But, when my parents would come visit me “up north, ” the directional colloquialism for spending time in the various slave holding facilities known as penitentiaries, otherwise euphemistically known as correctional facilities, they would rant about how the neighborhood looks so much different. “Marlo, all de white people living in de building. They all up on Nostrand Avenue too. Dem fellas and dem caan’t hang on the corners no more because ah dem cops and dem white people.” Disclaimer: My family is Trinidadian, and I love it!
But, closed inside of those walls, and knowing my parent’s reputation for exaggeration I would brush off their stories of the white invasion of Crown Heights. I just liked to see the face my mommy, who looks like my twin, and my daddy who usually just dozed off during our visits because of the usually long and uncomfortable bus ride from Brooklyn to Dutchess County, Orange County, Oneida County, Ulster County…you know, up north.
But, then I was released 10 years, two months, and seven days later. My ride home was nothing like I never imagined. Somehow I never thought about the first day, the ride home. I just thought about leaving prison, never about entering Brooklyn again. Does that make sense? As I rode down Nostrand Avenue in the passenger seat of my sister’s then boyfriend’s car driven by my older brother, I saw much of what I left. I saw the same guys that hung on the corners when I was home 10 years two months and seven days ago still on the corners, just a little aged, pot-bellies, baggier bags under their eyes, not so new Jordan’s, and I noticed a few stores that had signs with the words “organic” plastered on their awnings. What the hell was an organic?
But, then when the car parked in front of my building on St. Marks Avenue, coincidentally where police once stop and questioned me for standing when I was 15 or 16 with a friend and her young baby in a stroller. This is what I remember:
“Excuse me,” ever so politely the cop said as he approached me.
Continuing, “Do you have any weapons or drugs on you?”
“No,” I replied with every bit of pubescence sarcasm.
“Why are you standing here,” the cop asked. “Where’s your ID?”
“I live in this building. Why do I need ID? My window is right there,” I pointed up towards my sixth floor window. “I’m just getting some air with my friend and her baby.”
“Well, if you live in this building, let me see you go inside,” this 25ish white cop ordered me while his partner focused every part of his two eyeballs on me in my jeans shorts and t-shirt. Jeans shorts were in style back then.
But, it was to this memory that I returned to my building where I saw a white woman in her early 20’s walking out of my building. My big sis, who was in the car along with me, echoed what my mommy and daddy would say to me up north. “You see, we got white people all over our building.”
But, that would not bother me—would it? I met all of these wonderful, mainly white students from Vassar College when I was up north. I ran a program called Otisville & Vassar—Two Communities Bridging the Gap during the last five years of my time at Otisville slave…correctional facility. Every Friday a bunch of students from Vassar College would trek into my penitentiary to co-learn and discuss social justice issues along with 12 incarcerated men. That program changed my life, man. That program was my first real interaction with white folk that weren’t teachers, cops, lawyers, members of the Kingdom Hall, or random strangers in Manhattan. Marlon loved the equity that was possible when white and black folks could bridge the gap between racial and socioeconomic chasms. Those students were my friends.
But, when I walked up Franklin Avenue months later I thought I was lost…I meant, literally. It looked like a SoHo. White people everywhere. On the corners. In the organic stores. On the benches. In the bars. In the bars. In the bars. On the stoops of buildings. In the Korean grocery stores. In the new burger joints. My mommy and daddy weren’t exaggerating!
But, sprinkled about, but less in number, were young black boys on one or two corners, and sitting on a few stoops. Still in one or two barber shops. All of this happened in 10 years, two months, and seven days?
But, I also would also hear the same gunshots at night. Perplexed.
But, inner city gun violence is usually the evident display of the underpinnings of trauma. Generational poverty is traumatic. Mass incarceration is traumatic. Despotic policing is traumatic. Selective policing based on race is traumatic. Terrible teachers are traumatic. Bad sanitation is traumatic. Demonizing immigrants is traumatic. Demonizing those who access welfare is traumatic. Lack of decent affordable housing is traumatic. Gentrification is traumatic.
But, it would be some time before I was traumatized. Then there was one experience that opened my eyes to my own trauma.
Ten months after my 10 years, two months, and seven days, I was hired part-time to do some noble works. I got a gig as violence interrupter for this local organization called Save Our Streets that was five minutes walking distance from my building in St. Mars. My job was simple, interrupt violence, particularly gun violence before it happened. I was gonna be a ghetto super hero, while on parole. It was time for my first day and I was excited.
But, my first day ended up with this journal entry:
So, on my first 1st official night of work as a VI [violence interrupter] I was summoned by the police for walking in the park after dusk, They wrote me up, BUT let a white lady go. Officer Lorens (a Latino)and a Carl Winslow type guy gave me the ticket.
But, that wasn’t it. While Carl Winslow was in the car checking my name in the system (having an officer run your name through the system while being out of prison for only 10 months and on parole gave me the bubble gut) Officer Lorens was giving the speech about how its hard being a Latino cop and how his childhood friends look at him differently when he goes around his old Bushwick neighborhood. He was telling me that he had orders from his bosses that they had to stop and ticket anybody walking through the park after dark because there was a recent shooting in the park.
“Officer, my job is to stop the shootings. I am going to work now. Just call the office.”
Brushing me off as if I was kid trying to make up a lie to get out of some sort of trouble by apparent, he said, “it’s out of my hands.”
But, that wasn’t it. While Carl Winslow is running my name through the system in the police car, and Officer Lorens is filling my ear with basura a white blonde walks with her little dog about 15 feet away from where I am being held over by these cops. Officer Lorens hollers over to blondie, don’t come in here, the park is closed after dark.”
“Ok, thanks officer,” blondie replies as she turns around with her dog and begins to walk away from us and begins her exit out of the park which is about 100 feet away!
But, what was I to say? I was in the middle of a park after dark, on parole for serving over a decade in prison—only 10 months out. If I wasn’t walking with all of that baggage of disenfranchisement I probably would have questioned the officer about following his orders to stop everyone coming through the park after dark that night. But, I was too traumatized by those years up north to risk anything that would give those po-lice officers a reason to put silver steel bracelets on my wrists again. I was too traumatized to have to explain this situation to my parole officer. So, I took my summons and continued on to my job to stop gun violence.
But, this is the problem of gentrification… It only adds to the list of traumatization that is as American as apple pie for inner city black and brown folk. Social disorganization and more and more means to move us to the depths of marginalization whether intentional or unintentional will continue display its ugly face as gun violence, and all of the “thuggery” that is synonymous with inner city youth. Whether it be dem white people moving in to our buildings or cops stopping us on corners (or in front of my building, in my case), the trauma is where the real problem lays. Some smart person somewhere said “hurt people, hurt people.” Well, let me add my two cents to that: traumatized people, traumatize people.