Not every idea put forth in science fiction is purely speculative.
Today’s post is my fifth and final guest post for Sci-Fi Month, and it belongs to someone whose work I suspect (I hope!) you’ll be seeing more of in discussion here in future. The subject for this guest post originally came up when I met Mark Oshiro on the Glasgow stop of his UK tour back in July of this year. I had trouble truly wrapping my mind around it then, and I admit I still do – but then, that’s why we should discuss such things, right? So it’s over to Mark…
Trigger warning – for discussion of racism/police brutality.
“A Matter of Perspective” by Mark Oshiro
The first time I saw someone arrested, I was ten years old.
Mind you, I didn’t pass by a dangerous criminal being accosted on the street. I didn’t watch a shoplifter get caught for stealing. No, I watched a classmate get handcuffed and marched ceremoniously from class for drawing on his desk. I was in fifth grade, and my teacher, a rather nice and at times forceful white woman, looked concerned as she watched it happen. She had a hand up to her mouth, and the other was in her hair, rustling the thick, dark brown curls over and over again. Whenever her right hand would drop down to her side, you could see her lips were pursed. She did not want this. When she had reported the kid for using a ballpoint pen to write his name in flowery script on the desk, I could tell that she had not expected this.
But she kept her mouth shut as the police officer slapped cuffs on the kid. He hung there limply, and his face was blank. He was normally rambunctious, loud and irritating, and the class had long ago expected him to act out whenever he wanted. I didn’t particularly like him because he was often standing alongside the kids who flung slurs at me, who threw kickballs in my direction, even when dodgeball was over. But I saw his face droop as the cop lifted him from his seat, I felt my own heart drop into my stomach. It felt wrong. It felt like too much.
I didn’t have the words in fifth grade to formulate any clever missives, full of the right theoretical phrases or the perfect metaphors to explain why this made me feel dirty. I came to understand why it was that this response was an overreaction, but it wasn’t through any academic study. As I moved on to middle school and high school, I came to expect the police as a part of the fabric of daily life there. In middle school, there were two officers who had a permanent presence on campus, and they’d often wander the halls or the quad, their guns on display at their hips, their batons swinging freely at their sides. I watched as they frequently plucked students out of class, and those students were almost always black or brown. I watched a black kid stand up to a racist bully outside Ms. Hall’s science, and then I watched one of those cops crack his baton across the kid’s shoulders while the other one protected the bully.
By the time I got to high school, I knew people in juvenile hall. Maybe some of those kids deserved their fate, but often, things escalated. It was hard to explain that to others, especially if all they saw was a kid smoking weed or tagging up a hallway. To them, the act was so unforgivable and so unredeemable that the only option was to lock them up and keep them away from everyone else. It didn’t matter that most of the white kids – especially those on the football team or the baseball team – often engaged in the exact same behavior and never seemed to get caught. Even if they did, why weren’t they ever paraded out of the classroom in cuffs? Why didn’t they have guns pointed at them in the quad? Why weren’t they in juvenile hall?
I knew why.
These experiences helped me to craft my first novel, though they certainly weren’t the only influence. I spent the majority of 2015 traveling the United States, Canada, Europe, and the U.K., and it fascinated me to see which audiences intrinsically understood my setting. More often than not, people in Europe and the U.K. balked at the idea that a school administration would not only have cops at their campus, but they’d actively seek out ways to control the populace, which often resulted in many of the violent encounters they’d heard about from our news. That’s not to suggest that these places are devoid of any history or current issues surrounding police states or police brutality. For many of these people, though, this was simply not a personal experience. How could cops so blatantly abuse their power on a daily basis, on such a massive scale, and few people cared about it?
The first time I was arrested was on May 1, 2007. I can add my voice to the chorus of people who were there in MacArthur Park that afternoon that will attest to the fact that there was no announcement of the unlawful assembly that the LAPD claimed to have given. I can add my body to the wave of people who ran frantically through the north side of the park, bullets whizzing by us, mothers and fathers and businessfolk and activists dropping all around us. I can add my blood to the asphalt of Wilshire Blvd, where an LAPD officer tackled me as I tried to enter my apartment building on the west side of the park. He later claimed that I was reaching for a weapon when he assaulted me, and he stated that I resisted arrest after he cuffed me and dragged me across the street, facedown, my knees scraping against the road, my skin ripping off my legs.
I still have those scars.
