By Alan von Kalckreuth
I asked actress, Marion Ramsey, (best know for playing “Hooks” in the Police Academy movie franchise), and Zaron Burnett III a screenwriter and essayist, both black industry professionals here in Hollywood, what it is like to be black in America today.
“Do people react to you in a prejudiced way because you’re black?”
“Oh hell to the yeah!” She roared with her multi octave voice.
The other customers in Maria Callender’s on Wilshire Boulevard turned, but they were used to me provoking loudness from the people I have
dinner with; I had interviewed Zaron Burnett III there a few days earlier and had to asked Zaron to dial it down a few notches as he revealed his sense of hurt and the lost dignity he suffers as a black man in America in the Twenty-first century.
Marion told me about an incident that happened to her in an upscale New York department store. She was leaving the store when a security guy stopped her and asked to look in her handbag. “Horrible, I felt horrible, “ she told me. “And he was black!” she added. “You’d better make sure there’s something in this bag, because if there isn’t I’m go’na own this store and go’na own you bitch, and everything you’re go’na make and your kids are go’na to make…” She was reliving the moment in full Technicolor! “He let me go!” she added calmly as if the venting had been a necessary contrast to her triumphant conclusion.
I was reminded of Obama’s remark about
being followed around in stores by store detectives. But Marion wasn’t only victimized for the color of her skin when she went shopping, she told me about not being able to rent an apartment in New York. “The apartment was available on the phone,” she recalled. “When I got there, and they saw I was black, it was not available, even if I paid 6 months up front.”
Where does this knee-jerk reaction to someone because of a physiological characteristic come from? In the late eighteen hundreds a British scientist, Francis Galton, introduced the term eugenics. Galton was Darwin’s cousin and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree –which is exactly why both of those guys believed that fitness, including culturally and socially desirable traits, were evolving in the living organisms that populate Earth, humans included.
A few weeks ago Cleveland police released a surveillance camera video that shows the moment that officers shot a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, who had been playing with a BB gun in a park. As the police drive up he can be seen standing up and fumbling. Two officers get out with their guns drawn and the boy falls, disappearing behind the car. Tamir died of his wounds the following day. As I watched the video I was stunned to see these two police officers minds work –true, I couldn’t actually see inside their heads, but as a whistle-blower from the NSA said about watching people writing e-mails on their computers “you can almost see them think!” What I saw was two law enforcement officers engage a dangerous and threatening “person”, and erring on the side of caution, kill him.
So does that mean that General Patton should have been gunned down for playing cowboys and Indians as a kid, or Winston Churchill or John Wayne? Why was this twelve year old not seen as a child playing, but instead seen as a dangerous treat to those around him?
I knew Zaron Burnett Jr. could shed some light on this, he’s an intelligent, thoughtful screen writer and essayist and whenever we meet up for a chat and a glass of beer.
I am always delighted to know that even though I haven’t been cloned (that I know of) I have meet another mind that could well be my mind.
“Every time I scare a person it hurts my feelings – I’m reminded they see me as a monster!” Zaron told me. “I was in the elevator at the corporate offices of Playboy the other day,” –Zaron is a staff writer for Playboy. “I did not talk to the woman in the elevator, it’s about who you think you are verses how people think you are.”
Just a few weeks earlier Officer Sean Williams fatally shoot John Crawford III while responding to a 911 call in a suburb of Dayton. John’s mother Tressa Sherrod accused Williams and the Beavercreek police department of “trying to cover their butts” when they declared they had acted justifiable in shooting John dead. John was holding an air gun he had picked up from a display shelf in the store and was absentmindedly playing with it as he chatted on his cell phone. “After repeated commands to drop the weapon,” explained officer Williams, “the male turned to us in an aggressive manner with the rifle in hand. At that time the black male was in a position where he could shoot me or sergeant Darkow.”
“I always thought I’m something –everyone is my equal”. Zaron tells me. But his experience growing up in a small town in Northern California told him otherwise. “Cops assumed because I was black I was on my way to buy drugs.” They would stop him and ask for ID and search him. Zaron was a Kunta Kinte sort of kid and would be sassy with the cops; “So you think you’re something – I’ll show you who you are” he told me was the message he most frequently got from the intolerant law enforcers as they manhandled him and slammed him into the wall or onto the hood of their car.
