Do You Feel Safe

This piece is a part of 12th Street Journal‘s series, “Crisis Expressive,”which focuses on why and how we, as humans, creatively express during personal and public moments of crisis. If you have a story to express, we would be exulted to read it. Submit.

The essay and song, “Jettison,” are both by New School undergrad, Simone Bridges. She is a writer and rapper, whose inherently poetic and forthright work wakens the seemingly impossible and endless fight of race and power in our country. It’s the gentle honesty of her voice in the essay, which allows anyone to approach it with an equal openness. And it’s the proclamation of “Jettison,” which drives it all home.

 

I’ve hardly known life without the presence of law enforcement. Growing up as the daughter of an activist in Oakland, my eyes were opened to the flaws of the law at a very early age. I’ve experienced enough run-ins with the cops when I was alone and with my father present , that I know that these meetings aren’t always friendly. This led me to question what kind of relationship other people had with the police. Was it similar to mine? Did they feel safe? These questions are especially prevalent in a beast of a city like New York, where the police are a consistent part of our every day. I felt it necessary for my own peace of mind to know where exactly I stood amongst the people I shared a borough with. I felt face-to-face interactions would serve me best in this case. It was important for me to approach people who didn’t know me or about my history with the boys in blue. I also wanted to get the view of a complete stranger, preferably from Bushwick—the neighborhood I’ve only been able to call home for a year.

I live off of the Myrtle- Wyckoff L and M train stop, which is a predominately Dominican neighborhood. When I moved here a year ago, my roommate and I were the only young black people in our building. As our neighbors saw it, we were the first signs of gentrification on their block. In its founding years in the mid-1600s, “Boswijck,” was used for farming tobacco, which later developed into businesses in the glue, brick and coal industries. Eventually the city needed the space to build cheap residencies and apartments, which attracted young artists to the area. Young artists are still very attracted to the neighborhood and are moving in all the time along with other young students and workers who cannot afford to live in higher priced neighborhoods. These young artists have the money and resources which make the neighborhood natives uncomfortable. The money that is brought in by these new residents is appealing to old businesses and landlords with old buildings looking to charge new higher prices which often results in the replacement of old neighborhood inhabitants. It is almost as uncomfortable as the increased numbers of police in their area, to protect these new rich people moving in, make them feel. It seems the police have come to the neighborhood for one thing: to make sure this transition of “out with the poor and in the with the rich” goes smoothly.

I stepped out onto the fire escape outside my living room window for a smoke: my nightly ritual. Below me on the street stood a young white man. He asked me if I had a light. Normally I would have said no—whether I had one or not—but I was interested in his business on my block. So I asked him if he wanted to join. After I told him I lived in apartment to 2L he rang the buzzer and quickly came upstairs and out to the fire escape. Our conversation started casually: he asked me where I was from, and replied Arkansas when I returned the question. He was the first man I’d ever shared space with from Arkansas. He held his long board across his lap—a strange thing to lug onto the fire escape. He sat shivering in his Nirvana T-shirt and cut-off jean shorts. I approached my intent in our conversation quickly; worried that he’d be too cold to stay much longer.

“Do you live close to here?” I asked,

“Right down the street,” he replied, “off of the Halsey L stop.”

“Are there a lot of police at that train station; or walking the streets around your place?”

I could tell he was searching my face for the answer I wanted to hear.

“Not more than usual,” he said. I knew my “usual” was different than his, so I asked him to elaborate.

“I see a few cops out late sometimes,” he explained, “but only like four at a time, nothing major. I got stopped once though. They were waiting for me. It was five A.M. in the morning. It was snowing. It was a work day, so the only people up at five A.M. in the morning getting on a train on a weekday are the working class, so they’re just waiting for someone like myself to do—what they say is ‘not a nice deed.’ So this guy swiped his card and the turnstile said ‘swipe again’ and he swiped it again. It said ‘swipe again’ and the train was arriving. He stepped aside and let me and someone else go through because the train was there. So when I got in, I let him in through the emergency exit, and ran to catch the train. Next thing I know two cops grab me and take me off the train.”
I wanted to know if the cops were mean…

“No. It’s just that sense of entitlement they have. They just like slam you up against the wall and point to you and say, ‘For opening the door: 60 dollar ticket.’” His eyes told me that this was the first time in a long time that this kid had thought about the incident. He paused for a long moment as he took another pull from his cigarette. “Now that I think about it, there are a lot of police in undercover cars in my neighborhood.”

“Does that make you feel safer?” I asked.

