In Florida for Thanksgiving, I was surfing the channel guide for CNN, hoping to find out whether a decision had been reached in the Michael Brown case. I said, looking at the television screen, “I hope they indict him.”
My mother’s tone pierced the air. “Why, why would you hope for that?” I exhaled, knowing I was about to have another uncomfortable conversation with my mother, the retired NYPD beat cop.
“He was unarmed, ma,” I said to her. “And he was a kid.”
To her, even if only for a moment, I was just another cop-bashing asshole on the street. I saw it in her face, and it was devastating. Terse but pensive, she said, “You don’t know the whole story, you haven’t seen the evidence. Ya know, whether you like it or not, cops are innocent until proven guilty too.” I stayed quiet as she continued. “And he wasn’t a kid, he was enormous. What if that was me facing Michael Brown? I wouldn’t have stood a chance.” And then the clincher, “It is better to be tried by 12 than carried by six.” There is no comeback for the image of your mother in a coffin.
My 5’8” mother couldn’t have taken down a 6’4” man without a weapon. I would want her to shoot. I would want her to pull out her gun and fire until she came home to me because that’s my mom and it’s my job to get crazy when I think of her in danger. Just like when I picture the man who punched her in the face and knocked her to the ground, bile rises in my throat. When I think of the person who spit on her while she was standing foot post, I seethe and fantasize about what I would have done.
This is my lived experience. I grew up in a household where my mother and stepfather wore guns and radios. They always came home with stories; some we could hear, and some whispered in the kitchen. They always got to come home. We gathered together at night with my two younger sisters to watch TV as a family: “Rescue 911,” “America’s Most Wanted,” “Law & Order,” “NYPD Blue,” all the 90s cops shows. We watched “Picket Fences” until the one episode where the cop killer got off, and my mother and I had our first uncomfortable conversation when I said he might be innocent. After that, we had to boycott the show.
But in so many ways, this was not my lived experience. I was only in that house part-time. I was taken into custody for possession of a weapon, sold many different types of drugs from street level to moving quantity, and sustained an addiction to heroin for years, all before the age of 18. After the cozy detoxes, outpatients and 28 day programs ran out, I was institutionalized in a State-run Therapeutic Community; 13 months residential treatment in upstate New York.
I understand both sides of this divide. I’ve sat in two places for so long that I don’t know what it is like to have a singular opinion, something I’d bet my life on. I’m trying to find one. After years of self-imposed silence, I’m trying to finally speak up.
It is better to be tried by twelve than carried by six. My mother was right. It is better, as police officer, to answer to a court instead of a higher power. My stepfather investigated homicides in the now-obsolete Housing Department of the NYPD. He received an award from Mayor Dinkins for bravery in a grand ceremony held in front of City Hall. “Bullets whizzing by his head” was a phrase used often.
But then my mother wasn’t right. There is so much more than what we see above the surface of an incident. When we ask the public to be aware of the inherent dangers of policing, are we really asking the public to be aware that they are inherently dangerous? My mother says, “You just don’t get it.” And I will never get it because we are all the sums and reverberations of our life’s events.
I want to share with her what I’ve learned and experienced about historical power structures and latent racism but can’t translate this into the survival action she speaks. How can I make her want to sit in the reality of a group of folks heavy with a history that won’t stop spinning back into the present? She won’t learn everything about an opposing position to be sure of her own; memories of fear are all the text she needs. There were “bullets whizzing by his head.”
I wanted to be back in NYC, around the community of like-minded people I had worked so hard to build. When I was younger, I had no one and nowhere to retreat into when these exchanges made me feel crazy. I’d always imagined that this would get easier as I got older, that I would have a concrete position to defend. Family can create a maddening space where time sits still.
It was a long drive home and the head space of doubt was making me panic. I pulled out my pen, and wrote on my hand as it gripped the steering wheel, “Do not retreat into the comfort of judgment.” I looked at it, wondered after it—realized that the discomfort of not passing judgment, not delineating myself from who or what I would determine as bad was keeping me in a place where I was aware of my undeniable capacity to be bad. I left the writing on my hand, retouched it when faded by soap and water. It offered me the comfort that I was denied by withholding judgment—it showed me that my decision was to not be sure of anything.
The family I’ve been given and the family I’ve created love me enough to let me exist in worlds they’ve learned not to abide. I am grateful, but careful to be quiet at the right times. How much do I sacrifice of myself to do this? I have to move from unabashed expression in the city to a holiday dinner with uncomfortable silences and body language like a poker tell; no spark bright enough to ignite the words. But if I lost the appendage of family, I’d be severed and incomplete— its phantom would linger. How much do we all sacrifice of ourselves to love and stay loved?
