“Just go sit somewhere else! Why do you have to sit near me?!” A petite young lady was standing near the intersection of 3rd Street and Broadway at one of the busier corners of Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, an open-air mall that attracts tourists year-round since it’s only two blocks from a lovely stretch of Southern California beach.
“Just go away!” The petite young lady was shouting this at a very tall young man, who was mostly silent. They both appeared to be about 19 or 20, and they didn’t seem to share the familiarity of being a couple or even acquaintances. I tried to gauge exactly what was going on, especially having dealt as much with street harassment as I have, and my first thought was that she was feeling threatened, or worse. But I noticed she wasn’t saying anything specifically accusatory, like "Get off of me," or "Don’t touch me," -- it was as though his very presence was the issue.
The young lady was approximately 5’5” and the young man was approximately 6’6.” Still, she didn’t seem scared of him. She craned her neck all the way back to yell in his face, not retreating at all, and he was standing a fair distance outside of her personal space with his shoulders hunched over and arms outstretched to emphasize his lone statement: “I just wanted to listen to the music.”
The young lady was holding a guitar and I guessed that she was one of the many street performers who line the promenade. My next thought was to wonder about what sort of permits the street performers have, if any, and if those permits outline specific performance areas, considering that some of them dance and do acrobatics and need to clear out large spaces to perform, and, if all those ifs were true, maybe she did have a legitimate complaint of him being in “her” space.
I was reaching. Reaching for any other answer than what it seemed like to me once I gathered that he hadn’t been harassing her. My thoughts came in rapid succession. One thing I know for sure is that I can’t really know anything for sure based solely on my observation, but I also think part of my brain was resisting what my eyes were seeing: That he was a problem because he is big and black.
I haven’t mentioned their races here yet, but yes, the young lady is white. The sidewalks are still public, he didn’t appear to be threatening her, and it turns out my cognitive reach regarding specific latitude and longitude coordinates for street performers was false. If she had a problem with him, she could have scooted up the block and not shouted at him like that.
Just as I had noticed them, many other passersby did as well, with hideous consequences. It is no one’s fault or intentional design that the girl is petite, white, and blonde, and the boy is extremely tall and sturdy. And black. Regardless of what was being actually being said and who was attacking whom, the optics were not in his favor. He was very quickly swarmed by white people, mostly women, screaming at him.
“Get the f**k away from her!”
“I already called the police you piece of shit, they’re on the way!”
“LEAVE HER ALONE!”
Even the singer seemed a bit surprised by how quickly things escalated to a mob situation, and she quieted down. What happened next cemented for me that I had to step in.
The young man sat down. As the screaming group formed a semicircle around him, he just sat down on the curb and stared straight ahead. Perhaps he had given up. Perhaps he had resigned himself to being told he can’t exist freely in this world. Perhaps he was counting to ten to restrain himself from reacting in what could be construed as a justifiable fashion, but one that would be painted as unjustified or excessive because of size and race differences between him and his accosters, not to mention age and gender.
I can’t tell you exactly what was in his head at that moment, but I can tell you what it looked like to me. In his face, I saw my brothers. My actual younger brothers, as well as my figurative brothers, black men that I will never meet who frequently face scrutiny that they do not deserve. A crowd was pointing and yelling and accusing and name-calling and I had to say something. No one was sticking up for him; not even him.
I marched over and inserted myself between the wall of women and the young man. The singer backed up a bit and my presence immediately made some of the Shouters walk away. I am six feet tall. And black. I know a thing or three about being in a body that is often erroneously read as threatening or aggressive, and as many times as that has been an obstacle for me, in this moment it came in handy.
At this point, the police rolled up, which made a few more of the screamers disperse. Whether the patrol car had specifically responded, incredibly fast, to one of their calls, or whether it had just been patrolling the block, they were there and the remaining mob moved back, presumably to let the cops “handle it.” I then took the opportunity to directly ask the singer what had happened. I also apologized for stepping in because it needs to be stated that I am not the World Police.
To her credit, she was straightforward with me about him not having attacked her or anything like that, and she seemed to grasp that even though she can’t control others’ perceptions, there could now be very serious consequences for the young man. That there was no need for things to have gotten to this point. I still don’t want to think that her initial objection to him was purely racial, but I have no doubt that the crowd’s reaction was focused on that. Or that the police’s would be.
Two policemen approached, hands on guns, and looked down at the young man but didn’t address him. They addressed me. I had taken my best Authoritative Stance and I was telling them what I observed when the young lady interjected. The officers, neither of whom appeared black, by the way, didn’t seem too bothered until she jumped in with, “He wouldn’t go away!” Had she led with something more indicative of her being safe and him not being a threat, that probably would have been that. But with her being vaguely accusatory and with numerous people confirming what they read as “aggression,” the police weren’t so quick to leave.
I jumped back in, doing my best to be respectful of the singer but saying, “What I observed was that you were OK but wanted him to move, is that right?” and “You were the one yelling at him, right?” She agreed and I turned and bent down to make eye contact with the boy, who was still sitting and staring straight ahead. I said, “I’m gonna tell them what I saw, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth--” He cut me off, saying blankly, “They won’t listen to me anyway.”
