This Morning, I Saw a Man Get Tased

(CW: police violence)

This morning, I saw a man get tased.

I saw a Black man get tased.

I saw a Black man wearing red get tased.

I saw a Black man wearing red get tased by the Minneapolis Police Department.

I saw a Black man wearing red get tased by the Minneapolis Police department for shoplifting groceries.

I saw a Black man wearing red get tased by the Minneapolis Police Department for shoplifting groceries during a global pandemic.

I saw a Black man wearing red get tased by the Minneapolis Police Department for shoplifting groceries during a global pandemic, during which the government has only provided $1,200 in 6 months.

I saw a Black man wearing red get tased by the Minneapolis Police Department for shoplifting groceries during a global pandemic, during which the government has only provided $1,200 in 6 months, which amounts to less than $7 per day.

This happened next door to my 3-month-old son’s daycare.
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I am one block away, I see a Black man get up from sitting on the curb, surrounded by police. He pulls away. I hear a pop. He crumples. Then 5 or 6 officers are on him, cuffing him. Kneeling and pressing on limbs, putting him on a gurney, strapping him down, pressing his head down. I don’t hear him make a sound. I see the wires from the taser. I know the pop was too quiet to be a gunshot, but the visual is jarringly similar.

I only film a minute of it, after the tasing, after he is already on the gurney. Because I don’t press record correctly in my hurry to get my phone out.

I hold my son in my arms while I film. I say we live in a police state to him. I say we need other people, not police to respond when someone is having a mental health crisis. When someone is unarmed and has committed a nonviolent crime. When someone is trying to feed themselves.

I count the squad cars. It takes me too long, because I am shaking. I stop at 5. Pause. There are 6.

They put him in an ambulance. I stop filming. I put my son in his stroller. He cries. I say, now we will pray.  I wish I knew the man’s name. I walk to the grocery store.

The employees are talking about the man. He pretends to be crazy they say, to get away with it. He got tased they say in grimly satisfied tones. The white store managers had been standing at the end of the block where he got tased. When I leave the store, they are standing by the entrance, talking to another white store manager.

No one making decisions about any of this is Black. This man probably had white teachers in school. And now, when he’s trying to figure out how to feed himself, it’s white store managers and white cops. And his community can’t build social, political, or economic power, such that, when he’s out of food, someone sees him and sees his humanity, and says, what do you need to be able to eat with dignity?

I find somewhere to sit and nurse my son before daycare, across from an apartment building. Several tenants go in and out while he eats. They are all Black. Why aren’t the store managers Black? Do they live within a block of the store? A mile? Two miles? I don’t think so.

My son is done eating. I walk us back to the daycare. All the squad cars are gone. On the stoop, there are two packages of fish from the grocery store. They tased a man and didn’t return the stolen goods to the store. They left them to spoil in the sun.

In this police state, nobody wins.

I drop my son off at daycare. I walk home. I see the man wearing red seize and crumple over and over in my mind. I cry. Seize. Crumple. Cry. Seize. Crumple. Cry.

My rage starts to boil. We’re lucky it’s only protests and looting.
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A few weeks ago, my city council member, Lisa Goodman, sent out a newsletter saying that people feel unsafe downtown, condemning the looting that occurred after a man’s public suicide was mistaken for another police killing, and not condemning the MPD for eroding trust to the point that it was reasonable to believe they had shot and killed another Black man.

The only violence I saw today was perpetrated by the police. One of the only times I feel unsafe downtown is when I see the police interacting with citizens. I don’t like all my neighbors. Some of them are rude and stinky and sexist. Some of them walk three-wide on the sidewalk and don’t make room for anyone else. It’s annoying, but not unsafe.

Cars that don’t yield for pedestrians are unsafe. Cyclists and scooterists who use the sidewalk are unsafe. Police are unsafe.
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A friend encouraged me to write down how I imagine this should have gone differently. So here are my what ifs:

What if the store manager had a conversation with the man and said, ”I know it’s tough. I know you need food. How can I help you get the food you need and not steal it?”

What if the city had unarmed civil servants and social workers who could be called, instead of armed police, who would connect this man with services to get his needs met?

