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Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

Posted: July 30, 2009 06:16 PM

Before We All Have A Beer

What's Your Reaction?

Will we all be having a beer tonight? As soon as the first stones from the edifice of post-racialism began to tumble, the media labeled the conversations of excited onlookers as "a heated national debate about race." That suggests to me that Professor Gates, Officer Crowley and President Obama haven't been the only ones talking. We've all been involved. Maybe theirs won't be the only beer. Will the media folk be raising a toast, for example about a story well told? A word of caution before the wrecking team slaps high fives over their own cold beers in newsrooms, blog rooms, chat rooms, radio stations etc, and erupts in a national "Way da go!" If "way da go" means we have a long way to go, I'd take a suds too. If it means "job well done", the job's hardly begun.

Now that the alarm bell has sounded, some people will address their daily work with a stronger resolve to include race work. Undoubtedly there are teachers planning curricula for next year who are thinking of ways at all grade levels to revise their plans to include histories, books, works of art, activities that take race seriously. Perhaps there are foundations, even hard hit as many are by the economy, who are thinking of ways to include new initiatives into their portfolios. Perhaps cultural institutions will take another look at themselves and ponder why, after fifty years of movements to democratize art and art making, their leadership is not more diverse. There are many practical ways that we can do race work, not just race talk in our daily lives. But should we go back to work the same way as before?

Charles Blow, in a New York Times op-ed, during the flurry of media attention on Gates/Crowley aptly referred to a "club" that many black men are required to join usually, but not always when they are young. I remember a very affluent black woman executive telling me about how she and her husband would prepare their young son for "the club". They decided that he could not get a driver's license until he had passed their tests of what he would do if pulled over by the police. This "other" license test is well known among many black parents. As his mother described the boy and what his life was like, I imagined the young man cuffed and straddled wearing tennis whites beside their fancy car. As the nation has heard this week, these stories are well known to blacks. This time the audience was broader and more attentive for many reasons well documented.

I had my own induction into the club. I get nervous around police officers. Even, after, as an actress, portraying two notable ones on stage - in their own words - in one of my plays - Police Chief Daryl Gates of Los Angeles fame and Theodore Brisenio, one of the officers who beat Rodney King. In fact, despite the many in law enforcement I have interviewed, I have not become more familiar in my feeling towards people in uniform with guns. When I did have a confrontation with the police, I was not at all prepared for what happened. And that's the danger. None of us of any color can afford to be unprepared. When it happens it is very very real.

Listen to this scenario:

I was living in Georgetown while doing some research for a project in Washington. I lived there off and on for five years. It was a stunning property - a town house with a large garden. My hosts were a Republican Congressman and warm liberal Democrat - his wife. Their hospitality was beyond beyond. One night on a weekend, when my hosts were out of town, I came back to the house and found that the front door was locked by bolt on the inside. I could not open the door. I looked up at the house and noticed lights on that were never on. I went through the garden door and into the basement of the house - terrified about what I might find - but nonetheless optimistic that as the lights were on the uppermost floor, that I could successfully call the police from the kitchen phone, the kitchen being as in those old houses, in the basement. I called 911. Immediately, in less than ten minutes I heard police arriving. I went out into the garden and opened the garden door to meet them and tell them what was going on. I found myself surrounded by about twelve police officers, men and women. In the fog of my fear, I saw what I thought were at least three races: white, Latino, and black. Perhaps there were more. Their guns were drawn. I was in a semi circle of guns pointing at me. What in my life and education would have prepared me for what to do? They began to shout in unison and at the top of their lungs "Get back! Get back! Get back!". I began to explain that I was the one who called. I assume that I look and sound like an educated person -at least I'm usually cast that way in movies and television shows. I was conservatively dressed - I had been interviewing political types that day. I tried to explain again - they charged closer and got louder. Suddenly my mind clicked to an interview I had done of a police officer, and trainer of officers in Oakland California. I saw him in my mind's eye and remembered his words about how - when police come into a home they accelerate from making noise - that is breaking down a door, charging in and yelling - to using force. I realized that my reasoning with them was not working because they were screaming 'GET BACK", and I was moving forward. I stepped back into the garden. When it was over, and I was terrified at what had happened I began to wonder what their story would have been if they'd shot me. Would they have shot to injure, or would they have shot to kill, in an effort to both protect property - and supposedly their lives. I was not armed. Where could this have gone - and mostly what would be their version of the story? I do not think this would have happened to a white woman in Georgetown.

