by Peter Gathje
Follow Peter on Twitter @petegath
Most of our guests at Manna House stay pretty well informed. The daily newspaper makes the rounds of the front porch before we open, and then it gets shared around the back yard after we open. A few guests carry small radios, and many of those who are housed, watch the news on TV. There is also the “word on the streets,” a distillation of the eyes and ears of those who walk the city. They see a great deal that is often missed by those of us who mostly drive quickly from one destination to another.
So it should come as no surprise that our guests, like much of America, have been paying attention to what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri and that they see some connections with their experiences in Memphis. Discussions easily surfaced this morning about Michael Brown, the way he was killed, and the protests and police responses to protest.
The discussions moved around from personal experience to larger reflections drawn from history. Inevitably we talked, too, about white supremacy. If you’ve been to Manna House you know that the majority of our guests are African American men. Some are experiencing homelessness; some are housed. All know the realities of racism and poverty in the United States.
Several guests brought up the death of Semaj, a former guest who died just a week ago from injuries sustained when a security guard threw him off a city bus back in May. I told about the conversation I had during a street protest last night here in Memphis. I had talked with an African American woman, who described the police beating of the son of a friend of hers; a beating that resulted in his death. Many guests had stories of police harassment and physical force being used against them or other people on the streets. Several gave this advice, “Try to stay out of their way and lay low. Be as invisible as you can.”
We reflected on how enduring white supremacy is in this country. First it took shape as slavery, and shortly after that ended, it emerged as Jim Crow’s “black codes,” convict lease system, and segregation. Some of the older guests remembered the signs forbidding them to use certain restrooms, drinking fountains, and dining areas. They also remembered “Sunset Towns”—towns where they were told to be gone from before the sun set.
White supremacy these days takes the shape of the criminalization and consequent marginalization of African Americans, especially those tagged as a threat (or possible threat) to “law and order.” All of the guests at Manna House well know this latest installment of white supremacy. Many stagger under felonies committed long ago, mostly drug charges, and thus they have no access to jobs, voting, housing assistance, or food assistance. There is the ongoing violence of poverty itself; deadly in its denial of medical care, decent food, shelter, and simple human respect. And there is the violence of being subjected to police harassment, arbitrary arrest, brutality, and the dehumanization of imprisonment.
One guest told of how frequently he is stopped and questioned by police as he walks from Manna House to the nearby St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen three blocks away. “They ask ‘Where you been? What you doing?’ and then they want my ID. They know damn well who I am and what I’m doing, but I keep my mouth shut. I ain’t going to jail, and I ain’t gonna get killed.” Moses quietly reflected on the story of Michael Brown, “That could have been me.”
Another guest added about the shooting, “He was down. He was down. They didn’t have to do him like they did.” Everyone agreed when another observed, “You gotta be careful. Some cops just don’t care.” Don summed it up, “We live in a mean world, and it’s only getting meaner.”
While we talked, I occasionally looked around the yard. A few were solidly asleep in chairs; so exhausted from the streets that our lively conversation did not create a stir. Others quietly sipped their coffee. No one seemed to have the energy for Scrabble or chess or checkers. There is a lot to think about these days.