My friend started a theatre company a few years back. They’re small and scrappy and DIY. Free outdoor Shakespeare in a public park at 12th and Catherine streets — a cute, tiny park bordered by a cute, tiny, Section 8 housing neighborhood, just a few minutes’ stroll to the deep-dish pizza place, or the upscale craft beer boutique.
So I walk there tonight with my picnic blanket in my tote bag, and I wait in line for the barbecue food truck, and I get my pulled pork tacos and my side of mac and cheese ($12, but oh, so delicious), and I smile as a bunch of sweet and enthusiastic and talented actors, many of whom are my colleagues and my friends, begin to emerge onstage in their Urban-Outfitters-meets-Bonaroo-inspired costumes (flower crowns! vintage vests!) and we’re here to see Love’s Labours Lost, one of those Shakespeare plays that’s not really about anything much more than the fun of being in love, and the journey of figuring out who’s gonna get there and how.
And there’s a drum set, and ukeleles and guitars and a cello, and they’re all great musicians, and they’ve arranged the pre-show songs beautifully, and I tap my toes to Jolene. I break out into a giant smile at the acoustic mashup of Wagon Wheel and I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It’s a gorgeous night, just September enough to be wearing a sweater, still just barely summer enough to soak in the last of the lovely summer evenings.
It’s still light outside, still just the early stages of the first act, and I’m watching the play, watching the hundred or so people in the audience enjoy themselves, smiling at the sound of their laughter, not even really watching the play so much as letting the evening unfold in front of me, content to be where I am in the world.
I hear some people arguing on the street behind me.
The arguing gets louder.
I turn and I look and then I am standing, I have my phone in my hands, although I don’t need to because one of the company’s members is already on the phone, his voice calm and measured, There is a verbal altercation happening on the corner, behind a white SUV, it is becoming violent, send help, there is a woman with a baby.
And there was. A woman in a white tank top, holding a small toddler in her arms, screaming at a man as he walked away, flanked by two of his friends, periodically turning back to scream in response.
Until the moment that he wheeled abruptly, and punched her in the face.
Moments before hitting the child.
It got chaotic after that. I wish I could describe it with more specific accuracy, but I can’t. It happened so fast, me watching, frozen, knowing that it was unsafe for me to intervene but wishing that I didn’t feel so fucking helpless, feeling vaguely as if I was watching some horrible scene play out on a screen although it was happening only thirty or forty feet in front of me, right there on the street. The woman crying he hit my baby, help me, help me while she held the toddler to her chest and began to hit back, fists pumping, screaming, punching wildly. Three men, openly brawling in the streets, the pleas on the phone for police assistance growing louder, the play perhaps continuing in the background for a few more lines, a lone police car arriving, a tiny blonde female officer the first on the scene. She dove in — took three steps forward to assess the situation, and then plunged in running — subduing the instigator, the biggest and angriest man, in a single gymnastic feat, nothing I’ve ever witnessed before, his hands ziptied behind his back before I could really take in what had happened. But it was only her, no backup yet, and suddenly my friends are providing crowd control, get back, stay back, and the woman is still screaming help me fuck you help me fuck you and the other men in the fight are backing off but then running again, towards her, she is still punching and the baby is still in her arms, and there is an old woman on a park bench who is crying, wailing, there’s a child someone help her where are the police someone do something and then like a sudden onset swarm there are four patrol cars, sirens blaring, barreling up the one-way street, a dozen cops, big men running in crisp uniforms, the entire block suddenly a nightmare of red and blue lights flickering off everyone’s skin, angry voices indistinct from one another, help me help me.
And I stand for awhile near the woman on the park bench, the older woman, who is black, wearing a headscarf, weeping. I stand and I talk to her as she calms down, as the police are beginning to put the fighters into patrol cars, as audience members are beginning to slowly filter back towards their seats. I listen to her describe what she has seen, cross-check her version of the story with her son, bearded and scruffy, who is sitting next to her on the bench. They are shaken. We talk for awhile. We both live in South Philly, on Dickinson Street — although my part of the neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, with a farm-to-table bistro and a vegan coffeeshop around the corner, and their part of the neighborhood is a frequent site of incidents just like this one.
“I just wanted to sit and listen to the music,” the man says, shaking his head. “That’s all we all wanted.”
That’s when I hear the woman yell.
What? NO. Fuck you. Fuck the police! FUCK YOU!
And then the woman slowly back away, her hands outstretched and her arms up, as an officer approached her aggressively, angrily. Her saying, wounded and angry, throaty, I’m going I’m going; him walking towards her aggressively, a hand on his gun holster, What did you say to me? You better not. Move it. Move along.
It’s another few minutes before she tells me her story, before she’s able to walk back to the area to see if she can get a glimpse of his badge. Where she tells me that she was just one of the people standing and watching, standing slightly aside from the mostly white crowd, one of the only black people there — that it is her who is told to “Move the fuck out of the way, you ugly-ass bitch.”
“And I said fuck you, because he shouldn’t have done that! He didn’t need to do that. I shouldn’t have said that, but he got me so riled up, and that’s not right” she says to me. She’s calmer than I am. Way calmer than I would have been, if I were in her shoes. “That’s just not right.”
“Besides, I’m not ugly,” she says, quieter. “I got a fiance at home. And I got four kids, they’re foster kids, I had to walk away, I wasn’t going to compromise their future for something like this.”
