Did you ever wonder how they get elephants at the circus to stand in
one spot when its rope is only tied to a peg stuck in the ground?
"What does this have to do with your life, Isaac?"
It has everything to do with it. Just read on, and I'll explain everything.
Everything from here on out happens in the Twin Cities, but it won't be listed chronologically.
I moved to Minneapolis just before Reagan was elected to his first term.
I'd never had a political bone in my body or political thought in my head before then.
I heard the clip of him saying that trees cause more pollution than trees.
As ignorant as I was, I thought I knew better than that. It was scary,
realizing he could be president. I registered to vote for the first time,
to be able to say that it wasn't my fault if he got elected.
Right after the election, I started to feel that something was different
in the air, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I started to pick up clues in
a hurry, though. The first wake up call was in April, 1981.
It was the first serious run-in I'd ever had with the police.
I was walking down Lyndale Ave. after midnight and a patrol car pulled
The 2 cops said they wanted to talk to me, but I thought they were joking.
I told them something like there was no problem and kept walking.
They jumped out of the car like Batman and Robin after the Joker.
I was thrown face down in the dirt, with my arms being pulled tight
behind me by my wrists at shoulder level. If you've never had this done,
you re not missing out. It hurts like hell.
I was allowed to stand after a few minutes, but with one cop still holding
my arms behind my back. I was getting smacked by the one in front,
and getting yelled at for not producing my I.D. I was yelling back,
asking how the hell could I show anything with my arms pinned back?
They let me reach into my pocket and get it out, then threw me in the
of the car while they radioed it in. When nothing on me turned up, I was taken
out of the car and searched. I mean, they did everything but make me strip down
right there in the street. And the search included a very thorough patting down
and groping my crotch. And there wasn't anything I could do.
They finally gave me my I.D. and said hit the road. I said "If I don't
get a serious apology right now, I'm going to get one later".
They laughed and told me to go ahead and try.
This was on a Saturday night. I called in sick on Monday morning to
and headed straight to the police station. I had to sit and wait for a long while
for someone from Internal Affairs, but finally someone came out to interview me.
I had written down every detail I could remember the night it happened, and had
brought my account with me. It was complete down to the time the incident started
and ended. I knew the officer's names (Rolsing and Torrey, I will never forget those
bastards) and badge numbers.
After I finished my account, the IA officer said that the incident had
been investigated, and the officers were not at fault (?!) How could it already
be investigated? I had only just finished outlining my complaint!
The officer told me to just forget it. It was over and a done deal.
I tried calling the ACLU, but was never able to get through. I did reach
and they made a phone call to the chief of police. The chief called me, angry as hell.
He was pissed because I had called the NAACP. All he could say was
"Why did you call them?", then basically chewed me out and hung up.
A day or two later, I got a letter in the mail on official City of Minneapolis
from the precinct captain saying something to the effect that the investigation had
turned up nothing, and get on with my life. I wasn't ready to just let it go, so I called
his office and made an appointment with him. I wore a 3 piece suit and tie and had
my act very together. He was obviously not willing to hear a single thing I had said,
and couldn't wait for me to leave. He was saying things to me like one of the officers
was having some medical problems that was affecting his moods, as if that should be
enough reason to forget the whole thing. I replied that if that were the case, he should
not be on the street. The whole conversation went that way, him making some stupid ass
comment, me telling him I wasn't buying.
The whole thing ended when he said, if not these exact words, ones very
"Mr. Peterson, you appear to be an intelligent young man. As an intelligent black man
you should know better than to be out on foot after dark. And if you continue,
you can expect this to happen again."
I wish I was making this up. Just for posterity's sake, I'm going to
you his name is Jack McCarty. I'll never forget that bastard either.
Well, I had just had my first lesson ever in just how insignificant
I really am,
how little I really matter, and how I was just here for someone with more power
or authority to do anything to that they wanted, and there is not a goddamned thing
to be done about it. I went into a severe depression. I quit my job, I only left my
apartment to buy food every now and then, but I wasn't really eating much anyway.
