Walking While Black, in Attleboro, Mass.
I have lived in Boston’s African America for over 40 years (mostly Dorchester, “the Brooklyn of Boston”). Over the past three weeks I have been living in Attleboro, MA, a rural town in the southeastern part of the state (this for reasons which go beyond the scope of this report). Following a recent blizzard I was walking to town to work at 7am (there is no public transportation in Attleboro during the morning rush hours). The sidewalks were not cleared of the snow, and because it was 38 degrees the gutters were filled with water. Therefore, my walking path was on the edge of the street, just inside the gutter. After about five minutes of this walk a couple of “Attleboro’s finest” descended upon me and placed me under arrest for WWB (walking while Black) — a now common phenomenon in the United States of America.
Yes, as one officer questioned me about my intentions and purpose in the town, another cruiser arrived — now three officers and a dog, making this the biggest crime scene in Attleboro in twenty years. They searched me thoroughly, asked me if I had any guns or other illegal weapons on me, and inquired about my mental state. They proceeded to handcuff me and bring me to police headquarters for further questioning. Routinely, when I leave my living quarters for the day, having no car, I fill two backpacks with the belongings I need for the day. The police took these and put them in a garbage bag. Later that morning, when the captain came in, he asked me, referring to the bag, “Is all that your shit?”
I was then jailed for the crime of walking in the street while Black (I readily plead guilty to both charges). After running my ID, the arresting officer discovered that in the year of our Lord 2013 I failed to appear for jury duty in Boston. After consulting with his superior, this officer concluded that I needed to be brought to court and prosecuted for this crime. (I’ve always wanted to be on a jury. Had I known of the City of Boston’s effort to recruit me for such, I certainly would have stepped forward and performed this duty).
This incident in Attleboro took place 24 hours after the U.S. Justice Department made public its findings in the Ferguson, MO, debacle: The police department in Ferguson had been, for the past twenty years, stopping the cars of, fining, searching and jailing the African American residents of the city for the purpose of “balancing the city’s budget…” 83% of searches for drugs and illegal weapons were of African Americans, while the 17% of White subjects searched over this period were found to be twice as likely to have illegal drugs or weapons on their person.
Parallel to this investigation by the Justice Department, and indeed before it (led by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, 2012), numerous studies have been uncovering that this, far from being an exceptional case, is the norm in the United States of America. It is a foundation reflex function of the social system.
Honeymoon over In my three-week stay I have been more than surprised at how friendly people are in this rural working class town. Everyone, it seems, says “Good morning” when they see you in the street. When you walk into a store, the person behind the counter greets you, whether it be Dunkin’ Donuts or the hardware store. It’s been blizzard conditions most of the time, the public transportation system is minimal, and I walk with a limp due to having broken my leg two months ago. In these circumstances, every single day for the nine day stretch leading up to my “run-in with the law” I have had some driver pull up alongside me while I’m walking and offer me a lift. I love Dorchester, MA, and this “offering a lift” happens much less frequently in Dorchester.
The local law enforcers handling my incarceration ended my emerging love affair with Attleboro, MA. They started me out in solitary confinement — presumably to monitor my psychological condition. Indeed, the officer who took my belongings explained to me that the tie on my long underwear had to be taken out. Upon recognizing that it was sown into the garment, he took out a pair of scissors and cut it off. I could not help but ask, “So, you’re concerned that I may try to commit suicide by hanging myself with this three-inch tie after having been charged with failure to show up for jury duty…” Attleboro’s version of Barney Fife dutifully responded, “Just following procedure. You’d be surprised how often it happens…”
When they took me to the courthouse they “mainstreamed” me into the “general prison population;” in other words, they put me in the cell in the basement below the courtroom in this one-room courthouse, with three other prisoners — two of-Color and one White boy who had been on a bender when they found him swerving in the street, arrested for DWI. After one of the other men told this White boy that he had been arrested for shop-lifting, the White boy tried to engage the entire group of us in “criminal talk,” as he explained that his favored endeavor is “boosting,” stealing clothes. I couldn’t help but contemplate the nature of a social system which engineers people at such a young age to identify as criminals. On the other hand, it also occurred to me that more people are arrested everyday in the US of A for DWB than for DWI.
