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.