I don't think I was even taking out the trash. This went on for months.
Anyway, once I got my nerve up again and got out into the world, laughs
were few and far between. I've never been able to find a career that I
could get into. I am this country's leading expert at getting fired from jobs.
A partial list of what I've done:
insurance claims processor
mortgage analyst and consultant
relaxation and stress management instructor (I actually did like this one)
lead guitarist/vocalist in several Twin Cities bands (there are a lot
of stories I could tell)
I'm employed now with CompuGlobalHyperMegaNet*.
Their goal is to steal
the pennies from your eyes and the gold from your teeth before your
casket is lowered into the ground. All their TV ads say so.
*Not their real name. thanks to Marge Simpson for the name.
I'm trying very hard to leave the corporate world and get into community
organizing. I'm being interviewed and told what a great candidate I am,
but I cannot seem to get into that field to save my life. This in spite
of being told that there is a desperate need for people of color.
In employment, I've had some pretty awful experiences. I've answered
in the paper, had telephone interviews and been told that I seem to be
just who they're looking for. Then when I show up for the face to face
interview, suddenly the job is filled.
A company I worked for had been promising that I would be promoted to
management. I never missed a day, I was their top producer (I know I was,
they posted our production results every day), and I was really damned good
at what I did. I didn't love it, but I was great at it. I was told the next
management spot to open was mine. A spot opened about 2 weeks later.
I was called in and told that the job was going to someone else, and I had to
understand because the same promise had been made to him, but the next spot
would be mine, for sure, especially if I would be so kind as to train my new boss.
Well, another manager left within a month, and with no explanation, another guy
was given the spot, in fact, one I had also trained in. I made some noise about it
and was made the same old tired promises. If I could just be patient a while longer...
Well, I couldn't. I left. Co-workers were calling me volunteering their support if I
decided to sue this company. Many people were willing to back me in a racial
discrimination lawsuit. The people being promoted ahead of me were white males,
and co-workers who had been in the company for years told me there had never
been a manager of color ever in that company's history.
Then the Supreme Court struck. They had just announced a decision that
in order to win a discrimination suit, not only would I have to prove I was
discriminated against, but also that it was intentional. How does someone prove
that without someone in management admitting it in writing or something?
Around that same time, I had the fun of being picked up by the police
a result of fitting a description of someone the police were looking for.
It turns out that when some people see a black man, all they see is a black man.
Distinguishing characteristics aren't noted. And the police seem to consider Black Male,
6 feet, 200 pounds to be a good description. This has happened to me more than once.
I will not go into Dayton's department store willingly or voluntarily
after twice being
questioned as a suspicious character. Both times were while waiting for girlfriends to
hurry up and get out of a fitting room. I just sit and mind my business and wait,
and the next thing I know, it's "What do you think you're doing here?".
In 1991, a police officer was killed in a pizza place by a young
For weeks the police were in a feeding frenzy. Any black man in public was
fair game for any kind of degradation and harassment the police wanted to hand out.
There were very tense times in the Twin Cities over this, but we were told just to
put up with it. The city turned a blind eye and I don't remember hearing about any
discrimination claims being upheld or even considered. There were several young
black men shot and killed under suspicious circumstances by the police in those days.
No one was ever punished.
I ended up being a temp for about 6 years in the 90's. I quit being
a bill collector in
February of 1991. I was burned out and had had it. I decided to leave and that no
matter how bad it got, I would never go back to that line of work, even if I had to
fight dogs in alleys for scraps of food. And it almost came to that.
With the impeccable timing that's ruled my life, I made this decision
the beginning stage of the recession that BushDaddy refused to admit existed.
I couldn't get a job babysitting. I became a temp, thinking it would be just for a
short while. Wrong again.
I've worked for so many companies, and done such degrading work for
low pay I cry to think about all those years.
I landed an internship in desktop publishing that had things looking
When the internship was over, I got into a spot with a company right
away for good money. But then my bad timing kicked in again.
