by Daniel A. Rosen |
December 26, 2021
The setting: Washington, D.C., Christmas Day, 2021. The Omicron wave of Covid infections has new cases climbing sharply across the city.
The scene: A well-dressed middle-aged white man sits on the expansive front steps of a tony hotel in an upscale part of town, taking in the unseasonably pleasant Christmas afternoon weather. Hotel guests drink coffee and casually socialize at tables nearby.
We watch as an obviously unbalanced and likely homeless older Black woman enters the picture, starkly out of place. She climbs the steps deliberately, approaching the man, maskless. We don’t hear her words, but she’s asking questions and mumbling. The look on the man’s face as she nears: sheer panic. “Please don’t come up here without a mask on!” he tries to wave her off.
The woman grimaces, and keeps climbing toward him, faster now. “Fuck you!” she shouts. “Fuck your masks and fuck you! I don’t care! I’ll kill you, white devil! I’ll sue you and your mask, go fuck yourself.” The diatribe continues loudly as she ascends.
The man, clearly taken aback, jumps up and bolts off the steps, seeing no other alternative; a mellow Christmas afternoon reverie is irrevocably broken. The woman gives chase for half a block or so, but she’s quickly winded. When he arrives at his temporary lodgings nearby, his heart is pounding.
Any casual observer of this scene would have made assumptions about the racial and class dynamics at work. It’s the kind of encounter that probably plays out across a gentrifying District – or any downtown where residents of color are being displaced – on a regular basis. The racial undercurrents here can be tricky to navigate, especially when obvious economic disparities factor in.
In this case, though, our casual observer would be wrong: the man in question is a returning citizen, just out of prison. In this case, in fact, he’s me. And he’s a lot more familiar with that woman’s world than it might appear at first glance.
The stylish clothes he’s wearing were bought at a church thrift store, offhanded cast-offs of the city’s elite. His old friends’ donations, perhaps. He couldn’t afford to stay at the hotel, but his privilege allows him to hang out there unassumingly. He’s a ghost caught between two worlds in many ways, not quite suited to either.
He ran because he had to avoid the conflict at all costs, being on probation, and fearing the inevitability of police cruisers, questions, and handcuffs. Even having done nothing wrong, he knows how easy it is for the situation to be misread in countless ways. For him, and for the woman too.
The difference in their skin color means she’d be likely to end up getting not the help she needs, but an assault charge. For him, the best case is having to report a police interaction to his probation officer, resulting in questions and suspicions.
I spent over two decades living among the city’s over-educated, privileged white minority. I appreciated the diversity of my adopted home – it’s one of the reasons I moved here – but never lived immersed in it. When a series of terrible decisions landed me in the D.C. Jail for the first time in 2015, I walked into a cellblock and felt a hundred pair of eyes on me. I was the only white guy in there. And the men in there made sure to remind me of it daily.
“If you’re white and you’re in here, you gotta be guilty!” one told me. He wasn’t wrong. “This ain’t a cellblock, it’s a cellblack!” said another, letting me know the score. Race was a daily issue, but it also gave me an opportunity to show others that at least some white guys weren’t racist. That was easier where sheer numbers changed the dynamic drastically, allowing me to interact from a less threatening place. An unbelievable nine out of ten men in the Jail are black, and most of the rest are Hispanic.
Like many people of good conscience, I’d been generally aware that our justice system was racially biased and ineffective. But I had no idea just how discriminatory and dysfunctional it really was until I lived it, educating myself and hearing from those who’d spent their whole lives in it. So, I read and I learned. I found out that while one in 17 white men will go to prison in their lifetime, the number for Black men is an unbelievable one in three. I learned that by any measurement you use, D.C. is an abomination of racial discrimination – from stops and arrests, to police shootings, to pretrial detention rates, to conviction and sentencing.
But even more than the statistics, I had a chance to listen to the stories of those I was locked up with, and it opened my eyes and changed me profoundly. I heard Black men, young and old alike, recount tales of trauma and inhumanity over and over. Even when you account for the inevitable bravado endemic to our surroundings and the minimization of responsibility that felons can be faulted for, the accounts shocked my conscience. The same stories over and over in a way, about the abuse of Black bodies and psyches with impunity, about their treatment as enemy combatants instead of citizens with rights.
The District is in many ways a city terribly divided. Black and white, rich and poor, East and West of the Anacostia. My former life as a comfortable professional didn’t give me cause to interact much with those on the other side of the divide. Or to see what goes on across the river, in the “occupied territories” where Black men “can be stopped and frisked and arrested and detained and questioned and killed with impunity,” as Professor Melina Abdullah recently put it.
For the past six years, though – that’s really where I’ve lived, at least metaphorically. And still do, to some extent. I’ve stood in line for food stamps at the benefits service center, or free groceries at the church. I’ve waited with everyone else at the probation office, and handed over my already-imperiled dignity with a urinalysis cup. I’ve shown up at the orientation session for returning citizens wanting to enroll in reentry training, East of the river. I still stand out, of course, the only white guy in the room – but I’m used to it at this point.
So, this is where I exist now: In some liminal state, with a foot in both halves of our divided city. Spending Christmas day dishing out turkey dinners to the homeless, I was uncomfortable among the all-white volunteers on the serving line, forcing myself to participate in conversations about work and school and city life. Though I didn’t need the charity’s help for a meal, I might have had more in common with the patrons we were serving than my fellow do-gooders.
These days, I actually feel privileged (in a different way) to have this insight into the other half of the District. Like many recovering from having their world cracked in half, I’m working to find the opportunity in it. To focus on what I’ve gained, not what’s been lost. And one of those gains is seeing the city I love more honestly, better-equipped now to effect change.
Black lives can’t only matter in theory or in the aggregate – people’s individual lives have to matter too. People’s stories of trauma, of incarceration, broken family, mental or physical health crises, or even success despite long odds – do you care? To sit at a bus stop and listen to a woman tell you, a stranger, about how worried she is that she can’t reach her son on the phone. To look someone homeless in the eye and ask how they’re doing when it’s clear the answer is: “not good.” Would you? Will it matter that you see yourself as an ally, that you work every day to upend systems of racial oppression? Or will the story go sideways right off the bat like it did on Christmas yesterday in front of the hotel, despite your best intentions?