Jeremy Adam Smith’s son asked, “Did they get the bad guys?” Turns out, that was a really difficult question to answer.
1. This summer, we moved back to San Francisco’s Mission district after a year-long sojourn in suburban Palo Alto. Three weeks ago I was putting my son to bed. He was finally drifting off, and so was I. The heavy curtains were pulled shut and it was very dark in the room. I heard sounds outside but they were phantasmagoric nighttime city sounds, spectral sirens and echoing shouts and groaning buses.
2. Then I heard a string of words, blurry but filled with fear. My eyes flew open and I was awake. The next words were absolutely clear. “He has a gun! He has a gun!”
3. We’ve met most of our neighbors on Hampshire Street. There’s the Mexican family of six above us, who share their three small rooms with another family of three, a mother and two children who are not supposed to be there, according to the lease, who slip in and out of the apartment like ninjas. Next to them, there are the five (or six, or seven, or four?) almost-certainly undocumented Mexican men who share three rooms next to the two families, who also live as invisibly as possible, running shadowy errands at all hours of the night. There’s the nice, middle-class, Euro-American lesbian couple in the apartment next to ours. There’s the childless, biracial, heterosexual couple next door, one an architect, the other a composer who listens to Satie and Debussy in their bamboo backyard garden. On the corner, there’s the self-appointed Chairman of the imaginary Hampshire Street Sidewalk Gardening Society, a gray-bearded gay man who always dresses in black from head to toe and spends his weekends trimming the leaves and watering the soil of the potted plants that line our street. There’s the elderly Chinese woman who butchers and plucks chickens on her stoop, streaking the sidewalk with wine-dark blood and bone-white feathers. Then there is the house directly across from ours, the one whose picture window is covered by the proud pirate banner of the Oakland Raiders. I don’t know how many people live there. I see and know the two matriarchs, one Latina, the other white. There are two very young kids, one toddler and one baby. There are two pre-teen girls. There are many teenage boys, boxer shorts always visible above the low line of their jeans. Only once have have I seen a grown man enter the house.
4. Liko was awake and I was awake and my wife was awake. I crossed my arm over them and told them to lie still, and we waited. I waited for one minute, my eyes on the clock. I didn’t hear anything else. No shots. There were noises of misery, but they were subdued. I told Liko and my wife to stay where they were and I went to the window. I parted the curtains. I found our street carpeted with police cars from one end of the block to the other, their lights silently flashing. I could see a line of civilian cars beyond them, stalled and waiting. I was disoriented. How could I have not heard the police arrive? Why were they there? I watched. Two of the young men who lived across the street were on their stomachs, their hands cuffed behind their backs. One of the boys, the older of the two, had an officer sitting on him, knee in the small of his back. I looked for guns. The police had drawn theirs, shadows in their hands. There were no other weapons that I could see. Now I was aware of one of the mothers who lived there, whom I’ll call Maria. Maria was hysterical, standing over the police and her sons, now crying. It was her voice that I had heard, shouting about the gun. “Daddy?” said my son. He had gotten off the bed and was standing next to me, his face next to mine against the window, taking in the cars, the police, the guns. I put my arm around him but I didn’t tell him to go back to bed. Part of me wanted for him to witness what was happening, so that he would know these things happened. “Did the police get the bad guys?” he asked.
5. I went outside. The stepfather of the girls who live upstairs was already there on the sidewalk. He doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Spanish, but in a roundabout sign-language and Spanglish way we shared what we knew, which was practically nothing. We watched as the boys across the street were hauled to their feet and pushed into the backs of police cars. We watched as the mother fled up her stoop and ran screaming into her house, wrapped in the arms of a man I had never seen before. One by one the police cars pulled away and the backed-up traffic trickled slowly down our street, the drivers’ eyes wide, wondering if they had taken a wrong turn into the wrong neighborhood. Then everything was still and quiet and dark, and we, the other father and I, slipped inside, returned to our families, not knowing what had happened in front of our building.
6. That morning I was angry at the families across the street. I assumed many things. I assumed the gun in question belonged to one of the boys and that they had been engaged in some kind of criminal activity that brought the police down on them.
This hadn’t been my first encounter with the neighborhood’s simmering violence, and I was angry with myself for having moved there and exposed my son to these things and other things, from the trash on the street to the stink of urine that we walked through on our way to school. I pledged to move back to Palo Alto as quickly as possible.
7. The following weekend one of the girls upstairs had a birthday party. They grilled and shared their steak and corn with us, and I brought up a six-pack of beer. I sat silently drinking with the other men while my wife and son played a board game with the birthday girl. Then we strung up a homemade Spongebob piñata on the sidewalk and the kids took turns pounding on it with a baseball bat, enraged one minute and laughing the next. I stood there with beer in my hand. I stopped watching the kids. Instead I was looking across the street. The matriarchs were on their stoop with the youngest kids. They waved at me and I waved back. Then I crossed the street.
8. I asked what had happened the other night. I wanted to know and felt I had a right to know what happens on my street. I was polite but underneath that, I was angry with them, and at myself, for exposing my son to violence. I expected to hear, I guess, that their sons had been the targets of a stealthy drug bust, which would explain why the police cars arrived silently on our street. I expected to hear that one of their sons had pulled a gun on the police. I suppose that some part of me wanted an apology. Not just for that, but for everything. All the shit we had to deal with in the Mission. I was so fucking sick of the filth and the stench and the criminality and the weapons. The night before, a father of two had been shot and killed in back of the restaurant where he worked, five blocks away from our building. He had been sitting in the alley taking a smoke break. The newspaper said he had been killed by two gang members; it seems he had been wearing the wrong colors. I wanted an apology for that. I wanted someone to be sorry. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I was remembering how I had almost been killed on my birthday, three weeks before my book was released, by three young men from the Mission. They had beaten me over the head with a tire iron and pointed a gun in my face. I wanted an apology for that, too. Someone had to be responsible. Why not the mothers of these dangerous children? If they’re not responsible, who is?
