare to take a knee at a protest, they become part of the community again, they become whole.

Be the first to comment

Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty

 
Photo: © copyright John Dominis 1968

 

 Risk vs Reward

 

 

Pay attention to what other people are saying, not just with your ears,

but with your heart.

Maxine Hong Kingston, talking to Hua Hsu in The New Yorker, 6/8/2020

 

 

 

My daughter and son-in-law joined a protest in Kingston, NY the other day. Like any over-protective mom—even of full-grown, competent, deep-thinking adults, I might add—I tried to dissuade them. No luck. So off they went with their signs and their masks and their determination to participate in what is, most certainly, a watershed moment in American history. I started to pay attention to their decision, not just with my ears and heart, but with my years of experience as an activist. In truth, I was proud of them, and grateful that they could march and chant for all those who could not march. Risky during COVID, certainly, and not to be underestimated, which is why Governor Cuomo asked that all protesters get tested. (We'll know in a couple of weeks if there has been a spike.) Risky, too, when the military exuberance of the local police force is an unknown. Fortunately, it was a peaceful protest, no tear gas or rubber bullets, no violence.


Images of fists in the air, the black power salute—now adopted by Black Lives Matter—brings back memories. This gesture of resistance has a history that dates to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City when Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the podium to collect their medals. They raised their fists as the "Star Spangled Banner" was played—from beginning to end. "Black America will understand what we did tonight," Tommie Smith said to reporters. But what about the rest of America? Both men received death threats.


I was a student teacher in Oakland, CA assigned to an 11th grade American History class during that violent time in America. English was my major, American History my minor; I wanted to teach both. In this streamed school, I had the "C" stream, the bottom rung of the disaffected, brutalized children of the Oakland ghetto. Half the students in my class were Black Panthers, the other half Black Muslims, a third were on-and-off truants, if those numbers add up. I was a white Jewish girl from New York wearing a brown tailored suit to bolster my courage. My "supervising" teacher abandoned me after the first day because he was annoyed that UC Berkeley would send a person such as myself to teach at Oakland Technical High School. He could hardly look me in the eye when he spoke, and he wasn't eager to speak to me. Maybe he didn't like outspoken Jewish girls from New York, or maybe he didn't want to take responsibility for my demise.


Oddly, I wasn't afraid. The Panthers were revolutionaries, they carried guns and had shoot-outs with the police, but they also worked social welfare beats—food banks, free health clinics, and Black Pride schools. The kids in my class were their kids. I wasn't much more than a kid myself.


I had already faced down danger at Julia Richman High School on the day I was beaten up and learned about race in America. I had survived without rancor or a desire for pay-back. I'd started educating myself since then and joined many protests on the volatile Berkeley campus. I could take anything, I told myself. The civil rights struggle then, as now, was an imperative. We were all in motion, evolving. I wasn't a revolutionary, but I was dedicated to change, raising awareness, and shredding injustice.


And, so, I opened my heart to that class, waking at 4 a.m. to prep, and making decisions on my own about curriculum. I threw out the textbooks and asked the students to create their own timeline of American history based on their family's lived experience—in the south, in the north, in Oakland. What they didn't know, I assigned as research, aka homework. I taught them how to interview their elders, told them they were reporters, witnesses. They were perplexed at first, but eventually they understood. They came back with tough and heroic stories that challenged the mythology of the accepted American story at that time.


I moved the desks into a circle, seminar style. Students walking the halls peered in and stood in the doorway, a few entered and sat down and listened. They might have been truants, I didn't care. Looking back, I can't believe I did this, had the strength to do it, and that I never felt threatened. I finished up the term, gave out good grades to everyone who had stuck with it, finished up my classes on campus, and was rewarded with a California State Teaching License-Secondary "for Life," with the seal of the State of California at the bottom.


Risk and reward. It's like a dance, a push pull. If we don't take risks, our emotions contract and atrophy. The young men and women at Oakland Technical High School—I'll never forget them. My heart swells at the thought of them. We made progress together. We trusted each other.



1 Comments
Post a comment

Virus Without Borders: Chapter Nineteen

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020

 

 

My Mother's Lambskin Coat

 

 

There's trouble on the mountain

The valley's full of smoke

There's crying on the mountain

And again the same heart broke

 

-Johnny Cash

 

 

Slavery casts a long shadow across our lives.