At the risk of being misunderstood as dismissing the particularness and the seriousness of what happened to Professor Gates, by saying it happens to whites too, let me ask you to listen to this:

Phoenix, Arizona: I spoke to a middle class white woman - an executive in a well known national non-profit who was stopped for drunk driving just as she was leaving the parking lot of a bar after a happy hour event with people from her office. Her alcohol level was slightly above what is allowed in Arizona. The police were being rougher with her than her boyfriend thought was necessary. He intervened. He had been drinking in the bar too, but he was not driving. The officers immediately threw him onto the ground with such force that she thought for sure his head would crack open. They threw handcuffs on him. When he would not agree to a sobriety test, arguing that he was not driving - they threw him into the police car and took him to a hospital. In an open ward, they strapped him to a gurney, and catheterized him to take urine. When he screamed out in pain - the white officer said to him, in the presence of his colleague, a black officer, "Stop acting like a nigger."

The woman was sentenced to go to Sherriff Arpaio's "tent city" jail. She acknowledged throughout her talk with me that she was wrong wrong wrong to drive under the influence regardless of how few hundredths of a percentage her blood was above the acceptable level. Arpaio's jail is fashioned after what he says soldiers can endure in Iraq. It is a series of tents in hot sun, or cold nights. Whatever the weather in Phoenix provides. The inmates wear striped uniforms and pink underwear in case they try to escape and in doing so take off their uniforms. There is a large neon VACANCIES sign over the jail. One would gawk at the theater of many aspects of the sheriff's policing if it weren't so serious. Her boyfriend was traumatized and the relationship ended.

Again, I don't say all this to simply imply that injustices happen to women of all colors and that injustices happen to whites. I say it to bring our attention to the fact that policing changes all the time. But do we track the changes and how they affect us? Can we afford to just sit back and allow the police to "protect" and "serve"? Should we revive community activism that was alive in the sixties?

But this teachable moment has been framed by the media as more than a moment about policing. It is supposedly about "race." The teachable moment taught us perhaps to look more closely. We sat forward with an intense gaze because neither Professor Gates nor Sergeant Crowley were stereotypes. Ironic that the most shown photograph of Professor Gates in handcuffs looked to be a black and white photo and therefore especially reminiscent of the civil rights movement. And of course the moment would never have become teachable without the teacher - and I don't mean Professor Gates, I mean the President. His cameo performance was flawless, elegant theater. I say that as a high compliment - being a person who studies real life to make theater richer. The teachable moment has caused us to look closely but it has not yet taught us to look more broadly.

As we feel the heat ease off of the national debate let's bring our awareness to the racial tinderboxes of many kinds all over the country. A hot, as in energized, national debate about "race" will cause us to realize that we can pay attention to more than one narrative at once. To name a few -- women, their vulnerability both economically and to the criminal justice system -- the rates of women and young women who are incarcerated has increased exponentially in the last two decades; juveniles and disparities about how they are treated in the courts and in schools; Muslim Americans post-9/11; immigration reform... the list goes on and on.

As others have suggested, there are many ways to work towards ensuring a healthier justice system. Just as health care is about preventative activities and wellness, justice is about preventative activity and equity in all areas of society. There is a lot of concrete work to do. A lot that ends up in the courts or in hands of the police would not, if our public institutions were healthier. This would include cultural institutions too.

Students and practitioners of race relations need to acquaint themselves with all varieties of racial tinder boxes and racial tinder boxes waiting to happen due to crumbling institutions. Not for the sake of only enriching their own tinderbox, but for the sake of enriching America and preparing for leadership in a diverse global community. One of our president's greatest gifts is displayed in how he fashioned his own life to be a true reach across cultures. We should learn from him about the effort, determination, imagination and desire it took and takes to make that reach- even as he manages to portray ease.

What concerns me about the "heated debate" is that as radio hosts and guests talk, I hear the same kind of language that I heard -- and studied -- in the '90s. Talk of "safe places to have conversations," for example. That's not what we need right now. This is not about conversations and "learning about one another." We don't need salons. We need initiatives and resources to spark the work of building a stronger society, one with public spaces that allow for shared excellence. The clock is ticking on affirmative action. Six years down -- not so much of a long way da go, on the clock.