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What Are You Looking For? Part 3/5

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: 2006

During my sophomore year in college, I took a Spanish class that required doing some community service in a Spanish speaking setting. I chose to tutor at a charter school named La Causa, located on Milwaukee’s south side. I was matched with two shy 6th grade boys, both recent Mexican immigrants. Ostensibly, I was there to help them with their math homework after school, but the true value of this arrangement simply seemed to be having the opportunity to get to know them and develop a positive relationship with them.

One afternoon, while diligently focusing on their math homework, one of the boys paused, looked up at me and asked, “Have you ever, ah, touched a cobra?” I burst out laughing. I had not. He told me a story of how, back in Mexico, his dad used to grab them by the tail, whirl them around his head, and throw them away from their house.

Another day, the same boy looked up from his work and pensively asked, “When you’re in college, can you, like, have a soda?” Yes dude. You can have as many as you like.

One day I was there right before dismissal, as usual. The kids were organizing their things, putting on their coats and grabbing their backpacks. Then a woman’s voice erupted over the loud speaker. She frantically yelled, “Code Red! Code Red!” By her tone alone, it was clear this was not a drill.

The teacher directed all the kids to one corner of the classroom. He locked the door. He turned off the lights. The corner wasn’t big enough for everyone, so a line of students stretched along one side of the wall. I was at the end of the line, sat immediately next to the classroom door. Everyone was dead silent. We sat and we waited.

My heart was racing, not knowing what to expect. I was raised Christian, and was taught to pray from an early age. But I was nineteen now, and had learned by this point that Christianity, like all religion, is simply untrue. Yet the comfort of prayer still held some sway over me. And in this moment of fear and possible credible threat of death, the urge to pray felt overwhelming.

Of course, prayer might make you “feel better” in a moment like this, I realized. But I summoned the strength to accept the reality that in this, or any other situation, prayer simply wouldn’t change a damn thing. Either I was going to get shot with these kids in this classroom, or I wasn’t. Either way, talking to an imaginary figure in my head was not going to alter the outcome.

I heard steps coming down the hallway. As they drew closer, I realized it was a police officer. I could hear his walkie talkie. By the time he was right outside our door, I heard two words coming in through his device, “Shots fired.”

So here we go. It was still not clear exactly what was happening, but I braced myself for the worst.

But then, after a long, long, silent wait in the dark with the kids, the loud speaker finally announced the all clear. We were good to go, with no explanation of what had just happened.

On my way out of the building, I heard from some of the school staff what had transpired. There was a drive-by shooting on the street immediately in front of the school’s main entrance. A man was shot right there, moments before the hundreds of kids were about to be dismissed, into an active crime scene.

I took the bus back up to my dorm and exited back onto the sidewalk in a haze. I was still pretty shook up. I remember walking past dozens of my fellow students. I looked with confusion at their smiling and laughing faced as I crossed paths with them.

I got home, opened my laptop, and brought up the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel homepage, followed by that of the New York Times. I was expecting to be presented with a Breaking News story about this shooting, right in front of a public school in a major American city.

I found nothing. There was no coverage.

Apparently, this was not newsworthy. So long as it happened within the boundaries of a neighborhood which even the local news didn’t seem to care about.

Nairobi, Kenya: 2007

I studied Political Science in college. During my sophomore year, I was extremely fortunate to be able to participate in a two-week course in Africa. Along with a small group of other students focused on international development, I traveled to Kenya and Tanzania to study those nation’s governments, and also of role of non-governmental organizations that were addressing major crisis’ (such as AIDS) that those governments themselves either could not or would not adequately confront.

I was nineteen-years-old at the time. This was my first time ever outside the United States. I was genuinely thrilled, deeply engaged, and also terrified the entire time.

When our plane landed in Nairobi, we were all slightly dazed. We had flown from Chicago to Amsterdam, then after a lengthy layover, from Amsterdam to Nairobi. This was over 24 hours of straight travel and I hadn’t been able to sleep on the planes. We arrived jet-lagged and disorientated. We collected our luggage and waited on the sidewalk outside our terminal for the vans our university had hired to come pick us up.

There was a significant delay, then finally our local guide arrived with the long-awaited vans. I rode in the van with our guide and also our university professor who had coordinated the entire trip. The guide, with a big smile, explained to our professor what the delay was about.

The police officers who conduct security at the airport had held him up, not allowing him to enter the airport for no clear reason. Turns out, the delay was simply a tool of extortion. After some negotiation, the guide paid a modest cash bribe to the police, who then allowed him into the airport to pick us up.

