who keeps us safe?

I wake up to the light of a tall candle on the altar in the hall. Outside, the rain splatters over everything. If we lived anywhere else, the parking lot next door would be a sheet of ice.

I’ve spent the better part of the last couple of weeks, immersed in a number of writing projects — I wake up and plunge back in, writing and editing both. I had a blog post forming that I wanted to write yesterday, about I’d begun to wake up with ideas, how I’d wake up ready to write, how writing begets more writing. It seemed like a great message, especially on the day after the last day of NaNoWriMo, when folks might need some encouragement to keep on writing every day, keep on with that regular writing practice that they’d established over a month writing that novel.

My sweetheart was up at 4am to head out on a business trip, and I was about to get up after her — as painful as it was going to be after a lazy weekend, I was ready to move back into my own routine. I’d even asked her to turn on the coffee, which almost always assures that I’ll get up, out of a desire not to waste it — no matter that the coffee’s decaf these days, the old habits die hard.

She’d just said goodbye to me and headed downstairs to gather her things together and leave when I heard gunshots from what sounded like just outside the back window. They were so loud they might have been in the house. I froze, terrified, not even wanting to scream lest the shooter hear me and take aim at an upstairs window. Was someone trying to break into the house? Had someone targeted her? I froze in the bed, listening for any other sound, but as is so often the case after hearing gunshots in Oakland, the only sound after the shots was silence. No screams, no tires, nothing.

My sweetheart ran back up the stairs a moment or two after the shots, and I clung to her like a barnacle, I held her as tight as I’ve ever held anything. I was terrified to let her leave. There have been armed break-ins in the neighborhood. What if someone had been interrupted in a the middle of a burglary and was now escaping, fearful of being seen or caught? What if a neighbor had just shot up their family and might turn the weapon on someone they thought might be able to identify them, any witnesses? Maybe my stepfather had finally escaped from prison — my mind raced to every terrible scenario.

We called the police, and learned that many other neighbors had also called to report shots fired. And then we sat still, listening. But Oakland had gone silent.

After she left for the airport, I sat in the dark. I watched the police cruiser silently drive up and down the block, looking for whatever they were looking for. All of the neighbor’s houses were silent. We all stayed inside and kept our blinds down. It turns out the shots, or the noises, were heard from blocks away. Underneath my terror,  I kept hearing those gunshots, and I thought about my relationship with the police, especially given our current national conversation about police violence, brutality, harassment, unfair targeting, and profiling. Yesterday morning, in spite of everything I know to be true, I felt a margin of safety knowing that the police were there. Why? Did my neighbors? Who were the other neighbors who had reported the shooting to the police?

I was awake after my sweetheart left, but I couldn’t write. I could barely read. I stayed away from the windows, like my ex had hollered at me to do after the first time we heard gunshots not long after we’d moved into our first place together in West Oakland. I’d gone immediately to the window to see if I figure out what was going on. Turn off the lights! he said. And get down! It was the first time I’d heard what I was certain were gunshots in real life. Living on McAllister in San Francisco, near the Panhandle, I’d sometimes thought I heard what sounded like they could have been gunshots, blocks and blocks away, but I was never sure.  What we heard that night on Myrtle Street in West Oakland were something else. I don’t remember whether anyone died that night. Later that year, there was a week when we heard gunshots every night, several nights in a row, and on the last of these nights, someone was killed in the street a half a block from our apartment. The next day, we started looking for someplace else to live. Someplace safer. Where was safer?

Yesterday, after my sweetheart left, I sat alone in the dark — the puppy had abandoned me to go curl up on her chair in the living room, though she’d growled at the sound of the gunshots, as though an intruder or something threatening were just outside the bedroom door. Everything in me was alive with panic and terror. I imagined awful scenarios about what had just happened. And I thought about friends and beloveds and and other folks elsewhere in the city who live with this kind of fear and violence every day. I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up — so odd for me, who usually longs for more darkness in which to write, but yesterday morning, I wanted the light. No matter that I know how many terrible things happen in the daylight. There were just too many secrets hiding around in the early morning darkness, and I wanted the sun to take away their possibility.

I never did write yesterday. I fell asleep again, the sort of sleep that happens when I’m overwhelmed. I curled up under the covers, freezing, and hid from the guns and the terror outside the windows. When I woke up, the sun had risen. I looked out into the backyard, and saw everything as it should be — no bodies were lying there. Maybe I should cut back on my Law and Order reruns. I checked Oakland news, Twitter, but there was nothing about shots fired in our neighborhood, nothing, which is usually the case after I hear gunshots. Just silence. The violence probably not actually random, but it feels that way to this listener, who has no context for these specific acts, and is left just to imagine the worst. What else is there to imagine when gunshots are involved? Maybe someone was shooting their rapist, their abuser, their pimp? Maybe some good was opening up in the world in that silence that followed those impossibly loud shots. Yesterday, that didn’t once occur to me. I crept around all morning, still terrified, peeking through the fence into other yards, not wanting anyone to catch me looking. This is the behavior of someone who has learned to navigate around someone violent. I tried to work, couldn’t, and ended up watching Serenity on cable — not a non-violent film by any means, but I got to see my friend Yuri who was an extra in the film, and there’s humor, and the good guys win — even after all the vast amounts of irreparable damage by the bad guys.

