February 16, 2007

Fear of the Perp Walk

A few weeks ago, I was visiting one of my older friends who works in downtown Miami. As I walked around his office that overlooked Biscayne Bay and glanced at the photo of his wife, children, and grandchildren that adorned his desk, I felt a tinge of admiration for him.

Here he was, a man from the Caribbean, who had come to Miami with nothing, and had built his career to the point where he was one of the most respected men in the community. Because of his position and income, he and his family had been shielded from some of the more virulent forms of racism in Miami—unless, of course, he decided to go to 7Eleven in shorts and a T-shirt, which is another issue. But by all appearances, everything was irie. I told him as I peered through yet another magazine with his picture inside that when I grew up, I wanted to be just like him. He laughed.

And then he said it.

“Yeah, I keep those pictures for my mother, so that when the time comes, she’ll remember those and not when I’m handcuffed and doing the perp walk.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. If even he was vulnerable to that fear that I had felt so often but never breathed, what about the brothers on the streets far down below us, crossing the street, eating hot dogs, and waiting for the light to change?

And with one in three black men involved in the legal system in Florida, it’s a permanent fear.

And it’s not because I would ever think that he was involved in anything illegal. I don’t think he is. Nor am I naïve enough to think that he couldn’t be involved in illegal acts. We all have a Shadow. But from what I’ve seen of him, he has always been ethical and just in his dealings. So that even he at the height of his acclaim could still be afraid sent chills through my body.

But the sad fact is that he has every right to be. It’s part of American life.

Dave Chappelle has a routine about his white friend, Chip, who defies the law and police officers, but he is never punished. The audience usually laughs and that is a measure of truth. Chip does things that Dave, as a black man, could never get away with. No mayter how simple the run in with the police, the fear is always there that the police will overreact and you’ll end up dead. Yet Dave’s friend, Chip, is always allowed to slide. Black men rarely slide. Everything is a major crime. And never thumb your nose at police officers like Chip. That’s what the McDuffie riots were all about.

For no matter how high you’ve climbed (it’s better when you’ve succeeded, the fall is even more delicious; so if you’re thinking about climbing, this is how you’ll end up, kid), we’re coming to get you and you won’t be able to hide your face to save your family from embarrassment. We want everyone to see it was you. And it was you, wasn’t it? It was you!

Lights, Handcuffs, Action!

And it’s not just that it’s a fear of failure that’s been magnified by our minority status. And its not that our lives are immune to the archetypal Destroyer and Trickster whose job it is to disrupt everything whenever we need to move to a higher level of understanding. I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about is the almost Kafkaesque fear that rightly or wrongly and, unlike our white counterparts, there will be an undeniable assumption of guilt and there will be unequal treatment under the law because we can’t all afford another lawyer like Johnny Cochran. It’s that added layer that we all have to deal with. We must not only win the race while starting twenty yards behind and running with one hand behind our back, but run with the fear that once we get to the finish line, the cops will be there to lead us away because no one can run that fast unless they’ve been doing something illegal, right?

And those days when you did win the race are always in doubt because one day the police and reporters will appear at your front door. They will lead you away in handcuffs with all kinds of lights—white, blue, red—in your face and cameras everywhere.

Doing the Perp Walk

It’s the one element of black life in America that eats way at the psyche of very black man in America. No matter how much he has walked the straight and narrow path. And if I could with this post banish it away from the minds, hearts, and bodies of all my brothers, I would.

I would.


Related Post: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Arrested.

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Anonymous said...

Wow, Geoffrey! I've been needing to catch up on everyone's blog, and this is the first I've read. And it's beautifully written and beautifully moving.

Thank you.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Welcome back, TS.
Thank you!