CNF: Hands in Pockets

by Eric Bosse

I don’t talk about this night. We were walking up Third Avenue in Minneapolis. My girlfriend held my hand, and my uncle’s lover reached for my uncle’s hand. My uncle pulled away. We passed a Chinese restaurant’s red door and the sliding glass doors of a drug store. Skyscrapers loomed ahead, and the moon dangled between them. A busker on the far corner played Fleetwood Mac on a wood guitar. Seven boys swung around the near corner. They were black, and they walked fast toward us. One laughed. Another urged the rest to hurry. I caught my reflection in the window of a rare bookshop. My startled face drifted across those glittering spines. The boys kept coming. My uncle’s lover wrapped his arm around my uncle’s shoulder. A police cruiser pulled up on our right. My uncle’s lover told my uncle to marry him. Two more police cruisers skidded past the busker on the corner and stopped at the curb just ahead. My uncle shoved his lover away and told him to knock it off. A fourth cruiser swung around the near corner. Then my girlfriend, my uncle’s lover, my uncle, and I merged going north with the seven boys coming south. The boys parted to let us pass. The doors on all four police cruisers burst open. Officers poured out and crouched behind their cruiser doors. “On the ground!” an officer shouted. All seven boys flopped to the sidewalk. We stepped over the boys’ legs and kept walking, past the handguns aimed at our chests and feet. The officers shouted as they closed on the boys. We put hands in our pockets as the boys wove their fingers over the bases of their skulls and lay as still as stones on the concrete.

Eric Bosse is the author of Magnificent Mistakes, a story collection published by Ravenna Press. His work has appeared in The Sun, Zoetrope, Wigleaf, The Collagist, Frigg, Fiddleblack, Night Train, and World Literature Today. He teaches writing at the University of Oklahoma.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Hands in Pockets”?

    These events happened just this way, one night in the late 1990’s. The incident struck me right away as something significant, though the phrases “white privilege” and “hands up, don’t shoot” hadn’t yet been burned into my mind–and wouldn’t be for another decade or more. But, in 2008 or so, when I finally read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, “this event came roaring back to me. I’m struck by how oblivious we were at the time–how quickly and innocently we shrugged off not just the police but GUNS POINTED RIGHT AT US. What a luxury–totally unearned–to walk through that scene not just unscathed but almost entirely without fear. It seemed like just an odd thing that happened to us that night. Now, though, I know it was a blatant example of white privilege that didn’t make McIntosh’s list: imperviousness to bullets. When I sat down to write the piece a few months ago, after the gunning down of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I worried that telling this story would come across as flaunting rather than exposing the profound, immediate, undeniable impact of white privilege. I suppose I still worry about that. But my point isn’t, “Hey, look at me, I can walk past angry armed cops without fear!” It’s this: Hey, consider the intense differences of experience and trust here. Consider the protection and security white privilege grants to white people. I don’t imagine that this piece will change anything for anyone; but I do feel it’s my responsibility to bring attention to the blatant racism and white supremacy embedded in our culture and our daily lives, especially when it benefits me. And, really, when does it not? When the university where I teach became a focal point of national and international attention in March, after a video of a fraternity’s racist chant was published on Youtube, I felt deep shame. Yet that chant was just the obvious, ugly side of racism–the only side most white people are willing to acknowledge. Racism is built into our institutions at almost every level. Sometimes it seems invisible to white people, and often it’s hard for some white people to acknowledge. But we must gaze into our blind spots. I don’t care whether those kids I saw in Minneapolis had come around the corner that night shortly after some act that justified the attention from the police. Nothing justifies their immediate terror and surrender in contrast to my cocky, blissfully ignorant presumption of safety in that moment. Nothing justifies the breaking of someone’s spine for giving an angry look to the cops. Nothing. The anger we see now in Baltimore: it’s entirely justified. The question we face now shouldn’t be, as some ask, how can we quell this unrest, but how can we dismantle the white supremacy that pervades our culture and treats some as if their lives don’t matter.
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