In 1978 I discovered Audre Lorde through her startling poem "Power" in the Village Voice. I taped it inside my desk drawer, where my eyes lingered on it daily. It felt like a gut punch, but I couldn't stop reading it.
"Power" told the story of ten-year-old Clifford Glover, who, walking with his stepfather in Queens, encountered two white plainclothesmen searching for two Black robbery suspects. One cop, Walter Shea, ordered, "Stop!" Clifford and his father, thinking they were being robbed, ran. Lorde wrote, "A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens/ stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood/ and a voice said "Die you little motherfucker" and/ there are tapes to prove it."
During Officer Shea's trial for murder—the first New York City on-duty officer ever tried—he said, "I didn't notice the size nor nothing else, only the color."
Lorde's poem described the jury after his acquittal: "eleven white men who said they were satisfied justice had been done" and the heartbreak of one Black woman who said, "They convinced me," meaning "they had dragged her 4'10'' black Woman's frame/ over the hot coals/ of four centuries of white male approval/ until she let go/ the first real power she ever had/ and lined her own womb with cement/ to make a graveyard for our children."
Clifford could have been my African American eight-year old son, I thought, when he was out walking. A cop would not have thought twice about executing him, not noticing "size nor nothing else, only the color." The clarity, the force of this poem shot through my nervous system and vibrates to this day.
Now my son is fifty-three and I live in a mostly white neighborhood of tree-lined streets, an area white people describe as "safe." But safe for who? When my son visits from his East Coast home, I worry. He's a long-distance runner and likes to take off from our house for hours. It's hard for me to breathe easily until he returns. I've heard too many stories over these years since I read Audre Lorde's poem, read too many shocking news reports. I don't trust neighbors not to call police.
Shortly after my wife and I moved into this neighborhood twenty-five years ago, we held a house-warming party for old friends. One arrived at our door visibly shaken. "A man, a white man, stopped me a few blocks from your house to ask where I was going." Fear and fury twisted his face. "When I told him your names—though why should I have to?—he said, 'I don't know them.' 'They just moved in,' I said. 'What's that on your front seat?' he asked. The nerve of him! 'It's a pie,' I said. He looked me over for a long time. 'Where did you get it?' Who is he, the Gestapo? I was afraid he was going to call the cops. Finally he let me go."
Marvin kept shaking and I understood this wasn't the first time he'd been stopped by a random white person, grilled about his destination. As if the white man owned the streets and Marvin was a trespasser. Horrified, I was grateful police had not been summoned. Marvin, identifiably gay as well as Black, a man of great dignity, would not have submitted easily to interrogation. That encounter was a forceful reminder that African Americans might be regarded as interlopers in our new locale.
Each time my son visits I am grateful once he leaves that no one called the police about a "suspicious man, who might be casing our houses," as our list serve often warns. The "suspect" is virtually always a man of color.
Lest you think, Well, Marvin's visit was twenty-five years ago, this happened last week during a backyard dinner with my wife, our friend Tyrone, and his partner in Oakland. The four of us have been through a lot in the last twenty years: screaming at the TV together, cheering Obama the evening he won the Democratic primary in 2008, and again the night of his election; supporting a mutual best friend through cancer and grieving her death, crying in each other's arms; mourning parents when they joined the ancestors; and laughing, year after year, over birthday dinner tables.
Over our physically distanced dinner Tyrone told us, "Yesterday a policeman stopped me right on my corner as I was walking home. Two houses down the street! He asked where I was going." Tyrone, usually the sunniest of men, frowned.
"What business was it of his, anyway? I told him, 'My house,' and I pointed up the hill. He watched me every second until I put my key in the door. And turned it."
Tyrone shook his head. How many times had that happened in the life of this 59-year-old schoolteacher? His street of large single-family houses and spacious lawns would also be considered "safe." By white people. But not necessarily for him, an African American twenty-year resident. "Police," he shook his head. "They're always around when you don't want them. But when you need them…" He looked grim. "If we call for police at our school [populated by students of color] they don't come for a day. If ever. But they go to the white schools up in the hills right away."
Horrified, my wife and I appreciated the trust we'd all built, and I thought: when enough white people have created intimate relationships with people of color we'll have a critical mass of us who understand the Defund Police demand, which can seem incomprehensible if you've only had positive interactions with them.
But when friend after outraged friend tells us, "I'm late because they held me for three hours while they researched my Volvo registration" (that was Achebe, a professor of linguistics), or "I was moving my parents that day, with a moving truck on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the bastards forced me to lie on the fucking pavement for an hour with a gun held to my head. I damn near wet my pants, I was so scared" (that was Antonio, an insurance agent), we begin to understand. When our friends' reports of humiliating, enraging "stops" accumulate, we realize the pattern of differential treatment. Over ninety-nine percent of these encounters never make the news, yet they are happening, thousands of times a day, all over our country.
I was brought up to trust police, regarding them as helpful public servants. Guardians. It has taken a lifetime to fully realize they don't treat everyone the way they treat me. Part of that learning has come from brilliant writers like Audre Lorde. The rest is from close friends of color who've shared their traumas, as well as their joys, with me. As more of us white people broaden our intimate social circles we will be in a better position to help envision a world that works for everyone.