What if the store managers were Black and lived in the community, so that they recognized that they were investing in the whole community, not just paying customers?

What if food was a public good and decommodified?

What if this was a production of Les Miserables? What if this man was Jean Valjean?

What if society took its metaphorical and physical boot off of the necks of Black people?

Open Letter to SPD Officer Couet

Dear SPD Officer Couet,

We’ve never met. That’s not exactly true, but during the 10 or so minutes I stood centimeters from you on Sunday, August 13, as you propelled me backward with your bike, we never really got formally introduced. I was standing on a public sidewalk, and someone, not you, someone you take orders from, decided I was in the way. I wasn’t the only one corralled off a sidewalk we pay significant sales taxes to freely walk down. In a very technical sense, I wasn’t even part of the extremely valid, anti-fascist, anti-racist, peaceful protest. My heart was with them, but you blocked my body. Indeed, had you and your compatriots not decided I was in the way, there would be no record of my participation in Sunday’s march, no further evidence of SPD’s continued and blatant use of excessive force. But now I have bruises up and down my thighs where you pushed your bike into my body. You were wearing body armor and dark sunglasses. Your name and badge number were written on a piece of duct-tape, stuck to your chest piece. I was wearing a pair of jeans and a crop top. I wasn’t really prepared for the protest. I have been recovering from mono, so I just wanted to be a body for 30 minutes, before I got too tired. I wanted to stand in solidarity and denounce the very same Nazism you protected on Sunday, not let my illness overcome my convictions. I knew my gesture would be small—the absolute least I could do. And considering the arrests and pepper spray that others endured at SPD hands on Sunday, considering the recent murder of Charleena Lyles, my gesture was small.

When you told us to move, I just knew, I wasn’t going to help you. I looked at my boyfriend in silence, and we both knew. We would practice non-compliance. I put my hands in my pockets and I faced you. Why did I do it? I just did it.

You pushed me. You stepped on both my feet, causing me to momentarily lose a sandal. With each push, you yelled “Move Back,” and made sure your orders were followed. During those ten minutes, you never met my eyes. I looked, and I looked, silently, gazing. You were wearing sunglasses, but I could still catch the light off your irises, never looking me in the face. As you pushed and pushed, I thought to myself, even here, even now, you, officer Couet, are human. I will give you humanity by looking you in the eyes. Why did you never meet mine? You would not afford me the same courtesy I was affording you. Maybe you just haven’t read enough Levinas.

I want to be absolutely clear about one thing. What you did, if you had been anyone else, would be assault.

I said one thing while I stood across from you. A debate had begun between the officer to your right and the men to my left. The other officer tried to get out of being accused of upholding a racist system by saying that America is racist, so doesn’t that make us (the people being pushed) racist too? Of course, to him, being called racist is an insult, so he thought we’d be mad to hear him affirm the very reason we showed up in the first place. I have no delusions about how racist I am. Of course, you didn’t know that. You didn’t know that the only difference between my racism and yours is that I acknowledge and fight against mine. But you wouldn’t know that, because we’ve never really met.

I regret breaking my silence to speak. Not because I was wrong or unsteady. But because you weren’t hearing anything that was said. What I wish I had done was sing. I have a good voice. At my birthday parties, every year, my friends push me into singing “La Vie en Rose” by Edith Piaf. I did once on a boat on South Lake Union, so now they want me to do it every year. I kill at that song. But that’s not what I wish I had sung on Sunday. I wish I had sung “Down by the Riverside.” My boyfriend and I have been practicing. I heard a version of it that I loved at a church service in college, so when we started building a repertoire of protest songs, I added that one to the mix. Maybe you’re familiar with the lyrics, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside and study war no more.” Of course, swords are really passé, and you didn’t have a shield. You had body armor and a bike. But you get the point. It would have felt really good to sing in the middle of being afraid that the officer behind you, strutting around with his pepper spray out and unpinned, was just itching to use it. It would have felt good to make something beautiful while you were using force, violence, and threats to prevent us from peacefully observing a protest. And you see what you did right? When you pushed. We stopped being the observers and became the protesters, separated from our march.