Like most countries in the world, Kenya’s government struggles with corruption from top to bottom.(13) As recently as 2020, international good governance organizations such as Transparency International rank Kenya in top 1/3rd of the most corrupt nations on Earth.(14)

On that same drive, from the Nairobi airport to our hotel, the guide and our professor kept talking. Not long before we had arrived, the guide explained, the Kenyan government finally acknowledged the endemic corruption in its police force, and decided to do something about it.

Police in Kenya were not paid well, and they generally came from impoverished backgrounds. It was decided then, that the government would double the salaries of the entire police force. This way, the police wouldn’t need to solicit bribes.(15)

What actually happened, however, was that the police simply became accustomed to a higher standard of living.

Accordingly, they soon began demanding even larger bribes from the public.

Green Bay, Wisconsin: 2007

For two summers during college, I had a job that I loved as a Public Park Leader in Green Bay. The idea was to put several young adults in each city park to ensure safety, put on special events for children in the community, and generally be there to develop positive relationships with kids in each park’s neighborhood. I requested to be placed at JFK park, about 1.5 miles from my own home. JFK is located in a low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood. I would pass most days pushing little kids on swings, playing board games with medium kids on picnic tables, and playing basketball with big kids on the simple concrete court.

One day, in the summer of 2007, we were in the middle of putting on a major event. We had food brought in, and had all sorts of special activities lined up. Face painting was one of the options. Against my will, I went along with it and let a kid paint my face. I looked ridiculous. We had around forty kids in attendance, mostly between ages four-thirteen.

In the middle of all the revelry, three tall Black teenagers walked into the park. They appeared to be around sixteen-eighteen years old. They stayed away from the party, and sat down at a picnic table on the opposite end of the park. Several minutes later, one of them lit off a large firework, which exploded uncomfortably close to all the kids there for our event. This was both unsafe, and against the city park policy. One of my co-workers went over to talk to them. She told us that she made it clear to them that fireworks are not allowed in the parks, and if it happened again, she would have to call the police. Each park was equipped with a walkie talkie that had a direct channel to law enforcement.

A few minutes later, they set off another large firework in the same direction. My co-worker went in to radio the police. I really was not paying attention to this situation at all at the time, as I was focused on my job of running the event and keeping the kids entertained. Next up on the party agenda was a scavenger hunt. We split up into teams, and I lead my group of a dozen or so kids over to the basketball court. Then, in a flash, a police car pulls up fast. The officer drives over the curb, through the grass, and directly onto the basketball court. I immediately rallied my group and started walking them away from what was about to unfold.

A White police officer got out of his car and started walking towards the teenagers who had lit the fireworks. What happened next is a blur to me. I was not able to fully witness what took place, because I had to have my eyes on the kids, to try to keep them distracted from the impending drama, and to focus them on physically moving away from the scene.

A few moments later, I hear screaming and yelling coming from the basketball court. I glance over and see the cop now trying to arrest one of the kids. But the kid was spinning away, deflecting, resisting arrest.

Eyes back on the kids, now with increased urgency, I’m trying to move us more quickly away. I glance back at the court, and now I see the cop take out his pepper-spray and unleash it directly into the kid’s face at point blank range. He screams loudly in pain, and the other two boys with him are yelling at the cop and taunting him as well.

I put my eyes back on the kids, move, move, move. I glance back over, the kid with a swollen face is now in handcuffs, being led into the back of the squad car.

I was so frustrated that I didn’t witness the full incident play out. I spoke with another co-worker there who did see the whole thing. He told me he saw the kid take a swing at the cop’s face, that’s why the officer used the pepper-spray.

I honestly didn’t know what to make of all this at the time. It seemed unlikely my co-worker would straight up lie about having seen that. But based on the glimpses of the struggle that I did see, my gut told me there was simply no reason why this interaction had to have ended so violently.

Madrid, Spain: 2007-2008

I studied Spanish in college as well, and took advantage of the incredible opportunity to study abroad in Europe. I chose Madrid, Spain; and spent my entire junior year living there. In addition to bringing my Spanish language skills to the next level, I had the chance to immerse myself in a whole new culture, a whole new way of life. Every day was invigorating. I came to love the architecture, the elaborate public parks and gardens, the food, the nightlife. At twenty-years-old, I felt like this was the year I truly became an adult.

Even skateboarding was different there. In my year of skating in Madrid, no adult at any point ever screamed at me to stop or to leave. No one ever called the cops on me. One of my most vivid memories of how differently skateboarding is perceived in Spain, was when I skated the ledges right in front of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) in Madrid. The Palacio Real is one of Spain’s most precious historical sites. The building was constructed before America was a country. As such, uniformed men with long guns stand guard around the Palacio Real at all times.