I held back my emotional response to his resignation and instead made damn sure the cops were gonna listen to me. I summoned up all my verbosity and told them that “a seemingly minor altercation had escalated but the young man was NOT the aggressor and never was,” etc. The policemen went through a few rounds of asking the young lady if she agreed with that assessment, but still circled the young man warily.
As heartbreaking as I found his complacency in this moment, I also didn’t want him to stand up and be deemed “aggressive” again. The police were shouting at him, verbally benign things like, “Is that true?” and “Is that what really happened?” But their position of authority and their shouting at him while looking through him was anything but benign. It was aggressively dehumanizing.
I facilitated continued responses from the involved parties, with the young lady confirming that no further action was needed and the young man eventually summoning the strength and restraint to simply answer “Yes.”
Finally, the police left. The crowd fully dispersed. The boy remained motionless. The singer and I moved a few steps away and she actually thanked me for saying something. At that point I was more concerned with this broken young man than with her, so I asked if she was OK to play her guitar elsewhere and she said yes. I wasn’t about to dive into her ideologies about race relations at that point; regardless of her initial motivation, she saw what damage could be done and she was kind and apologetic about it.
That also told me that I hadn’t misread things at first -- I would have been appalled to find I had come to the defense of a harasser (or worse) simply because we share the same skin color.
And such is the quandary of being a black person in America and not wanting to “make everything about race” when so often, others have already done so for me. People who accuse me and others who write and speak about race of “playing the race card” or “making everything about race” don’t seem to get that we did not create racism, and that addressing it is not the same as intentionally perpetuating it. Those same people like to cite Oprah Winfrey’s power and President Obama’s election to refute all manner of racism in America.
Yes, it is pretty much Oprah’s world and yes, I still get emotional remembering President Obama’s historic victories on not just one, but two election nights. But electing a black president didn’t stop San Francisco police from killing Oscar Grant in 2009. It didn’t stop George Zimmerman from killing Travyon Martin in 2012. It didn’t stop the NYPD from killing Eric Garner last month. It didn’t stop Ohio police from killing John Crawford last week after he picked up a BB gun in the toy section of a Walmart.
I don’t want to cheapen the memories of those victims by saying that I feared for the young man’s life that night, but that’s the thing about senseless murders in the name of alleged authority; they don’t make sense and you don’t see them coming. Standing on 3rd street between the boy and the cops, I resolved to not let an already out-of-hand situation escalate further.
After the singer went on her way, it was just me and him. He got up, looked me in the eyes and said, “Why did you do that? Why are you being nice to me?”
My heart shrieked. I told him what I had observed and that I couldn’t just stand by and let him get arrested, and he extended his hand and said, “Thank you.” His eyes glistened in a way that told me he was NOT gonna cry right there on the corner of 3rd and Broadway, but dammit he was close. And so did mine, because so was I.
He asked me my name and told me his. He said, “I can’t believe you did that. You’re being so nice.” He repeated the word nice with a sense of wonder and heartbreaking unfamiliarity, and we stood and talked for a while. We talked about music and the beach and about being tall and black. Although he presented outwardly as a clean, kempt, tidy young man in a button down shirt and dark jeans with a chain wallet, it turns out he had recently begun “living on the streets,” (his phrasing) and he told me how he had gotten used to people constantly telling him to go away.
As he told me this, his voice rose a bit and he stretched out his arms emphatically, and I couldn’t help but notice that crowds didn’t come rushing to my defense. In fact, no one seemed to pay any mind at all.
I asked if he had a safe place to go for the night and he said he did. I asked if we could keep in touch; I volunteer regularly at a drop-in shelter for homeless youth and I asked if he wanted me to take him there; if not that night, then anytime. He said no because he was leaving LA anyway at the end of the week. He said he had to “find someplace better to be.”
He thanked me again and again and spontaneously hugged me with a gratitude that I felt in my bones. I too am grateful; grateful that I happened to have been on my way to the gym that night, taking the scenic route along the promenade, present and able to step in. So many people are walking around feeling denied simple, basic, humanity. But we are, all of us, human. And I refused to let that young brother be treated as less than human that night.
We departed in opposite directions, my heart pounding in my throat. I crossed the street, and another homeless man who was also black and who appeared immobile, significantly disheveled and propped up against a building, made eye contact with me. He slowly raised a weary fist in the traditional Black Power salute. I saluted right back and couldn’t help but smile as I finally entered the gym.
Later that night as I tried to fall asleep, I saw the boy’s eyes staring straight ahead every time I closed my own. And that’s when the tears came.
Edited to add: In the three days between the submission and publication of this piece, St. Louis police shot and killed unarmed teenager Mike Brown. I am hesitant to frame his death as a footnote, but I also didn't want this story posted without at least mentioning this latest homicide and the Brown family's unbearable loss at seeing their child gunned down in the street by police. He was supposed to start college today. His height has been reported as 6'5". And he was black.
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