Michael Brown was shot dead after an altercation with a police officer. The police officer justified his actions to a grand jury as necessary for his own safety after Brown assaulted him through his SUV window. It is apparent to anyone who has read details of the altercation that both Brown and officer Wilson were furious with each other. That fury is the root cause of Brown’s death. But where does this fury come from, what feeds this fury?
“Imagine a biker jacket you could never take off,” Zaron said.
I had mentioned to Zaron that two cops bumped me into when I was at the Auto Show a few years back. When it happened I was stunned, it was apparent they had squared their shoulders as they passed me on either side and intentionally bumped me. I looked after them expecting they would turn and apologies –my first interpretation of the incident was it had been an accident. They didn’t even turn back. My mind whirled for an explanation… I was a graduate student studying clinical psychology at the time… THEN it struck me like Archimedes’ insight at bath time –I WAS WEARING A LEATHER MOTOR BIKE JACKET!
“Imagine a biker jacket you could never take off,” Zaron’s words revealed the tragic truth of racism.
“It’s about black bodies, girls as well,” he continued. “Common denominator equals white cop looks at black kid as beneath him.”
“Shot him twelve time! Two shot were into his own door as he rushed to get out!” Zaron’s voice was booming, but the customers were not complaining, perhaps they understood that he could not discuss this subject with out his blood temperature creeping up. “He said (Michael Brown) “You’re to much of a pussy to shoot me!”” then after he’s shot, “Why’d you shoot me?”” explained Zaron. I’m not sure if these were Brown’s actual words, but they flowed from Zaron’s lips and from his soul as if that’s what he would have said.
“The cop reads a load of shit into the engagement that is not in your resume!” Zaron declares after a pause. James Watson, the man who unraveled DNA, told the Sunday Times in 2007 that while people may like to think that all races are born with equal intelligence, those “who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” Galton, Darwin, Watson and Wilson… what do they know that I don’t?
Eugenics was the scientific approach to growing the perfect “person”, and was conceived by Galton. Henrich Himmler was a chicken farmer before he took the position of
Reich’s Fuhrer SS. That point is important because he had a lot of experience in breeding chickens with desirable qualities. A world populated by flocks of Chiken-Littles could be more than civilization could take! “Perhaps we shall also have to hold in check other colored peoples who will soon be in their certain prime, and thus preserve the world which is the world of our blood, of our children and our grandchildren.” He told Germany. Once in the job he applied the science of eugenics to perfecting what the Nazis’ believed was the pyramidion of humanity –the Arian Race.
“Race does not exist, ethnicity is real.” It took me several minutes to digest Zaron’s definitive proposal to end prejudice in America. A world without race, what does that mean? “Miley Cyrus can put on black culture and wear it like street wear… and take it off again,” Zaron trumpeted. “A black guy can’t do that.” I looked sufficiently confused for him to elaborate, “Twerking is a black culture thing, goes way back to the seventies.” I nodded –hadn’t known that.
“First baby born in New World was Irish/Black in 1608.” Zaron declared. I checked it out -1606-01-03 a little person was born, the first birth of a child of African decent in the continental United States, or the New World as it was popularly know at the time.
Zaron wasn’t trying to impress me with his dates and statistics, check out his article on Death by Numbers here http://www.playboy.com/articles/death-by-numbers – he was trying to educate me on the origins of popular racism in America. Africans and indentured whites labored side by side in the colonies, and, according to Zaron, “Bacon’s Rebellion changed Black’s place in America.” The ruling class suppressed the rebellion, but went to great lengths to ensure blacks and indentured whites never joined forces again. What would these changes mean for blacks over the next four hundred years?
As the customers in Maria Callender’s finished their burgers and pies, and politely disregarded the animated Zaron, I listened to the history of black America. “We changed the shark patterns in the Atlantic Ocean! – Four hundred years of tossing bodies into the sea,” roared Zaron. The horrible ribbon of blood that streaked across the mid Atlantic, known as the Middle Passage, has always haunted me. I have always feared going into darkness in the cold of night, knowing that my energy and strength would wane and expire long before the horrible journey ends –and for me this was journeys like a night train across Europe, or a drive in the winter across the Rockies… I can only imagine the despair and terror of those who traveled the ribbon of blood to the New World, destined for generations of slavery abuse and deprivation.
