The Things You Won’t Remember: The Plight of the Black Male in America
When the group of young boys got on at 79th Street, very few people took notice of them. Slouched in their hard, plastic seats or leaning against the doors, the eyes of my fellow passengers were glued to their books and their glowing Apple devices.
“Stand clear of the closing doors please,” said the muffled voice of the conductor over the intercom. Lacking the modernity of the new, shiny cars, frequent passengers of the 1 train grew accustomed to deciphering every message.
As our downtown train zoomed through the dark tunnels of New York’s underground, I looked up and scanned our car. For a moment, my eyes rested on the group of boys that had boarded the train at the previous stop. No member of the group seemed older than sixteen years old. Their stone faces avoided my eyes. The tallest of the pack sported a pair of electric blue basketball shorts and white mid-calf Nike socks. His friend, who stood next to him, wore a plain red t-shirt and a pair of black basketball shorts.
As I often do with strangers, I imagined their lives outside of this train car. I assumed that because they got on at 79th Street, maybe they were a group of schoolboys, having just been dismissed from an air-conditioned classroom. To be honest, judging only from their stop, I imagined that they were boys from the Collegiate School–scholars of a classroom that once excluded them. I imagined that they had just returned from school and were perhaps heading to their respective homes in Brooklyn, that their black drawstrings held summer reading and permission slips.
At 72nd street, one crowd replaced another as people rushed off the train. The car doors remained open as the Downtown 2 express train rolled into the adjacent platform. Passengers grew antsy as they were forced to weigh the odds and pose critical questions: Should they jump off this local and head for the express? With it being rush hour, would it actually make a difference? Would the doors of this 1 train decide to close once they got up? Or worse, would the doors of the 2 train close as they approached?
Amidst these thoughts, no one noticed the “crime” that occurred until the shrill voice of the victim broke their mind game.
“HE STOLE MY PHONE!” she yelled. “THAT ASSHOLE STOLE MY PHONE!”
The people on the platform and in the cars went into a silent panic. With no one actively wanting to show fear, we stood and let the rising tension explain the surprised and uncertain looks on our faces. Before we could process the event that had moved from our car to the platform, three plain-clothed police officers jumped into action.
In the next ten seconds, a series of things happened that are still difficult to register. The doors of all the trains remained open as the conductors attempted to provide no escape. An undercover cop in a pair of blue faded jeans and a white collared shirt tackled the ebony skinned boy with the skinny arms and the red t-shirt. I looked at him and tried to search his eyes. His stoic expression and unnerved dark brown almond eyes gave me the impression that he had already given up. The cop, now on top of the boy’s body, continued to hold him down and punch him in the face. A somewhat dramatic gasp unexpectedly escaped my lips. In the same amount of time that it took for the robbery to occur, the fist of the officer proceeded to collide with the face of the young boy.
I looked at my friend. She looked back at me, pursed her lips and shook her head in disapproval. Without exchanging a single word about the punch, I knew that her expression was of expected disappointment than anger.
We turned our attention back to the scene. The boys had all dispersed. The pale skinned police officer with the flushed cheeks handcuffed the red t-shirt boy’s wrists and the other officer, his partner in plain clothes, chased his friend down the platform–out of our line of vision.
Passengers of our car wore shocked looks on their faces—attempting to process if the police officer had actually punched the already defeated boy. No one could understand if the pale hand of the man in blue had, in reality, touched the ebony skin of the teenager who had already surrendered.
At that point, I searched for the female voice. My eyes scanned the perimeter of the platform and I found her hovering over the boy, calling him an asshole. The edges of her dark curly brown hair were frizzy and I imagined each bead of sweat coiling the straightened locks as her anger and fear grew simultaneously.
I looked back at the boy. His face was pressed against the grimy gray tiles of the station platform. His eyes looked empty, void of compassion. He looked as though he could have cared less about his current situation.
The car doors closed, marking the end of this event and the beginning of our regularly scheduled lives. On the other side of the car, I saw an older black male bow and shake his head. He wore the same look of expected disappointment as my friend.
At 66th Street, I mumbled a weak goodbye to my friend and walked up the stairs. As I emerged from the underground and unto the unaware city streets, I tried to comprehend what I had just experienced.
I remembered looking into the red t-shirt boy’s eyes and seeing them lack any faith. While I understood that he had committed a crime, I could not help but feel anger for the unnecessary punch.
I knew that the passengers of the 1 train had just witnessed the metaphorical end of his life. I could see his future. It consisted of standing in front of some judge with an overworked and underpaid public attorney to his right. An attorney who had about one hundred more cases of the same variety. An attorney who would attend to his case with minimal care. Standing there, this boy would make no indication of remorse–knowing that his fate had been sealed. This young boy would then end up in the juvenile system.
At age 15 (which is how old he looked) he had already lost any life chances. He has already been marked a failure in red ink and thrown into a general pile of delinquents.
This woman, who may or may not have gotten her phone back, will be shaken. The passengers in our car will feel bad for her and wonder if she is all right.
No one will wonder about the boys.
This woman will call her cellphone provider and they will send her a new phone–maybe with a small charge. She will tell her friends, and maybe even her family, and they will all sympathetically comfort her with brunch and bottomless mimosas– as good friends are meant to do.
Still, no one will wonder about the fate of the boys.
No one in our car will be able to send the red t-shirt boy’s mother a new son or give him a second chance. Instead, he will now be a part of a system that will harden him. No one will think about the struggles he will face or the hate that will inevitably grow in his heart. When his time is up, he will go back into society alone and abandoned.
We won’t think about this on our next train ride or even the next time that we see something of this sort. If we do, we will shake our heads in disappointment as we wonder about the deteriorating condition of New York City.
When we are at the grocery store trying to decipher between organic and not organic, it probably won’t cross our minds that this kid will not be able to get a job because of his new record—a fresh coat of red ink branding him as a criminal. We probably won’t think about the fact that because of this, he might resort to stealing and end up in the same system—doomed to a never-ending cycle of arrest and release.
The next time we walk by police officers adorned in their signature blue uniforms, we might fail to think about the fact that a few weeks ago we witnessed an abuse of power. An unnecessary act of aggression for an event we all agreed was a crime.
The next time we turn on our televisions or open up the amNY during our morning commute to hear or read about the arrest of yet another “black male, average height wearing all black,” we won’t think about the results of our failed justice system.
We will fail to recognize that while black males make up a meager 6 percent of our population, more than 30 percent of them are currently in our criminal justice system. We won’t remember that 50 percent of African-American men do not finish high school and that by age twenty-three around 50 percent of them will have been arrested.
When we recall this incident and try to remember if the police officer had indeed punched the teenager in the face, we won’t think about the lives of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell or any of the black males shot by a police officer or vigilante every 28 hours.
We won’t think about the thousands of tears shed by black mothers across the nation as they cry to and curse a God that cannot replace their sons. We won’t think about the fear that grips a parent’s heart as they explain to their sons that there are people out there who will judge them just because of the color of their skin. We won’t think about the communities in which funerals and wakes have become the norm as they mourn the loss of a young community of men. We won’t think about the fatigue that plagues a nation of individuals too tired of explaining over the noise of the media, newspapers, politicians and your opinions, why their existence is important. We won’t remember these facts because it is all too easy to forget that the America we live in today is still very much under construction.
However, we will remember one thing.
The next time we are sitting on a downtown 1 train during rush hour and a group of black males enter the car, we will feel our guards go up and the tension rise as we do remember that time the boy in the red t-shirt tried to steal a phone from the poor white woman with frizzy hair.