Riding While Black

September 4, 2014

Several weeks ago, when I first sat down to write this post, I wanted to talk about heroes. Not the problematic, megalomaniac Aryan crusaders with whom Hollywood is so painfully obsessed—Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor. Nor even the lesser-known demigods, or POC heroes—Storm, Prodigy and Gentle among others. I wanted to give a shout out to some of the ordinary everyday human beings, regardless of race, who regularly push the boundaries of limitation—whether the obstacles they face be physical, emotional, or psychological—to brave the streets of New York City on a, sometimes, harrowing bike tour. There was the Gay dad from Texas who, despite having only one arm, navigated the gridlocked city traffic better than anyone on the tour, including his able-bodied teenage son, or the man with the prosthetic leg who insisted on being treated the same as any other cyclist, especially when he was struggling to make it up a particularly steep hill. I’ve had former Olympians quietly battling rare and chronic illnesses, eighty-year-old grandmothers whose feet hadn’t met a bicycle pedal in 40 years, kids and adults who were just learning to ride, and a young woman from Australia, so gripped with fear, she refused to take her feet off the ground, and, instead, just stood there at the intersection of East 54th Street and Park Avenue, legs straddled over her top tube—sirens wailing, horns honking—unable to move. It took some cajoling (including a minor threat that we would have to walk back to the shop and suspend the tour if she couldn’t bring herself to ride), but as soon as she overcame her panic, she ended up having the time of her life. Over the years, these individuals have shown more strength than all the Marvel comic book superheroes combined, coaxing their bodies to perform improbable feats of physicality and courage that others or, perhaps, even themselves, have cautioned against. To ride along beside them as they labor to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge to behold the Manhattan skyline for the first time is never short of humbling. Seeing the city through virgin eyes not only reminds me of the first time I took in that breathtaking view, but their tenacity continually inspires me to strive to conquer the demons and obstacles that litter my own life.

    

Then news and video of Ersula Ore’s arrest surfaced—the Arizona State English professor violently thrown to the ground and taken into custody for jaywalking, followed by the beatings and murders of Marlene Pinnock, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, and an anomalous guilty verdict in the trial of Theodore Wafer for the cold-blooded murder of Renisha McBride, all in a matter of weeks, and, suddenly, I didn’t feel like writing anymore. Not about heroes, not about cycling, not about anything.

     For days, I sat in a kind of stupor, glued to the various live streams of the protests in Ferguson and around the country like I was watching a horror movie unfold (or a snuff film against my will), participated in a vigil in Brooklyn to honor those slain or excessively beaten by police or vigilante homeowners and self-proclaimed neighborhood watch men. Posted my outrage daily, sometimes hourly, on Facebook and Twitter. And every morning I woke alternatively angry, heartbroken and sad.

     From the time I was born, my parents dressed me in a suit of emotional and psychological armor in a futile attempt to shield me from the too often lethal effects of systemic racism. I could do anything I wanted in life, I was told repeatedly, as long as I did it better than white people. Not because my parents harbored some innate competitive drive to be superior other races, but because experience had taught them that simply to be given a chance, my skills and abilities in whatever arena had to be beyond reproach, and even then I might be cut down.

     I watched white police officers routinely follow my father around our small hippie town, waiting for him to commit the slightest infraction so they could arrest him. The one and only time my family was forced to call the police for protection, I watched, terrified, as they “mistook” my seventeen-year-old brother for a thirty-year-old grown man, pulling him out of the house, throwing him to the ground and grinding his face into the concrete with the heels of their boots before cuffing and slamming him against the hood of our car, all the while, my mother screaming at the top of her lungs, “THIS IS MY SON! WE ARE THE ONES WHO CALLED YOU!” His crime? He answered the door when they rang the buzzer. Our crime? Believing that the police were here to serve and protect us, in short, calling them in the first place. In my own life, I have been pulled over and frisked multiple times for such egregious missteps as “driving without a license plate light,” a feature with which none of the cars I’ve ever owned came equipped. I have been prevented from entering a bookstore that sold my own books, and I was once accused of stealing a check from a bookkeeping client that his housekeeper later found balled up in the pocket of a dirty pair of jeans stuffed in the bottom of his clothes hamper. Although I list only a few here, as with most black and brown people, these injustices are commonplace in my life. So common, in fact, that as soon as one occurs, it is woven, seamlessly, into the fabric of my lifelong armor, and, but for the occasional chink, such as a 17 year-old-boy murdered for wearing a hoodie, or a seven-year-old-girl shot in the head during a military-style S.W.A.T. raid on the wrong house, I carry them around like unwanted parasites in the lining of the gut, virtually ignored until the next flare-up.

