A good friend of mine was a radical.
He had learned from Maya Angelou, was friends with the old Black Panthers, and had this fierce sense of justice within him. It spread outward onto everything he touched. He was part of the Black Lives Matter Movement, heavily involved in pushing for prison reform, propelling resources and aid sent to inner-city schools, and was constantly fighting for systemic change.
He lived in a part of St Louis, Missouri that was close to the infamous Ferguson. Ferguson was the city where Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was murdered by the police, and where the Black Lives Matter Movement then erupted.
My radical friend wanted to take me to meet a childhood friend of his who lived in the projects of Ferguson, only ten minutes away from where we were staying in St. Louis. I had been to the ghettos in many parts of America but this was a different level, the desperation plagued the air like a sweltering disease.
In that ten minute drive, we almost got into two accidents from a high-speed cop chase like straight out of an action movie and a drunk driver was swerving over the road. In merely ten minutes, the roads turned from charming middle-class houses with manicured lawns, to run-down concrete buildings lined by liquor stores and fast food joints.
I remembered reading an article about how your zip code determines your destiny in America. This was one of the hundreds of examples of it in action. The overall quality of life for the people in Ferguson would not be remotely comparable to what the people in St Louis had access to. They were neighbors, but neighbors who lived in completely different worlds.
When we made it to the projects, we rushed out of the car and up the narrow stairwell to his friend’s apartment. Let’s call the man ‘Riz’ for anonymity purposes. Riz heard us bang on the door, and instead of opening it, he peeled up the limp curtain hanging from the window to see who it was.
When he saw us his face relaxed for a moment and he opened the door carefully. Before closing it he looked up and down the hall, scanning the outside world with distrusting eyes. Here, fear was something one could feel in the air, it was a tenseness that cloaked everything.
My friend and I sat on his old worn-out sofa in a solemn silence. The run-down apartment had trash piled to one side of his wall because Riz could not even afford garbage bags. His place was small and cramped even with the lack of furniture to take up space. On the kitchen counter was a teddy bear and a doll, it was apparent that in this polluted space there lived a baby girl.
Riz paced the living room floor which was only three steps back and forth. He was becoming schizophrenic from staying cooped inside those four white walls, like a tiger in a cage.
He said almost every time he had left his house he had heard guns. He could not even take his daughter to the park; he was scared for her life. He was going insane because he used to leave the house for the sole purpose of work, but could no longer go. He would walk five miles in the freezing cold winter to Taco Bell to work as a cashier.
He lost his job at Taco Bell because of his criminal record for committing a crime that he did not actually commit. It happened on his birthday. He told us about the joy he felt at the time to simply go out, his friend had driven him to a nightclub to celebrate. He had one beer inside while dancing.
When he walked out the police arrested him saying he was trying to drive when he was drunk. He told them he did not even own a car. It was the end of the month so he thinks they were trying to hit their quota. They had locked many of his friends up in jail for no reason and now, the one night he went out for his birthday celebration it was happening to him.
If Riz did not plead guilty to this crime he did not commit he would have to sit in prison for up to six months waiting for his trial. He could not do that, he had a daughter to look after and feed. He plead guilty. Now, he could not get a job even at a fast-food restaurant due to a crime he did not commit. He was hungry and purposeless and desperate.
He sat on the filthy floor staring blankly at the wall and talked without pause for forty-five minutes; I do not think he had contact with the outside world for months. We let him talk, he talked and talked, and everything he said deeply disgusted me. I felt a deep animosity towards my government and the systems in place. People like him were suffering so deeply when doing everything right and actively trying to make their lives better.
Even when trying to get a job and earn an honest living, the systems in place kept people in Ferguson under. Even when they tried to go to school they were unable to because going to school was dangerous. When they went to school it was underfunded and violent, in no sense an environment contributing to academic growth. Many of the children in the community did not have basic food security and went to school just to eat lunch. Trying to survive was a full-time job in Ferguson.
I felt the most disgusted because I was a part of this system. An American citizen paying taxes that went to waging wars for oil instead of education and healthcare, basic human rights that minorities were denied consistently. It was firsthand witnessing what the government I was residing under comfortably was doing to people who were just as valuable and capable as me.
Riz felt utterly helpless to the point of insanity because he was not being helped, he was consistently brutalized. The institutions in place, from the education system to the prison system to the welfare system were all failing him.
This was the very system I paid taxes to, a system I was born under. How could I live within a system that treats such a large demographic of people this way? For most of my life, I never felt like I had lived under any system of control, I had always fled the country and created a little microclimate of my own, living in hippie communes and on the road. I was using my western privilege and handy American passport to feel free.
People like Riz and the majority of the people in the states can not do this. It seemed like there was no way out for them. Then it hit me, I kept escaping American because I was unable to look her reality in the face because it was too ugly. The idealistic American Dream was a fallacy, a lie.
I was rejecting the systems in place by abandoning them and pretending injustice did not exist because I was not within their confines. But it did, and it was raging all around me from my previous life in New York City to the country’s midwest of Ferguson Missouri. It is inescapable to us all because as Martin Luther King Jr. said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I was pushed to being of service because there was no other way. Little did I know that meeting my radical friend out in the midwest for a small trip would end up with me going back into human rights. The journey continues on.