I remember going into the projects; a big white guy from the suburbs surrounded by big black guys from the city. I could sense the simmering resentment from the crowd, and saw contempt on their faces. Hearing the hate in their voices when they shouted â€œhurry up,â€ was difficult to ignore. I learned how to press on and part the hostile crowd with no more than a command presence and a uniform.
The patients, when I got to them, may have once carried the same hostility as the gang outside, but once a connection was made, they could relax, and surrender to their fate. Learned prejudices would be replaced with acceptance of all living things, without judgment or cynicism, sarcasm or hate.
Sometimes they were shot, or stabbed, or clubbed to near death. Other times it was a diabetic emergency, or chest pains, or a kid with a fever. Every time, without fail, after all of the judging and posturing was over, and it became two people in the back of a bus, healing happened. The only thing that mattered at that moment was us: patient and provider.
The easy part was getting the gangs to accept me, and let me do my job. The bigger problem was me. I still see a crowd of people who are outwardly different from me as a threat. If human beings had the acute sensory system as animals, the people who I need to treat, and the ones I sometimes have to get through to get to the sick or injured would smell fear and contempt. I have become a master at masking my feelings and prejudices, and have survived a number of hostile situations simply by overruling my learned behavior and letting my inherent goodness defeat my impulse to judge.
I do not know what it is like to live in the inner city. I donâ€™t know how it feels to be the only person like me in a room full of people who look different than me. Iâ€™ve never had to interact with people whose grandparents lived in a world where it was okay to put the â€œcoloredsâ€ in the back of the bus, or make them go to the rest room outside, or treat them like lesser human beings. It is far too easy for me to see the surface without looking deeper; without understanding that my own thoughts on race relations spring from a clear well, one that is not clouded with the rage of generations of people who lived in a far different world, and who know firsthand how it feels to be treated differently.
This week in Ferguson, Missouri, it will be difficult for the police, firefighters and paramedics to connect one-on-one while their city is burning. But itâ€™s not hard to connect when itâ€™s not. It just takes two sides coming together.
Ferguson is much like everywhere else in America. There exists a very real distrust of the â€œotherâ€ side: Police vs. Citizens, Black vs. White, Them vs. Us. Everybody believes that they are US and everybody else is THEM. But at the end of the day, when we need each other most there is no Us or Them, thereâ€™s just us, and it is up to us to let them go, and get on with our lives, together.
As an EMT in Providence, RI I worked closely with the Providence Police. The most shocking thing I saw was the utter lack of respect the citizenry showed them. I often asked the cops how they dealt with the abuse. The lack of respect and contempt for uniformed police officers ultimately lead to Michael Brown’s tragic death. May he and Ferguson, MO, and everywhere there is police/ citizen tension rest in peace.