Sunday, November 30, 2014

Three Moments

Three moments in time.

In early 2008 I ran into a man I'd worked with years earlier, when he was AMFAC's General Counsel. (I'll call him GC.) He and his family lived in Hawaii then. I'd represented AMFAC in several cases, and GC and I became friends.

When we talked in 2008 he told me a story from 35 years earlier. His daughter, who attended Punahou High School, was going to prom with a black student. Neither GC nor his wife cared about skin color, but his mother was from a different generation, and from the South. They wondered how she'd react.

When he arrived, the young man placed a lei around each lady's neck, as is customary in Hawaii. He and the girl left. GC looked curiously at his mother, who exclaimed, “Wasn't that just the nicest young Hawaiian boy!” The boy's name was Barack. Yep.

In 1975, I was a newspaper reporter here. One night I rode along with the first female police officer in Las Cruces. A call came over the radio regarding an apparent burglary in progress. A man whose neighbors were away had reported seeing lights on in the home. She and a male officer (whom I'll call Joe) riding with us radioed in that they'd respond.

We sped to the address given. Lights, but no siren. The house was completely dark.

I stayed very close to the two officers. With hair down to my belt, I might be mistaken for a burglar by later-arriving officers. Inside, a hallway with doors leading to bedrooms and a bathroom. We started down the hallway, quietly and very attentively. A door opened near the end of the hallway. Female officer ducked through a doorway into a room. Reporter ducked through a doorway. Joe had nowhere to go. A tall fellow emerged. Joe crouched and pointed his gun at him. Tall fellow (a friend the owners hadn't told their neighbors about) raised his hands, sleepily. Joe didn't fire.

Joe and I talked later about how close he'd come to shooting the guy. Joe was still shaking. I came from a civil rights / antiwar background and wasn't averse to criticizing police; but if tall fellow, startled, had reacted with some quick motion, and Joe had shot him, my testimony would have supported Joe. Joe could very reasonably have thought that tall fellow, whom we had reason to suppose was a burglar, was fixing to shoot him.

Finally, back in 1968, I was a college dropout working with black kids in New York City. The night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was at a night class on childhood mental illness. I was pretty blown away by the news. Walking toward the Lower East Side, completely numb, I passed some guys sitting on a stoop. Our eyes met, and maybe I shook my head to express my reaction to the evening's news. They beckoned me toward them. In a daze, I approached. One of them reached out as if to give me something. I put my hand out. Then it looked like he was going to stub out a lit cigarette on my palm, and I jerked my hand back. I watched something fall to the ground, as if in slow motion: the joint he'd tried to hand me. I picked up the joint and smoked with them awhile.

Focused on the assassination, and on the black-white tension it would spark, I'd made a dumb assumption.

We assume a lot – particularly about what we don't know.

As I write this, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I'm thankful about much, including such moments and what they've taught me.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 30 November.]

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