July 30, 2014

Eric Garner, Michael Griffith, Murder, Police, Sean Bell, Staten Island, Yusef Hawkins

I’m So…S.I. (Eric Garner, Staten Island and Murder)

I’m so Staten Island, when I heard the police killed a black man – it didn’t surprise me…think about that.  Never before have I felt so numb about a murder. It is possible that I’m becoming desensitized to the police killing us.   I still hadn’t watched the video of the Eric Garner murder to the end, because I know how it ends, and I don’t need to see the act.  But then, the level of sadness that comes over me is unreal.  I’m sad for the victim, for the perpetrator, for the families, and for the community as a whole.   I’m sad for myself because I am ever the eternal optimist, and I am losing hope.   I am a black man in America, who was born and raised on Staten Island, the very place this latest crime was committed.  I proudly claim Staten Island, always have.  And even though I moved to Brooklyn this year, I can often be seen in Park Slope in my Staten Island tee shirt.  I grew up with the Force MD’s and Wu-tang Clan, both popular artists in the recording business from SI.  I became the man I am today growing up in the Markham Homes housing project in West Brighton.  I’ve had a charmed life in some regard.  I’ve traveled the world, and I’ve been able to do what I love my entire adult life. But I’ve also felt the weight of my race and minority status in this nation.  People may not think that we feel racial tension in liberal NY, but Staten Island is a very different animal than the other boroughs.
Officially becoming one of the 5 boroughs in 1898, Staten Island is the only place in NYC that is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican.  It is the only borough that voted for Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush, Bush, McCain, and Romney in the past 7 presidential elections.  In my lifetime I’ve experienced racism here.  My earliest memories of this was not being able to see new movies on Staten, because the theaters were in New Dorp, a predominantly Italian neighborhood where it was dangerous for blacks to go to, especially young blacks, and especially at night.  So for most of my life, we went to the movies in Manhattan or Amboy, NJ, until they built a multiplex in the predominantly black Mariners Harbor long after I became an adult.  One time with a group of friends we decided that we were going to take our chances and go see Superman 3 in New Dorp.  5 of us at ages ranging from 12-15 went and when we got to the window they wouldn’t let us in because we had no adult with us.  This was not necessarily racist except we saw white kids our age allowed to enter by themselves.  We left with our tail between our legs and headed for the bus stop on New Dorp Lane.  As we were walking up the block we heard voices yelling behind us.  I turned around to see a group of older kids running toward us and I could finally make out that they were yelling “Nigger go home”, “get them”, “what the fuck are you doing here?” We started running, with no idea where we would end up.  This was years before the killing of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach or Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst.  I was absolutely sure I would die there that day, but an angel was watching over us and the bus came at that very moment.  We jumped on and rode off to the safety or our neighborhood.  We rarely spoke of that incident again, but to this day I hate going to New Dorp Lane, even though that neighborhood has changed and there is no longer any danger.
During the late 70’s and early 80’s Staten Island had race riots due to forced bussing and changing school districts that sent black kids from West Brighton (my neighborhood) to Wagner High School in Todt Hill, and from the Park Hill and Stapleton sections to New Dorp high.  I remember kids getting chased from school everyday by groups of white kids not wanting their neighborhoods “infested” with young black children, simply trying to get a mandated education.  The only thing that bonded blacks and whites in those days was sports.  But I’ve even saw star athletes who were black get into major altercations due to race.  It was the reason my mom sent my big sister, Lynore and me to high school in Manhattan.  My older brother, Darryl, went to Wagner High because he wouldn’t have it any other way.  He was Staten Island to his core and loved confrontation and wouldn’t be run out of his home for anything.   This was the Reagan era and in NYC the black community had a very contentious relationship with the police, a relationship that is still fractured today.  
When I started to see this video pop up on Facebook that said Staten Island Man Killed By Police Chokehold, it wasn’t shocking.  It’s a fact: police in this country kill innocent black men and women.  I’m not saying we have to accept it, but we must acknowledge this truth.  I challenge you to take this test.  Ask any of your friends to name a black person murdered by the police. I am sure they can name at least three without thinking.  I can name 8 before I have to blink.  Then ask your friends to name a white person murdered by the police.  I can’t think of any.  Police officers in this nation show incredible amounts of restraint when it comes to white suspects.  Very rarely, if ever, do suspects wind up dead by “accident”.  I’m not even including the people injured and humiliated, like Abner Louima, I’m just focusing on the murders for this test.  What makes this more amazing is that blacks make up less than 15% of the population in the US. 

