I was in a good mood. No. I was in a great mood. The kind of mood in which I feel I could fix the world for a million quid and have change left over or fix someone’s life for a couple of grand. Mentoring and building community bridges was my life. It is was my purpose of being. Other things took a back seat – friends, family, high flying career options, writing, music.
I was in the local town centre. I was running late. The weather was getting colder. I was wearing a black woollen hat and a non-descript coat. It was functional and warm. I had on a pair of jeans and trainers. I stopped because I was out of breath. I saw a black man dressed almost identical to me sitting down on the public seats. Similar hat, coat, jeans, skin complexion. I waved. It’s a black thing. If we see one of our own, we wave even if we’ve never seen them before. He had a friend sitting next to him.
I went to the library. A talk by A.D Garrett. I stayed behind and talked to Professor Dave Barclay about a plot twist I’d been thinking of for my fledgling novel. He said it was feasible and had come across a similar incident to the one I imagined in his professional line of work. Result. I was buzzing. I was happy.
I walked out of the library five minutes late. I saw two community policemen talking to my doppleganger.
‘You have to leave.’
‘Why? I haven’t done anything.’
The conversation went backwards and forwards.
A woman had made a complaint about somebody fitting his description at the other end of town.
He said he hadn’t moved from that spot all day.
A small crowd were watching. A man in his early twenties was videoing the encounter in case things got bad.
A community police officer called for backup.
The black man repeated that he had done nothing wrong so why should he move.
Three officers turned up.
Five police officers stood over him whilst he stayed sitting down. He didn’t swear.
It was the most intimidating situation I have seen. I don’t know how he didn’t react.
In the end they made him sign a piece of paper saying that he wouldn’t go to the town centre for 48 hours.
The man who had been videoing the unfolding events on his phone turned to me and said ‘that’s disgusting. He’d done nothing wrong. He’d been sitting there all day minding his own business.’
When my double (and his friend) left, I tried to have a conversation about the situation with one of the officers.
I said to the officer that I didn’t know the guy but could we have a conversation about ways of handling that type of situation.
Not interested, didn’t want to know.
Something broke inside of me.
All the other little things that happen in the daily course of being black in the northeast that have happened to me I’ve been able to brush off without a second thought.
Stopped by the police in my car for ‘wearing the wrong type of hat’??? No problem. I would like to know what is the ideal hat for not getting pulled over, though?
Asked to take off my hat in a store so that the security cameras could get a good look at my face because that’s company policy. Lets ignore those gangs of white kids in hooded tops and hats then shall we??? No problem. I’ll just take my black wallet elsewhere.
As well as the classic ‘I don’t like black people but you’re alright.’ No problem. I’ll just smile through gritted teeth.
None of those ‘minor’ incidents had any affect on me but what I witnessed when I came out of the library shattered me (or maybe years of the minor incidents just cracked me and the local town police was the last thing needed for me to break)
I went home and wrote my first and last angry facebook rant. My wife saw it and told me to delete it. ‘Think of your job,’ she said. I cried sporadically and shouted ‘fuck fuck fuck’ regularly for at least a fortnight.
You see, I’m one of those people you never see or hear about. I’m one of those people who you only hear about because we get a nod at an awards ceremony. I’m one of those people who work on projects in the community that bring police and youth closer together. I’m the guy who came up with a crazy idea to hire out a nightclub at Christmas time and fill it with all the local teenagers so they would be off the streets and therefore no hassle for the police. I got a policeman’s son to kick his drug habit when everything else had failed.. He thanked me with tears in his eyes. I’m one of those people who get called when the authorities say we’ve had an incident, we’d like your professional opinion on how best to rectify this broken situation. I’m one of those people who have to sign non disclosure agreements due to working on sensitive cases. I’m one of those people they call to say ‘we need more black people on this or that liaison group: ‘You fit the profile: Black. Got a briefcase full of qualifications. Never been in trouble with the law. Got a suit.’ I’m one of those people who get paid nothing or with the occasional nod at an awards ceremony.
I am one of those people who have recommended that BAME people I have interviewed, should join the police.
I was broken for at least a year, maybe more. I fixed myself by having a long conversation with the inner me. I had to have a few words with myself because if somebody was suffering like I was suffering, I’d send them to see me.
Although the town centre incident happened many years ago now, It still left its mark.
Will I go into that town centre by myself looking the way I do? Not without a good reason (with or without a suit).
If I’m going to the gig in that town centre. I’d go to the gig then leave straight away. Would I hang about? No.
Would I let my black kids go into the town centre by themselves? Fuck, no.
But I am fully aware. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m not the one who got harrassed out of town. I wasn’t the one surrounded by five policeman. I have options. I can take my suits and my wallet elsewhere. But remember what I said in the beginning: Me and my doppleganger – We dressed alike, we looked the same. If I’d left the library on time it could’ve easily been me surrounded by the police. I don’t think I would’ve been able to keep my cool in that situation. I would’ve lashed out. I’m sure I could’ve got some great character references but that wouldn’t have been of any use to me.
After deleting the facebook rant I gave up community work. I felt I was wasting my time building bridges, what I’d been doing for more than half my life. All the awards and plaques I’d recieved in the last twenty years went in the bin.
These days, I’m back into the mentoring work. I don’t push it hard like I used to. Its part of my life. Its not all of my life. Why do I still do it? I find it very hard to say no when someone calls me up and they’re struggling for answers. A crying parent who thinks their kid’s gone off the rails with drink, drugs etc or a professional who feels stuck in their career path. My solutions are more pragmatic than idealistic. I work with individuals instead of institutions. I can change people relatively cheaply but changing the police or the rest of the world? That’s going to take alot of work and more than a million quid.
But if you’ve got a few million to spare, I’d give it a go.