Arguing While Black
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
I’m steaming here. If you’re black, you already know about the subject of this post. If you’re not black, but have no interest in white racism and white privilege, go find something else to read.
A while back, in a place not far from where I live, a man came out of his house and heard what sounded like a woman getting beaten up in the house next to his. He looked in the window, saw exactly that, and ran across the street to where some folks he knew were hanging out to ask them to help him intervene. People do things like that in small towns, especially when everyone, including the victim, the perp, and the intervenors all know each other.
The local police were called. They, too, knew the victim, the perp, and the intervenors. By the time the police got to the house, those who intervened had calmed things down somewhat. The abuser was either drunk or “on something,” as one of the people who told me about it later said. The victim declined to press charges. The incident was over, as far as the police were concerned. If anybody went to court, I’m sure I’d know about it. Same is true if anyone went to rehab. End of story, for now.
Everybody involved was white. Is white. They still are.
Normal procedure here in Western Mass is for police to decline to arrest even a person they see engaging in domestic violence unless the abused person agrees to file charges.
What has me steaming is an incident in which a man and a woman were seen on the street in a different town near here having an argument. Their young child was present. Somebody called the police. Town and state police cars arrived. Staties don’t normally respond to domestic abuse calls. Locals do. This incident took on more gravity because of the state police presence.
By the time the police arrived the couple and their child were back in their car and were heading home. They noticed police cars with flashing lights behind them and the driver pulled over.
The police had seen nothing but a couple and a child in a car. Apparently whoever called said the man was choking the woman. The man denied it. The woman did not confirm it. The details of the subsequent arrest are fuzzy. What the police said in their reports and what the man and his lawyer (who is known locally for defending prisoners held without charge at Guantanamo) say conflict. One thing that is not in the police reports is any sign of marks on the neck of the woman who they charge the man with having choked, among other things.
I’m not using names here because the man is nationally known in sports circles. He is not an athlete. I’ll leave it at that. The story is all over and if you really want to know who I’m talking about, you can find out without my help. I’m not going to help ruin his reputation.
The wife did not file charges. The police did. She sat beside her husband during his arraignment. There are no marks on her neck in the newspaper photo of the court appearance. If police saw marks they surely would have noted that in their reports, and that surely would have been in the newspaper accounts. You don’t choke someone with pale skin without leaving visible marks. (If you live with black people, you get to see their bruises and know when they blush or turn pale, but most white folks don’t live that closely with black people.)
What’s the difference between this case and the one I began with? The man is black. His wife is white. If both were white this wouldn’t be happening. Clearly, he’s being charged with the crime of arguing while black.
A pretrial conference is set for April 21. Imagine going that long with an ax hanging over your head.
None of the arresting officers saw anything. I predict none of the teenaged girls nor the man mentioned as witnesses will appear. They’ll realize they made erroneous assumptions and stay home unless they are subpoenaed, which I doubt will happen. The case will be thrown out. But most people who know about the arrest will not know that, and the man’s reputation will be damaged for life.
There’s another aspect to this story that makes me angry. A little child saw its father being handcuffed and arrested. Living where they do, this may well be the child’s first experience with racism. It won’t be the last, but it makes me sad to think how the child’s assumptive state — the belief a child is entitled to have about living in a safe and friendly world — changed in the few minutes it took for the police to arrest the father.
I’m white; I raised a black foster son. I know lots about white racism, even more about white privilege. My home is not far from where the man was arrested. This county has the highest concentration of musicians, artists, and writers of any in the country. There’s not a lot of money here, but there’s a lot of welcoming, sharing, and accepting diversity.
Except, sadly, for some who put on police uniforms when they go to work. And maybe some bystanders who misunderstood or exaggerated what they were seeing.
They may not have the grace to be ashamed, so I’ll be ashamed for them.