“But shit. That’s why I don’t call the police when anything happens. That’s why. This. Is. Why.”
The play has started up again, but I’m still talking to this woman, standing there near my friends Nell and Maura, who join the conversation. We talk about how cute her kids are, still playing at the other end of the park. She smiles at us and shares a moment of eye contact, the kind of glance that’s a little uncomfortable between strangers who have just divulged too much, before saying, I think I’m gonna head home, put the kids to bed, maybe have a glass of wine or something. Take the edge off. We laugh and say yes, that we’re so sorry this happened to her, that we hope the rest of her night is better. I look at her and wish, silently and hopelessly, that she knows she’s not ugly, that having a fiance at home isn’t at all the thing that makes her beautiful.
I turned around and saw the microphones, the ukeleles, the cellos gleaming in the sunset, the flower-crown-clad actors gamely trying to start the scene again, and I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less than stick around. So I left.
It was still a beautiful night. The sun was still setting, the sky turning a lovely purple-blue-pink, casting a beautiful glow on the picnic baskets and twinkle lights.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I have written essay after essay about how art matters, how it creates empathy, how creating theatre and music and dance and artwork is the pathway towards understanding, towards communication, towards a more peaceful, intelligent, beautiful world.
But in that moment, I couldn’t help but feel like none of that shit was true. None of it fucking mattered.
I was in that park to see a four-hundred year old Shakespeare play about a bunch of people falling in love. That’s what I’m doing with my evening. Watching the ukeleles strum as a child was hit in the face, as a cop said something horrible to a woman, in a racially charged moment of instigation and injustice.
My entire existence feels like those twinkle lights. Sometimes you forget that other peoples’ look a lot more like police sirens.
In two minutes, I saw the best and the worst of police behavior. The one who dove in and saved that baby, despite being all alone, at great personal risk. The one who was a hero. And. The one who racially profiled and antagonized a black woman, an innocent bystander, a foster mom of four kids who had done nothing wrong. The ones who de-escalated the situation, and the ones who did the opposite. In under two minutes. All of that went down. And I was upset. Because I almost never, ever have to see that kind of thing happen.
A black friend of mine posted a link to an article recently that I’m having a hard time digesting, mostly because I’m prone to saying shit like “having a hard time digesting.” It’s called “White Women’s Tears and the Men Who Love Them.”
And I’m posting it here because I’m aware that I’ve just taken 1500 words to describe a situation in which I have inadvertently made myself the pitiable narrator, and fuck all that, because it sucks and that’s not my intention, but I don’t know how else to talk about this, how else to put this story out there except to do it from my perspective. Comments will be left here, words of support and insight and wisdom, and I will love reading them, but I’m not the one who needs them. A white lady who will never deal with any of this on a systemic level will receive feedback, dialogue, comfort. Not the baby. Not the mother. The words of comfort and support and wisdom will all go to me. How needless.
I went home and drank a bourbon and took a hot shower and felt so very, very, very, very, very, very useless.
Because what I witnessed was not out of the ordinary for thousands of people, my neighbors that I do not know, in the 4th-most segregated city in the country.
“White tears are a reminder to people of color that white people don’t notice racism on a daily basis; we only notice racism when the media presents it to us loudly enough. We need to reflect on when we cry and when we don’t, and why. In other words, what does it take to move us?”
And I think about Tameka, the woman who was called an ugly ass bitch by the officer. I think about the way our conversation went down:
ME: I saw what happened. That was so awful. I’m so sorry that happened to you.
TAMEKA: It’s okay. Thank you. It’s okay.
ME: No, fuck that, it’s not.
TAMEKA: I mean … yeah. You’re right. It sucked.
And I think about how she was put in the position of having to reassure me.
How fucked up is it that she said, “It’s okay” to me? That a woman who was just provoked by the cops had to then be the stoic one, the one weirdly providing me comfort? Me, the white lady off to the side, the ones the cops ignored altogether?
And what could I have done differently so that she didn’t have to say that? How could I have expressed my sympathy, tried to see if she needed help, tried to just say I’m a person, and I’m here, and what just happened to you is horrible and wrong, without putting her in the position of feeling as if she needed to reassure or comfort me?
Lately I feel like all I’m doing is identifying problems, but not offering solutions.
But how can you? Do you, reading this, have a solution? Because please, just tell me if you do. The problems are so big. The solutions have to be broken down, compartmentalized, made into an action plan. And the problems are just too big. I’m so good at finding the problems, and so, so, so, so bad at offering the suggestions. At proposing anything that can actually activate change.
So I sit and I write and I hope I don’t offend. I sit and I write and I hope that it doesn’t feel indulgent, but know that maybe it is, to talk about how I witnessed some bonafide firsthand racism tonight, and a lot of people will still listen to me, a white lady, about it. I sit and I write and I wonder how Tameka would describe this, why it is that we’re not paying attention to her words instead of mine. I sit and I write and I consider that I made homemade soup today, that I posted some cute new stuff on Instagram, that my life is so very different from ever having to fear that anyone would punch me, or my child, in broad daylight. I sit and I consider that I’ve never been called an ‘ugly-ass bitch’ by anyone before, let alone someone whose job entails ensuring my protection and safety. I sit and I write and I wonder how we can all go on writing and blogging and artmaking when everything is just such a gaping wound, an ugly sore mess. I sit and I write and I sit and I write and I just don’t fucking know.