Out of the Tunnel (2 of 2)

By Helen Gerhardt

I didn’t look away, willed myself to wait for the sergeant to speak as the T lifted us upward out of the North Shore Connector tunnel.

“The police are human, very human,” the sergeant said, “I’ve most surely been on the end of it.” He looked aside again, into some painful memory.

I thought of Richard Carrington, coming home to Pittsburgh after fifteen years of military service to dedicate his life to ending violence in black communities, to building public safety. I remembered the pain and anger he expressed at finding himself repeatedly on that wrong end of the use of police force, treated as though he were an insurgent in his own neighborhood, along with his sons.

Just so, Brian Johnson’s service as Air Force firefighter could not be seen on his black face by the police officers who had stopped him just a few blocks from his home, on his way to volunteer at the local emergency room. The exam he had just taken for the Pittsburgh Police Academy could not be worn as a shield to protect him from being forced against a wall, without any apparent cause, without any explanation afterwards. Twenty years later, as retired black Pittsburgh police homicide detective, he told that story to help shine a light on the causes of community mistrust of the Police Bureau that he had served for two decades.

The sergeant had paused as the T now soared above the ground, watching my face, maybe needing more than neutrality to risk saying more. He knew he was speaking to a white woman who had been a sergeant in the Army National Guard. I thought of my own unnecessary use of force against an Iraqi civilian – I remembered the smile on that brown face fading away into terror.

“Yes, I know the police are human – I’ve been on that other side of a weapon.”

The sergeant’s face changed – what seemed to be a softening, maybe concern for what he saw on my own face, maybe a different set of memories pulling back another way.” A war zone is different, now. Everything’s different in a war zone. You know you’re just trying to survive – the rules aren’t the same.”

“I know I saw a lot of people’s lives get wrecked, for no reason. I know I helped with that.”

“Yes. I saw a lot of that, too. But we didn’t have a choice. We were just trying to survive. ”

I thought of all the police officers and their lawyers that I’ve heard speak of such fear for their lives as motive for the use of force, of how many times I’ve heard Homewood described as a sort of war zone.

The sergeant seemed to be claiming a special pass for us, as veterans, as distinct from police officers, based on our own greater cause for terror.  But such fear could not explain what I myself had done in Iraq, as it did not explain the behavior of the police who had frisked their fellow citizen Brian Johnson, forced up against a wall although he had presented no sign of threat. Such exonerations could not apply either to the behavior of our military at Abu Ghraib, or to the behavior of the state troopers who had stopped Richard Carrington and his passengers without cause and ordered them to strip down to their underwear on the side of a public highway without the least scrap of evidence of wrong-doing.

“I still think we’re the greatest country on earth,” the sergeant said.

“I think we’re as great as we act. And we haven’t been acting so great, these last years.”

“Yes, well that’s true. That is true.” He paused. “But you got to remember who we’re fighting, now. Baathists, Taliban, ISIS, they’ve killed all those innocents, all those babies…”

We’ve killed so many babies,” I broke in, “so many children. So many thousands.”

“Yes.” The sergeant replied with gravity,with pain. “Yes. I killed babies myself. Yes.”

We sat in silence together, rising and slowing with the T as it approached the Allegheny Station.

“But that was a war zone.” Again he claimed the difference. Maybe the defense was the way he held onto life despite what he’d done. He had come so far with me in honesty, in such a brief space in time. I had neither suffered or inflicted as he had – did not bear the level of grief I could hear in his voice. I could not bear to challenge him again, to cause any further potential damage to any foundation for survival he had built.

I reached out my hand to his. “I’m Helen.”

He took my own hand, held it, looking gravely into my face, told me his name, then said. “Most folks call me Sarge.”

He paused. Kept looking me full in the face as people flowed around us, as we remained seated together. “I’ve earned that.”

I nodded.

And we went our ways, he to his daughter, waiting to pick him up at the station so they could cook a meal together for their family, and I onto the Citizens Police Academy graduation, knowing that our conversation had touched us both to the quick, had touched on the root of the contradictions and tensions that I had felt during my own deployment, and on the root of the kinship I felt with the police.

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On the North Shore Connector (1 of 2)

By Helen Gerhardt

Last night, on my way to our graduation celebration of the Citizen’s Police Academy, I met a fellow vet, an older black man, fully uniformed in old-style Army green camouflage, boots high-shined, greying hair underneath his stiff-billed cap, sergeant’s stripes on his shoulders. I was scrambling into fancier shoes for the Academy ceremony, holding onto a seat for balance as the T pulled underneath the Allegheny River, through the long, jointed Connector tunnel over to the North Shore and toward the headquarters of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau. As I stood with one foot in a scuffed-up tennis shoe, the other in a high heel, I joked to the Sergeant that the T was my telephone booth, for me to pull a quick switcheroo from one of my personalities to the other. The sergeant was ready to laugh at me.

