Lent has just ended, and this time of year always gets me thinking — what am I grateful for? Sure, I'm thankful that I've got a wonderful family, a fridge full of food, a tank full of gas, and some incredible friends. But, upon thinking about one of these friends, a young man named Gregory, I started to realize that I was grateful for just one more thing: that I'm not a young black man in Oak Park.
In last week's Wednesday Journal, a woman named Leslie Blackburn wrote a piece for Viewpoints [Hypocrisy of Oak Park rears its ugly head, Viewpoints, April 20] about people questioning her neighborly values because of her appearance and ethnicity. Many of you might think her inference that her neighbors only thought she wouldn't clean up after her dog based on her ethnicity was a bit glib. And before I met Gregory, I might have agreed with you. But let me assure you, she was dead right.
I grew up in Oak Park, and after college I moved back to Oak Park because I'd always known our village to be among the most welcoming, inclusive and open-minded in the world. Of course we are open-minded and inclusive; after all, we keep saying that we are. And all my life I was lucky enough not to ever have cause to question that specious reasoning.
A year and a half ago, I met a then-12-year-old boy from our neighboring Austin neighborhood named Gregory. His school had put him in a "self-contained" class, which was something I was familiar with, as my older brother has autism, and he faced an uphill battle with Oak Park's special education system. Gregory shares my love of dogs. He often comes over to play with my two dogs, or he brings his dogs over, and we take walks with them in nearby Taylor Park. We became fast friends. He's met all of my neighbors and they all quite like him. He even takes care of my dogs when I go out of town.
The first time the police were called on Gregory, when he was at my house feeding my dogs, I was out of town. I'd given him a house key to do this. I got a call from a neighbor and friend of mine telling me that my house was surrounded by police squad cars. Apparently, someone who'd been passing by my house saw Gregory opening my front door with his key, and she'd called the police, suspecting a break in.
The second time Gregory had a run-in with Oak Park police, I was there. A few weeks after the first incident, Gregory and I had made plans to hang out after he got out of school. He came over, but I was late running errands. I told him to wait on my front porch, as he didn't have the house key on him.
When I got home, he told me that someone who was walking by while he was sitting on my front porch had asked him who he was and what he was doing there. I was unsettled by this but told him not to worry, and we began to get my dogs ready for a walk. A few moments later, I noticed a police officer in my backyard, and Gregory called to me that there was one in my front yard as well. I opened the back door and asked the officer why they were on my property. The officer told me, very nicely, that someone had called them to report a break in.
Yes, again, a break in.
Gregory sitting on my front porch by himself had turned into Gregory breaking and entering. Gregory came to the door, and when the police officer saw him, a look of surprise came over the officer's face, and he said, "Oh, you know him." I was shocked and mortified. What could I tell Gregory? How could I explain this to his family? How could I excuse my fellow Oak Parkers who'd called the police on him? I couldn't.
But it was the third experience that Gregory had with Oak Park "neighborly values" a few months later that really got me upset — likely because, this time, the person who'd called the police was not anonymous. Oak Park small-mindedness, which reigns supreme with a few of us, finally had a face.
Gregory and I were walking my dog Vincent in neighboring Taylor Park. As soon as we crossed the street into the park, Vincent began to go to the bathroom. I began to pull out a bag to pick up after him, but I suddenly heard a car screech to a halt, and the car door slammed shut as a woman got out of her car and began to yell at us.
She demanded to know whether or not I was planning on picking up after my dog. This experience is very similar to Ms. Blackburn's experience. When I responded non-verbally by showing her the bright blue bag I'd just pulled over my hand, she heatedly asked if I was going to pick it up now, and I answered, "Clearly! Just as soon as you realize how rude it is to talk to a stranger like that."
Of course my response was only rhetorical. My picking up after my dog was absolutely not contingent upon her recognizing her own rudeness. I always clean up after my dog. Always.
As I was picking up, she asked me who my friend was, gesturing toward Gregory, who'd been silent this whole time. I told her in no uncertain terms that that was none of her business, and that he had nothing to do with any of this. This was between her and me.
That's when things took an even worse turn. She said, "Well, maybe you'd be willing to tell the police who he is."
Now I should have tried to defuse the situation. Under any other circumstances, especially if I'd been alone, I would have tried to come to an understanding. But then again, I do not think any of this would have happened in the first place if I'd been alone. This situation was different. You can question my pet's waste-related moeurs, but what did Gregory have to do with this? He later told me he wondered the same.
I told her to go ahead and call the police, as we weren't doing anything wrong. Vincent was on a leash, I'd cleaned up after him, so why was she still there? I'm not proud of this, but I even dared her to call the police just to see what they'd say. I was certain that they'd laugh at her for calling 911 over something so ridiculous. And I cannot overstate the ridiculousness of the situation. But then I heard her say those three magic words that seem to get police to respond in almost every situation: "young black male."
She said those words before she described me, and well before she got around to even telling the dispatcher what had happened.
Gregory heard this too, and he asked me if we could go back to my house, and fast. I agreed. He didn't need this. I didn't need to stick around to make a point about local hypocrisy — at least not with his safety and self-esteem on the line. A few minutes later, from the safety of my own house, we saw squad cars circling the park.
I'd like to make it very clear that my neighbors were not the ones who'd called the police on him. They know and like him. They even come to his defense when people question why he is in our neighborhood (given that he lives less than a mile away, this should be considered his neighborhood, too).
My neighbors are wonderful people. They get just as upset as I do when they see this poor, now nearly 14-year-old boy with a learning disability having to deal with local police.
It's these "concerned citizens" that bother me — the ones who find Gregory threatening enough to their existence to call the police. By all accounts, Gregory and I should no longer hang out together. If I were in his situation, I would never set foot in Oak Park ever again. But he is young and apparently very willing to forgive and forget.
What worries me is that if this "neighborly concern" continues, I will lose a great friend, and, more significantly, Gregory will lose his self-confidence. If enough people suggest that he is a threatening young man, and if enough people treat him as such, he will begin to see himself that way, and he might even begin to behave accordingly.
After all, if you tell a child long enough that he is worthless, he will eventually believe you.
From now on, my dear concerned neighbors, spare us. Spare us your racial profiling. Spare us your "us vs. them" mentality. And spare Gregory your anti-neighborly — no, anti-humanly — sentiments. The world he lives in tells him enough that people should be afraid of him. He doesn't need you to concur.
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