GOOD

The Peril of Black Mobility

Writer and activist Doreen St. Félix discusses the policing of black movement

American artist William Pope.L prostrated himself on New York City’s Broadway Avenue for nine years, intermitently. He called the performances “crawls.” Dressed in a Superman suit with a skateboard strapped to his back, the tall, thin, statistically average-looking black American man would crawl on the sidewalk as long as weather and upper body strength allowed, which never exceeded six blocks. Known as The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001-2009), Pope.L’s drama featuring varyingly proscribed cosmopolitan movements—those of the disabled, of the homeless, of commuting black Americans—attracted dramatics from his unwitting public as well. A cameraman documented most of the odd sojourn and the reactions, which ranged in horror, boredom, disgust, delight, and confusion. One passing black pedestrian stopped, so incensed by Pope.L’s state that he nearly kicked the artist in the face.

I write. I argue. I’m equipped to analyze Pope.L generously, across disciplines and through time. There’s the artist as a darkly comic Sisyphus, some assessment of the artist’s inheritance of protest choreography, another one interpreting The Great White Way as grotesque flânerie. I choose the latter.


A topography invents a literary type. Out of the modern Western city comes the flâneur and his complicated behavior, flânerie. When the French poet Charles Baudelaire drew up the flâneur’s proclivities, the character was as much a result of Enlightenment thought as civil engineering. He observed indiscriminately, both because such was the call of scientism and because the mall’s windows were wide and clear. He walked aimlessly, because rationalism demanded an understanding of the world, and because parallel boulevards spared his puny body from traffic. He was French and white. He could always observe because no one was observing him, his purposelessness safeguarded by the warming city streetlights.

Who is the black flâneur? He or she is a loiterer. The roving that permits white fancy, white whim, white walking in our modern American cities, when observed in us and our children, reads criminal. Some black wandering the public has grieved: Michael Brown in the middle of the street, Sandra Bland on a road trip, Tamir Rice in the park, Akai Gurley up the stairs. In America’s cities, black bodies stand under many lights, and the effect is not liberating warmth, but that paranoia of surveillance. There are streets you know not to walk down for the particular threats that are built in. It’s maddening—incorporating so many fields of vision, planning so many sophisticated routes. We thought the internet as a new metropolis might not cramp one’s range of motion the way cities do, but we find the same walls erected virtually. The desire to write for black freedom more often turns into a mandate to write for white anxiety. Knowing they’re watching can foster self-policing.

However, how to explain the other black man? The pedestrian whose pride surfaced as aggression? How to explain how much I can identify with his anger? And then, how deeply I desire to walk as strangely as Pope.L?

There were times I could not make it six New York City blocks. When I was 14, I won a scholarship to attend a prestigious school on the Upper East Side. It took three blocks east, three blocks south to reach the Beaux Arts mansions from the train station. I was barely 5 feet 5 inches tall and 100 pounds; at home, my mother spooned extra heaps of rice on my plate. A white police officer whose name I should not have known stopped and frisked me routinely, commenting that I looked too old to be a high school student. That he claimed he had to pat the perimeter of my periwinkle uniform skirt, I later learned, was objectionable. Eight years later, I found myself part of a group shutting down a lecture by one of the architects of stop-and-frisk policing, former New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, at Brown University. I felt bloated with unhinged pleasure, watching the powerful man silenced by our voices.

Our cities, virtual and physical, can be repurposed. For play, for intellectual experiment, for no discernible reason at all—in the black future, we will re-engineer our public and private space. I’m aspiring to feel as big when I write as I did when the police commissioner fell silent. I’m trying to write freely, toward a methodology for a 21st-century black flânerie. As our imaginative traveler Pope.L said to Interview: “You see New York from an odd vantage point. At a certain point you hit the wall. Crawling, I hit the wall earlier. But I have so much farther to go.”

Features
Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less
Health