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Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Hate U Give and a Thing I Realized On My Walk

Daddy once told me there's a rage passed down to every black man from his ancestors, born the moment they couldn't stop the slave masters from hurting their families. Daddy also said there's nothing more dangerous than when that rage is activated. - Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
At this point I've read a lot of books about what it's like to be black in America. There are a lot more that I can read, and hopefully I get around to a lot of them by the time this experiment is over (this experiment being my life - hypothesis: if I write a blog every week (mostly) and nobody reads it, will I keep doing it?), but I will never really understand it. Here's an example: In Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give there was a scene that didn't make any sense to me. This is going to take some explaining.

Starr Carter is 16 and after a party is riding in a car with a boy who she'd grown up with, who had been her best friend, but from whom she'd become distant after her parents started sending her to a private school. Khalil, her friend, is pulled over by a police officer and is eventually shot. The details are believable and scary and infuriating, as the real-life shootings this story is based on have been.

Starr becomes the only witness as her community mourns and then protests the shooting. At one point Starr's father, ex-gang member turned grocery store owning pillar of the community, is humiliated at the doorstep of his own business by police officers. He's forced to lie on the ground handcuffed while his young son and teen son and daughter watch and become agitated. He's verbally and physically abused by the officers - one white and one black - and desperately tells his children to calm down, worried that his own teen son would be shot.

All of this so far is the kind of thing I've read in the news dozens of times. One need only skim the Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department to find enough horror stories to fill a dozen books the length of The Hate U Give. And listen, it's kind of a long book.

From the report:
The sergeant who responded to the scene confirmed that the involved officers tased the man twice and hit him in the face with their fists, yet the sergeant’s report of the incident concluded that the “officers showed great restraint and professionalism.”
This was a man who was stopped for no reason, detained without any explanation, and then taken to the hospital.

Another incident, again with no charge, arrest, or any finding of wrongdoing:
The female officer then put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra. Finding no weapons or contraband around the woman’s chest, the officer then pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity….The search occurred in full view of the street, although the supervising male officer claimed he “turned away” and did not watch the woman disrobe… Officers conducted this highly invasive search despite lacking any indication that the woman had committed a criminal offense or possessed concealed contraband. (SOURCE)
This is all stuff that we're pretty well versed in at this point. Unless you're going out of your way to avoid this kind of thing because you've already made up your mind, it shouldn't be news to you. Even if somehow the only thing you ever read at all is this blog (if this is true let me bake you a cake and also while it's baking let's have a serious conversation about your life choices), you've been briefed.

Those weren't the scenes that confused me. Because I get it, you all. I am so woke it's weary just to be me sometimes because I just get it so hard. The scene that confused me is when later in the book Starr's family is enjoying the basketball finals and giving each other crap about whether or not Lebron is the GOAT when their house is hit with a drive-by.

Duh, I'm thinking when I read this, because part of Starr's testimony involved a gang leader and he wasn't happy to be identified and of course it's their revenge. But when Starr's uncle (a police officer) arrives, her dad doesn't want the police called, and neither does Starr. Because what if it was the police who did the drive-by?

And then I'm like come on. The police doing a drive-by? That's some gangster sh**. Of course it wasn't those guys. And then I'm like wait a minute. I still think of the police as the good guys because I've never had a personal reason not to. I've said before in previous posts that I know and work with fantastic police officers. The few even remotely antagonistic interactions I've had with them have ended with what was, at the very worst, a kind of expensive ticket that I talked down by half before grumpily paying.

And I still think of the police as mostly good people who do a mostly good job but also it's the kind of job that may attract bullies and give them weaponry and tactics and the tacit admission that almost whatever they do will result in at worst some paid leave as far as their careers are concerned. The job is thankless and scary and dangerous and split-second decision-making often has terrible outcomes and there is a reasonably justifiable argument to make that as a society we should protect the people who are protecting us. 

That's what I grew up with, even with all the books and news I read, because that's my experience. That is not Starr's dad's experience, and Starr watched her best friend get murdered, and then had a gun pointed in her face by a white police officer. Already at 16 she's seen a lot. From her point of view, maybe it was the police officers who shot up her house. That's because she lives in a reality where even a black Republican senator gets pulled over seven times in one year, who also tells the story of a black staffer who traded in his Chrysler 300 because he was pulled over so many times and asked if he'd stolen the car. And that's in nice neighborhoods. The Hate U Give does not take place in a nice neighborhood.
This is exactly what They expect you to do," Momma says.
They with a capital T.
There's Them and then there's Us. Sometimes They look like Us and don't recognize They are Us.
Check this out. In 2006 an FBI report was unclassified (well, some of it was) showing that the Bureau has been investigating the infiltration of law enforcement groups by white supremacists. For exampe, and I quote,
Since coming to law enforcement attention in late 2004, the term "ghost skins" has gained currency among white supremacists to describe those who avoid overt displays of their believfs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes. One Internet posting described this effort as a form of role-playing. In which "to create the character, you must get inside the mind of the person you are trying to duplicate." Such role-playing has application to ad-hoc and organized law enforcement infiltration. At least one white supremacist group has reportedly encouraged ghost skins to seek positions in law enforcement for the capability of alerting skinhead crews of pending investigative action against them. (SOURCE, emphasis added)
Often people will say, "well that's just one bad apple," like that's supposed to mean anything. In actuality that phrase is as ironic as the t-shirt choices of a Brooklyn copy-editor trying to dig change from his skintight black jeans to pay too much for a boba tea. The phrase is "one bad apple SPOILS THE BUNCH." That's because when apples start to over-ripen, they produce ethylene, which in turn causes the other apples to do the same. Also, as mold spreads, it wants new food, and spreads to the other apples. The whole point of that phrase is that if you deal in apples, you actively seek out the bad ones so they don't ruin the rest.

We live in a society where a 38-million gallon reservoir was emptied because a guy peed in it, but a police department that didn't fire an officer for shooting a 12-year-old boy within 2 seconds of his arrival on the scene decided that lying on his resume was a bridge too far. That's like leaving a rotten apple in a barrel for months before deciding to throw it away because the sticker on it was crooked.

We don't know if the cops did the drive-by (I mean, they didn't, because it's fiction), but I bet it wasn't them. I did a quick search and could find no examples of police drive-by shootings, but I did find a ton where the officers were the victims (because again - frickin dangerous, thankless job). I mean, it's not irrational to be jarred by the assumption the characters made in the book because that kind of thing is rare to the point of near nonexistence. But when I read it, I was annoyed, because I felt like it didn't ring true. Only later when I was on a walk did I realize that even if it didn't make factual or statistical sense, it made perfect sense to Starr. That's because she's black, and I'm not.
The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen—people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.
I'm afraid that this book will only be read by people who already think they understand what's going on in our cities, and that the people who it would teach the most will sneer at it like I sneer at whatever American Flag-draped "book" Sean Hannity just came out with. Those folks are going to miss out on what is at its heart the story of a loving family with a great sense of humor and a deep character study of a young girl figuring out her place in the world. They won't see the open eyes with which Thomas portrays the complexity of the neighborhood. They won't fall in love with Starr Carter, and their lives will be poorer for it. 

But even if it's only read by the people who think they get it, maybe they'll end up like me, realize how little we know, and start to think they might never get it. That it's OK to admit that we don't know and will never know what it's like. That's the best place to be, I've found, because then we never stop listening. We become like the Ken Garff billboards all along Utah highways, like we've got big ears and we're so good at listening and oh my gosh while I was looking for examples of these billboards to make my good good point I found this