Living on the upper Upper West Side, so close to Harlem, maybe a five-minute walk from the Harriet Tubman Memorial and maybe a 10-minute walk from The Meer part of Central Park, I’ve come to appreciate my up-close glimpses and friendly interactions with the black community, witnessing its living culture in action. It has become a natural part of my life. We’re neighbors.
Walking by my neighborhood police precinct on 100th Street is just as natural a part of my day. In fact, there are days I could pass it by three times.
Now these two components of my neighborhood have officially been pitted against one another.
But in my personal experience that doesn’t have to be the case. This conversation doesn’t have to be limited to the binary thinking of either/or. I can both fully support the black community seeking equal rights and also equally support the police force with gratitude for its service to the community coupled with an understanding that some infrastructure changes are necessary.
I’ve been making an effort to strike up conversations with members of both communities.
It just so happens that every cop I’ve randomly crossed paths with in front of the precinct has been a minority: Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Latino, Asian and black. Sometimes, they were minority within minority, black and Latina women.
The black policewoman I spoke with extensively was near tears, multiple times. She and her Latina fellow policewoman were sharing their struggles in how disturbingly backwards they feel they are being treated at protests and rallies. Curses are showered at them by white people, when they themselves can uniquely identify with both sides of the conflict, even though ultimately they are proud to be policewomen and feel their valuable profession is being demonized as a whole because of the bad few.
These days, they’ve come to expect, when stopped at a red light, they’ll get an obscene gesture from a white driver from the car at their side, the obvious irony lost on the one busy cursing them.
Families passing by with children have parents glaring at them, then whispering to their children as they create distance, walking away.
These are black and brown skinned policewomen who have lived the struggles these white people are protesting, policewomen who now quickly, simplistically, are marked “the enemy,” the “other side.”
One of the black policewomen was frustrated, too. “Do these people not understand the first people to suffer a defunded police force will be our minority neighborhoods where there will be heightened crime? We’re not rich and safe in doorman buildings or houses with alarms like many of these protesters!”
It was a long complex conversation and there was so much more that was said, but even that statement alone belies how separate this black policewoman feels and who she ultimately identifies with.
The black neighbors in my community have been upset and embarrassed by the looters and extremists, going to great lengths to distance themselves from them. These are people I know personally, whom I speak with somewhat regularly, unlike with the cops.
These are hard working, dignified people, and unfortunately, even though it’s their “cause,” they feel defensive about it because of these looters. One person expressed resentment at white people “taking over our protests and giving us a bad name.” Another person said, “we’re all children of
G-d. He don’t care black or white.”
All the people I spoke with said they feel comfortable around the police precinct on 100th Street. At the same time, they were indeed concerned with potential unfair treatment, specifically, the older people for their children. Overall, though, they were busy going on with their productive lives, more focused on the next opening phase in the aftermath of coronavirus.
Among them was a manager at Verizon, another, the manager of a supermarket. A third, a taxi driver. I’m not sure what professions some of the others inhabit.
In my building, a very mixed white and black demographic, the atmosphere continues to be pleasant. Regular, I would say.
Then, after having stayed away from Trader Joe’s since the pandemic, I finally made it there this past Friday. Having stocked up on many different products I’d run out of, I walked out weighed down by four stuffed and heavy paper shopping bags. Normally, pre-coronavirus, I’d flag one of the many yellow taxis driving by on Columbus. But this is post-coronavirus life. I realized I hadn’t planned properly and was in a bind. Walking home with the abundant bags was unrealistic.
A black couple standing by with their own grocery load immediately assessed my situation and kindly offered a suggestion when just then a cab appeared on its way. As the cab pulled over to the curb, the black gentleman insisted on carrying my grocery bags to the cab. I thanked him appreciatively, and was on my way, when I found myself thinking reflectively how that was a nice interaction between black people and a white . . . WAIT A SECOND. STOP! I told myself. Don’t go there!! I was so upset, because pre-all of this, I never would have thought this way. I never would have broken down that interaction that way! It would have just been two nice people who were kind enough to help me. End of.
But now, now I feel robbed of all that, robbed of a time when I could just look at black people as just people. All this obsessive identity politics has, while yes, brought some crucial issues to the fore, the way the conversation is executed and by the definition of what identity politics is, it has also to a large degree superficialized the conversation and invaded our thoughts, or at least mine, to highlight differences, diminishing all of us, versus unifying our humanity.
For that, I feel a loss. A loss, and a regression too, that I feel has been born of identity politics taken to an extreme.
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