 

"Tears We Cannot Stop; A Sermon to White America"  

 

-Michael Eric Dyson

 

 

 

I passed a sheep farm on my walk this morning. Two lambs were outside the fence scratching to get back in, their mothers and siblings bleating and desperate, though that's a human word. There were no humans in sight. I walked further along and hollered to some kids riding their bikes on a driveway, then spoke to their dad who came bolting out of the house with his mask on. He said he'd call the owner right away, then ended up driving past me to the owner's house because he couldn't get him on the phone, then stopped on his way back and we said goodbye. All of which is to say: it felt good to rescue these lambs even though I'm aware they are possibly being raised for slaughter, not just for their wool, and it felt good to slip the mask down to my neck to talk to another human being, a neighbor, and to be able to thank him at a distance. If life isn't exactly normal, we are at least enjoying some micro-connections now, out of doors and at a distance.

 

But it's been a hard week and as I got closer to the sheep and their lambs I remembered my mother's lambskin coat. Why did she buy this coat? What did it signify if not a refugee's "arrival," newfound privilege, warmth and safety, status. And though I had my personal struggles as a child of divorce, and a child of the Holocaust, my childhood was mostly privileged, and it was white. I would not collapse on the church steps in the summer, homeless and hungry, this would not have been my fate.

 

It seems as though many friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances are making politically correct confessions these days, and I have resisted making mine, but the memories have come tumbling as the fires burn, so I decided to write a blog post about them after all. I remember that coat and I remember my friend Rochelle, whose mother took a risk and sent her to elementary school below the interface, the invisible line that separated Harlem from White New York. Somehow she'd gotten special out of zone permission for her beloved daughter. And my mother knew Rochelle's mother, maybe from the Planned Parenthood clinic where they both worked—my mother a doctor, Rochelle's mother a nurse, and somehow Rochelle became the only black child in my elementary school. What did that feel like? How did she navigate being just one?

 

I knew nothing of de facto segregation, or the struggles of Rochelle's middle-class, educated family in a de facto segregated city, or the despair of the underclass, or that most of the underclass at the time was black. But it does make a difference, a real difference, when children go to integrated schools and make all kinds of friends, and play with each other and love one another. We know this from many reputable studies. And it made a difference to me, and still does. I've remembered Rochelle all these years, and why it was best not to ask why she could visit me, but I could not visit her on the other side of the interface.

 

My family moved to the East Side to get away from the Puerto Rican migration which in itself is a story of privilege. My mother's had an office in our home and her white, privileged patients refused to walk the side streets to West End Avenue as they could not by-pass these immigrants who were boisterous, gregarious, chattering away in Spanish, sitting on their front stoops, the "strange" odors of their kitchens cascading onto the street in the warm weather. And on the East Side, I was placed in a segregated section of a public Junior High School called "special progress," SP for short. 7SP and 9SP; there was no 8th grade, we skipped the 8th grade. How did this happen and why? Where were the darker-skinned children?

 

We met them in the lunch room, we met them at recess, we watched as they boarded buses to be taken further uptown, and we went home to our well-appointed apartments in White New York. This was called "busing." Us and them.

 

High School was even worse. My parents didn't understand the "system," and they didn't have money to send me to private school, so I went to Julia Richman High School, was placed in a segregated "Country School," and was beaten badly by a group of black girls in the gym locker room. And though I was terrified, or perhaps because I was terrified, I refused to point them out to the powers that be and told my parents to let it all go, just to let it go. Within months, they got me a scholarship and moved me to a private school where I was out of place and disheartened in ways I could not, as yet, understand. It wasn't the suburbs, but it was white flight nonetheless. And it was there, in a Social Science seminar, that I learned that something significant had happened that would shape me and my life's work. I was imprinted with outrage, not at the girls who had deliberately targeted and hurt me, but at the legacy of one of America's two original sins: the genocide of the Indigenous People and the slower-moving genocide of enslavement, Jim Crow, lynchings, chain gangs, mass incarceration.

 

Years later, we chose a private school for our daughter—Manhattan Country School—that was founded by people who had worked with Martin Luther King Jr. It had a sliding scale of tuition and a deliberate, carefully architected policy of ethnic/racial quotas. A documentary filmmaker dubbed it "The Little Utopia," which was sustainable within its walls, and at least for the time that our daughter was there. But by 8th grade, when she entered public school, it was all over. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, a terrific school in many ways, was disappointingly socially self-segregated. Still, I suppose we have to be grateful that talented kids from all over the city—rich and poor, black, white and brown--passed the audition and got to go there, and make their art together in the studios, and celebrated their achievements together, and then graduated together.

 

And I remember our daughter's African American boyfriend whose father worked for the court system. He arranged for him to carry a badge in his wallet as protection. But how would this protect him if he got stopped? Our daughter traveled with him everywhere and then lived with him in an apartment in our building. I was on the board at the time and received a phone call that a strange black man was in the laundry room. Sound familiar?

