Saturday, December 6, 2014

#icantbreathe aka the time police almost killed me but didn't.

i want to talk about white privilege. before you click that little X in the corner, i want to tell you that i understand what you’re feeling right now, reading that. you’re thinking, “i’m poor” or “i’m disabled” or “my grandparents imigrated here”, or any one of a thousand other reasons you feel that you aren’t privileged. i understand that because i used to feel the same way. i grew up in a welfare family. at the end of the month there was never food in the fridge. i wore tattered hand-me-downs and our christmas presents came from the telephone company or the salvation army or whatever charity took pity on my single working college student mother and her two young daughters. i am also seriously chronically ill and physically disabled. i use a hearing aid, a wheelchair, a walker, and i eat through a tube stuck in a hole that was surgically punched through my stomach wall. i am gay, autistic, and 5th generation american.

i am also white.

i used to think, probably like you are right now, about the terribly difficult life i had and still have. how could i be privileged? look at all the evidence that i’m not privileged, right? but privilege has different levels. if you are in a heterosexual relationship right now, you have heterosexual privilege. this is true no matter what your skin color is—you are privileged in a way that i, as a lesbian, am not. you do not have to live in fear that someone will hurt you or the person you love for being together. you can get married and never worry about what state you’re in. you can adopt a child, you can visit your partner in the hospital, and should your spouse die without a will, you will get whatever rights are due you, including survivor benefits and unquestionable custody of your children. none of this is true of me. so in regards to sexuality, you are more privileged than i am.

so when i say the words “white privilege”, i want you to understand that i am talking about your skin color and nothing else. the rest of your life is objectively excluded from this argument. it doesn’t matter how poor you are, or what gender or sexuality you are. it doesn’t matter if you have a wheelchair or a seeing eye dog or an ostomy. if your skin is light, you have a privilege that people who are dark-skinned simply do not have.

when a police officer sees you standing on a corner they assume that you are waiting for a friend, waiting for a bus, waiting to cross the street, or just hanging out. if you’re in a mostly black neighborhood, he will assume you are lost.

but if you have dark skin, and are standing on a corner, they assume you are buying or selling drugs, looking for someone to carjack, waiting for your fellow gang members, casing a place you intend to rob, or, if you’re a female, prostituting yourself. if you’re in a primarily white neighborhood, he will assume you are there to commit a crime.

white privilege is being able to walk down the street and having nobody notice you. when your skin is dark, you cannot blend into the background that way. you stick out even among other dark-skinned people as a target of interest to suspicious whites.

i want to tell you a story from my life now.

this all happened only a few weeks after my 18th birthday. a legal adult and in a bad mental place, i made the poor decision to steal a book from a toy store. it was stupid, it was illegal, it was wrong, and it ended with me in handcuffs getting stuffed into a police cruiser and taken to one of philadelphia’s hovels that passes as a police station. i deserved to be arrested and punished—i broke the law. i took something that i did not pay for and i didn’t even have the moral high ground of it being food or medicine.

i was brought into the station around 2pm and put in a cell. as the hours passed, my cell and the ones around me filled up because the police had been doing a bust on several crack dealers in the area. sitting on a cold, dirty metal shelf and staring at a corroded privacy-free toilet-slash-water fountain, chewing slowly on a stale cheese sandwich and purposely not sipping the carton of iced tea i’d been given because i didn’t want to piss in front of 40 strangers, i was surrounded by drug addicts and scared out of my mind. one black woman sat next to me, using a fake nail she’d snapped off her finger to slash into her fingertips, attempting to obscure her fingerprints. the cells overflowed with other black women and a handful of white women.

im gonna interrupt myself to point out that drug users in general are predominantly white, while crack users are predominantly black. if you think it’s a coincidence that they were cracking down on crack, i refer you to leroy jethro gibbs, who doesn’t believe in coincidence.

after a few hours of sitting with my knees pulled to my chest, the elmo fabric of my pants getting increasingly dirty from the squalor of the cell, crying on and off quietly and wanting nothing more than to just be home with my mom, the woman who’d been trying to scratch off her fingerprints looked over at me and frowned. “how old are you?” she said. “shouldn’t you be at juvie?” i wiped my cheeks and shook my head. “i turned 18 last week.” the woman sat up straight and i shrank into myself, afraid of this stranger who’d been arrested—never mind that i’d been arrested, because i wasn’t a real criminal, i wasn’t buying crack.

and this woman, who had made a career out of sitting in jail cells at that point, reached out and gently touched my shoulder. she said, “honey, tell me you didn’t tell them you were 18. tell me you lied about your age.” i told her no, i hadn’t. that i’d figured they would know if i was lying and i’d be in more trouble. she, and a few other women from our cell and the others, then gave me an hours-long lesson on police procedure, on law, on attitude, and on the fact that because i was a young white girl, if i had told them i was only 17 or 16 or 15, i would be home with my mom right now, the way my younger sister who had also taken something and who also was arrested, but had been brought to juvie and released within a few hours, was.

