There’s a story I want to tell. There’s something I’m trying to make sense of. I’ve held off on writing this post until now because I’m not sure of my ability to adequately synthesize my thoughts. I’m caught in a sort of Foucaultian conundrum about discourses. But yesterday, something catalyzed me.
I want you to understand the scenes within which I move through the world. My office building, a twenty-two story high-rise owned by a prominent newscasting organization, lies in the heart of Downtown, amid urban sprawl and ongoing construction work. An open-air mall sits behind the stone pavilion where my building gives way to the markers of the middle class, the Panera and Starbucks, where women in dress jackets and heels and men in suits congregate for their lunch breaks. This is the business district. Nearby, less than two streets away, are the totems of law and local government power: the courthouse, the social security office, the federal buildings. From my office window, I can sometimes see and hear protest marches in the street below. Mexican nationals in Aztec regalia, an anti-ISIS rally by the Kurdish community just down the street, people organizing around my building demanding that its owner organization give better coverage to the cause of Palestinian rights. And everywhere, you see the poor, the disabled, and the homeless.
Yesterday, I was on my final break of the afternoon. Sitting outside, reading articles on my phone, I overheard an argument:
“Do you know how much these cost?” a kid was saying, holding up his skateboard. “These cost a lot of money!” He shook it in his hands like a sign of protest.
An older man, one of the security personnel who work in my office building, had come outside and was standing amid a group of kids. If I had to guess, I’d say there were about six to ten kids (I didn’t count), and all but about two were black. The security guard (a white man, I think; possibly a white-passing Latino, but I read him as white) wore a three-piece suit and polished shoes. He had called the children homeless, or said something insinuating that he thought them so.
“You said we were homeless!” the boy was saying; the children gathered round the man, protesting that they owned quality Nike shoes.
“I see you here everyday,” the man answered, sounding very unfriendly.
I only heard snippets of conversation. The children condemned this older man’s comments. They demanded, either overtly or through their actions, an apology. The man continued to insist they weren’t allowed to skateboard here. Some set down their skateboards and dashed loops in front of the building in reaction to his comments. I thought to myself, surely this man will go away, right? But he didn’t. He kept standing there, arguing with these children.
Eventually, I heard: “I’m going to call the police,” and one of the black children, on skateboard, answered, “Call the PO-lice, then!”
At this point, I couldn’t just watch. I walked over and said, sir, what’s going on here? The man turned to me and, in a clipped tone, asked me whether I worked in the building. I answered that I did. I said, “These are kids. I don’t see the big deal.” I don’t remember everything I said, or he said, or the kids said at this point. My nerves were shot.
I do remember an uproar went through the kids; looking at me, they declared how that man had called them homeless, had indicated they were poor, had taunted them about not being in school or not being able to go to school, had said something about college being expensive (to which he answered, in the same clipped tone, “Well, it is expensive, isn’t it?”).
I do remember that the guard turned to me, and said, “It’s private property. The rules are, it’s [skateboarding] not allowed.”
I do remember he gave me the number of the building manager’s office, as if daring me to go ask. I remember I said I might indeed go speak with the manager. I remember turning to one young girl, the smallest of the kids, and whispering, “I support you” and “Good luck” and “I’ll see what I can do.” I remember another young boy said, “Thank you, ma’am,” as I turned to walk back into the office building.
There’s much to say here, and much I struggle to say. Police are the agents of the moneyed classes against the urban poor. Urban poor, predominantly black and/or disabled, are perceived to “devalue” real estate. That came through loud and clear in the exchange between a group of children, most of them black, and an older security guard who had weaponized the language of poverty against them with his not-so-subtle remarks. Whatever income bracket these children’s families actually were in was irrelevant: they were black, thus immediately assigned poverty, immediately considered as detriments to the security of the white middle-class landscape.
But even that is not the full story. This security guard: Is he not himself evidence of capitalism turning the lower middle-class into the agents of the bourgeoisie against the vulnerable underclass? Well-dressed though he may have been, what I know about the San Diego economy suggests to me that he doesn’t get paid that much to be an asshole to kids. And what shall we say about the words “private property” — an ideology taken-for-granted by a man who threw it at me to ever-so-simply justify the threat of calling the cops on skateboarding children?
Common sense dictates that children should be free to play in an open pavilion before the mall. Bureaucracy, its spiraling labyrinth of legalese (produced by and for the upper classes), dictates otherwise. It normalizes itself. It embeds itself into consciousness. Private property. A security guard “just doing his job.” Where does that leave those children?
I have seen gentrification. I do not live in Downtown. I live within suburbia. My apartment lies near another business district, a place literally named Executive Square. I pass bankers and businessmen when I take walks from the local mall to the pizzeria. There, or in the Starbucks, I see young professional white people with their expensive dog breeds, wealthy older white families, in addition to college kids, both white and PoC. Notice I say PoC — some are black. Many are East Asian pre-med students, many are Desi professionals working at the large engineering firm nearby, many are Arab, Japanese, and Southeast Asian transfer students studying English for a semester or two here.
At the mall in this sector of suburbia, there’s a 24/hour fitness where a friend of mine and I were going to work out. My friend is a black man. One night, I arrived there slightly late (I walked), only to find him angry and frustrated because a cop had just accosted him outside of the gym doors.
“That’s racial profiling,” I said, obvious. “You’re damned right,” he answered.
The gym itself, right before the entrance to the mall, is the emblem of the white middle/ruling class, representing its dreams and its fearful psyche. Another time, as I arrived, I saw the police handcuffing a man against a lamp post. This man was white, but he had the markers I’ve seen on the very poor and the mentally disabled — the visibly homeless population. He screamed and begged to be released, saying that he was sorry, asking to be let go.
Inside the glass doors, I looked over at the woman standing beside me. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to say something, do something, but knew I couldn’t. I’m just one person. I asked her what had happened with that man. She didn’t know. She looked bewildered. I asked: Had the man actually done anything to warrant this arrest? I’ll never forget her answer.
“Oh yeah, I mean, he definitely needs to be taken in,” she said, looking at me like it was absurd that I’d even ask such a thing. “He’s crazy.”
Mental illness and poverty: Crimes. Property devaluation. Vagrancy laws. When I worked in this suburban place, they locked the bathrooms because of the fear of homeless people coming into them and taking tissue paper.
Watch this video of Cenk Uygur’s analysis of (former) Officer Casebolt of the McKinney police department going off on a bunch of black neighborhood kids. The racist commentary — every word — must be heard, accounted for, remembered. At 18:54, a faceless white woman with a California accent appears, declaring that an officer who held down a young black girl and waved a gun above her head “deserves a medal.” That woman’s voice echoes in my head against the woman in my local gym who declared a man should be taken in by the cops. It’s the same tone. Same kind of voice. It’s the sound of the white ruling class, guarding itself against infiltration by those it perceives as undesirable.
Ultimately, outrage is easy. Tears are easy. I want to think more deeply, analyze more deeply, work towards a formulation of structural analysis. There are things I still haven’t said, tiers I still haven’t addressed. There’s a murmur of violence spreading out through the city.