 

And there are more memories, but I will stop there, and conclude with this thought: the toxic weed of racism must be pulled out at its roots, and muscular models of restorative justice energized, if our democracy is to rebound and flourish.

 

 

 

Be the first to comment

Flashing Lights

I was driving down  Plattekill Avenue on the north side of the university where cars are parked at an odd angle and the speed limit is 30 mph because students and faculty are always crossing at crosswalks, or in between crosswalks, often on their phones, or chatting to friends. Last summer, two pedestrians were hit and badly injured. New, brighter crosswalks with flashing lights and neon signs have been installed, but not everywhere, and the SUNY New Paltz Campus Police and the New Paltz Police are vigilant.

 

This is my new neighborhood. I'm learning what it means to drive everywhere, to be attentive at all times, to keep to the speed limit, to watch the signs change from 30 to 45 to 55 mph. The periphery of the campus is a speed trap, too, and I warn visitors that the cops hang out, they wait, they give tickets. I did not want this ever to happen to me. It's my neighborhood, I obey the law, I'm learning the rules and culture, I want the students and faculty to feel safe and be safe, I want to feel safe and be safe. I know that, hypothetically, a police force protects as well as enforces. But is this true all of the time? Regardless, I did not want to be stopped by the police in my new neighborhood, ever.

 

I wasn't late, I wasn't in a hurry to my teaching gig at another SUNY campus, about thirty minutes away, but Plattekill Avenue is a shortcut to Route 32 North. I stopped at a crossing for a couple of students, but then inadvertently rolled through the STOP sign a few feet further on.  The sun was out, I was daydreaming, thinking about a book I'm getting back to, about a weekend hike on the River to Ridge Trail now that the weather is warming and all the snow and ice have melted. I was  listening to music, I was in the right side of my brain. The campus police car pulled up behind me, lights flashing.

 

I had just been on the campus a few nights before at a meeting sponsored by the Black Student Union about a police brutality allegation and an upcoming trial—the town in an uproar—and the ACLU lawyer's advice to the students and all present— black and white alike: never resist, do what you are asked.

 

There had been a white supremacist march down Main Street last summer—acrimonious , dangerous—and  then, a few weeks later, a black student had been smashed in the face by a cop and lost all his teeth. A committee had formed of concerned parents, concerned citizens. The police are aware, as the line goes in "Homeland." They are aware, on alert, on tenterhooks. They do not want to be accused, they want to do their jobs. But smashing a black student in the mouth is not doing their jobs. 

 

White haired and olive-white-skinned, I had nothing to worry about, not really, but the fear of those young, earnest, students at the meeting had stayed with me. The African American men are especially vulnerable, the lawyer had said, which is nothing new in our divided, beleaguered nation.  But why should I feel so vulnerable? Because that boy who had been smashed in the face could have been my son, or anyone's son.

 

The cop had been hanging out; it felt like an entrapment, but I had to stay quiet. This wasn't a moment to resist or to complain. Even though I had only gently rolled, and there was nothing around, no other cars in sight, I had broken the law.

 

The young, handsome cop got out of his car and  stood just behind my shoulder and to the left, his hand on his holster. This is what he has been trained to do, I thought. It's not a time for questions. I am not here to interview him about the use of force or gun control, we are not friends.

 

I rolled down my window. I knew better than to reach for the glove compartment without instructions to do so, and I said, "Hello, Officer, did I do something wrong?" Where had I learned to be so obsequious, so respectful? I was thinking of my daughter's African American college boyfriend when I said this and what his father, a court officer, had taught him. He carried a badge in his wallet his father had gotten for him, but even that was not protective and I was scared when my daughter was in the car with him.

 

"You rolled through the stop sign,"  the officer said and smiled.

"Oh dear, that's not good," I said.

 

Then he asked for my papers and I gave him all my papers. He told me to sit tight and he went back to the car and took a few moments to run my license, insurance and registration through the computer. I also heard him recite my license plate into a two-way radio. I was now in the system.

 

I thought about my African American friends, I thought about my daughter's college boyfriend, how these moments of waiting must be the most tense, the most scary. This cop was alone, he was young, he was friendly, but I am white-haired and olive-white-skinned. Neither of us felt threatened so we smiled and spoke quietly and respectfully to one another. He warned me to be careful but didn't give me a ticket. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am." And I thanked him. He turned off his flashing lights and went on his way. And I went on mine, braking fully at every stop sign on the way.

Be the first to comment