“Africans do not consider themselves blacks,” explained Zaron. He was suggesting that black is a label applied as if by government sanction to advise users of the possible dangers of the contents. “Bigot verses racist – I would separate from blackness,” he added.
“Imagine a biker jacket you could never take off.” Zaron’s words echo across a never ending, boundless hell where being black often means you’re treated as less than a person, not entitled to the presumption of being a twelve year old kid playing, or a shopper distracted by a phone call, or a guy doing a good deed. When her son, John Crawford III, died, his mother Sherrod was at home with John’s two children. He was talking to them on the phone! Sherrod said they listened to his final moments. “It was horrible… It was horrible. I don’t think anyone wants to hear on the phone their child dying, taking their last breath.”
“I can’t breath! I can’t breath…” Eric Garner said this eleven times and died. He was being held in a chokehold by a police officer who had snared him from behind and slammed him to the ground. Eric was confronted by a police officer when he was trying to break up a quarrel between two other pedestrians. “I’m minding my business and the people what were fighting you go’na let walk away, are you serious!” he told the police officer.
This was the beginning of a very one-sided conversation –a comparatively polite conversation that ended in Eric’s death. “I did nothing, let me go. I did nothing, been here the whole time minding my business.” This was not the first time Eric had been stopped and harassed by the police. “Who did I sell a cigarette to? To who?” he demanded the office tell him. The tattooed, young officer shrugged towards someone standing in the gathering crowd. “Every time you see me you wan’a arrest me. I’m tired of this – it’s go’na stop today, stop today!” It would stop today. This was Eric’s last day, his last day alive.
The bystander recording all this said, “The guy right here is forcibly trying to lock somebody up for breaking up a fight!” “I’m just standing here, ain’t doing nothing,” protests Eric, “I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me you want to harass me! I’m minding my business, officer. I’m minding my business. Why don’t you just leave me alone? I told you the last time, please leave me alone.
Several other officers arrive. One officer approaches Eric from behind. Eric moves away, “Please – don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. Please don’t touch me!” The officer behind him grabs Eric in a chokehold as three other officers wrestle Eric to the ground. One officer kneels on his head.
“I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath… I can’t breath…”
“All he did was break up a fight and this is what happened to him for breaking up a fight,” remarks the guy recording on his smartphone. “Crazy”.
“Back up everyone, back up this way,” instructs a police officer. “It’s now go’na become a crime scene.” What he didn’t tell them was it was a crime scene where no one would face felony charges. A crime scene where a grand jury would decide no one committed a crime. It was just a scene at the end of a black man’s life, a forty-three year old father. A scene that rounded off his experience of living and dying as a black man in America in the twenty-first century.
“Every time I scare a person it hurts my feelings – I’m reminded they see me as a monster!” Zaron had said. Darren Wilson told the grand jury, “The only way I can describe it, it looked like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
“You have turned him into a archetypical dark, evil being. The only word worse is devil!” protested Zaron.
“Security starts following you around –I use my best English and they look at me as if I can’t afford it…” Marion told me. “…It’s expensive she said (shop assistant) when I asked to see a particular necklace. I was in a show, Andre Heller’s Body and Soul, in Frankfurt in 1988, before the wall came down.” Marion is a fun person and hearing her recount these episodes are fun and amusing, but that’s only because she’s an entertainer. There is nothing fun about being profiled.
“People had no voice back in the day, they do now, all people must do this, use their voice,” she adds earnestly.
“Cop followed me to La Brea and Beverly,” Zaron recalls. “I pulled into the gas station. They jumped out with guns drawn, finger curled around the trigger, not on the guard!” Not only does Zaron have to deal with this harassment, he also has to deal with the knowledge that on-lookers are seeing a person who is considered by the law to justify their scrutiny –a person less than themselves.
Here in Hollywood we do more to influence culture than any other institution outside of the educational system. Portraying blacks as leading politicians, successful businessmen, teachers, and professionals will go some way towards breaking down racial stereotypes. Both Marion and Zaron do all they can to help breakdown barriers and bust myths. A concerted industry effort might shift the balance and return dignity to all people.