Yesterday was the first time, in all the years I’d lived in Oakland, that I called the police after hearing gunshots.  It has often seemed like calling the police would do no good, and maybe even create more harm. Even in making this call, I was reminded of the messiness of individual witness accounts of crimes — I have a clear memory of three gunshots, while my sweetheart reported four. We both heard a shot, then a pause, and then more — two more for me, three more for her. This time, at least we could say for sure where we thought the shots were coming from.

Yet, yesterday, I wanted someone to put themselves in harm’s way. Damnit, I wanted someone to go find out what happened. That’s what the police do. At least, that’s what I was taught that they do. I believed for years that police put people before property, protected everyone the same, got into the work because they wanted to serve their communities. And then I had a stepfather who made us terrified of going to the authorities because he said he had an in with the government, was friends with folks down at the courthouse. I worked with victims of domestic violence whose husbands or boyfriends were cops or had friends who were cops, and so could track their victim’s movements and could close off all avenues of protection to her. I watched four cops beat Rodney King, and I watched a jury let those cops walk. I learned about police who covered up child abuse, pedophile rings, and other terrible crimes against women and children and men. I listened to those in my communities who described being targeted by police, harassed in their cars, targeted unfairly. I was terrified, living in West Oakland, that my ex would be mistaken for someone else and picked up or shot — just for being a brown-skinned guy in the wrong place at the wrong time — because it seemed that brown-skinned guys in America were often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I stopped trusting the police so much. I understood that many situations would be made worse by bringing the police in — not just in Oakland, but all across the country. I do not always feel safer to have a cop car pass me, because even though I know that I am not an historic target of their violence, folks who look like me have, as Minne Bruce Pratt taught me, been used as a justification for the violence of historically white-supremecist systems of power.

Yesterday, I was grateful the police were there, and responsive, ostensibly trying and make me and my loves and my community safer, trying to bring someone doing harm to justice — and you can ask yourself how I can believe that, even after all these years watching the criminal justice system fail victims of violence. You can ask me how I can believe that knowing that the cops are looking for whatever they can find during those scouting trips up and down the block. You can ask me how I can believe this knowing they might stop someone completely unrelated to the shooting, even the teenage son of the mom across the street, a young brown-skinned man who has almost certainly already been the victim of police harassment, or lives in fear of it, and in fear of the aftermath.

When we live in communities of thousands and thousands of people, don’t we need those who will sometimes put themselves in between us and violence? True, those people aren’t always cops — they’re often not cops. They’re family members, bystanders, neighbors, friends.  In the best case scenario, maybe a once-upon-a-someday situation, the neighborhood is working together — we call one another first. It’s not that we don’t know our neighbors around my sweetheart’s place — it’s that when those gunshots went off, I wasn’t at all sure that it wasn’t one of those neighbors doing the shooting, and I was terrified of getting shot if I interrupted them, or exposed them. Maybe all the violence I’ve been exposed to — in my stepfather’s house, in the lives of the women I’ve worked with since the 90s, in the tv I choose to consume — has done its work, and terrified me away from being able to trust my neighbors, trust the people I live with and around. An isolated people are a more easily controlled people, of course, and when we are more afraid of our neighbors than the “authorities,” we do what the authorities want.

The truth is, I know that police can’t keep me from being harmed, they can’t keep me safe. Just because a cop is around doesn’t mean I let my guard down. But police act as deterrent, they can intervene during an assault or violation, and they can investigate in the aftermath of a crime. I want more from our police departments than racial profiling and harassment and stop-and-frisk and a desire to protect property before people — like so very many people do. I want a police department that protects and serves the people. I want everyone to feel safer when they see a police car, not more at risk.I want a police department that comports themselves in line with their own ideals (just as I want a us government that does the same). I want police officers willing to unlearn the racism they were raised with in this country, so that they are never able to look at a human being, especially someone they are meant to “protect and serve” and say, “it looks like a demon.” I want everyone in my community not to feel conflicted about whether or not to call the police when we are harmed or threatened or violated. I want the police to be our allies.

I am thinking, too, that most victims of gun violence know the person who is shooting at them. The handgun my stepfather kept under his bed in a case (loaded or not, I don’t know) was never, to my knowledge, pulled out to protect the family, but at least once that I was present for was used to shame, terrify, and threaten us. Is there really a need for us to have as many guns as we have in the communities in this country? Are we using that weaponry to create change in the government, or are we treating one another like entities in a video game? But that is a topic for another blog post.

By the end of the day yesterday, my adrenaline was back to normal, and I was functional again. I still can hear those gunshots, though, and when I remember them, I feel the terror in my belly and my shoulders seize up again. I am sending whatever good thoughts I can today to those who live with the fear of gun violence, and to those who absolutely know they can’t turn to the police. We have to be able to turn to each other in order to hold our communities in greater safety and reverence. I am sending whatever good thoughts I can to whoever was involved in that shooting yesterday. And I am sending good thoughts to you.

Be easy with yourselves today, and say hello to your neighbors. I will do the same. Maybe I will even say hello to a police officer. And I’ll keep writing. You do, too, please, ok? Ok.


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