I was to begin that job on the Monday after Thanksgiving, 1993. The
after Thanksgiving I had a serious accident that had me sidelined for
months. I lost the job. I had to go on welfare to pay for my ER bill and
months of rehabilitation. The welfare system is set up to remind you how
much scum you are for having the nerve to sponge off the taxpayers,
living the good life while honest people are out fighting and dying to
preserve your party-down lifestyle. They put me through hell for that
$203.00 a month. I was not cleared by the physicians to do any kind of
work until May of 1994, or about 6 months after my accident. In March,
the welfare department got it in their heads that doctor's clearance or
no, I must work. There were classes I could take to preserve my
benefits, but was not allowed to because the jobs I had had were too
good. So the welfare department determined that I must go out every day
and plant trees and carry sod regardless what my doctor advised against.
So I tried to get back into the job market-scariest thing I ever did.
I had been
through months and years of being degraded and devalued, and my future was bleak.
And making it through recovering from my accident had taken every bit of will I had.
I was worthless-I had the whole world beating that into me on a daily basis.
I went back to being a temp. All the work that was avaliable was crap
stuffing envelopes. If you had known me in those days I would have been
depressing to be around. From May of 1994 to November of 1997, I continued
being a temp and going on interviews whenever I could, but no one was buying.
But in the meantime the lights came on again. I had been beaten, but
hadn't been killed. I got myself together like never before, and no one
is ever again going to convince me that I am helpless or useless.
I started as a temp at the place where I still work and was hired after
It was a decent company, as corporations go, but a merger a couple of years ago
put some real sharks in charge. I have to get out, and now I finally know what I
want to do, but the doors are staying shut.
All the things I 've written about in my life story have involved race.
There's no way
I can get around that. Everything is going to involve race in some way in my life.
I can't get around that either, as much as I wish it were not true.
But it doesn't have to happen in such degrading ways.
I have been very lucky to have been allowed-no, to have allowed
myself-to know very many different kinds of people in my life. All
races, nationalities, religions, both genders, etc. And now we're
coming to the reason why I have to write this column.
What I've gone through in my life is no more special or painful than
experiences of anyone reading this. No one else's pain is less real or
less unnecessary than mine.
They train elephants not to pull their stakes out of the ground and
off by starting when they're young. When the elephants are still babies,
they are tethered to huge poles pounded deep into the ground. The
elephants strain and strain against the poles but cannot move them.
Gradually the elephant gets the idea that the pole cannot be moved and
gives up trying. By the time they're adults, they won't even try to
pull a tent stake out of the ground.
You see, what I've learned is that we all are like the circus elephants.
The huge poles that we struggle against from the time we're children are
put there and they are driven deep. For some people the pole represents
racial discrimination. For some it's gender. Other people have to struggle with
sexual identity. You know where I'm going enough to finish the list yourself.
But after we fight for a while we give up and don't try any more. We
it that way. We're playing somebody else's game when we do, someone who
wants to keep us distracted. We have more ability than we're trained to realize.
And there are people out there whose self interest makes it worth their
while to set those poles for others of us and use them to drive wedges
between us. We don't need to waste our energy being mad at women and
minorities taking away jobs. We don't need to worry about a "homosexual
agenda" threatening to indoctrinate our children. We need to stop
wasting energy against each other and direct it where it needs to go,
to the people who are fueling the divides for selfish reasons.
If there is one thing I believe that I was put here to do (2 if you
exploding the myth that all black people are great dancers) it's that I've
been given the ability and the opportunity to see the world through the eyes
of many kinds of people who are not like me. As much crap as I've put up with,
I haven't gone through anywhere near what most people of color have. I have,
on balance, been treated exceptionally well in comparison, and have been treated
with sincere acceptance most places I've been. And I've been given the ability
to communicate what I see.
I write this column because there's a lot of work I see that needs to
done and a lot of stakes that need to be pulled up. I want to point out
who I think are the ones responsible for trying to keep us from being
what we can be. I'm glad and thankful that I've lived through what I
have. I am getting better and better at spotting where the stakes are.
I'm going to keep writing until I can't pull up any more poles or stakes.
If I can help it, the bastards are not going to win.