Tales from Park Hill
The story begins several decades ago. It’s right out of a movie. A bunch of high-spirited teenagers roam the streets of their hometown at midnight. They laugh, flirt and joke, aimlessly walking under the street lights with no real purpose. The teens stop at a big road to watch some late night police activity, when suddenly their laughter falls away into a deafening silence as the reality of what they are seeing hits them.
But this story is not a movie. It is real. The teens were juniors at the top of their class. The only substance abuse involved was, maybe, a few too many cheese fries at the local diner. The hometown was not a cozy, stereotypical suburb, but rather a congested extension of New York City sprawl; one of Manhattan’s many urban bedrooms. And, the road wasn’t any road. It was the crossroads of the world – the massive industrialized highway leading from the U.S. mainland to the New York Islands, and one of the biggest travel routes for people headed to New England. This was the toll bridge plaza for the George Washington Bridge.
We stood on the concrete, grungy overpass looking at the highway below. The air, which danced unnaturally in the yellow streets lights, seemed to contain more exhaust fumes than oxygen. But we were used to that. Our high school was only blocks away from the bridge. This was our home.
On the far side of the highway, cars were slowly inching into the toll booths, only to shoot out the other side to continue their journey across the bridge into Manhattan. On our side, there were no toll booths so cars flew by as they made their way into Jersey. This is where the Port Authority and local Police had setup a D.U.I and drug check point.
We were there because we were bored. It was midnight and it seemed like a good thing to do. The police routinely operated a checkpoint on the incoming side of the bridge on Friday and Saturday nights. Everyone knew about it but nobody had seen it. We figured it would be interesting to watch cops pull people over, perform checks and arrests. This was reality T.V. before reality T.V.
As we stood watching, something occurred to us. All the men standing on the arrest wall were dark-skinned. Then, as time crept on, we realized that most of the cars being pulled over were driven by dark-skinned men. I remember thinking, “What is going on?”
As a band of white, middle-class Jewish kids, we didn’t really believe what we were seeing. In our New York City, this didn’t happen. People scream at each other using all kinds of unsavory names, and then go laugh it off over a pickle and pastrami sandwich.
We went back again the next weekend. And, night after night and it was the same story.
I was sixteen, and it was the first time that I had actually witnessed an example of racist acts. I grew up in Utopian environment of interfaith, interracial and intercultural bliss. There we all were living in one little city building, like a happy bag of jelly beans. Nobody cared what skin tone you had, what god you worshiped, who you loved, how much money you had, or what language you spoke. It was my childhood reality; a glorious Utopian world created by happenstance.
But those nights watching the Port Authority Police DUI checkpoint shattered “my glass menagerie.” What we witnessed was both upsetting and confusing. Coming to terms with what we saw was even more difficult – a cognitive dissonance of epic proportion.
The arrested men may have been drunk or serious drug offenders; they may have been criminals. We didn’t know for sure. The I-95 corridor through New Jersey into New York is one of the most notorious drug trafficking routes. We all knew that.
But we also knew that the Mafia had a significant presence in our town and the surrounding areas. In fact, one of my neighbors was a retired boss who gave out $20.00 bills instead of Kit-Kat bars on Halloween. Another neighbor was found to be laundering drug money and was himself an cocaine addict. They were both white and living among us.
Regardless of any truths or case facts, we were still forced to face something new.
Our country has an underlying, systemic problem with race – one that we have been struggling to overcome for many years. With each generation, change has happened. We manage to break through some of the limitations caused by destructive cultural constructs. From my own studies over the years, I have seen this positive progress, and the shattering of harmful elements that block the nurturing of a more equitable society.
However we are not there yet. While some issues have been put to rest, many have simply been shoved under the rug and glossed over. How much of our social progress is smoke and mirrors? How much is pandering and good P.R?
This insidious racism is not limited to one area of the country; it isn’t even uniquely American. The responsibility and blame don’t fall only on the shoulders of the police. They fall on each and every person who holds a membership card to this society. And they will continue to rest there until we live in a world in which skin color is simply one of the many beautiful details in the painting that is someone’s life.
As I look back and shuffle through those memories, I recall another detail that scared me more than those nights at the bridge; something that was more indicative of a deeply rooted human problem. Several days after we had first watched the GWB checkpoint; after we had witnessed, what seemed to us, very clear racial and ethnic profiling, the same group of friends sat in the lobby of my apartment building. As we loitered as only teens can do, a small Egyptian boy darted out of the front door heading to the playground. I could hear him laughing as he went. When he disappeared from sight, one friend, who did not live in the building, said, “Look. A little terrorist in training.”
At that point, my heart sunk. It has to end somewhere; with someone. It ends with me. Will it end with you?
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George Washington Bridge from N.J. [By Classic2eb at n.wikipedia]
Cross Bronx Expressway [Photo Credit: Zachary Korb]
George Washington Bridge at night [Public Domain]