Prior to posting this I sent it to a trusted friend who is a retired police officer and a friend who is a long time activist and leader in the rights of African Americans as well as black history in the Chicago area. I asked them both to vett the article and tell me what it is I need to know and what I need to reconsider or rethink before publishing. I thank them both for their input. I hope others who have strong feelings on these matters do the same and spend more time listening and less time pontificating.
The other day an unarmed 19 year old black man was shot and killed by a police officer in Madison, Wisconsin. As we have seen in many similar tragic incidents recently, people have hash tagged black lives matter, protests have occurred and police have been monitoring the protests.
Those are the facts. The opinions over the matters vary. I have a glimpse of it from comments on news articles, social media and televised news.
I am a cis gendered white man. I am also poor. I have also spent many nights in Joliet and the Chicago area seeing the world through a different perspective as an overnight taxi driver. I also used to be a progressive minister who had an emphasis on social justice. But with Madison, Wisconsin, there is a different aspect for me.
Since the 80’s I have had friends from the Madison area. Some are now first responders or have been first responders. We grew up together. As adults I have been in their backyard eating bbq and watching the kids play in the back yard. I know their character and their humanity.
In the wake of these events we have so much black and white in what I see as a world of gray. I see many officers and friends of officers online speaking very broadly that if people did not break laws, they would not be shot. On the other spectrum we have many who claim the police are totalitarian racists who operate with unchecked authority and do not think that black lives matter.
I will go with the police first. As a taxi driver in the Chicagoland area, I have befriended, needed, feared and detested police officers in various situations. While waiting at a train station for a pick up late at night, I’ve sat with other cab drivers BS’ing with an overnight officer assigned to the Metra/Amtrak train beat. We talk mostly about our favorite movies, food, comic books and video games. Sometimes we talk about family and strange and horrific shit we have seen at night. I have seen him aid a cabbie by pulling an aggressive drunk out of the cab. I have also seen him aid people who needed aid or felt unsafe get whatever help they needed. It’s a breath of fresh air to see him.
Sometimes you end up in dangerous situations as a taxi driver and need to ask a dispatcher for police assistance. You count down the seconds until they come to your aid and the aid is often swift and supportive. There are other times you will see suspicious activity and report it and the police are grateful for your aid and appreciative of it.
There are some officers, who for whatever reason “have it in” for taxi drivers. They will pull you over for doing 2 MPH over the speed limit on an empty road at 2:30 in the morning. One citation will become 5 in a heartbeat and the attitude from the get go is that you are a bottom feeder and the mood is aggressive and you have no recourse. You just sit there and take it. There was one time I reported suspicious activity at a train station and the officer accused me of wasting his time on the call, threatened to arrest me and then proceeded to follow me for a few miles in what I think was a failed attempt to intimidate me. Drive a cab at night long enough and it will take a lot more than mars lights behind you to rattle your cage. There was another time I wrote about where I was surrounded, intimidated, threatened arrest and damn near arrested while breaking no laws. The officer in charge told me everything he thought I was doing wrong and I pushed back with actual laws. The only thing that saved me from arrest that night was an operations manager and a dispatcher who had a conversation with the shift commander on duty who understood I was in the right and told the officers to disengage.
Then there is the visually seen things in the night where I’ve seen young black men at night treated horribly and abusively. People I know from the night. People I talk to taking them to and from work or the train station or the bar time and time again. They are poor, may have made mistakes in their life, but are working hard in shit jobs, going to school and trying to rise out of the projects. They do the same things others do at night like walk to the corner store to get cigarettes or beer or milk and get stopped, questioned, searched and sometimes worse. Its infuriating and dehumanizing. It is something I have spoken with to some of the cops I am friends with in this area and they know it happens, they know its wrong, but they wont say anything. Some have and have suffered for it. They just determine to be the best cops they can.
Now to the other side.
In larger cities like NYC, Chicago, LA, etc, there is a reputation that cab drivers do not pick up black people. From what I read there is likely some truth to this. I get asked if I pick up black people or have an issue about it. The short answer is no, I do not. In a smaller city like Joliet, if a driver were to make that racially charged choice, they would be hard pressed to make a living or have any fares to speak of.
We have more than one section in town that is called “the projects” and we have many people that live here that are on public aid or social security of all races. Slightly above that is the working poor who also receive aid. Below that are the homeless. The deeper you get into the West side of Joliet you have your typical middle class. In an average night you pick them all up. Republicans, demorats, rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, etc. If there is one demographic that I am reticent to pick up, but do anyway. It is white suburban college kids. Why? They are young, often drunk, have a sense of entitlement, consider themselves better than you, and are more prone to try to run without paying or no load you because they have no sense of consequences or respect for others.
Now that we have personal biases out of the way, let’s dig in.
Most of the young black people I pick up are in the following places. The projects, the college dorms, warehouse jobs or other labor positions, the motels, apartments, houses, and yes, known gang hangout areas and drug dens (also pick up white folk from there). Black college kids tend to be more respectful and less entitled than the white ones. People getting to and from work are always respectful. The most bossy thing you get is specific routes because they know the most efficient route to get to work and want to reduce their cab fare. Who can blame them?
Now for the projects and the lower income neighborhoods. There is more crime, more drug activity and more gang activity. You tend to be more aware and on guard in those neighborhoods. It is in those areas I have had a lead pipe thrown at my cab, had my cab rushed by attempted thieves, had someone reach his arm into my taxi window to rob/assault me and other things. Those are not my passengers, just some of the night’s dangers. As far as my passengers. I have had some young black people try to run without paying, make a grab for my cash and one tried to get my backpack with my camera, ipad and books inside it. Some talk to you like an animal and make allusions to threats and stupid shit like that. Those are rare and do shake you up a little bit.
The least noble part of me is one project area known as the hill. It is a different world there. In some areas you will wait as long as 15 minutes for someone to come out to your cab while they get ready. On the hill, I don’t feel safe there longer than 3 or 4 minutes and I do not get out of the taxi. Why? Because it is not safe there after dark and if you sit there too long you see the gang scouts come out and peek out from windows and around corners to see if there is an opportunity or weakness. Why do I pick up there? Because most of my passengers just want to get to work or the casino or the bar or do a round trip to the pizza place since the pizza and chinese places wont deliver there.
So here I am. A man who sees some of the gang bangers and the criminals and I am afraid of them. I also know and appreciate my passengers who are young black men. So here I am. A man who sees some of the police who abuse power and I am afraid of them. I also know and appreciate the police officers who put their lives on the line to save mine.
I hope my friends who are cops will still allow me access to their back yards even though I feel there are corrupt and aggressive officers who need to have their authority checked. I hope my fellow drivers who are young black men will still consider me someone worth bowling with even though I wont sit in certain areas very long because I am afraid of getting hurt.
I don’t see black and white solutions to a very greyscale world. I see cops in impossible situations. I also see young black men in impossible situations. It sucks.
In closing. The answer I hear some say, “Can we just admit some are bad cops and some black men are criminals and move on.” No. That is just as naive as all cops are bad and the very suggestion of criminal activity has someone asking for a bullet in the head.
Ive no solutions. But I think we are gonna have to move past the simple and judgmental bullshit and realize this is a hard road to less dead people.
If I have offended anyone. I am truly sorry. Unless you are an extremist. If you are…I honestly don’t care because you need to rethink. I know I do. I am at least open enough to know my conclusions may be wrong and I may be seeing my observations through the lens of my upbringing and personal biases. If you are cop or black. I am listening.