During the two hours in the cell I performed various meditations, eschewing my Sufi chanting for fear of being identified as an Arab terrorist. On top of already being caught with such anti-social attributes as being an elder (I’m 62), Black (guilty as charged), physically disabled (I’m limping), homeless-looking (I’m carrying half of my belongings in two bags), and possibly a psychiatric case (due to my rooster muffler), I didn’t want terrorist added to the list. Yes, I do not believe I was arrested and jailed merely because I am Black. In the class system known as the United States of America (there has never been a social system which exhibits class division to the depth and extent of the USA 21st century), the reason-to-be of the local and state police, the FBI and the military are as the institutions of protection of good American citizens, ultimately to protect the private property of such. Good American citizens generally are White, homeowners, with cars, are employed, and act in accordance with a coterie of ingrained cultural cues which are experienced as “human” attributes. Base pay for police is generally enough to skirt the edge of the life norms of these “humans,” and when corruption, over and above that which defines police-hood in this country, is factored in (ultimately, the concept “corrupt police” is a redundancy), many police are, in terms of material wealth, outdoing those they are responsible for protecting.
Their job is to protect these real humans from the rest of us. In Attleboro, MA there is no public transportation during the time when “normal” humans go to work in the morning. This alleged human, me, in addition to walking to work — subhuman behavior — I am leaving my residence for the day, so I’m carrying what I need for the day. Upstanding citizens have cars in which they carry what they need for the day. The limp is a sign, in good orderly America, of misfortune and… deviance. What I surmise happened is that, despite all of the lovely people who have helped me at the local YMCA, at the public library, who’ve given me rides, one… citizen was probably disturbed by my presence walking while Black, looking homeless, and limping, ruining the ambiance of the drive to work, and called it in — “Nigger on the loose on Park Street, Attleboro, making it hard for me to drive to work…” Attleboro’s Gomer Pile dutifully responded, “Roger that, we’ll get right on it.”
I have also been sporting a muffler/winter hat which has on it the face of a rooster, replete with black eyes, a yellow beak, and a red comb on top. I purchased this hat not for its looks, but purely for utility — it amply covers my ears during this perpetual blizzard of winter 2015. I paid no attention to what it looked like until the locals repeatedly gave me a good-humored laugh while complimenting my head gear.
I haven’t found any takers on my theory that my hat played a role in my arrest. I’m adding it in because, what may seem funny to the average citizen could be a cover for terrorism for the foresight-ful Barney Fife, or I may be on the loose from a psych ward — which is saying almost the same thing with different words.
The Political Economy of WWB In this class society police protect real humans from: Blacks, homeless people, people who are physically and/or mentally disabled, and from terrorists. Each of these is a factor of the class system, which is coincident with, identical to the white supremacist system — they are one and the same system. Du Bois pointed out in 1935 that the ruling class in this, the dying phase of capitalism, is coincident with the dominant nation — the world is divided between rich White nations and of-Color nations.
While I may be one of the first to coin the term WWB (Walking While Black), I am clearly not the first to experience it. Indeed, this rash of reports of Brothers who are being shot in the head by police every third day of the last year — are reports of what has been going unreported; most of these men were WWB. I do not trust the US Justice Department as far as I can throw them, so whatever they are saying has been going on in Ferguson must be twice as bad as what they have documented. It is also the norm for the country. Ferguson and Attleboro are two instances of the same case. (I am very happy to be alive, and in placing these two instances in the same category I am identifying them together, not trying to compare the quantity of oppression involved. A wrong move on my part, and Attleboro’s finest could easily have given me a death sentence on the spot). Indeed, after spending a couple of hours in lock-up, I overheard two policemen talking just outside the cell about something to the effect that “I think we fucked up on this one.” And I was released on my own recognizance within minutes. My best sense is that the judge, upon reading the charges brought against me (and it’s possible that the judge may on occasion watch the news or maybe he reads a newspaper from time to time), recoiled with horror that they had a Black “jury dodger” in custody, and told them to get me the hell out of there.
My 17-year old daughter told me, “Daddy, I’m really glad it wasn’t SBB” (Shot Because Black). I, on the other hand, believe the term SWB (shot while Black) gets to the heart of the phenomenon more accurately: White cops shooting Black men in the head on a daily basis, is a reflexive norm of this social order. It is an ingrained norm of the culture, and does not need to be thought out. The officer does not say to himself, “I’m going to shoot this nigger in the head because he’s Black.” He just does it as a natural reflex.
