Wednesday, February 21, 2018

#WhitePrivilege: When Innocence Won't Save Your White Ass, but Whiteness Will

For the past week or so, the management at my apartment complex has left frequent notes on all the tenants' doors — more precisely, rolling 8”x11” printouts into hollow tubes which are then stuck in the narrow space between people's doorknobs and doorjambs — and I'd discover mine either when I opened my door for the first time that day, or when I returned home from running errands and saw another paper roll. Most were reminders of the complex rules: any cars parked here must be street-legal and in running order; put your garbage in the dumpster, not the ground; and similar things.

The overwhelming majority of notes are printed on white paper, but last week somebody put a red note on the door across the breezeway from mine even though that apartment's been empty since the first of this month, when its tenants were evicted. The woman and kids who'd lived there did nothing wrong, but the man who'd lived there until December 17, when he tried shooting some people and ended up shooting my apartment instead, clearly did, and I guess the management decided to evict some innocent people on his behalf. (At the time, Jeff and I joined various neighbors in urging the management not to evict the man's family, but this evidently did not have any effect.)

That red paper was an eviction notice in the name of a man who was NOT the shooter, so far as I knew (besides, I'm pretty sure the lease had been in her name, not his). That red roll and various white notices are still wedged in the vacant apartment's doorjamb as I type this.

Monday afternoon, Jeff and I left our apartment shortly after one o'clock to run some errands, and when we returned home shortly before six saw another white paper next to our doorknob. But one detail made it look different from the others: someone had used a pen to hand-scrawl our apartment number on the back.

I unrolled it and found a pre-printed list of possible lease violations – loud music, property damage, misbehaving pets, etc. – with “illegal drugs” checked off the list. Underneath was a note:
Today was the deadline to come to the leasing office and speak with the manager about the violation that you received on Thursday Feb 15th 2018. You have failed to do so and this will and can result in the termination of your lease. To avoid this make sure to come by the office by 12 noon Feb 20th 2018.
Clearly this was some type of mistake — we certainly hadn't “received” any “violation,” whatever that meant, let alone a deadline to deal with it. Other than our apartment number written on the back of the page, there was nothing to personalize the letter, no mention of my name or Jeff's. I figured the letter was meant for another apartment, and whoever scrawled our number on the back must've accidentally transposed a couple of digits. The office closed at five, so we'd have to wait until the next day to ask.

By the time I woke up next day Jeff was awake and dressed, and said he'd already been to the management office to clarify the matter.

“Good,” I said. “Whose apartment was that eviction-threat letter actually meant for?”

“Oh, it was meant for us,” Jeff said dismissively. When he went to the management office a marshal was there with the office staff, saying something about a woman and a package. And then the marshal said to Jeff “I don't mean to be rude, but what color is your wife?” When Jeff said “white with red hair,” the marshal agreed that no, the woman definitely wasn't me.

So – what the hell would've happened if I were black? (Which actually is the case for something like 99 percent of the tenants in this complex.) Presumably I'd have faced the logical impossibility of trying to disprove a negative. I wasn't there to ask the marshal to be more specific about the details. All I know is that on the fifteenth there was a woman somewhere, presumably in the vicinity of my apartment door off the third-story breezeway. Also there was a package – I don't know what it looked like or how big it was. Nor do I know if the woman carried the package, received it from someone else, gave it to someone else, or what.

What exactly does “received a violation” entail here, anyway? How did my apartment end up “receiving” it? Presumably it emanated from a security guard, not an actual cop with arresting powers. I doubt the woman, whoever she was, showed any identification suggesting she lived where I do, or ay ID at all for that matter-- the marshal asked Jeff what color his wife was, not her name.
Turns out the apartment complex is now under brand new management, which explains the recent rain of rule-reminder notices. The new management also seemed not to know about the still-unrepaired bullet damage to our apartment; Jeff filled out a work order detailing what needed to be done, and also let them make a photocopy of the card a cop gave us the day of the shooting, with the case number and related info.

And the new management sounds aggressive to the point of assholery; Jeff said he saw a security guy walking around with what looks like a police K-9, which started barking when Jeff walked past it — both he and my downstairs neighbor's husband agreed it was a "security theater" fake-drug dog. Also, when Jeff opened the door to go to the apartment manager's office he found another paper roll: a reminder that the lease states that the complex's “quiet hours” are between 9 p.m. and seven a.m. followed by mention of a 7 p.m. curfew for all children under 18, who must be inside their homes by then or else “Any resident found guilty of not complying will result in immediate termination of their lease. No EXCEPTIONS or EXCUSES!!!!” (That's actually a truncated quote: I put four exclamation points after the all-caps EXCUSES whereas the original note uses fifteen.)

After Jeff told me this, I went out to discard some garbage and stopped to chat with my downstairs neighbor, who stood outside waiting for one of her daughters to return from school, and my next-door neighbor, who kept her company. They knew about the previous day's eviction-threat on my door, and I updated them regarding the marshal and how my coloring solved the problem, ending with the rhetorical question “So what would've happened if I'd been black instead?” Both women agreed in that case I'd be in deep and wholly unjustified shit. Then (since we were already discussing/complaining about the new management anyway) they started sharing their own complaints about the new management, which segued into some complaints about the local police. Short version: they (and especially their adult or adult-looking kids) were, and are, getting shit for Existing While Black.

None of their stories surprised me, exactly — any student of police misconduct in America knows about Driving While Black and its many siblings, how a “street gang” can mean as little as “three or more black folks in public together,” and of course my own take on so-called “white privilege” has always been “it definitely exists in America, it definitely is a problem, and 'privilege' is definitely a bad label for the concept” — but while I've read plenty of complaints in news stories, and in quote-unquote black blogs and websites, not since my daily-newspaper days have I been directly told such stories — and not since my undergrad days did I hear them in a “social” (as opposed to journalism) context. They were especially incensed about the new curfew announced that morning; my next-door neighbor said her son, who works every day, already gets harassed enough walking to the store across the street, and she talked about The Talk she (like all black parents) had to give their son about how to increase his chances of surviving police encounters. I could only nod in furious sympathy, occasionally punctuated with useless comments: “How horrible!” “Those assholes.”

As for the mysterious woman and the mysterious “package,” it's damned lucky she got caught Doing Something With A Package While Black in the vicinity of my apartment as opposed to, like, 99 percent of the others in this complex, because to the best of my knowledge I am literally the only woman in this complex white enough to easily prove the negative “No, I'm not some random black woman who allegedly had a package or something.” Had it been any other apartment but mine, I'd have another neighbor lady evicted over something she had nothing to do with.

NEXT DAY ADDENDUM: There's a followup to this story, and a nastily ironic one: I got threatened with eviction for asking how to avoid being threatened with eviction in the future.

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