Every semester in New York I grow more and more afraid of walking down the streets of the city. As a first-year, I remember being told by a friend about how he was frisked in front of the stoop to his apartment by a policeman. My friend is dark-skinned and Hispanic.
That summer, I read about the killing of Ramarley Graham by the New York Police Department. The names begin to blur as seemingly every month another black or brown boy is killed by the police, turned into a body, a corpse—his murderers free to go home at night. Black and brown bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies—bodies pile high as I stand by and watch. Over the years, names and statistics become clear.
As I open the newspaper, the bodies pile ever higher. The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project reports that from January 2009 to December 2009, 258 fatalities were reportedly linked to police misconduct across the United States. For comparison: During the same time period, 310 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan.
But these are statistics and names—numbers I see on a screen and names of people I have never met. Until I do meet them. Until I start seeing black and brown boys being arrested inside the 125th Street subway station on my way to work. Until a Chinese man is brutalized on 96th Street for crossing the street and not speaking English. Until I meet clients at my work whom the NYPD arrested for grilling outside or for “trespassing” as they went to their friends’ houses to do homework.
Until I learn that the NYPD regularly uses Civil Forfeiture Laws to arrest anyone, take their possessions (cash, cars, phones, anything they have on them), and never return them, even if they are never charged for a crime. Until I learn of the Clean Halls Program that used to be in effect in the apartment I rented over the summer—a policy that allowed the NYPD to arrest anyone in apartment buildings who could not immediately display a form of ID or prove that they lived there. Until I realize that the identities I have so treasured and nurtured during my time at Columbia fall away. When I am arrested, little weight will be given to my nuanced analyses of race, class, and gender, of queer and trans politics, of systems of oppression, of economics and history. A crisp American accent and preppy clothes won’t save me from what the NYPD and armed vigilantes see—brown skin, and a dark beard.
I am obviously not Ramarley Graham or Trayvon Martin. My privileges protect me to an extent: I am educated, and I am an American citizen—a benign brown man by most standards.
I am not a woman, and so I have the privilege of walking around without fear of catcalls and frequent sexual harassment.
My parents own a home, and I live in Columbia housing. I am not forced to live on the streets. I am not forced to live in neighborhoods where NYPD vans, panopticon-like NYPD watchtowers, and surveillance cameras monitor my every move.
But when I walk down the streets in New York, no one is going to ask me how I identify ethnically or racially. No one is going to ask me where I grew up, how much money my parents make, or whether I own a home.
No one will ask my religion before pushing me onto the train tracks. No one will ask me whether I go to Columbia College or SEAS before arresting me. No one will ask for my “preferred gender pronouns” before stopping and frisking me.
What people will see is my brown skin and my dark beard.
I’ve learned that living in this city is scary. It’s scary for many men and for women of all races, genders, sexualities, classes—scary in very different ways. Four years after arriving on Columbia’s campus, I’m afraid to step outside of my apartment because of what may happen to me. And I’ve learned that, after a point, my privileges will not protect me.
I am not scared because I am frequently racially profiled (I’m not), or because I see people looking at me suspiciously as I walk down the street. I am not scared because I am being harassed, arrested, or threatened by the NYPD for my race.
I’m scared because I could be. Because I could easily be the brown boy at the 125th Street station being hauled away.
David Abud-Sturbaum is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Much Abud About Nothing runs alternate Mondays.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the man arrested and beaten by police officers for jaywalking at the 96th Street intersection as Korean. The man is actually Chinese. Spectator regrets the error.