Opinion: In their shoes: Reason through the experience of discrimination

As the residents of Baltimore begin the process of recovering, it is important to put the situation into its correct context. The burning of Baltimore was not about Freddie Gray, any more than the riots in Ferguson were about Mike Brown or the riots in LA were about Rodney King. It’s simply about hopelessness and survival.

We live in a nation of bullet-point thinkers. That is, we are conditioned to take in information in sound bites. So, instead of examining why it is that people who were peaceful just a week earlier would suddenly take to the streets, we simply call them thugs. That explains it right? Instead of examining the circumstances that would lead so many people to the acts of frustration that were witnessed last week, we focus instead on the few who looted stores and the fire at the CVS pharmacy. Instead of seeing these peoples as human beings who are desperate and hurting and focusing on who it is that we as a nation can address our fellow people, we reduce them to sub-human caricatures. After all, if you label them something other than people than you don’t have to hear their voice.

The truth is that Baltimore and the struggles that those who took to the streets last week endure are far more complicated than the over simplified and sensationalized conclusions that are being drawn in the media, and by extension, in the minds of many American’s who don’t live in the shoes of these citizens. My own story parallels in many ways to those who took to the streets in Baltimore.

I was born into a bay area homeless shelter. My home was a broken one and had been for a couple of generations. I was raised mostly by my sister, the first portion of that upbringing being in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

The schools were poor and the resources were scarce. Getting healthy food required a trip across town. Opportunities to leave the neighborhood, let alone the city, to experience other culture and locales were few for me and none for others from my background. Even when I did get out and met others I found that those of other cultures weren’t as open to understanding and working with my people as I was theirs. I felt isolated. I felt my color, not my content of character. I felt walled off from the main of society and all of the opportunities that being a full fledge citizen affords.

I had my first experience with discrimination when I was 10 years old. I was playing with a kid in a predominately white neighborhood. We’d played at school and in the neighborhood fairly regularly until one day the kid broke the news to me that he could no longer play with me because I was black. A few months later, the mother of another friend of mine came to my home to politely inquire about a stereo that had gone missing from the home that I was never allowed into. A few days later my friend delivered to my home a batch of cookies as a peace offering after the stereo was found, in the same home that I’d never stepped foot in. This was my first experience with covert discrimination.

In May of 2006 a family member of mine was shot and killed by the LAPD. The official story of the department was that he was a drug dealer who was caught making a deal and later grabbed an officer's gun. The stance of my relatives is that he was stopped and harassed by officers without cause. That he was handcuffed when the alleged struggle took place and that the shooting was therefore unnecessary. They believe that he was executed. In 2006 I dismissed the story as completely ridiculous. By 2009 however, I’d seen Oscar Grant shot in the back while handcuffed, lying face down and being restrained by other officers.

I’d also myself experienced many instances of discrimination and brutality.

In 2006 I was pulled over by a CHP officer on a rural central California road. As the officer approached my vehicle a call came over his radio alerting him to a suspected drunk driver. Instead of either writing me the speeding ticket that I admittedly deserved he took my keys out of the ignition and pursued the suspected drunk driver. When I voiced my displeasure with the officer's actions I was beaten and pepper sprayed by the officer. When I attempted to make a complaint against the officer and requested that the devise the officer was suppose to be using to record the stop be reviewed, I was told that it had malfunctioned. In the end I was released without any charges.

I worked for Los Angeles Unified School District for nearly a decade. In that time I was approached and harassed by LAPD several times. On one occasion, I was having lunch with my boss at my place of employment while in uniform when a light came peering through the window. My boss and I walked out to investigate to find that the light was in fact coming from an LAPD helicopter, lighting the way for several officers with guns drawn. Our crime? Being the wrong complexion in the wrong neighborhood. Even after the officers verified our credentials we were questioned about our criminal backgrounds and whether or not we were on parole or probation. At no point did any officer who responded that evening apologize for the misunderstanding.

On yet another occasion, a sheriff’s deputy in Palmdale stopped me as I rode a bike home that I’d just purchased about 10 minutes earlier. The officer who was so energized during this stop is the same officer who, hours earlier, showed up to the home of a friend of mine who’d reported a burglary that had occurred while he and I were at work. He didn’t even want to take the report. Now later in the evening, Barney Phife didn’t even recognize me.

Today, my family’s story about what happened to my relative doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. Just a month ago in South Carolina Officer 1st class Michael Slager was videotaped shooting an unarmed black man in the back as he was running away from the officer. Videotaped evidence of what lower class and minority citizens have been experiencing and complaining about seems to surface daily.

All of the above stated, those who wish to make Baltimore, Ferguson, and other places solely about the police are completely missing the point. It’s living one's entire life at the bottom of the barrel; scraping and clawing just to get ahead, desperately trying to believe against all evidence to the contrary that there is hope. If you just work hard enough, if you allow the system to work, if you are polite and in step with societies expectations, that you to can live the “American dream” just to realize that, in areas like Baltimore and Detroit, there is no hope for upward mobility.

The above conditions always lead to revolt. It happened in Greece recently; Egypt too. In America these people weren’t called thugs they were romanticized as heroes. Make no mistake, the color is different, so is the part of the world. But, their motives are the same. Though there will always be some who have malicious motives in general, people don’t just wake up and decide that they want to destroy things, kill all cops, or do any of the other trivial things that we make up in our heads to keep from actually having to address our obvious failure to recognize the grievances of the poor in this country. These people, people like myself, just want to live. I hate to say this but most lower class people want far more but will accept at least that. So, when Baltimore burns it would be wise to take more away from the unrest than the simple idea that these colored people are just violent criminals. It's time to accept that maybe these people have valid issues that need immediate attention.