When I left my building Tuesday morning to walk a couple of blocks to the grocery, I was thinking of my beloved Baltimore, the latest location of police brutality and the death of yet another black man. Before I finish this piece, some other city or town may claim the dishonor.
Twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore on April 12th and died a week later. If past, recent or otherwise, is prologue, Gray died because he was breathing while black. The injuries he suffered, either during his arrest or after he was cuffed and placed in a van, included broken ribs and a nearly severed spinal cord.
Billy Murphy, the attorney representing Gray’s family, said:
What we know is that while in police custody for committing no crime, for which they had no justification for making an arrest except that there was a black man running, his spine was virtually severed, 80 percent severed in the neck area, and he died of those injuries.
Also on my mind was an article appearing in The New York Times on April 20th. Read it, please, but if you don’t right now, here’s an excerpt:
African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands. Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.
So, you understand why, when I passed a young black man, I stopped, walked back, approached and initiated a conversation.
“Have you had problems with the police here?” I asked.
He said yes. Told me he’s learned to avoid certain areas and pointed in the direction of my favorite running route, past businesses and a higher density of pedestrians than where we stood. He motioned, called it “downtown”.
“Police stop me, harass me, question what I’m doing, where I’m going and why.” Then he said he’s seen the police arrive early afternoons and round up the homeless. He actually said, “Black homeless with signs—people with signs asking for help.”
“Not white homeless too?” I said.
“No, only black. They leave the white people alone.
I didn’t ask his age, but I’d say 18 or 19. His face wears a couple of small tattoos. One’s a cross. He told me he knows he’s targeted not only because he’s black but also because of his appearance.
“Did your parents have THE TALK with you—about safety?”
“Yeah, they told me to be polite, answer questions, never run when the police stop me.”
I thanked him and walked on, feeling sick to my stomach. As I surveyed the produce section, I thought of questions I wanted to ask him and hurried, rushed to finish, check out, and find him. But when I walked back, he was gone.
I entered my condo and began writing this, while his words were gnawing my viscera.
I think about my own fears, neuroses really. I’ve told you that I’m an Olympic worrier, especially about my children’s safety. I can’t imagine the anxiety felt by black mothers and fathers, knowing that each time their sons are out of their sight, maybe even in their sight, something hideous and utterly immoral might happen to change their lives forever. I. Cannot. Imagine.
Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: email@example.com