Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

One Look Is All It Takes

As I shared in a recent post, my attendance at a conference in New Orleans last month has put me on a journey of rediscovery. I love this self-exploration. I'm challenged by it. I like myself better because of it. And I'm now fully aware of why I'm haunted by an incident that occurred while out one evening. I haven't shared this story with anyone yet; I just didn't want to believe. But ever since the Ferguson verdict, I shiver...

A group of us arrived in NOLA late Friday night, and we had a few hiccups getting out of the airport. My luggage was lost, there were lines, and the shuttle took FOREVER. Eventually, though, after checking into our hotel, a group of us went in search of food and fun. In tragic fashion, hunger won out and we ate at a fast-food place rather than visit a local establishment for edible cuisine. I had no chance of winning this fight; it was me and six men. Six, big, hungry men.

After they consumed approximately 20 pounds of deep fried padding, we all set out down Bourbon Street. Within 2 minutes, one of my colleagues was challenged to a fight. Something about his shoes. Strange. But true. Regardless, we kept walking, his shoes intact.

Music and street performers met us around the first corner. We all stopped to gape. And sway. And laugh. We kept walking down the street. Costumes and dancing and singing greeted us at every block. There's no place like NOLA. No place. So. Much. Fun!

It was at this moment I remembered something my best friend had said to me years earlier when we were presenting at a conference in NOLA. "Joan, we've been to a dozen cities together over the years. I'll tell you. If I had to pick one city, this is the place I'd never let you walk alone. So stay close to me, okay?" He had lived in this city years prior, so I listened. And felt comfortable that my 6'4" friend was watching over me.

And I thought reassuringly to myself, "Well, you're surrounded by six, big, still hungry men. You're fine now, too."

And then it happened. I was trying to be stealthy and take a picture (above, blurry) of 5 police officers standing on a corner in a circle as some sort of "How-is-this-protecting-and-serving?" sarcastic statement, when one of them looked at my friend—the same colleague who had been challenged to a fight about his shoes not 10 minutes earlier—and yelled, "What are you staring at? What the fuck are you all staring at? Huh?!"

I don't know if my friend heard it or saw it. Or if the rest of them heard it or saw it. None of them had done anything to provoke any sort of interaction with the police. And the officers had no idea I was even with these guys, let alone that I had taken a picture of their posse. But when this cop yelled, I stopped dead in my tracks. The look on his face was frightening. The posture that the rest of the policemen took was jarring. His expression was not just angry. It was hateful. He was looking for a fight. They were looking for this fight.

Yes. It's my interpretation. It's biased. But I hadn't yet been to a single session at this conference, so I wasn't influenced by rhetoric. I hadn't started my transformation. I was still walking around with my central-Illinois, farm-town, white-Irish-Catholic, girl lens. And this was a hateful look.

My entire insides churned. My heart skipped a few beats. I still felt safe. But I now felt nervous for him. For them. And they all kept walking like nothing happened. So I followed. They were my escorts. But what if they hadn't just kept walking? What if just one of them had reacted, even benignly?

What race do you think he is? What race do you think the rest of them are?

Yep. That happened. And I can't help but feel my stomach churn each time I think about that young boy—yes, 18 is young and a boy—pleading, "Don't shoot."

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