Sometimes, I give gentrifiers the wrong directions when they get lost
I really don’t know if letting white people get lost is justice, but I do know that refusing to let them is not.
Editor’s Note: This essay contains descriptions of anti-Black and anti-queer violence.
Sometimes, I give white people the wrong directions when they get lost. For awhile, this was on accident. I am horrible with directions, and so I wouldn’t even know I was pointing them the wrong way. But mostly when I do this today, it is intentional. Especially when they are in our neighborhoods. Especially when they shouldn’t be.
I want to imagine this as some sort of personal racial justice initiative, some sort of reparations for all the times Black people have ended up where we shouldn’t be because of them and paid the price, but they really only ever suffer a mild inconvenience, and it never seems to balance out.
Sometimes, I find myself obsessed with watching true crime. Okay, I often find myself here. Fine, all the time. But I try to avoid stories about Black victims or perpetrators because when the producers aren’t justifying anti-Black violence, they are almost always exploiting it in ways that make me feel physically sick. But yesterday I got lost in Netflix’s new docuseries Exhibit A, which covers cases where pieces of evidence were overstated as proof against a perpetrator, and found myself watching the episode about Mayer Herskovic.
Though the case is recent and happened not far from where I live, I didn’t recognize the story at first because the show’s focus was not on who I understood to be the victim. In 2013, Taj Patterson, a Black queer man, was walking to a Subway in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after a friend let him out of the car while driving through the unfamiliar neighborhood. Williamsburg has a concentrated population of Hasidic Jews and they have their own safety patrol called the Shomrim. A member of the patrol noticed Patterson, and supposedly mistakenly thought he was trying to commit a robbery (the recruitment video for the Shomrim shown in Exhibit A noticeably features a Black robber being apprehended by the “heroic” group). When the patrolman began chasing Patterson, he understandably tried to defend himself, at which point around twenty other Shomrim members surrounded him and beat him so badly he lost his eye, all while shouting anti-gay slurs.
After the community closed ranks and used their significant influence within the justice system to protect its members, Herskovic was the only one to face jail time. The case against him was based entirely on the fact that his DNA had been found on Patterson’s shoe, which had been stripped off during the beating and thrown on top of a building. I turned the show off before it had a chance to explain that the DNA evidence was not what it seemed, recognizing my heart beating dangerously fast and my head beginning to spin in anxiety at the underexplored savagery of what happened to Patterson. I know there are plenty of ways a small amount of DNA from a person who wasn’t involved could have ended up on that shoe, like if they had contact with someone who was involved, or if they had been on the rooftop prior—and I didn’t need the reminder.
Later, I looked up the case to find out that Herskovic had his four year conviction overturned last year, making this the first episode of the series where the accused has already won his case against the questionable evidence (all of the other subjects of the episodes I’ve seen still sit in prison, despite the likelihood of their innocence). No one served any time for the attack on Patterson, and it is almost certain that no one ever will.
I’m an abolitionist, so I don’t believe serving time in a cage is justice anyway. That’s why I do shit like point white people in the wrong direction when they are lost. That’s why I refuse to center them and their feelings in my work. I want to believe that these come closer to justice. It’s all I have, anyway.
The other day a white man asked me how to get to City Hall from 14th Street and I told him to take the uptown train. I didn’t even imagine him finding himself in a Black neighborhood and being beaten in a savage hate crime for his race and sexuality. I only imagined him missing an appointment at the courthouse that would have had him wield the significant influence he has within the legal system just by virtue of being white. But he probably got there on time anyway.
Sometimes, I imagine worse for the white people whose misplacement I exacerbate, but it never manages to eclipse what has happened to me when I’ve been misplaced in their world, what to speak of what happened to Patterson. I never imagine them being attacked by police, sexually assaulted, retinas torn apart. I never even imagine their hearts beating dangerously fast and their heads spinning in anxiety. At most, I imagine them yelling in frustration, justifying why they don’t trust Black people to ask us anything in the future. I imagine going along my commute and never being interrupted by a white person asking me for something again, and I smile.
Sometimes. But most of the time, I still give them the right directions when they ask. I still hold the door for them. I still say excuse me when they are the ones who bump into me on the street. Okay, fine, often. The other day, a white man asked to touch my bald head, and I said no, “but at least you asked!” I said it as if it is commendable to inquire to invade someone’s space. He still insisted. Didn’t take no for an answer until a friend cursed him out. No one was harmed but me.
I really don’t know if letting white people get lost is justice, but I do know that refusing to let them is not. I know that I haven’t seen justice in a long, long time, if I ever have. I know I want justice for Patterson. For myself. And I know that one reason I struggle to find it is because I’m so used to all of this shit just being normal. So used to just being polite in the face of it all. We deserve to be mean sometimes. More than sometimes, because we are full, complex beings. And maybe it’s not being mean that can fix all of the horrors we’ve experienced. But allowing ourselves to be full and complex, to not just be polite and friendly and trustworthy and accepting and thankful all the time, just might.