“I’m a hippie” he said, “I personally feel safer because I’m white, and I know that I’m not going to be the subject or target of most things. But just in general, I don’t feel safe around the cops because I know what’s happening with their headquarters. A lot of the cop friends I have, tell me that they are specifically trained to protect property; they are trained to steer you away from your rights. They patrol the streets to make sure that no one is destroying any property. They will question you in a way that you don’t even realize you have a right not to answer them.” He pauses; shakes his head. “They don’t teach you your rights; there’s no program to teach you about your civil rights. If you want to know about that you have to go into a specific class about the law, or something. It’s like first you don’t educate the public about their rights; and then you train the cops to navigate around people’s rights; and now, no one has any rights. The cops just do what they want.”

I have found it to be true in my own experiences and in the experiences of those around me that the police do do whatever they want. Laws like “Stop and Frisk”—the unconstitutional but legalized tactic of stopping and searching everyday people on the street—are encouraged among the NYPD police force. The criticism of this law began in 2011, when it was reported by the NYPD themselves that “the police are stopping hundreds of thousands of law abiding New Yorkers every year, and the vast majority are Black and Latino”[1]. Not only does this create a dynamic where Black and Latino people are taught to fear the police, but it creates a tension throughout communities that cannot be lightly brushed away.

A little over a half-hour on the fire escape and the cold was beginning to bother me to an unbearable point. I opened the window for my new neighbor, and watched as he clumsily crawled back into my apartment; long board in hand. We awkwardly found a way to say goodbye as I let him back outside onto the Bushwick block. I thanked him for his time and he thanked me for the light. I closed the door behind him knowing that we would probably never exchange words again.

 

I met Asa on the Wilson L train stop platform. I noticed her as soon as she swiped her metro card at the turnstile. She was gorgeous. She looked as if she were on the runway, with her shaved head, high heels and thick-framed glasses. I was not being covert in my admiration; searching for a spot on the wall with my eyes when she glanced in my direction. She sat next to me on the bench; readying herself for the twenty-minute wait we were to endure. Normally the train runs every seven minutes or so, but there was work being done on the tracks that night. We would have to be patient.

I’m always reluctant to approach beautiful women in train stations regardless of my intentions. Strangers are strange, and there is no way to predict a strange person’s actions. But I was feeling a little risky that day, and started the conversation timidly.

“My name is Simone,” I said. Just as I held my hand out to her, a cop walked passed us in the station. Asa straightened her posture while I looked down. This was the perfect segue. I reached into my pocket for my phone and began to record our conversation.

“Sorry about that” she said, “My name is Asa” She returned the handshake with a smile easing me into a comfortable space to talk.

“Yeah they have some sort of presence don’t they?” I asked. “They are always walking around Bushwick. Do you live close to here?”

“I live down the street from this station, right off of Wilson, I don’t see them walking around much by my house but I do see them frequently inside the train stations” She replied.

“Does that make you feel safe?” I asked.

“Safe? I’m not sure If the word is safe, I mean I guess I feel protected in a way, like if something were to happen to me right at this moment right in this place, I suppose they could be of some assistance, but not exactly safe. I think it is great in some cases that they serve as an extra pair of eyes in dangerous situations but when I’m alone with a cop sometimes I wonder if that itself is a dangerous situation” I’m sure my face showed my confusion because she began to explain further. “Like at the end of the day its my word against his, and on the news and stuff these days, especially in Florida a young persons word means nothing, even when they are going up against a corrupt officer”. I told her I noticed that she sat up straight when the officer passed; I asked her if this was something she always did.

“I did that?” She said as she slouched back into the bench, “I’m not sure if I normally do that, hmm maybe it was a respect thing, my father is in the military so I think subconsciously I am put back into this place of submission whenever I’m in the presence of someone like my father, a man in uniform or something.

“What about stop and frisk? Are you ever worried about being stopped?” I asked.

“Me, stopped?” she said. “They would never stop me, look at the way I dress, because I’m very feminine and pack lightly I never have to worry about being stopped to be searched, a few policemen have stopped me to ask me out or whatever you want to call it. It’s different for women who carry themselves like you, or for young men. I am scared for my brother everyday. Everyday before he leaves the house I think about him being a young black man. Do you know what is happening to young black men in the hands of police these days? That’s not my only fear for him though, the police are just one of the problems, my brother is a very sweet beautiful boy and the world rarely sees that when they look at him, what they do see scares them and that scares me.”

Her last words hit home in a way I wasn’t ready for. I found it true in myself as well that I was afraid of the way that people feared me. When I see a cop my first fear is not of him, it’s of the way he will react to his fear of me. I never feel safe in the presence of cops. When they appear, so do more guns and more tension.

As the train pulled into the station Asa got up.

“it was nice to meet you,” she offered. I responded the same and decided the wait for the next train, I needed a moment to sit in my discomfort and pray that I didn’t see another officer for the remainder of my night.

[1] http://www.nyclu.org/issues/racial-justice/stop-and-frisk-practices