The Wrong Hood

27 Mar

Of all the clichés I have heard in my life, the one I will defend until I am RED in the face is “Sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees.” Find me a person who can disagree with the sentiment of this statement: that sometimes people get caught up in the small or easy to see and identify things, and lose the big picture matters that surround the real issue? I know I do it all the time. I get worked up about the Jets signing Tebow (a second string quarterback) and I talk about what a dumb signing it is. And then I fluctuate back and forth on how I feel about that until I lose track of the big picture: I am talking about a football team here! And a backup quarterback on that team! This isn’t the big issue. The big issue is the fact that this is major news and I am buying in to it. Seriously!

Let’s up the ante a bit. You know by now from reading this blog that I am a teacher in a transfer school in a major city. In this capacity I have seen more cases of blatant neglect and abuse of kids than I think any reasonable human would be comfortable with. My primary and primal reaction? If I could punch the person who did that to my kid, I would drop them in a heartbeat. I never think about the long-line of neglect and abuse that leads to more and more neglect and abuse and the social constructs that do not nearly enough to intercept it. Even if I have known and seen it all my life. In cities. In suburbs. Everywhere. You see a tree that you want to knock down you grab your axe and go for that tree. The forest? It’s too much to take on. And it ain’t the tree.

And if we up the ante even more? A kid is minding his own business (or what he thinks is his own business) and someone who considers himself to represent the law is troubled by something that young man is doing. He Pursues the unarmed young man against all logic and reason. He invades the young man’s space. Shots are fired and the young man is dead. The name of that young man? Ramarley Graham.

This isn’t the name you were expecting. If you don’t live in New York City and regularly read the news you have no clue who Ramarley Graham is. And I can’t blame you. The name that came to your mind, and should have come to your mind is Trayvon Martin. That should be the case. Trayvon is the tree. Ramarley is in the forest. Along with the rest of us.

Ramarley Graham was shot two weeks before Trayvon Martin. He was shot by an armed, on-duty police officer. He was shot in his grandmothers bathroom. He was unarmed, and the officer had no warrant. Ramarley’s grandmother wants everyone to know that not only did he not resist or throw a fight, but the police did not announce themselves as police before coming into her apartment and shooting her grandson dead. The New York Post and Ray Kelly would like you to know that Ramarley was flushing a Baggie of weed down the toilet when he was murdered.

What happened to Trayvon Martin is a travesty. What his parents are going through–a feeling I cannot imagine, and I assume most people who are so outraged by this incident cannot fathom, either–is a deep and private pain that should be reserved for NOBODY in this world. I wouldn’t diminish it for a moment. But what Ramarley Graham’s family has been suffering through during this same period is no less severe. And in my opinion, the fact that his tragic killing is not as widely mourned and protested as Trayvon Martin’s speaks a very sad truth about how we want to view ourselves as a society. The killing of an unarmed young man in a gated community is and should be cause for national alarm, especially when there is strong reason to believe race was a factor and when there is no question the gun is being raised in the name of the law. But the fact that young men are being shot at in the name of the law (or of any goddamn thing else)
in the Bronx, in the broken neighborhoods of Cincinnati, in East St Louis and in many other poor and dangerous neighborhoods across America, not to mention anywhere else, is equally troubling.

In the past few weeks as the Trayvon Martin case has grown national attention, I have watched the support evolve from bleeding heart liberal friends (I love you guys!) on Facebook, to Jesse Jackson, to religious southern black women claiming Trayvon could be their grandson, to Obama claiming his son would look like Trayvon, and eventually even the NY Post saying “Jesse Jackson is Right” (can you believe that?) And, I have also heard so many opinions on the case: this generation’s Emmit Till; a hate crime; a misunderstanding; a Latino male being scapegoated by race-baters; a political opportunity; the kid never should have worn a hood; all we need to know about “post-racial” America. And none of these people are wrong to feel the way they feel. None of these ideas, no how matter how much I want to dispute them, is unfair. But they all fail, I believe, to hit the nail on the target. They don’t want to. The concept of what happened in Sanford, FL (a “white” man killing an unarmed black kid in a gated community) is a tree we are willing to chop away at as a people. We have entered into a contract to accept that simplicity: race in our nation CAN be a problem of one person not being able to see or understand another because of the color of one’s skin. And the only complexity that gets added into the mix is that people will protect their own (George Zimmerman’s white cop buddies will take his word for what happened, even if he killed a young man solely for being black.) It might be a growing tree, but judging by the hard line stance people are taking on all ends of the Trayvon Martin case, we have indeed decided to take our social, political and personal axes to this tree. It’s much, much easier than turning our eyes upward toward the forest.

In 2009 there were 3 murders in Sanford, FL. Quick research on court records shows that 2 of 3 were apparently relative-on-relative murders (the third goes unsolved but is believed to have been drug-related). That very same year there were 299 murders in New York City, the VAST majority in the Bronx and Brooklyn (and this was the lowest in decades, in 2003 it was nearly 600.) Bronx and Brooklyn have the highest population of people below the poverty line in all five boroughs. More than 3/4 of the public housing in New York City is in those two boros. There are three secure juvenile centers in NYC. Two are in the Bronx. One is in in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The commissioner of police in New York City, Ray Kelly, once boasted that The Soundview and Wakefield area of the Bronx would be getting more police foot traffic than any other area in America: track em down! Earlier this year a student told me police were coming through his neighborhood (on the border of these two communities) pronouncing, “We have martial law here, now!” He even verified this to a civil rights lawyer. Weeks before he met with that lawyer his friend and neighbor, Ramarley Graham was chased into his own grandmother’s apartment by people he must have believed were police. But, as students have told me, “how could he know?” Even if he did, he was busy flushing baggies of weed down a toilet. The most incriminating thing the officer who murdered him said about Ramarley that day: “I thought I saw the butt of a pistol. I feared for my life.”

I don’t want to stop talking about Trayvon Martin. Ever. I just don’t want our conversations about race and violence in this nation to ever become about one young man being shot (with or without any threat) by another man. I also don’t want it to be about cops just killing kids. Even the most stubborn of my students know the police are not the biggest threat they face day today. I want our conversations about race and violence in this country to be about the forest, not the trees.

I sincerely hope America keeps wearing their hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin. But more sincerely I hope we talk as a people about what, exactly, we are supporting. And I hope, though I know it is a long way off, we can one day discuss Ramarley in the way we discuss Trayvon. These are two young men, who did what I did at their age, weed bags and all. And they could have grown up to become educators or police officers or damn good interior decorators for all we know. But we won’t know. And whether that sad and sickening interruption to their own possibilities happened in a palm fronded alley of a gated community or in Bronx Project bathroom should not be the difference between their legacy. If it is, we have much bigger problems in this country than a few racist lawmen.

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2 Responses to “The Wrong Hood”

  1. pancake March 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    could not have said it better… real nigga shit Schmidt

  2. Kathy Maisano March 28, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

    Well done, Geoff. I was hoping that you’d write about this; you always challenge your readers to step back, think a little more deeply about things, and yes, look beyond the trees to the forest. You put things in perspective, often sadly, but always probing for the truth. There is such thoughtfulness and heart in this one, and you’re so right, of course.

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