Different shades of the ninety-nine percent

A personal narrative demonstrates the damaging impact of a declining social fabric within inner cities across the US.

Even though the occupy movement attempts to represent society's underclass, many on the economic periphery are unable to relate to it [EPA]
Even though the occupy movement attempts to represent society's underclass, many on the economic periphery are unable to relate to it [EPA]

Why did I receive a scholarship? It was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school and I had already failed in three classes simultaneously. That I was offered a scholarship then, to partake in a summer camp called, “AnyTown” seemed a bit strange. Maybe they have finally realised how brilliant I actually am. I saw that I was the first person to be picked up by the AnyTown bus when it arrived on my street. The bus then proceeded to make its way through a subsidised housing project, a trailer park, and the African American part of the hood, where Jonah stepped in and sat right next to me in the very back row. “Did you receive a scholarship too?” I asked. “Hell yea,” Jonah said to me.     

Fifteen “counsellors” greeted us at AnyTown. They roomed Johan and I together, explained the daily schedule and mentioned that there would be rounds at 11pm each night to make sure we were all “in.” “That’s a cop,” Jonah said to me after hearing 4 consecutive knocks on our door. He said it again, and repeated it compulsively.  I laughed, asked him to “chill,” and moved to get the door. Of course, there was no cop. It was 11pm and Greta, our councillor, was doing rounds.  Jonah was a heavier boy with an asthma problem who needed an inhaler.

“Jenevi is the hottest girl here,” Jonah said to me the next night in our room. “Which Jenevi?” I asked. “Only one Jenevi here” said Jonah, “and she’s hot.” It bothered me to hear that I had missed AnyTown’s hottest girl. There were 4 consecutive knocks on our door again. “Point her out to me first thing in the morning,” I said to Jonah as I moved to get the door.  Jonah had already situated himself in the room’s darkest corner, making it difficult to see his eyes. “That’s a cop,” he said inhaling and exhaling heavily. Of course, it was not a cop. Our friendly councillors, Greta and Sam, 25 and 26 respectively, were conducting their routine 11pm rounds.  “Did you see how they looked at me?” Said Jonah after Greta and Sam had left. “Did you see how they were standing, their hair-cuts? They were cops,” Jonah mumbled on as he tried to work out his inhaler.   

The next morning we stood side by side about 20 metres from the cafeteria wall, to which we had our backs in a parallel line.  A counsellor asked us to simply follow her questions. “If one of your parents has a collage education,” she said to us, “take a step forward. “If one of your parents has ever been incarcerated,” she continued, “take a step backward.” A gap began to emerge as questions continued. “There she is,” said Jonah.  “That’s Jenevi.” I had seen her before. In fact, I had had lunch with her on the camp’s first day. And looking at her again, she appeared incredibly beautiful. “If you have ever visited a university,” the counsellor continued, “take a step forward.” It was the 15th or the 16th question and I couldn’t work out why I had never noticed the prettiest and friendliest girl there, Jenevi, as someone that was attractive, that I could like and with whom I could get romantically involved. “If one of your parents is in debt,” said the counsellor, “take a step backwards.” I looked up to find Jonah. He was at the far end, with his back against the cafeteria wall. 

That night, Jonah and I talked about our dreams. Jonah wanted to move to Atlanta. “I want to be a lawyer,” he said to me, “in Atlanta.”  “Why don’t we go to Atlanta together,” he continued, “we’ll take the Greyhound there and watch each others’ backs.  In Atlanta.” And like every other night they knocked right at 11pm, leading Jonah to recap his ritual of jumping off the bed and repeating the sentence: “That’s a cop.” I said to him that he would have been quite a normal lawyer in Atlanta were it not for his 11 O’clock freak-outs. That night, Jonah’s hands shook as he tried to breath through his inhaler.  

We all gathered in the cafeteria on AnyTown’s final day, having made deep connections with one another during the weeklong camp. I was in the third line while Jonah sat two rows behind. Love was in the air and to up it all a notch the councillor announced that there would be one more, major, surprise. No sooner had she finished her sentence than the door opened from which Greta and Sam along with half of the counsellors emerged in full police gear. With guns and everything.  They were, indeed, all cops. I tried to maintain my composure and knew that if I looked back, Jonah would slaughter me with his eyes. But I looked anyway. He was reaching for his inhaler.   

Perhaps part of what AnyTown had tried to teach us was that not every cop is a bad guy. But that all seemed trivial to me a year later, when Jonah was shot and killed right in front of his house. It was a bad crack deal involving his brother. The bullet had travelled right across Jonah’s face. His parents couldn’t hold an open casket ceremony as a result. I would not have gone to his funeral either way. I knew the place would be swarmed with under-cover cops, and by that time, my life trajectory too had resulted in a keen awareness of all things police related: their knocks, their walks, their stairs, even how they question servers about the desert menu.   

Sometimes I tell this story to a friend or two, and they generally point to the predictability of life in America. Of course, Jonah, the guy with his back against the wall should be the one that doesn’t make it.  But that is not the primary thing I took away from AnyTown. Instead, what I grappled with for years was why I had not noticed Jenevi as someone I could “like.” She was an African American girl, and the idea of an African American romantic partner was nowhere in the imaginary of a young immigrant boy like me, not until Jonah had pointed her out to me. My idea of America, of the American life, of success, of integration, of being an insider, of everything good about the US had been assembled in void of African Americans. This was an image of America, projected by America itself, which had been constructed within me long before I had reached the shores of this country.    

When an entire race or ethnicity is excluded from the image of things we desire, we fail to notice them as people we might like. And by extension, as people from whose grief we might suffer.  

No one I have known from Jonah’s or my own old neighbourhood ever partook in anything “occupy” related. Unlike most occupiers, our neighbourhood friends were not being pushed out of an economic or a political class. They had never managed to become sufficiently insiders in anything to be subsequently pushed out of something. And while the 99 percent sounded cool to them, it never seemed like a slogan to which they could commit.  For them, poverty was not all about economics or getting their share from the 1 percent. Jonah’s brother didn’t sell crack because he thought that that was the only way through which he could make money. He could have made just as much by putting in the same hours at McDonalds. But he didn’t, neither did Jonah, nor I. For us, the issue was elsewhere. Growing up in a colour-coded hierarchy, we were all daunted by one menacing question above all: will we ever be seen? And the horizon provided by the OWS, never gave us a clear answer.

Kusha Sefat is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Cambridge, Queens’ College.


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