By Tony Robles
“Our worst men lock up our best men”
It was my Goddamn Frisco sweatshirt. I didn’t even buy it. I found it on a banister, tried it on. It fit like my own skin. Maybe it was my own skin. I was riding my bike down Market Street on the way to meet a friend for coffee—a half block from my destination—the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC), where my friend works. I think of Market Street and how many times I’ve walked its face, balanced myself on its spine. I see faces of all kinds—faces that have stories that come from places so deep that I am often saddened that most of those stories go untold.
I was on my bike in my city on my way to meet a friend. Between the both of us, we have a combined 87 years of residence in the city. I glided past houseless folks, landless folks, elders, Filipinos, yuppies, bikers, artists, office workers, recyclers etc. As I got closer to the PUC, I saw a group of 6 or 7 goofy looking folks in blue uniforms. They were gathered near the entrance of Trinity Plaza. I am a Children’s book author. In my book, “Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel”, Trinity Plaza was the inspiration for the “Makibaka Hotel”—the site where elders and youth come together to fight their eviction by a greedy landlord.
The 6 or 7 goofy looking folks were members of the San Francisco Police Department—all men and one female officer. There’s something about uniforms I’ve never liked. Perhaps it’s the starched quality or perhaps the dullness of it. I wore a blue uniform once while working at a fast food establishment, and I currently wear one in my present job as a security officer—guarding the property of a landowner—while, I myself, own no land (The uniform isn’t mine either). The uniforms aren’t fit for Bozo the Clown (which was one of the reasons why I was wearing the Frisco sweatshirt…I wanted something more flattering). The polyester pants are uncomfortable and my underwear always ends up in my ass. The cops look as if they have the same problem, although they obviously do their best to conceal it (I think). A uniform is a convenient thing to hide behind, much like a flag. The shirt I wear as a security officer is sky blue as opposed to the SFPD’s dark blue (blue, blue…my love is blue), making me look more like a meter maid or MUNI fare collector.
On this day I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the word “Frisco” emblazoned on it in red letters (Why not Frisco…I was born here). The cops looked at me cruising on my bike and ordered me to stop, saying: “You know you’re not supposed to be riding on the sidewalk”. I told the cop that I was less than half a block away from the PUC to meet a friend. The female officer asked to see my ID. I produced it. “Have you ever been arrested?” she asked. “No” “Are you on parole?” “No” Oh really, she said, as if surprised. She checked my ID with some faceless person over her radio. The male officer stood close by, to make sure I knew he was there. The ID check was swift, performed before I had the chance to bow, do the sign of the cross or slip into a compliant yoga position with my neck fully exposed (lucky me). Her official sounding radio communication was reminiscent of a Harrison Ford Movie (Without Harrison Ford).
It’s true–I’d never been arrested. I’d never gotten anything heavier than a parking ticket. I am a children’s book author and co-editor of POOR Magazine—a fact that doesn’t make me better than anyone else, but certainly doesn’t make me any worse either. But I know folks who have been arrested and incarcerated—some of the best folks I know. For some reason I get along with them—often times better than I get along with people who have not served time. We sit, talk, laugh and eat donuts while watching the world go by. I stood waiting for the cop to return my ID. A few yards away were 6 or 7 youth of color, mostly African descended, sweeping the streets and leveling dirt at the base of trees lining the sidewalk. The female officer returned my ID as if she was disappointed I hadn’t lied about not being on probation. I looked at her and her nightstick which was almost as big as she was. She looked like a typical American born Chinese girl from the Richmond District (I shouldn’t say that, I know…it’s profiling), that hotbed of resistance (Thank God for Eric Mar). I had a sense that it was her first taste of power—but I could be wrong. The male officer tried to be friendly, thanking me for my time in the same way a prospective employer does when he knows you don’t have shot in hell of getting the job. I took my ID and as I pushed my bike to the PUC one of the young street sweepers said, “Man, they ain’t got nothing better to do”. I nodded thinking that it was an injustice that these young people have to sweep streets for officers to walk on.
I watched the news report that said Johannes Mehserle wept on the stand during the trial for the murder of Oscar Grant. He thought he was reaching for his taser. I thought of way Oscar Grant was brutalized before the shot was fired–forced down face first, knees on his neck. He was just a young black man whose life wasn’t worth anything—that’s the message—broadcast on TV and all over the internet for the world to see. For young men of color, people of color—particularly black people—the blue uniform doesn’t mean truth and justice—it means death—namely theirs, especially if they speak out or resist being violated. I think of my grandfather who came here as an immigrant from the Philippines in the 20’s. The Filipinos were brutalized by the police in the cities. My grandfather was among them, handcuffed to a lamppost on Kearny Street near the Hall of Justice and, ironically, not far from the International Hotel–where our elders resisted eviction while mounted police forced their way through a human barricade 8 deep.
I was upset at being stopped by the cops like that. Their attitude is that they own you. My grandfather’s story, my story, my children’s story or anything I’ve written, in that moment, didn’t seem to matter—as well as the stories or lives of the street sweepers that are written in the streets. The arbitrary manner in which I was stopped, because of my sweatshirt and race, is indicative of the race and class profiling that is perpetrated upon communities of color in our lovely and wonderful city.
My experience is nothing compared to what happened to POOR Legal Scholar Marlon Crump—in his SRO hotel room when officers stormed in with guns drawn on the wrong person. To Edress Stelly, Oscar Grant and many others who have died or sustained serious injury at the hands of the police. I walk my city and look at the big buildings—designed to make you feel small and powerless—in much the same way law enforcement is designed. Who put those big buildings there to make us feel small? Who are these people that are here to “serve and protect”? What are they here to protect and who put them here? Who is profiling them? Who? And why do I have to respect them when they do not have an ounce of respect for me or my skin?
© 2010 Tony Robles