There’s a coffee shop I like to go to in the evenings because it’s actually open later than anyone else. I feel strange going to bars by myself because I don’t drink and I get weird looks if I just get a coca cola and sit on my computer. So instead, I go to coffee shops.
The shop I like is in the supposedly “bad” area of Sioux Falls. It’s in a strip mall next to an Ethiopian restaurant and across the street from a family-owned Vietnamese place. The area has some of the cheapest housing in Sioux Falls, the most crime, and it’s where numerous immigrants from the Sudan and other areas of the world live.
The coffee shop on that corner made the news when I was in high school when they elected to paint a huge jazz-inspired mural on the side of the building that faces the road. The mural – a Picasso-style image of a black man on a piano and several other men of color comprising a Jazz quintet – was called an eyesore, and there were protests by residents who wanted it painted over. Nearly 15 years later, the mural still stands.
This coffee shop attracts a motley crew of folks from around the city. When I go there, I get the distinct impression that I am entering into a space that is centered on and owned by (not literally, unfortunately) POC. In a city as white as Sioux Falls, passing through this coffee shop is a reminder of my ownership of every other space in which I exist.
It’s no surprise, then, that cops also frequent this coffee shop. They come in and chat with the baristas and pick up a coffee before going out on their rounds again. Their presence is complex – part of it feels like intimidation to the parties that frequent this shop, and part of it feels protective, as the shop has been broken into in the past. But the fact of the matter is that how the white barista or I react to the presence of a cop is far different from how a person of color whose community is continually policed does.
In the other coffee shop I go to on a daily basis in downtown, not far from the police station, I never see cops. I see parking ticket attendants, but never cops.
When I hear of the protests and uprisings in Baltimore, Wisconsin, Ferguson, Oakland, and beyond, I cannot automatically place myself in the position of the protestors. This is not a terrible thing – indeed, it’s a recognition that the police state will never affect me in the same way because I have white skin. At worst, I will be called a traitor to my race for supporting the efforts of these marginalized communities, but I do not expect death.
But if I die at the hands of the police, the media will not be searching for past speeding tickets and arrest records. I will be an “innocent,” a “tragic loss.” Prosecution would be swift and merciless. Even at 29 years old, I will be referred to as a young woman, a girl. I will be a person caught up with the “wrong crowd,” if anything.
This same grace, this same kindness, is not extended to people of color. The suspicion is always that they somehow deserved it, even if all they did was frighten a police officer by their mere presence. If I break down on the highway and knock on a person’s door, I can reasonably expect a call to a tow truck and maybe even some food. If I were black, I may just end up with a bullet for my trouble.
All of this runs through my head in the moment the cop walks through the door. The coffee shop goes quiet, each person afraid to draw attention. I make eye contact with tonight’s cop and give him a wan smile, knowing the party line that not all cops are bad, not all cops will shoot to kill a black man because they’re afraid. My immediate reaction and action are to make him feel comfortable, to assuage his feeling of awkwardness.
And I don’t quite know what to do with that. What power is it that the state has over us that we can recognize and acknowledge all the ways in which power, racism and control play out but still feel afraid in the moment? Why is that in the moment, I still feel pulled to acknowledge the commonality between the cop and myself? Is it fear? Is it the invisible forces of systemic racism at work?
Who will we choose to be? Will we smile and wave to the cop, hoping to save our own skin? Or will we put our hands up in protest, purposely choosing to identify with the oppressed and not the oppressor? What will we choose?
To even ask the question of myself is a privilege I cannot take lightly. I am more like the cop than I am the protestor, and I must make the conscious decision to reject that identity.