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Oakland: How I Really Got This Black Eye

Submitted by News Desk on Wed, 09/09/2009 - 3:05pm

Last year, when I told friends I was moving to the Bay Area, they would all respond with equal parts joy and jealousy. "The Bay? Man, you're going to love it. The weather, the culture, the politics -- they've got all that." When I told them I was going to be living in Oakland specifically, the responses started to sound a little different. "Oh shit, The Town? You better watch your back." While folks were still down with the left-leaning, hip-hyphy, biracial baby that is the city of Oakland, they also made sure to tell me that this baby would jack me for my stroller if I wasn't smart.

But those were just scare stories. Right? Growing up in Washington, DC in the mid-90s, I'd seen both the reality and the exaggerated stereotype of the "murder capital." Violence at my high school and in some neighborhoods was all too real, but it was also an excuse for suburban commuters and absentee politicians (in this case, Congress, which controls DC's purse-strings) to disinvest from those same schools and neighborhoods, creating further inequality and violence.

My first year here in Oakland, I saw those same cyclical dynamics, with the police shooting of Oscar Grant, the Lovelle Mixon shooting of four cops, and budget cuts to schools and community programs throughout it all. From the structural level to the personal, Oakland's been sitting on the edge for years now, and it's getting pushed. I just never thought I'd personally be getting pushed too.

Last month, I got jumped walking home from the train one night. Four kids got me, and they got me good. And while my physical scars have healed, we all know it's the psychological ones that take longer to address. The whole thing, from beatdown to calling the cops to talking with my girlfriend, has raised a lot of questions for me about street violence, racial profiling, gentrification, and my complex role in all of those. Who should I be angry at - the kids, the city that failed them, myself for not calling a cab? And if I'm a community organizer, how can I organize that anger with my community for a response of compassion and restorative justice, rather than more cops and harsher sentences?

While there are many folks creative alternative solutions to just these issues (shout out to the Ella Baker Center, Criticial Resistance, and my homies at Youth Speaks), in the spirit of those questions, I want to offer this poem as a starting place. A starting place of healing - for me, for anyone who has been a victim of violence, and hopefully for those four kids too.

How I Really Got This Black Eye:

1. No, it wasn't from a Parisian stripper named Lolita stomping me with her 7-inch platform heels. That ones under the shirt.

It wasn't from LeBron force-feeding me an angry elbow after I dunked on him again.

And again. And again.

It wasn't funny.

2. Five minutes before my princely face got punched purple, I was imagining the rain.

Walking home from the last BART train on a Wednesday, the sky full black,

the moon, huge & white, watching down on everything.

Oakland is a beautiful city. But badge or bare knuckles, motherfuckers don't play.

3. But for real, though, it was from this one-legged old Russian oompa loompa who called my bet that he couldn't jump that high and get me.

4. I saw them before they saw me. A block from my apartment: one of me, four of them.

The oldest couldn't have been past high school, the youngest just Bar Mitzvah'd.

The one who came up to me first, or actually who came up behind me before I turned around, he looked like my boy Darren from DC. Big, brown eyes, short dreads locked tighter than cuffs, a huge mouth that could turn just as easily into a threat as a grin.

But the cop, light-faced like the moon, who I didn't want to call but ended up doing it cuz I wanted to get my laptop back, he didn't ask me about those features. First question he wanted to know:

"So, what race were they?"

"Ok. And these black guys were all wearing hoodies? Were those black too?"

And just like that, the sky erupted. The moon was full, the rain on my window like bullet shells, and I was That Dude scared to tell his scared girlfriend that Yes, he's scared to walk around the neighborhood too.

5. I think I've stopped profiling though. Yesterday, I was biking down East 14th and this whole car of one-legged oompa loompas drove by. I didn't even flinch. More than once.

6. My boy Darren from DC isn't my my boy no more. He's no one's boy no more, just a chalk outline we still picture on the pavement from time to time.

Back home for Thanksgiving four losing, racist Redskins seasons ago, we were supposed to watch the big game against the Cowboys together. He was gonna clown me for living in Wisconsin, I was gonna clown him for living with his moms.

But Darren's mom made the best turkey chili of all time, so I could never clown him for more than one meal. Before I jumped on the train to come over, she called me on his cell phone.

"It's me, Josh", she said. "He's gone."

No crazy crying, no heavy silence, she just kept repeating it like if I interrupted her, maybe it wouldn't be true anymore.

He's gone. He's gone. He's gone...

7. And like that, they were gone.

They came up on me, said, "Give me your stuff," I said. "Be cool,they weren't, got me real good in the eye, the ear, and the back, and were gone. 2 minutes tops. Took my bag but not my wallet or keys.

Mighta been their first time. Glad we at least lost this virginity together.

8. Oakland cut its summer jobs program this year by 40 percent.

9. I didn't live here last year.

On this block, in this small city as much pimp as panther.

They did. They saw.

I probably came to their high school in the spring. Probably did some poems with Brandon and Isa, they probably looked at us and thought, "What are these fools gonna do for ME?"

Saw me, out of place, beneath bright lights. White moon, rising like condos in the night sky. The block's changed. They see me, their welcome mat replaced with an eviction notice.

Violence or progress? Manifest destiny, pushing west, pushing folks out.

"So you got pushed around a little, white boy? Welcome to America."

10. I still don't know what I'd say to Lil Darren if I saw him on the street again.

Don't know if he'd turn that big mouth into smile or seven-millimeter.

Or if I would have a response for both possibilities that rolled so easy off his tongue.