Many Questions. No Answers. Part I

Yesterday we watched, mouths agape, as the police apprehended a car thief in our neighbor’s front yard. It was quickly done. No shots were fired. The perpetrator was not roughed up or unnecessarily manhandled in any way. And when it was all over, the only thing I felt was sad.

This is how the scene unfolded. We were sitting on our front porch enjoying the evening’s quiet as we waited for our dinner of leftovers to reheat in the oven. Here in Manhattan Beach the streets are set on a pseudo grid. Our street runs East-West on a grid between Valley Parkway to the south and Rosecrans Avenue (a main drag) on the north. A right turn (east) from the bottom of our street will take you across Sepulveda (Pacific Coast Highway) then after a straight run of several blocks to an on ramp to the 405 Freeway. This location, our children explain to us, makes our neighborhood…in fact our entire community…an easy target for thieves. Because  it’s conveniently situated for hasty getaways.

Yet despite a vague awareness of break-ins not far away, we have always felt far removed from even the possibility of criminal activity in our midst. Until now.

So there we were. On the porch, when we heard sirens (a frequent, usually far distant background noise) suddenly nearby. Not one siren. But many. At first somewhat faint, and off to the south, then suddenly quite loud, very loud, obviously on the next street over. Then a crash. Within seconds, sirens on our street, coming from both directions. Mr. Penfire, always curious–and oblivious to any personal danger–rushed out in the street to see what was going on, while I (sensibly) dashed inside, where I realized the sirens had drowned out the steady beeping of the kitchen timer.  I quickly turned this off (as well as the oven),  went back outside to berate Mr. Penfire for standing at the end of the driveway, and urged him to come inside.

Police officers were pouring out of their parked cruisers and rushing up from the Rosecrans end of the street toward us. One had a handsome  black German Shepherd on a leash. Meanwhile, more squad cars and a motorcycle had come from the opposite direction, and officers were approaching from there as well.

Within moments officers spied their suspect who had bounded through backyards, emerged from our across-the-street neighbor’s gate, looked toward the yard next door where dogs were excitedly barking, glanced across the street at Mr. Penfire (not a small man) standing squarely at the end of our drive way, then dove under the Range Rover parked beside the walkway he was standing on.

One or two of the officers either dragged the man out from under the car or convinced him to come out on his own. They handcuffed him, and escorted him down the street toward their waiting vehicles. It was all over very quickly. One of the officers stopped to tell my husband what had happened. They were following a stolen vehicle. The crash we heard? They had deliberately rammed it to force it to stop, and the car thief had jumped out.

We got a good look at this car thief. Yes, he was black. And slightly built, with a shock of unruly hair. He looked… bewildered. He had the face of a child. He looked like a kid too young to even have a driver’s license.

I felt suddenly heartsick.

After the events of the past week–the callous murder of George Floyd, the demonstrations, the looting, and the fires– my head was aswirl with questions.

Had the police done anything I would considered wrong or inappropriate? No.

Had the young man done something wrong? Yes. Of course. But. Why?

Because he’s black and stealing cars is what black teenagers do?

Well, that would be a nice simple answer to the question.

But I don’t buy it. I’ve been watching this story unfold since I was a teenager myself. And that is many, many years ago.

I’ve seen a lot. I’ve read a lot. I’ve done a lot of thinking. So  I know it’s a lot more complicated than that.

This past week I got into a discussion about all this with someone who was actually angry and annoyed about the Black Lives Matter protests. This person tried to convince me that the police officers arresting George Floyd were just doing their job, that he shouldn’t have resisted arrest. The person I was talking to wanted to focus on Floyd’s record of prior offenses and reports that he had been taking drugs; began spout statistics about crimes committed by blacks and black-on-black violence and …

My response was pitiful. “This isn’t just about George Floyd,” I said. “It’s about so much more. It’s about history. It’s about culture. It’s about a cycle of oppression, violence, outrage and rage that is rooted in the history of slavery in America.

“It’s about misery being passed along from one generation to the next. The collective unconscious that has experienced not just slavery. But Jim Crow laws down south and redlining up north. It’s about being poor with no pathway out of poverty. It’s about schools that pass kids along from one grade to the next not caring if they actually learn anything. It’s about being lured or trapped into or victimized by gangs. It’s about growing up in a community where as teenagers, getting into trouble is almost inevitable. And there are no rich parents to get a kid who’s stepped over the line off the hook. It’s about coming of age and needing—wanting—to work, and having no family network of well connected family members or family friends that can help you get your foot in the right door.”

I sputtered to a stop. Because I was talking to a person who thought any problems black people had had ended when “Lincoln free the slaves.” Suddenly, I knew I had a lot of thoughts to organize before I attempted to argue with anyone who knew (or pretended to know) literally nothing about Jim Crow, the legacy of slavery, and the insidious impact of racism on the social, political, and economic evolution of America.