later that night, around 8 or 9 pm, i had an asthma attack. i felt it coming on, felt my lungs tightening, and i kept telling the police officers that i couldn’t breathe, that my inhaler was in my pink backpack i could see hanging on the wall behind a desk. they never looked up, never acknowledged me. i fell to the floor and while i was half-conscious, my cheek resting on the ground in a puddle of my own vomit, my vision going dark and my lips turning blue, choking and gasping for breath, i heard a woman in the cell opposite mine—one of the only other white women in there, and whose husband was a lawyer who probably would not be happy to hear she’d been picked up at the crack bust—shouting that they were going to have one hell of a lawsuit if i died there, and that every last woman on the cell block was a witness. the women shouted and stomped and banged on the bars, all of them yelling and rubbing my back and trying to get me to breathe, screaming at the cops to get the inhaler out of my backpack, telling them i was dying.

at some point someone pressed the inhaler into my hand and, too weak to lift it to my mouth myself, a dark, feminine hand lifted the inhaler to my lips and depressed it, thumping my back, rolling me to my side, trying to force me to take one last breath, to pull the medication into my dying lungs. the next thing i knew my own hand was on the inhaler and i pumped it a dozen times, gulping in the albuterol and forcing my lungs to keep working until the EMT’s arrived. with a blood pressure of 250/180 and oxygen being forced into my lungs from a tank, they took me to the hospital via ambulance and kept me there until my blood pressure dropped. the triage nurse made them take the cuffs off of me when she found out i was in for shoplifting a $5.00 book, and threw the cop out of the room. she told me i had to calm down because i was about to have a heart attack. after she’d stabilized me and i’d been forcibly drug tested at the officer’s request (i was sXe & they had no reason to believe otherwise), i was taken back to the cell. every woman in the hall reached out as they marched me back to the cell, touching my shoulders and thanking god that i’d come back, because they didn’t think i would. those women, those "hardened criminals" that i'd been so afraid of, saved my life. they protected me while i was there, they comforted me and enabled me to survive one of the worst experiences of my life.

after that, i was kept at the precinct all night before being transferred to the “round house” the next day. we were herded around like animals and finally, at the round house, given toilet paper for when we had to use the bathroom. later that second day i went before a judge in a little room with a bunch of individual video-phones. i never spoke. the judge looked at me and released me “ROR” which means “Released on Recognizance”—basically that i realized i’d committed a crime and i was sorry about it. i did not need bail money or a lawyer. i was told i would receive a date and time and location to attend a criminal justice class, which did cost several hundred dollars to attend, but that after spending two hours learning about the justice system, my record would be expunged and no one would ever know what i did. and that’s precisely what happened. the only reason anybody would know what i did and what happened to me, is the fact that i am blogging about it right now.

now that i’ve told you my story, i’m sure you’re saying, “but look there, you are white and you almost died, you were on the ground crying out ‘I can’t breathe’. so how is that privilege?”

the privilege is that i am here. telling you this story. i did not die on that jail cell floor. my heart did not stop beating. they brought me my inhaler when they realized i wasn’t pretending, when they realized what an outcry my death would cause. when they realized that if a young white girl was left to die on the ground, people would be angry. people would care.

eric garner did not have that privilege. the policemen and EMTs that left eric garner to die did not think to themselves, “people will be angry. people will care that this man is dead.”

the only reason that i am alive right now is because i am white. because my picture on the evening news would outrage the nation. a young white girl with a life full of potential was left to die over a $5 book, the politicans and news anchors would say. how could such a tragedy be allowed to happen? how could these officers, these people charged with upholding and enforcing the law, let this child die?

Michael Brown, 18.
Eric Garner, 43.
Kimani Gray, 16.
Kendrec McDade, 19.
Timothy Russell, 43.
Ervin Jefferson, 18.
Amadou Diallo, 23.
Patrick Dorismond, 26.
Ousmane Zongo, 43.
Timothy Stansbury, Jr., 19.
Sean Bell, 23.
Orlando Barlow, 28.
Aaron Campbell, 25.
Victor Steen, 17.
Steven Eugene Washington, 27. (Autistic)
Alonzo Ashley, 29.
Wendell Allen, 20.
James Brissette, 17.
Ronald Madison, 40. (Mentally disabled)
Travares McGill, 16.
Ramarley Graham, 18.
Oscar Grant, 22.
Trayvon Martin, 17.

all black males. all unarmed. all murdered by police officers.

all somebody’s child, too.

white privilege is not having to think of these names every time you leave the house. white privilege is not having to be afraid of being killed for existing. white privilege is having the police assume you are unarmed, assume you are where you are for legitimate reasons. white privilege is being given a pass, being given the benefit of the doubt, being assumed innocent until proven guilty rather than guilty until proven innocent. white privilege is never being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

white privilege is surviving to tell the story of the time you almost died in police custody, rather than having the story told by your surviving loved ones while you are six feet under.

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