Lucky to Have the Southside
When I was growing up in a small town in Western New York, we were taught to respect the police, the sheriff and his deputies and the New York State Troopers, but not too much. There was an undercurrent of disdain that could not help but seep into any instruction about law enforcement especially from my father. My mother– of more recent immigrant stock–wanted us to be more cautious. But, Dad, a WASP whose family immigrated to this continent prior to the American Revolution, could not hide his lack of respect: the local police were village buffoons beholding to the politicians that paid them; sheriffs were bill collectors and in general unsavory characters whose gross incompetence in anything useful lead them to their current employment; he had more respect for State Troopers: they were at least part of the “road” (my father had been a trucker), were more intelligent and, to my father, they seemed to serve a more useful purpose and were for the most part above political corruption. You did not want to see a trooper when you were speeding, but in rural Upstate New York, you were glad someone was out there.
I can remember way back then driving while having long hair and being stopped constantly. At that time, the police did not need probable cause to pull you over. After a while I grew pretty impatient with this kind of treatment. I became somewhat confrontational, but never to the point of getting hauled in. At one point in my early 20s I was running a small construction company building cabins in the foothills of the Appalachians. I was also a volunteer firefighter and an elected fire commissioner. I was so angry during one of these “stops” that I actually got out of my car and did a safety inspection of the patrolman’s car. He gave me all the tickets he could. He had no way of knowing that they would all amount to only a $5 fine because the local JP was also a fire chief and a friend of mine. The police officer only saw a long-haired hippie driving an old pickup. But that was then. I have since learned that a police officer’s reaction to me might have a lot to do with my reaction to them. In recent years I’ve worked with the police to hunt down arsonists, build block watches and shared many beers after work hours.
By this time I was living in an even more rural part of New York than my birthplace. My wife and I did look like hippies even though we didn’t live like hippies. We had goats and gardens and lived on seven acres. She was a school teacher and I was building cabins. When I finally finished our own 2,000-square-foot A-frame home, we adopted our first child. He was a mixed racial child who was destined to become a remarkable young man: a degree in economics from Santa Clara University, a college and professional soccer career, great father and husband, successful manager and a person dedicated to his community. All of this all despite his association with me.
After his adoption, we moved to Phoenix primarily to find work. We bought a home in the Southside and adopted another beautiful mixed racial child, this time a girl. She too has had a successful and admirable life. At that time, I still had the notion that as an adoptive parent I should figure out a way of paying homage to all the different cultures that I thought my children’s genetic heritage represented. That would include Polish, Welch, English, Mexican American, several Native American Nations and African American. Then I took a few courses at South Mountain Community College and met Dr. Joseph Parham, a counselor there at that time and an African American.
I told him about my idea of raising my children with a reference to all these different cultures. He laughed at me and said, in so many words, look, you live in America and in America your kids are Black. He went on to explain that I had better focus on learning what that means to my children and to anyone who has taken on the responsibility of raising a Black child in America. I didn’t want to hear that but he wasn’t kidding. So, I started to research what he was telling me. I was lucky in that the Black community in the Southside was willing to teach and nurture me about what it takes to bring up a Black child in America, especially a Black male. I had to forget all my arrogance toward police. I had to inform my son that there will come a time when he will no longer be seen as a cute Black kid, but will become, in the eyes of people that can hurt him, a “Black Youth” and a dangerous person. This is a message we should no longer have to teach. But, as the recent tragedy in Florida has reminded us that time has not yet arrived. The Trayvon Martin killing is not about sweatshirts with hoods, or even armed crazies, it is about Americans and how we think.
That same tragedy has also reminded me how lucky my family has been to find the Southside and the wonderful caring people that have insisted that I change the way I think and behave.
Written by Greg Brownell