Guiding spiritual principle I have committed to the principle of searching out my role in every situation, conflict, confusion or disturbance that I find myself in. Yes, this man who was driving the van that ran me over two months ago (how my leg became broken) was out of control — he was in the wrong lane and he wasn’t looking in front of him. But, why was I the person he ran over — why wasn’t it you? I believe I was chosen because of something about my spiritual state of that moment; I too was not paying attention to what was most important, and I was distracted by things other than what was in front of me in the road. It is on the basis of this principle that I search for my role in this latest WWB.
What I came up with is that I allowed myself to become lulled to sleep by the lovely people of Attleboro. My dearest friends, most of whom have been living in Boston’s African America for years, have been hearing me, over the past few weeks, sing to the beauty of the trees, birds and sunrise in the country town. They’ve been listening to me wonder at my sense of lack of stress and pressure living here in Attleboro. A couple of my friends have read between the lines and heard me saying that I could consider putting an end to my 40+-year stint, to go back to the country (my childhood took place in the country in upstate New York).
I have the Attleboro police department to thank for bringing me back to reality. There is no police in Boston who is going to stop me, frisk me, and cuff me for WWB; that’s just not going to happen in Boston’s Black community. There is no police in Boston who is going to arrest and jail me for the crime of failure to show up for jury duty. That is not going to happen. Why? Because Boston has a large Black community, and we have each other’s back on some level — we may lose sight of this in the midst of the manifest turmoil that poverty and oppression bring amongst us. But, look at the trade off — I can have all these White people be friendly to me up until I get arrested for WWB.
I was lulled to sleep. No matter how wonderful the people of Attleboro are, “The police department is like a crew; they do whatever they want to do; you were put here to protect us, but who protects us from you?” (KRS-One, 1988). Indeed we have to protect each other. In recovery we look for “my side of the street” in every situation. My side of the street in this run-in with Attleboro’s finest is that I forgot that these people are like Klansmen. That, in fact, is an understatement: Just as the US military has, since World War II, completely outdone Hitler and achieved what Hitler sought to do but failed (please consider this proposition — the US military has been at it much longer — 70 years, to fifteen years for the Nazi’s; the US military has killed many more people in of-Color nations all around the world in its uninterrupted war since 1945 — the US has been at war somewhere every year since 1945…); so too are the police departments around this country repressing and brutalizing the Black population at a rate far beyond what the Klan ever dreamed of. Yes, it is true that some police departments, like the LAPD and the NYPD, have enclaves of card-carrying Klansmen among their ranks, and there are undoubtedly smaller police departments throughout the country who have Klan-type sub-groups or who are in-fact led by Klansmen, but the father of the white supremacist system is the class system, the stage which projects and perpetuates it. The Klan is tiny compared to what this system churns out on an everyday basis.
And we have to protect ourselves. I let my guard down. I thought I could walk in the street, look bummy, where a clown hat, be Black and not get arrested and jailed in Attleboro MA. In Boston I don’t have to watch my back so jealously. Indeed, I had to go to Boston to face the charges against me at Boston Municipal Courthouse. The arresting officer in Attleboro handed me a form, and admonished me that if I did not show up in Boston within the next twenty-four hours, I would certainly be jailed by the BPD. Yes, I did lose my way in Attleboro, but once having been released from jail, I got my whit’s about me again and showed up to BMC five days later, without any fear of the BPD. When I got to the courthouse on New Chardin Street, downtown Boston, I presented my paper to the clerk. This arrest report from Attleboro PD recorded when and where I was arrested and jailed. It failed to mention what I was arrested for… The clerk, in response, produced a document which he said had been processed months ago, in other words, long before receiving the faxed notice from Attleboro — the “charges” against me (for jury dodging) had long since been dismissed.
Attleboro’s Starsky and Hutch have nothing better do to than to protect the lovely middle class White commuters from riff-raff like me. Boston police have much larger corruption to perpetrate. In accordance with the spiritual principle enunciated above, I have completely transformed my appearance to stay under Barney’s radar: I got myself a new gym bag (it doesn’t look bummy), and I changed coats; I put down my rooster hat in favor of a much less warm cap, and I’m riding a bicycle — the best way to rehab a broken leg. I can’t change my skin color.