Ted Alexandro has missed multiple gigs over the past few weeks to march with the activists of #BlackLivesMatter. Alexandro, a veteran headlining stand-up comedian and native New Yorker, also had sat in and marched with #OccupyWallStreet.
But this is different.
Our nationwide reaction to the events in Ferguson, Mo., where police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown over a shoplifting incident, and Wilson’s non-indictment by a grand jury, was multiplied infinitely and more united when, here in New York City, a grand jury failed to indict the plainclothes police officer who choked Eric Garner to death on a Staten Island sidewalk, all because Garner wanted to be left alone while selling loose cigarettes — and it was all captured on cell-phone camera for all of us to eyewitness.
It’s one thing to live with white privilege. It’s another to be so blind to what’s happening all around you that you refuse to acknowledge what everyone else knows to be true.
Alexandro, in his great stand-up special released this February, “I Did It,” has a bit about blocking his racist “friends” on Facebook following the release of George Zimmerman despite his killing of Trayvon Martin.
On Wednesday night, Alexandro returned to The Creek and The Cave, but this time he and comedian Jeffrey Joseph hosted and moderated a Town Hall forum — the stage full of comedians telling their real-life encounters with police, giving voice to the fears many others have of law enforcement, all because they feel that police does not protect and serve all of us equally.
Alexandro offered in introduction:
“I think we’ve all been touched in unique ways by the things that have been going on in our city and in our country. The name of the show, we ultimately decided, instead of Trading Places — (laughs) which was discussed, that was one of the possibilities — we decided, obviously, the tone of things that are going on, we decided upon Black Lives Matter because that has been the hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter) that people have been most using. And that is kind of a jumping-off point for the discussion.
“The idea was basically, let’s get comedians in a room together, and let’s have some conversations. These are my friends. These are my brothers and sisters. So, we’re here to talk, face to face. Because we don’t do that enough in ways that matter. So I think this is an opportunity for us to do that. And to do it as raw as it needs to be, as honest as it needs to be. Don’t hold back. Spill your thoughts. Spill your emotions. Listen to one another. And let’s do it in a spirit of respect and love, and learn from one another. That’s why we’re here.”
Joseph echoed those remarks, then added:
“We have built, all of us, this incredibly rich, vibrant and diverse community of comedians. I hope because have that sense of community, we can feel free to take risks and to express ourselves. One thing that I’d really like all of us to reflect on and talk about a bit when we get to that in a minute, is what’s your personal relationship with the police? Because we all have a personal relationship with the police, both as a symbol and in individual encounters. And it’s different for all of us.”
Elsa Waithe, who has been visible enough in recent marches to already have been arrested once by the NYPD this past month, spoke about having undercover cops cut her off on a Greenpoint sidewalk with their car and pin her to the ground, solely because she was running too fast while while running late to a gig.
Will Miles said his mother told him and and his brother, when he was only 5 in Chicago, about to handle themselves should police officers approach them. As a teen, Miles described being held at gunpoint multiple times — all of them, only at the hands of cops, and none of them for breaking the law.
Yamaneika Saunders spoke of having police officers trying to barge into her apartment and even accuse her of not living there, while she was hosting friends on her birthday.
Mark DeMayo, a former NYPD cop and detective who’s now a stand-up comedian, offered his perspective of what the NYPD philosophies were through the 1990s under former Mayor Giuliani, and speculated on the crackdown that could have come from highers-up to lead to fatal arrests such as what happened in Staten Island to Eric Garner.
You can and should listen to all of the panel discussion as well as the comments from audience members in this two-part podcast produced from Wednesday night’s event. The conversation indeed gets raw and emotional. It has to. It’s important to hear our voices, hear their voices, and realize we’re all in this together.
Comedian and late-night TV talk-show host W. Kamau Bell wrote a powerful essay, too, in November for Vanity Fair about what it’s like to live as 6-foot-4, 250-pound black man in America in 2014.
Back in August, John Oliver talked on his Last Week Tonight show on HBO about police mistreatment and how, across America, small police departments have become more and more militarized, as if it’s not so much protect and serve as it is divide and conquer.
If I may offer some generalizations and oversimplifications, perhaps we can all meet somewhere in the middle and find some common ground. The prevailing emotion that rises to the surface and hides deep down within all of us here is fear. Black people grow up fearing police officers, taught first by their parents to fear them, then all too often finding out their parents were understating the threat law enforcement has on their very lives. And why are police officers shooting, choking and killing unarmed black men, and in many cases, black male teenagers, mere boys, mere children? It’s almost always a young unarmed black teen. And always a male police officer. Where are the shots coming from? The gun, yes. (In fact, the NRA’s entire lobbying effort feels predicated upon fear: Get your guns before they take them away from you! Who are “they,” though? Why would they want the guns you already own? And why do you need all of those guns if you’re just a recreational hunter, anyhow? It’s all fear. Speaking of which…) But the emotion behind it is fear. Whether it’s a cop who grew up fearing black men, or whether the cop fears a chewing-out by his superior that he didn’t crack down and up the numbers of arrest collars, even whether it’s the cop responding to a merchant who’s scared by a big black man outside his store, undercutting his sales of cigarette cartons by selling single loosies. It’s all fear.
Now I cannot speak to the experience of black people, police officers or merchants. I can tell you my experience. I’m a white man who grew up in a Connecticut town so white and privileged that we bussed black kids in from Hartford each morning just so we’d have black classmates in school. On the flip side, of course, the parents of these black kids understood that our town had the best public schools in the state, so they thought their kids were the lucky ones. I don’t know what my black classmates faced when they went back to Hartford on nights and weekends. I did learn from Edmund Perry. Perry was a 17-year-old kid in Harlem who had just graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy when a 24-year-old plainclothes cop shot and killed him in Morningside Heights. Perry’s brother graduated from my prep school in Connecticut. The year that NYPD cop shot and killed Edmund Perry? 1985.
We’ve come so far in almost 30 years, and yet we still have so far to go. I wrote about Perry’s death for my prep school newspaper. What can I write now?
In my own naive way, I know that I grew up without fear of other races because I was friends with boys and girls, and now men and women, of other races. Friends, roommates, confidantes, crushes, girlfriends. I cannot help but think that the corners of our country and our world where racism still violently flourishes are places where people don’t even know a black person, haven’t roomed with kids from Korea and Trinidad, haven’t walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes. In my own naive way, I feel as if every black person made it his or mission to befriend a police officer, and if every police officer had a black friend — and no, they cannot all pick Jordan Carlos like “Stephen Colbert” did — then the next time a patrol car rolled up on a black teen, hoodie or no hoodie, the cop wouldn’t think demon or monster, but think of Will or Jeffrey.
We overcome all of our other fears by facing them. We can still overcome racism by facing it as the baseless fear it is, too.
So what now? Today, many of us are meeting in Washington Square Park for the Millions March NYC, which will begin walking north from Greenwich Village at 2 p.m., and then south from 34th Street to the NYPD headquarters to present a united front. One voice, millions of mouths. It’s #MillionsMarchNYC and #BlackLivesMatter, but comedians also are calling this Stand-Up To Injustice, or #StandUpToInjustice.
Waithe told me that she’ll be organizing three to four stand-up comedy shows around NYC in the month to come that will raise money under the banner “Stand-Ups, Don’t Shoot” to pay the fines for those comedians who have been arrested in this and previous marches.
Your voice is welcome, too. Join us.
— Ted Alexandro (@tedalexandro) December 13, 2014