I was arrested a year later in the wake of the protests against Prop 8, which had passed in my state, limiting my ability to marry a man if I wanted to. I’d developed a distrust of cops long before that day, and I knew that my temper might get the best of me. So when a cop erroneously identified me as the Latino man who assaulted Maurice Carriere, I did what I was told. Thankfully, the crowd immediately told the cop that he was trying to arrest the person who was trying to stop a bloody nose. The cops response?
Out of pure spite, as I was walking away, he ran up behind me and shoved me on the ground so hard that it knocked the breath out of me. He then immediately said I assaulted him and resisted arrest (despite that he had not arrested me yet). When the cops near him looked upon him, bewildered and confused, he decided to focus on my partner at the time, who was trying to help me up. Suddenly, we were swarmed on all sides by members of the LAPD, and I had to watch as my boyfriend was slammed to the pavement, a knee to the back of his head, and the fear began to fill me. I’d seen this unfold so many times over the years that I knew the end result. I knew how powerless I was, and so I began to yell out my name, my partner’s name, my Twitter handle, any information so that people could help me, so that I wouldn’t get swallowed up in the bureaucracy.
I haven’t openly spoken of that day since 2008, and I routinely refuse to. It ruined my life, and I can never get back what I lost that day. I’ll forever have an arrest for an “assault on a peace officer” on my record, and it’s already gotten me in trouble crossing borders. I developed such an extreme case of PTSD that my heart leaps into my throat whenever I see a cop. I shut down so terribly in their presence that I have to warn people if I’m in the car with them and a cop car passes us. I can’t control it, and I wish I could.
But that’s the legacy it has left behind in my mind. Elsewhere, the story itself is nothing more than a personal anecdote, and I can’t change that. Countless posts appeared on local and national news blogs, and all of them said something similar to what my local NBC affiliate reported:
A demonstrator, Maurice Carriere, 27, of Studio City, ended up with a bloody nose in the fracas. He told police he didn’t see the punch coming. Officers arrested two people and put them in a patrol.
It is that simple. With one sentence, people simply believed that my partner and I were responsible. At no point did any news organization ever correct these stories or attempt to give a full story. (With one exception: ABC7, who actually came to my apartment to interview me. I’m forever grateful to the black woman who sat there with me on the couch, her hand on my leg, telling me she was sorry to see this happening so often.) My life was ruined, and I was nothing but a passive, ambiguous line in a biased story. That is what I find hardest to convey about the kind of world exists here in the United States, particularly in metro areas with large populations of black and brown people. It is an immense challenge to try and explain how our media is against us from the start. It’s frustrating to have to tell people that someone with a badge can definitively ruin a life without ever facing a single repercussion for their actions. The arresting officer, whose ego and arrogance made him think one brown dude could be substituted for another, won’t even feel guilt over what he did. I was just another number, another example of how disrespectful people like me are. I know that because I had to stand there, my chest throbbing, blood running down my partner’s face, and listen to this asshole talk about what garbage I was.
“They just never listen,” he said. “If only you’d followed directions, you wouldn’t be here.”
He had never issued a direction. The proof was on the video shot by an anonymous L.A. Times videographer who handed a copy of footage he shot to the district attorney in charge of my case. The cop called me a “wetback” as he shoved me on the ground. So the charges were dropped, and I ran off with my tail between my legs and my mental state in a perpetual mess. Should I have sued the LAPD? Maybe, but at that point, I wanted to stop waking up in the middle of the night, certain that there were cops coming up the stairs to my apartment. I wanted to be able to walk down the street without breaking out into a sweat if a squad car rolled by. And I wanted a life devoid of fear and terror and paranoia.
I never found it. So I wrote it all down, and it comprises a great deal of the experiences within my first novel. It’s the only thing that’s worked for me. I don’t know that I could have answered the question of what it was like to live in a police state before now because it hurt too much to think about. And I’m sitting here, writing this, and that counts me as one of the lucky ones. I haven’t been gunned down like Jamar Clark or Rekia Boyd or Mike Brown or the countless names and hashtags I’ve seen. I imagine that because I’m not black, that’s part of it. But the point is that this is not a new phenomenon. I am not the only person to experience this kind of violence, and unfortunately, I am not the last.
Dystopias are only a matter of perspective, I say.
About the Author
Mark Oshiro is the owner of a pair of blog/review sites, Mark Reads and Mark Watches, where he writes his way (free of spoilers!) through various book series and TV shows, one book and episode at a time. He’s been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2013 and 2014, and is almost done with his first novel.