Nevertheless, there were multiple occasions when I skated right in front of it, no more than twenty yards away from the men with the guns. Yet, these guards never so much as looked at me, much less tried to intimidate me for skating in front of a building of such enormous national importance.

This is also an area highly frequented by pedestrians. As I was skating, a small group of passers-by would sometimes stop, gather around and watch me. They appeared to see skateboarding for what it really is, a live performance art. When I landed tricks, they would clap and cheer. Spain’s open-mindedness towards skateboarding stands in stark contrast to my experience growing up as a skater in America, where even as a child, I was constantly met with hostility and scorn.

But like anywhere, Spain has its issues as well. One extremely unpleasant part of life in Madrid, and in many other European cities, is the reality of Romani gangs who will rob you blind without you even noticing it until it’s too late.

One afternoon, I met with my closest Spanish friend, Victoria, at a coffee shop called Cafe Jamaica. When we sat down, I put my backpack on the floor, leaning up against my chair. Several hours later, when we stood up to leave, my backpack was gone. Thankfully, I did not have anything of significant monetary value in there. But I did have school materials that I really needed, my books, my notes, my papers. I spent over an hour searching the surrounding streets, alleyways and garbage cans. I hypothesized that once the thief opened the bag and saw there was nothing of value to them inside, maybe they would just ditch it. But I was unable to find it. I went home frustrated and upset.

Several months later, some of my family members flew in to visit me in Madrid. My mom arrived first. After greeting her at the airport, we got on the metro back toward the apartment we had rented for the occasion. The train we were riding in was almost empty, so it struck me as odd that this other woman on the train came up and stood very closely to my mom. I was oblivious at first, but then, moments later, my mom flails her hand outward and yells, “Hey!” The Romani woman had successfully unzipped my mom’s purse halfway open, and had her hand inside of it. I moved closer towards them, and the woman just turned around and walked away. Welcome to Madrid, mom!

Later that evening, my cousin Trevor arrived on another flight. I went to pick him up, and heading back on the same train, this time, it was fully packed with passengers. I was wearing a winter coat, unzipped. As the doors opened at one stop, I felt a man quickly remove his hand from my coat’s inner pocket. At the same time, I hear Trevor go, “What the hell?” Another man removed his hand from inside my cousin’s pants pocket. Thankfully neither of them swiped anything, but Jesus Christ this is getting old.

The next morning, my mom, Trevor and I went to the Reina Sofia modern art museum. It’s wonderful. Afterwards, we entered the metro to head back to the apartment. By this point, I was a bit angry and on edge. Waiting on the platform along with about ten other passengers to board the train, I hung back in the crowd, not wanting anyone behind me.

Just then, I spotted a short, long haired Romani woman amidst the passengers. I didn’t assume anything, but I had my eye on her. The train comes in and opens its doors. In a matter of seconds, I watch the Romani woman creep up behind another woman, effortlessly open her purse, and slip her hand inside.

I was right behind the Romani woman, and with one hand I pushed her hard in the back. She stumbled forward, and the would-be victim spun around to see what was happening. By her accent I could tell she was British. I told her this woman was trying to rob her, that I saw her open her purse and put her hand inside. The British woman thanked me, flustered, and quickly walked away. The Romani turned and headed straight for the doors, trying to leave the train she had just entered. But the doors closed on her just in time. She was stuck, right there with us.

She spun around and glared at me with a hatred I’d never seen directed at me before. We began arguing in Spanish, and my mom, trying to have my back, yells “Callate la boca!” at the woman (Shut your mouth!). I was like, “Back off mom! I got this!” And I continue verbally sparing back and forth with the thief. I remember only two of the things she said to me. One was pathetic, the other was actually kind of sinister.

Angry, busted, trying to make me the bad guy in this situation, the Romani woman called me “Cuatro ojos!” (“Four eyes!” I do wear glasses. Isn’t that an adorable attempt at insulting an adult?) But she also, at the end of the interaction, said, “Si te veo otra vez…” (If I ever see you again…) then she used her finger to mimic the action of slitting a throat with a knife.

I wasn’t afraid of her directly, per se, but I knew these people work in groups, in professional gangs. This is what they do. At the time, I lived in a part of Madrid that had many different immigrant communities, including Romani people. It seemed unlikely, but not impossible, that some night, perhaps as I was walking home drunk by myself around 2:00am, that I might run into her. Or rather, that I might run into her and her boyfriend or her brother. Were that to happen, it would probably not end well for me.

At the next stop, she walked out. I followed her out onto the platform, scanning left, then right, on the very slim chance there might be a police officer down there. Incredibly, there was. “Ladrona! Ladrona!” (Thief!) I yelled to the cop, as I pointed her out. The officer ran over to confront her. I got back on the train, feeling triumphant.