I want to say a few words about the people who have suffered (not just been pushed around) at the hands of SPD, those who have been pepper sprayed, unjustly arrested, murdered. Charleena Lyles, Che Taylor, John T. Williams. They are, more often than not, people of color. The people on the south side of the street on Sunday, the ones who were more vocal than me, the Black people, they knew that they were already risking so much more than me by being there. I didn’t get to hear from them whether your fellow officers pushed harder or used stronger threats. I know that I had an easier time for being white, that your final statement before you rode off on your bike so recently weaponized against me, “No hard feelings,” may not have been uttered but for the color of my skin. (Also, of course you had no hard feelings. You had all the power and all the protection. Why would you harbor hard feelings for us?). All of this is to say, I know that there are people risking more, people who stayed with the march longer, people whose trauma will outlive the tape I have on replay in my head of you pushing me backward. I know that what I do is little, that I’m opting in with my whiteness when I work toward anti-racism. I know I can leave when I get tired, go through most of the world as if it were made for me (yeah, we’ll a put pin in how you handled rape allegations against Sheriff John Urquhart, and how I can’t escape sexism). But I will keep putting my body on the line, even if it’s just to create a little breathing room between you and the people of color I’m showing up for.

This part isn’t for you, Officer Couet, but I hope you read it anyway.

I know I can write these things because of my whiteness. I know that the potential for white outrage is higher because of my whiteness. I hope anyone who reads this, who finds themselves angry about the idea of a white woman and her white boyfriend being pushed around by riot police infuriating, check yourself. How mad were you when you found out Charleena Lyles and her unborn child were killed? What are you doing to make it possible to prosecute a police officer in Washington state? How will you put your body on the line? Have you paid a Black woman today?

See you around, officer Couet. Next time, I hope I have the presence of mind to sing while you assault me.

-Claire

On Ferguson and an Unparalleled Hug

When I was in sixth grade, I met a woman who would change my life. She was powerful. Her words and actions were weighty and significant. I did not hesitate to both cower in awe of her and to throw myself into her magnificent, unparalleled hugs.

It was not only that she was large and soft, or that she would sing while she hugged me, her voice resonating in her chest, reverberating off of mine. Her hugs had been carefully crafted through suffering and sorrow turned to joy. She carried heaven in her embrace. It did not take long before I would miss her hugs. The longer it had been since I had last seen her, the more I looked forward to the next one. It was hug therapy.

There were a lot of things I didn’t know when I knew Mae. I didn’t know stereotypes about angry black women or large black women. I didn’t know that food could be racist. I didn’t know that the black body that I sought out for comfort and healing lived a life of problematization. I didn’t know that the reason she could sing the way she did—from a place deeper than lungs—or hug with arms more than matter was because both had been tempered by a world bent on making her less human.

Still, she had infectious laughter. Still, she indiscriminately became a mother to anyone who needed one. Still, she danced. Still, she sang.

She transcended.

Perhaps, I have painted her as too much of a myth. It is possible that time and distance have caricatured her in my memory. I did dream once that I was jumping on a trampoline with her and Abraham Lincoln.

Mae is not and never has been perfect (she has her own story to tell), but I am wholly convinced that on more than one occasion, she has embodied love. It is for this reason, as a recipient and witness of Mae’s unbounded ability to love and give, that I consider the events of Ferguson, Missouri (and other similar events) the way I do. The media provides no shortage of images of thugs and potential criminals. But I think of Mae. I imagine if Michael Brown’s mother were Mae, someone I know and love and trust. Then I know that indictment or no indictment, hearings at the UN, audiences with the president, and press conferences are insignificant next her loss, next to what has torn inside her.

I am grieving that justice for Michael Brown is only a hashtag, not something being acted out by the justice system.

I wish that mine could be the arms that hold the grief and fear and rage, encircling them in love and hope.

I wish that hugs could undo the damage that bullets and pepper spray and tear gas do.

I wish that I were not sitting safely behind a computer screen, but standing face to face with you. I’d look you in the eyes and echo the president’s words last night: your experiences are real, and your emotions are valid. You are not making this up.

I am indebted to Mae. She saw my pale skin, and she didn’t pretend I wasn’t white. Instead, she wrapped my white body in her black arms and held me. No amount of fear mongering can change that.