Before I tell this story I should introduce myself a bit. I'm eowynsdottir and I'm your typical white progressive feminist living in Florida. If you accuse me of being racist I'll bristle and say: "Hey, I'm not racist! I write checks to the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Firm every month! I have black friends! I vote Democratic! I'm totally not racist!"
In reality though, while I may write checks to the correct organizations I have no real emotional connection to the difficulties that African-Americans experience in Florida. I tsk-tsk at the Zimmerman case but I'm not out in the streets because of it. I sign the online petition to ask Governor Scott to pardon cold-blooded ceiling murderer Marissa Alexander but I'm not handcuffing myself to the State Capital because of her (though somebody should!) I may post my outrage over the fact that it's apparently open season on unarmed black men here in Florida but after I hit "post" I tend to forget about it, thinking I've done my bit to stop the injustice.
Subconsciously I know that I will never be personally affected by the rampant and dangerous racism here in Florida that is finally being seen by the rest of the country. Nobody ever called the cops because they saw a white woman in their gated community. No cop ever shot an unarmed white woman 15 times because she was standing a little too close to someone's car. I know that, for me, Florida's institutionalized racism will never be personal.
Until yesterday. Yesterday it got personal.
More below the crushed "Cheeto."
I'm a private home health aide who usually visits clients in their homes. My main job is to provide basic health and hygiene care as well as companionship to clients who are housebound. It's a measure to keep the elderly in the community from being prematurely institutionalized.
Yesterday I went to the house of a man I'll call "Mr. Elizalde." Mr. Elizalde is a paraplegic Vietnam Vet who is disabled and suffers from PTSD. Nevertheless whenever I visit him he is always very cheerful and full of fantastic conversation. When I came yesterday however Mr. Elizalde was a bit more sober.
"Hey," he said when I came inside, "You missed all the excitement!"
"I did?" I asked, "What, were you having a party here?"
"Oh no!" Mr. Elizalde said, "There was, like, nine or ten police cars outside my house! Maybe more.."
"What??? What was going on? Drug bust next door?"
"No! They were at MY house! There were, like, twenty-five officers here plus SWAT officers."
"What?!" I was astonished, "Wait, they were here in this house?"
"Oh yeah! They were right here in this living room with their guns out!"
"For God's sake..." I was completely gobsmacked to hear this. "Why were the police here?"
"Well, have you heard of the pillowcase burglaries around here? The robberies where the guys go into houses during the day when people are at work, grab a couple of pillowcases, fill them with stuff and then take off with the goods?"
"Well today my physical therapist, 'Jackson,' came here from the VA like he does every Saturday. You know Jackson, right? Young black guy, big muscles, studies nursing at Palm Beach State?"
"Yeah. Well, my crazy Tea Party neighbor saw him go into my house and the crazy neighbor decided to call the police about it. 'Hey, there are two black guys holding a crippled guy hostage across the street!'"
"Wait, he said 'two?'"
"Yeah, I had a hard time figuring that one out. It was only later that I realized my neighbor had thought the guy who brings my Meals-On-Wheels was also in the house."
"Your Meals-On-Wheels volunteer is also black?"
"Well, of course! Do you think the jackass would call the police over a white guy? Anyway, two hours ago I was just sitting here and Jackson was holding my left leg and helping me with my plantar flexion or whatever the heck he calls it when I point my toes when I see his eyes just widen. Just widen, like saucers. And you know, I'm halfway deaf so I'm just like 'What?' He doesn't say anything. He's just standing there, frozen. So I turn my head towards where he's staring and I see this cop outside just pointing a gun STRAIGHT at us! And then Bam! Bam! Bam! Three guys in full SWAT gear just burst in through my door and they point their guns straight at us and yell 'Where's the other guy?! Where's the other guy?!' And I'm like 'What?! What?! What other guy?!!!' Jackson and I, we both have our hands in the air and we're like 'What?!What?!What?!' Oh God, we were scared!"
"Geez..." I really couldn't think of anything else to say. If I had been in that sort of situation I seriously think I would have wet my scrubs.
"Anyway, by the time I realized what all this was about I was just furious. I was like 'I'm a 100% disabled veteran! I fought for my country precisely so this type of thing WOULDN'T happen!' I'm just yelling at them. 'Jackson's my physical therapist! Call the VA if you don't believe me! There is no other guy! I live alone and Jackson came here alone!'"
"Holy crap!" I said, "And you have PTSD too! They just burst in with full SWAT regalia without even thinking of that."
"Yeah, well, I'm strong," Mr. Elizalde said, "But you're right, there are some guys who would not be able to handle that sort of thing. They'd go to pieces."
"And think of Jackson!" I said, "If that guy didn't have PTSD he sure does now!"
"Yeah, I sent him home after all that. I was like, 'Take the rest of the day off.'"
"What did he say?"
"He said, 'No, it's okay...' He is a tough guy."
At that point Mr. Elizalde and I wanted to do what most white liberals do after hearing about yet another instance of racism: cluck our tongues, say "That's a shame," and then think about something else. But this time however we just couldn't do it. Now that WE had also been at the opposite end of the gun of racism as well as a black man we just couldn't do it. Every time that I've met Mr. Elizalde since that afternoon we've talked about the SWAT team. Every time I meet a black person now I see the way the institutionalized racism of our society has affected his or her manners. The elderly black women at the nursing home where I work call me "Ma'am" even though I'm the one serving them. The black nurse practitioner who visited a client of mine in her home was driven there by her white husband.... not because she couldn't drive but because a black person being accompanied by a white person is that much less likely to be harassed by a police officer than a black person traveling alone. I'm just seeing it literally every day now. Just this morning I had to turn off the radio because NPR was running another story about the Dozier school concentration camp and I just cannot listen to that story without crying for an hour. Think about it. That school was closed down in 2011. 2011! Not 1911. Not 1921. Not "back in those days" but well into the second decade of the new century! Black children were being murdered in this country by the state of Florida while our first black president drank champagne at his inaugural ball. Can you comprehend that?
Well, I still can't.... but at least I'm really seeing it for the first time.
UPDATE: Rec List! Thank you so much guys! And thanks so much for all the kind and thoughtful comments out there :-)