The problem is, I quickly realized, there was almost no way she was about to get arrested. Robbery of this nature, toxically, has become largely accepted as inevitable by many Spaniards. It is not a crime that the police dedicate any meaningful resources towards trying to prevent or punish.

Later that day, my aunt and uncle arrived on a new flight. The following morning, my uncle Steve, who gets up early, went out to a coffee shop by himself. He had his new iPhone out on the table in front of him. At one point, out of the blue, a Romani man approached him smiling, and began waving a piece of paper in my uncle’s face. The man was speaking hurriedly in Spanish, and my uncle tried to communicate that he didn’t understand him. And just like that, the Romani man left. After a few moments, my uncle realized his new iPhone had left with the Romani man, who was now already long gone.

The next time I saw my friend Victoria, after my family had returned home, I told her all these stories. I was still a little bitter about all this. Why isn’t the government doing more about this problem? She shrugged her shoulders. She explained that the Spanish people obviously don’t like this, but that they’ve just learned to protect themselves and keep an eye out.

Plus, she said, I’d rather get robbed by a Romani in Madrid than get robbed in America where they stick a gun in your face! Well, I responded, that really only happens in certain pockets of the US, it’s definitely not a problem in the majority of neighborhoods throughout the country.

But of course, she’s got a point.

Washington, DC: 2008

During my senior year, I had one of the most impactful experiences of my life. Along with a small group of other students from my university, I had the opportunity to spend a full semester living, studying, and working on Capitol Hill. Two days a week, we took classes. Three days a week, we worked as interns, mostly in the US Congress.

I was placed in the office of legendary Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. This was the fall of 2008, in the midst of the Presidential campaign that would soon culminate in the election of Barack Obama. Within a matter of weeks of being in the Senate, I personally saw John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Barack Obama, Robert Gates and many other politicians and leaders of the highest profile with my own eyes. I was ecstatic.

But living in this neighborhood could be frustrating sometimes. Capitol Hill is one of the most highly policed areas in the country. Never before had I lived in an area with so many idling police cars and so many uniformed men perched with large weapons every day. The area seemed to be on high alert at all times, and even the perception of an armed threat could crash the whole neighborhood.

One evening, I was studying in the Library of Congress. As I packed my things to leave and was almost through the door, an alarm went off. The entire building was instantly locked down. I never even found out what happened, but I was stuck inside the building for over an hour until we were all finally released.

Another day, working in Senator Feingold’s office, the entire building was tasked with executing a major security drill in preparation for a potential terrorist attack. As part of the drill, some of our staff carried out large, black duffel bags that had been discretely stored in the office. We collected ourselves at the appointed gathering spot, several blocks away from the Capitol building. I later found out that the duffel bags, among other supplies, included gas masks.

Washington D.C., like most large population centers across the world, is a Tale of Two Cities economic situation.

I first got to know the largely White, suit and tie culture of the US Congress. But fortunately for my own edification, my university took care that we also study and get to know the other side of D.C. as well. This was accomplished by a variety of illuminating site visits we conducted to public housing units, non-profits that provide access to health care for undocumented immigrants, and drug rehabilitation facilities.

We also visited a juvenile detention center. It was a dark, dreary day as we approached. As we entered onto the grounds, I was immediately struck by how decrepit the facility appeared. My first thought, was that it reminded me of a place I had visited in Germany, about an hour outside of Berlin. I’m referring to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. That’s how viscerally depressing the detention center looked, and we hadn’t even gotten out of the van yet.

We passed through security, and entered the inner area where the detained teenagers live and spend their days. During a brief tour of the place, both the guards and the teenagers admitted that despite all the obvious restrictions and constant supervision, this facility remains a consistently violent place to live and work.

We then gathered in a modest common area with old wooden chairs and vandalized tables. We got the opportunity to spend some time with some of the teenagers, all of whom were Black or Latino.

I remember wanting to say something wise or impactful to them before we had to leave. But I couldn’t really summon anything profound. We just chatted, and I asked them about themselves and their lives.

I don’t know what I expected going into this experience, but it’s fair to say I was surprised by how “normal” these teenagers were. Anyone of these kids seemed like they could easily be functioning in a high school classroom right now given the right setting and proper care.

But of course, part of the complicated reality is that these particular teenagers are here for a reason. Some of them, at fifteen or sixteen, had committed rape or murder.

As we left, I felt upset and confused.

Soon afterwards, I decided I was going to become a teacher.

Sources Cited

13. Profile of corruption in Kenya’s government

14. 2020 ranking of nations on Earth by level of corruption

15. Kenya doubles police salaries in attempt to eliminate need for bribes


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