    

When news of Mike Brown’s murder erupted over the internet and social media, the armor that had defended me all these years, a suit of mail so old it had begun to grow mold and thistles, just gave up and fell to the ground, crumbling into a dust pile around my feet. I no longer knew how to shield myself. How to parse and accommodate all the different “feels” I was having. How to be, how to move. What to do with my disappointment in those of my white friends whose mouths remained silent on the matter, wondering how could they claim to care about me and fail to be as enraged as I was? How could they not see that Mike Brown, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, Ersula Ore, Renisha McBride, Marlene Pinnock, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones and so many, many more, all of them are me?

     In the midst of all this death, along with the rage, sadness, fear and confusion I was feeling, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral on the web, raising to date tens of millions of dollars to foster awareness and, hopefully, find a cure. To be sure, ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease is a horrible, insidious illness from which no one should have to suffer or die. But as an affliction that affects 2 in 100,000 people (approximately “30,000 Americans at any given point in time”), I am having trouble reconciling the gusto, with which we as a country joined in this fight, with—save for those afflicted by it—the general refusal to even acknowledge that systemic racism exists. Why is it that we can rise to the occasion to become our own heroes and vanquish physical, emotional, and psychological impediments to our personal survival and well-being, that we can throw our resolve and money into a metaphorical bucket to triumph over a malady that affect thousands, but we cannot, or will not apply the same determination and desire to eradicate a disease that not only plagues millions, but has been doing so for more than 400 years? A disease, I might add, that ultimately affects us all, not just those of us who are its targets.

    

These last few weeks on my bike, my meditation center, the place I go to quell my frustrations and anxieties and generally Zen out, the roads have become unfamiliar to me. I know where I am going, know that after coming off the Manhattan Bridge, to ride to the bike shop, I take Christie Street to Bowery, Bowery to 9th Street, 9th to 6th Ave, all the way uptown, but weaving through the city’s streets on two wheels no longer wraps me in the blanket of comfort in which I usually find solace. My seat doesn’t feel quite right anymore. My joints have begun to hurt. The sirens and traffic make me jumpy. The constant piss smell makes me gag. On my tours, in the middle of my spiel I draw blanks and sometimes forget what I am saying, and the little slights that, until Mike Brown, bounced off my armor like pebbles, now pierce my flesh like arrows.

     “You’re really articulate, aren’t you?”

     I hear some version of that question at least three times a week, always from white people, never from other black and brown people. One lady, who was visiting from Alabama, was so impressed with my diction she was compelled to comment on it not once, but three separate times during a two hour tour, the last time following it up in a thick southern drawl with “a hell of a lot more than I am.”

     I’ve had my facts openly questioned, even though I researched, wrote and published a book on the history of New York City. On Harlem tours more than once I have had white tourists both American and European openly ask, “Is this where all the black people live?” Or, “Do you think we’re going to see some action today?” Action being a code word for violence, but, mostly, when I step out to introduce myself at the beginning of a tour, more often than not at best I encounter their physical and visible discomfort upon realizing that their tour guide is black; at worst, albeit on fewer occasions, I feel their hate.

     Even with the armor intact, there are days when I am so enraged and exhausted that I think just one more, one more fucked up comment and I’m going to snap! So I can imagine what Eric Garner was feeling when he said to the white Staten Island police officers moments before they killed him, “It stops here; it stops today!” I can imagine, what Trayvon Martin might have been thinking when George Zimmerman profiled him as a “punk”, stalked, confronted and killed him. And, yes, even if I believed the ridiculously implausible theory, which I don’t, that Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager attacked a police officer then charged at him from 35 feet away after the officer had already fired six shots at him, I can imagine what could have been going through his head: Enough is enough.

     After the news of Ezell Ford’s murder, I morbidly joked to my partner, “Well, at least nobody has been killed for riding a bicycle while black.”

     The following morning I read this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/dad-killed-taser_n_5679152.html.

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