He asked me where I was heading, to night school at CCAC? To work or from? When I told him about the fifteen-week Citizen’s Police Academy, he said, “Huh. Ok. That’s a good thing to learn about, sure.”

I was not really surprised by the ambivalence on his face, the sincerity in his voice pulling against doubt. “Yes, I know, with everything that’s been going on.” I was neutrally referring to the news of Ferguson burning, of Mike Brown lying dead in the street, of Eric Garner gasping, “I can’t breathe,” of protests moving through streets in many masses in many cities, of the old news of many decades of police targeting black men for violence, for arrest, and for wildly disproportionate incarceration in packed prisons from California to the New York Island. And to the news of the last fifteen weeks regarding both police and community violence in Pittsburgh.

I was very carefully lumping all of that into “goings on” because I was speaking to a black man who had told me he had lived in Pittsburgh all his life, because I was speaking to an infantry veteran, a man who might well have exercised deadly force over other people of another color than Caucasian. Over many such conversations, I’ve found that many black infantry soldiers often have triggers and traumas regarding the violence that they themselves have suffered at the hands of police, and the violence they themselves have inflicted as “policemen of the world.”

The most memorable of such conversations had been in 2008, on the highway to Pittsburgh from Washington, PA with other three other veterans, carpooling back from a televised meeting of military Pennsylvanians with Barack Obama. We had all been in a very good mood of afterglow after shaking the candidate’s hand. We enthused about how Obama would help other working people. We had all spoken of the centuries of racism that a black president might be able to do mighty things to help end.

Then I’d praised Obama the candidate for his declared intention to close Gitmo, to uphold both Constitution and Geneva Conventions, to end the torture and the obscene cruelty inflicted on Muslims and Arabs from across the globe, to hold the torturers accountable, from bottom to top of the chain of command. I spoke about my National Guard transportation unit delivering water to Abu Ghraib, how shamed and terrified I’d been after the Abu Ghraib news broke in April of 2004, when I had to drive outside of the walls of our camp onto the Iraqi roads where even the children suddenly would no longer look us in the eyes, where attacks suddenly spiked in response to the news, the photos, the undeniable proof that we had followed in Saddam Hussein’s footsteps right there in the torture chambers that we had possessed from him, the torture chambers that in turn had seemed to possess us. But,  I declared, Barack Obama would end all of that.

I did not know that the black woman veteran who was driving the car had also served in Iraq, that she had been horribly wounded, that she had lost many of her fellow soldiers at the hands of Iraqi insurgents. I did know that the car was beginning to drift left across the center line of the highway as I finished speaking, that there was oncoming traffic swerving out of our way, that she was glaring backwards at me, that she was yanking the wheel way back to the right and we were swerving out to shoulder of the road, that this black woman was screaming at me, “NO, NO, NO! Do it, do it, do it to those sand niggers.”

I wasn’t ready to declare any position at all to this man until he’d made his own thinking and feeling more clear.

“Too much sin going on,” the sergeant said, looking from my face to the dark tunnel walls moving by our window. I waited for clarification, for any assigning of sin one way or the other. He looked back at me, waiting for my own response, for my own lean one way or the other.

“Do you mean the police? Or the protesters?” I said, trying to keep my face quiet, open, ready for anything he might want or need to say. And trying to stay safe. Trying to see which way would be safer to lean, right here, right now.

“I mean,” he said, bringing both hands up to heart level, “humanity.” His hands circled outward, moving from his heart downward in a circle and back together at his stomach – a gesture of encompassment, of bringing us all together into the fold of sin, the sin that sprang from the gut of our real-life reactions: violence, grief, loss, rage, violence – all the cycles and recycles of revenge.

“Yes, yes, all of us,” I said back to him. His gesture had reached the core of what I felt. No safety. All of us unsafe for each other.

It would be so easy to skip what I felt coming, the specifics I could see waiting behind that all-encompassing gesture. I wanted to ease out of the conversation, to lighten it up, to shift us out of the tunnel we had just moved into together and just ease on back up above the cold, heavy earth, and wide river and layered histories, to emerge from what might be unbearable layers of heaviness into safety, as the T was doing at that moment, to move away from him and my own memories, without moving seats, politely.  So easy to just let him be a wise old hero that I could leave behind at the Allegheny Station, to go cover the real story I was after.

Even now, I want to skip on ahead  to the next part of the story, to the feel-good graduation of the Citizen’s Police Academy, where I tried to express what I sincerely felt but where I also carefully tried not say too much that might offend, to just have a little fun with people I liked before I came back here to this blog and started struggling  more forthrightly with the tougher stuff we had covered and not covered, with what the class meant in relation to the selective uses of force we are now witnessing in these streets, this city, this country, this world, this humanity. But this man on the T was looking me in the face, waiting to see if I was willing to hear him, right then, right there – to try to connect with what he really meant.