In 2016, I was coming back to my apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, after a long afternoon of playing basketball with old friends. I was about to head upstairs, but I saw a missed call that I figured I’d return outside rather than annoy my roommates through the thin walls.
A few minutes later, I looked up and saw that two NYPD officers had cornered me. They wanted to see my ID, which I didn’t have.
They asked if I lived in the building. They said someone had complained about someone loitering in front of their apartment. I assured them that I too lived there, and had every right to be there taking a phone call. They insisted that I prove it to them by opening the lock with my key.
Sure, officer, no problem.
I chose to live in Greenpoint because I really like the G train, which connects Queens and North Brooklyn with other Brooklyn neighborhoods to the south. I hadn’t once considered that there are a lot of white people who live there, and that I, an Arab American, might stand out. I had lived in that apartment for about half a year. I went out of my way to present myself as friendly. Maybe it was the sweaty basketball shorts, or maybe a neighbor had gotten tired of my locking my bike to the handrail and wanted to send a message. There was no way to be sure. But I held on to that paranoia.
I had always been afraid of the police. I had experienced enough of those “random” searches to catch on to the fact that they’re hardly random. As early as 14, I had my backpack emptied out on my way to school by a police officer who said I fit a profile, and that kind of extra attention became routine. They told me they needed to be sure. I learned to see the police as a threat.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City in 2013 that I began extending that fear to my white neighbors. I first noticed it in myself. I assumed that white people would see me as threatening, so I’d try to disarm them and do little things to assure them of my innocence. Sometimes, it’s as innocuous as a wide smile at a gas station. Other times, it’d be more deliberate, like crossing the street when someone white was in my trajectory. I didn’t want to spook anyone, so I didn’t give them a chance to be spooked.
In Central Park on Monday morning, a white woman named Amy Cooper was filmed by a black man who was there bird-watching. He asked her to leash her dog, and she responded by calling 911 and lying to the operator that she was being threatened by “an African American male.” She emphasized his race many times. There’s no doubt that she was aware how many NYPD officers handle encounters with black men. Cooper was pleading to the police to show up guns blazing because she didn’t like that a black man told her to put her dog on a leash.
Both Cooper and the man in the video were gone when the police arrived. That’s lucky.
I didn’t have to confront a white woman in the park to experience situations like this. Once I was put in handcuffs for being on a subway platform standing on my skateboard because someone told a police officer they felt unsafe. Another time I was in a car with other brown men, and we were asked to exit the vehicle so the officers could pat us down and search the car; it wasn’t clear if someone had complained, or if the officers were just making sure we knew we were being watched. Sometimes it was more mundane. Once I was at a bar and was confronted by a bouncer after putting down my empty glass on a table just past a huddle of white women.
This all took a toll. I was anxious and suspicious of my neighbors all the time because I had no idea who might see me as a threat. Eventually I couldn’t do it anymore.
People like Cooper are the reason I moved out of New York City. It was actually an easy decision to make. It would add only about 15 minutes to my morning commute, and with many neighbors who looked like me, I figured I’d go back to feeling like I belonged. Who wants to be a frightening sight to their neighbors?
I wasn’t sure until I took the train to Newark, New Jersey, from New York. Other passengers couldn’t be bothered with my presence, already hurrying in their own directions. There were plenty of light-skinned people, but enough melanin that I didn’t feel like I stood out. Even though crime in Newark is much higher than in Greenpoint, I felt safer.
In the Ironbound section of Newark, where I grew up, most people come from someplace. English sometimes isn’t enough to order yourself a cup of coffee. The biggest obstacle to overcome is everyone telling us to get out of the hood. High school teachers encouraged students to study hard for standardized tests, telling us it could be our ticket out of this neighborhood. By any measure, leaving Newark meant success. But I wasn’t prepared for what was waiting beyond this place. Feeling like an outsider was doable, but the constant fear and doubt of belonging kept adding up. I couldn’t take the gaze of law enforcement, and of the white people who wielded the NYPD as a personal enforcer whenever someone brown or black did something they didn’t like or simply took up space.
In Newark, I don’t have to worry about a Cooper calling the police to harass me. People like her, who see melanin as an implied threat, are already terrified of a neighborhood like mine in Newark. This city’s reputation precedes it and acts like a force field keeping people like her away. She’d ask for the manager because the barista doesn’t speak English, only to find out the manager won’t speak English either. I love this city, precisely because it’d make every Amy Cooper uncomfortable. That’s why I feel home.
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