To Be A Problem In America
On an unusually warm day in November of 2014, I remember my throat feeling raw and uncomfortable from yelling, and not caring. Those of us who had gathered to give voice to the slain victim were chanting, “WE ARE MIKE BROWN,” interspersed with, “THE PEOPLE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED.” Hundreds of us had come together at LOVE Park in center city with the intention of marching from there, to the Philadelphia Police Administration Building at 8th and Race Streets, also known as The Roundhouse. We were going to shove our pain into the faces of those we deemed the oppressors, lay our gripes at their feet. Ferguson, Missouri and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania are two different places, obviously, but the pot had boiled over, and the city of Philadelphia has problems of its own to answer for. A recent report released by the Justice Department notes the “undercurrent of strife between the community” and our police force (Berman NP). And while there is currently no reliable data on officer-related shootings to serve as reference (this is problematic in itself), Washington Post reporter Mark Berman observes that Philadelphia’s police shooting rate is rather high when compared to cities of similar size (Berman NP). Besides, as far as my fellow protesters and I were concerned, the “Boys in Blue” all represented one uniform gang of society, each city simply signifying various chapters of the corrupt system as a whole. We, the people, were demanding change. At the very, very least, we wanted respect and acknowledgement. We needed to be heard.
As we walked and chanted in solidarity, the lurking presence of Philadelphia’s police force did not go unnoticed. As we rounded every corner, signs in hand, any number of police vehicles and details could be seen surrounding us. But it wasn’t as though they were trying to deter us from our mission. On the contrary, they seemed to be wholly cooperative, at times even holding traffic so that we could safely pass by. Upon arriving at The Roundhouse, we finally realized why. They had allowed us safe passage and kindly guided us to its back entrance, where administrative employees entered the building. It happened to also be completely separated from the rest of the employees, from the cops we had come to confront. They had kindly and conveniently directed us out of their way. We stood together and continued chanting as a line of armed officers icily stared on. While we passed around a megaphone to exchange thoughts and testimonies, I even noticed several smirks and looks of condescension on the faces of the officers. Some of them were Black, some of them were Asian, some of them were women --- but they were all blue. And as we began a final chant of “WE ARE MIKE BROWN,” it suddenly started to seem so monotonous and droning to me. These people weren’t hearing us. They weren’t seeing us. I was standing directly in front of the line, not more than 5 feet from several officers. As I continued to repeat the words, I sought the eyes of the officer closest to me, an African American man of about middle age. Despite his look of grit, he actively avoided my gaze. It was at this time that I noticed that none of the officers would dare to make eye contact, with any of us. And as I stared into the seemingly blank eyes across from me, almost without noticing it, my scream of “WE ARE MIKE BROWN” suddenly became, “WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS.” Before long, the crowd had also changed its tune. Tears streamed down my face uncontrollably, down the faces of many, yet still there was no noticeable change amongst the officers. The only recognition I perceived in their faces was that of a society looking out upon its problems.
In How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, Moustafa Bayoumi provides the narratives and perspectives of several young Arab-Americans in the age of the War on Terror. In one particular story, that of a young charismatic boy named Akram, violence met with anger. Akram was just beginning his senior year of high school when the 9/11 attacks happened, and his early reactions were visceral. He listened to classmates demand revenge, insist that America go and “bomb them,” whoever “them” was. Akram was sad at first, bursting into tears after listening to many of his classmates casually speak of eradicating entire countries . Later, he became angry, punching a glass cabinet and storming from a classroom. “What’s going to happen to us now?” he thought . Almost instantly he realized what these events had meant for his people, for his family and fellow Arabs. He knew that they had become a recent addition to the list of America’s problems.
This story, and many others in the book, leave me with a feeling of solidarity. Though African Americans have been a problem in America for a long time, since, in fact, there was an America, we are not the only ones who feel as though we are a difficulty in this country that needs to be solved. Being a problem in America means not being seen and not being heard. It means that many times, your life, and the life of those like you, is viewed as disposable. It means being angry, confused, frustrated and afraid. Very afraid. Afraid that there may be no future for you and your kind in this land of the free; in this land that was truthfully, never the land of my people to begin with.