9. Maria told me that her two teenage sons, the ones who had been arrested, had been in trouble with the police many times. The other mother, whom I’ll call Nancy, sat with us. As Maria and I talked Nancy wove in stories of her own life on Hampshire Street. Nancy’s seventeen-year-old son had been shot and killed in front of our building, I discovered. He had not been in a gang, she said. He hadn’t done anything wrong, his mother claimed. He just got into a fight with the wrong guy. It was after Nancy’s son had been killed that things seemed to go wrong with Maria’s boys. They got angry. They were kicked out of school. They were arrested for stupid things related to fighting and vandalism. The older one became intensively, obsessively protective of his brother. I stood on their stoop, the beer can warm and tight in my hand. I held my head still and I listened, and the awareness grew in the back of my mind that I was a privileged idiot, a judgmental prick, a tourist, a gentrifier.
10. The night they were arrested, the two boys had been sitting on the stoop talking, just as I was with their mother as she told me this story. A police car glided down the street, slowed, and stopped. Out jumped a police officer. The cop knew the boys. He had arrested them before. He walked up the steps, his hand resting on his gun, and demanded to know what they were doing. The cop didn’t know it was their home. He didn’t know about Nancy’s son, probably. He didn’t know anything about them, except that they were known to him. Maria’s oldest went off. He yelled at the police officer, told the cop to get the fuck away from his brother and away from his house. Yes, that was not a smart thing to do. Young men often do dumb things. The cop’s partner called for backup. As cars arrived, the confrontation escalated. It got physical. Maria saw the flashing lights of the police cars through her curtains–like me, she hadn’t heard sirens or heard the argument outside–and she raced out of the house and saw both her boys being thrown to the sidewalk. She didn’t know why. She had been talking to them not 30 minutes before, and all had been peaceful. She saw her younger son struggling as he was pushed to the cement, and as she came out of the house she saw a cop pull his gun. That’s when she screamed. That’s when she shouted, “He has a gun! He has a gun!”
11. I don’t know how much of this account to believe; my gut feeling is that Maria was telling as much of the truth as she knew. This much is certain: neither boy was armed. It was the police who had the guns on Hampshire Street, not the boys. It was police who drew weapons outside of my sleeping son’s window. The brothers were booked that night, the younger for disorderly conduct, the older for resisting arrest. The older brother was taken to the hospital for minor injuries. When the boy, eighteen years old, emerged from the ER, he didn’t see any police waiting for him. He asked the nurse where they cops had gone. “They left,” she said, not looking at him. “Can I go?” he asked. “I guess so,” said the nurse. The boy had to walk home from the hospital. He didn’t have any money or a cell phone. He couldn’t call his mother. His mother didn’t know where he was. As Maria told me this story, I remembered my son’s question. He asked me: “Did the police get the bad guys?” The bad guys.
12. Palo Alto is a funny place; maybe it’s just typical. A friend of mine once said, “Nothing can ever go wrong in Palo Alto.” The streets are clean and they smell great. The schools are excellent and safe. There are no homeless, there’s no visible misery. You can’t buy a home for under a million and a half dollars. Everyone works for Google or Facebook or Stanford or a hundred start-ups. Everyone’s angling for their IPO. Disaster is something that happens to people you don’t know. It’s other people’s children who are shot on sidewalks, other people’s fathers who are shot in back alleys. And you know what? Disasters will happen, but I don’t want them to happen to my son. I don’t want him anywhere near disaster. I don’t want to ever see him bleeding on a sidewalk. We’re going to leave the Mission. We’re not staying. You can judge me for that if you want. You can call it “white flight.” You can call it anything you want. But we’re ultimately leaving. That’s our personal solution. For some, there are always personal solutions. Some of us have options. We can, for example, run away.
13. We’re not going to leave because of Maria or Nancy or their sons. We’re not leaving because of the families or the men upstairs, our friends and neighbors. We’re leaving because of the police. We’re fleeing the front line of a war that our society is waging against poor people. The Republicans have accused President Obama of “class warfare” for suggesting that maybe possibly we could ask America’s richest people for a few pennies to help finance infrastructure, education, health care–and yes, the two wars and occupations we put on a global credit card, not to mention the militarization of the border with Mexico (where tens of thousands have died in a drug war that reaches into neighborhoods like the Mission). The rich are refusing. Places like Palo Alto are refusing. Let someone else pay, they say. They’re explicit: Why, there are Americans who are supposedly too poor to pay any taxes at all! Parasites! That’s not fair! Or–some, not just Democrats, whisper–let’s just raise the debt ceiling. Let’s put it on credit. We’ll pay it off later, after our IPO, after the next election. After, later, someday. Let the children pay.
14. This morning I saw the rivulets of blood flowing across the sidewalk. There on the stoop squatted the old Chinese woman, a coffee-colored Americana headless at her feet. I said hello and she did not answer. Instead she turned her face and hunched her shoulders, as though ashamed of what she was doing. I walked more quickly and plunged my hands into my pockets, my footprints bloody on the cement behind me. I felt ashamed as well.