A few days after I return from Thanksgiving, the death of Eric Garner is back in the news. A chokehold administered by a Staten Island cop resulted in his death; a Staten Island cop like my mom. A jury of his and of my peers did not bring an indictment. This story is not outside my lived experience; this story hits my home. My family has been on this island for nearly 200 years. I’ve stood where Eric Garner last stood, I’ve made “illegal” sales like he had, and I have been tucked in by an officer who has patrolled the same streets. This time, I couldn’t create the strange, curved alleys of possibility and exceptions to avoid implicating my mother and stepfather. How do I make sense of what the cops did? How do I make sense of who my mom is? I break off mentally, go into silence. There is no winning here for me, there is no way to balance all the selves left hanging in the air.
My mother joined the force after leaving a bad situation with my father. She struggled to keep us afloat. We shared a twin-sized bed in a sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment and ate a lot of meals at my grandparents’ house. The N.Y.P.D. was then a viable option for a single mother with a G.E.D., but she had to be willing to risk her life in order to maintain our lives. These very human experiences surely guided her through her career in policing.
As a young woman, I wanted to be defined by her struggle, by all the civil servants that make up my family. To this day, we are almost entirely comprised of active or retired NYPD, FDNY, Corrections, Department of Transportation, and Sanitation.
My mother always set up the ironing board after her shower. She would rest her coffee cup on one end, iron on the other, and mechanically move her shirt over the board as she pressed it. Hair wrapped in towel, she carefully sipped coffee and called to me and my sisters to see if we needed anything ironed for school. I automatically said “no” every time because I didn’t really care. “Let me see what you are wearing,” she’d yell from the other room. I’d bring in a disheveled shirt and semi-matching skirt. “Jesus Jennifer, look at that thing. Give it to me.” I’d smirk as she threw my clothes on the bed with the rest of her uniform to be ironed. The crumpled navy blue intermingled with mine and my sisters’ clothes is still what I see when I see an officer in uniform.
I had to learn to iron my own clothes during my 13 months at the state-run facility. In fact, I had to be raised all over again by fellow addicts. They taught me how to mop a floor, how to do laundry, cook a basic meal, cry when I needed to, and rage when I had to. I went in there covered with an emotional sheet of ice that rivaled the glaciers of Greenland but they cracked it. Those young men and women became family; they formed the larger insulating circle into which I could retreat. But nearly all the People of Color in the program did this with the fear of remand (being remanded to prison) looming over their heads.
I watched them press their court clothes, I helped them tie their ties as I worried they might not come back. Like Eric Garner, many of them caught the attention of law enforcement for throw-away infractions that were compounded into Rockefeller Law “strikes.” None of the white kids were facing a second or third “strike,” and not because they hadn’t earned it
If we are defined by the events of our lives then my exposure to this must be meaningful. Maybe it’s why I thought I could save the world. My plan to become an A.D.A. (Assistant District Attorney) was not only so that I could push for rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration and a repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but also so I could reenter my family, maybe even be reborn.
And I heeded that call from within for three years at John Jay College. We sat in those classrooms with no sense of immediacy and the illusion of power, debating Locke and Hobbes, while people were being targeted and lost in the system. I began to realize I hadn’t wanted to be a lawyer, I’d wanted to be a skeleton key— to fit perfectly into every gap my loved ones created.
I needed to isolate my inner voice, independent of all outside ones. What did I believe? Every time I decide what kind of person I want to be, I see a shift and remember that people are all different things, sometimes all at once and always changing. In writing this essay, I am trying to share this awkward space of the unfamiliar, the sticky, and the infinite. After all the times I’ve been shown that the complexity of human interaction cannot be summed up into a single stance, I had still hoped that this intense reflection would lead to some sort of answer. The path just takes me further and further from reconciling the life I’ve been given with the life I’ve created, but I get to walk it. I will never know what it is like to retreat in to the comfort of judgment and that’s okay.
Thanksgiving week ended with me in the bedroom, sneaking CNN like a dirty movie and my mother in the living room with an easier, televised reality—both of us quiet. My four-year old daughter went back and forth showing us her drawings, learning her own and newer version of division. There is nothing I can do to save her from uncertainty without denying her the experiences from which she will learn and define herself. I only hope to be the larger, insulating body to absorb as many blows as I can. And I hope that her experiences pull her far from the woman I’ve had to become, so that when she hears that two police officers were shot, execution style, in Brooklyn, her hands won’t shake in muscle memory— panicked and reaching around for her mother. And then feel guilt for her angry, gut reaction.
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
-- William Stafford