When Sean Bell, a young black man out at his bachelor party was murdered by police in Queens, NY (no weapon was found, the police story didn’t add up but the police were set free), my friend Pharoahe was mortified more so than the rest of us.  The reason was because he resides not far from where the murder occurred and close to where the police were tried and acquitted.   I now understand how he felt, because the Eric Garner murder happened on Staten Island, not far from my mother’s home where I visit often.
As I tried to avoid watching this snuff film circulating on social media, I started getting calls from the fam.  I didn’t know Eric Garner, but people I know knew him.  “Good dude” is how he was described.  “Yo, Guy, you know him, he is down with so and so, or related to such and such, and used to hang with those folks”, etc.  That’s how small town living is.  Every black person on Staten Island knows each other or someone who knows someone.  
I could no longer ignore this tragedy.  I finally watched this video, but I couldn’t get past the part where the cops start attacking Eric.  I don’t want to watch anyone die, ever.  Not a real person with a real life.  I have been privy to the murder of young black men, including my aforementioned brother Darryl who was gunned down at age 27 on Staten Island.  I have an intimate relationship with that murder that I wish didn’t exist, but is ever present; when I walk up the block and people tell me how much I look like Darryl, or on his birthday the way Facebook lights up with pics and stories of “Mr. S”.   I’ve had many other friends murdered as well, so I don’t need to go looking for it on the Internet.  But Eric Garner was a Staten Islander, murdered in cold blood by the police and it was all caught on film, distributed worldwide for everyone to see.  His life was lost, and like my brother he was a father, son, a human being. 
Now there is the usual outrage, and protest (cue Rev. Al) and the debate over how we need to fight back, or protest, or kill cops, etc., and once again I’m numb.  I don’t even know what to say or how to feel, but I know this feels a bit different, because it happened at home.  I wasn’t surprised at all that this violent act of racism was perpetrated on modern day Staten Island.  Staten Islanders beat up a Muslim man the day Obama was elected, so this racialized violence is still the current reality.   

Although we know this violence exists, there is nothing like witnessing visual evidence to what is already known.  Seeing the images of Eric pleading his case, full of life, doing nothing worthy of arrest, let alone death, with the knowledge that within seconds he would be dead caused a bit of rage to say the least. 

I don’t know one person who believes these officers will be penalized appropriately for the murder they committed in broad daylight with cameras rolling.  None of them have been arrested or arraigned.  Only one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, has been stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty.  He has not been criminally charged.  
As the numbness gives way to anger and rage and then to hopelessness, I feel paralyzed and powerless, even in my writing about this.  I don’t know what to say or no conclusion to come to. I have no solution.  I’m just disgusted and terrified, because there but for the grace of God go I, and every other black person in America.  This is not an overstatement or paranoia.  This is a fact, it’s the actual definition of terrorism.  Our community is being terrorized by law enforcement and we have an acute knowledge that if they perpetrate the ultimate act of violence upon us resulting in our death, there will be no consequences to speak of. Our lives are not worth anything to these, United States of America in one of the most “liberal” states in the union, New York City.   There was a protest on Staten Island last week and Reverend Al Sharpton led a march to the 120th precinct.  I didn’t attend, but my mom did and she told me of cops yelling mockingly from their cars “I can’t breathe”. 
Even if you think the officers in question are innocent, this is no joking matter.  Again, someone’s life is lost, a father, son, husband, a human being.  The ultimate price was paid for no apparent reason.  But black lives don’t mean much to the police, or at the very least they are trying to hide behind some fake bravado instead of admitting that they are terrified of the very community they are supposed to serving.
So when the Facebook craze of I’m so…started circulating I was reading with joy all the comments of people from my neighborhood reminiscing on a really good childhood in a great community.  But there is another side of Staten Island that is not to be celebrated.   The history of overt racism is well documented and the fact that it’s still going on in 2014 is tragic itself.   The visual documentation of the murder of one of its citizens at the hands of the very people charged with the duty to protect and serve the community is unfathomable.   The fact that nothing is really being done about it – is depressing.  
I’m so Staten Island that I don’t believe there will be true justice for Eric Garner…and that is devastating to me.