Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Lost Boys

Have you heard of the Lost Boys of Sudan? It's surprising how many people haven't. They are legendary. During the 1990's, thousands of boys and girls were orphaned as a result of the civil war. They walked for more than a year, first to Ethiopia then to Kenya, to find a safe haven. Of the estimated 10,000 who made the trek, thousands died. Some were eaten by wild animals, some starved, others died from illness having ingested bad water and such. At ages as tender as 8 years old spanning up to 18, you would have thought many had died of broken hearts. Imagine such tragedy and danger being the centerpiece of your childhood, your future completely uncertain.

After making it finally to Kenya, the Red Cross and others stepped in. As many as 4,000 Lost Boys ended up in the U.S. When I lived in Boston (as recently as 2004), I saw them everywhere. If you walked into the Whole Foods there, nearly all the baggers were these extraordinarily tall, extraordinarily skinny, extraordinarily dark-skinned young men from Sudan. They always flashed broad smiles at me. Beneath the smiles, I could see the pain as easily as I could see the relief. I tried to communicate my pride and my welcome to them through my smile or my eyes. Perhaps my mothering instinct, perhaps just a full and open heart, something made me want to be extra kind and extra helpful to them. Even now, my eyes are full with tears at this quick memory.

After the Lost Boys arrived here, they were placed in apartments and sent to schools. They wore shoes for the first time in their lives. They had to learn how to live in the frigid weather of New England and the northeast. They were grouped together with the older ones living with younger ones so that they didn't need to be placed in foster care or be adopted. No one told them how to open a box of cereal. They didn't fit in with the other school children, but they tried their best to look and act like the others. I suppose by now some of them are in their late 20's, but still tall, pained, and at the same time relieved, and in some cases the older ones are still looking after the dwindling number of minors.

Now that I'm in New York, I still see Lost Boys. They get lost in the shuffle here, as we all do. But they're here. I saw one a few weeks ago.

It was a Friday morning. I was exiting the subway in Manhattan around 9:15 a.m., rush hour. With my iPod headphones blaring in my ears, I slowly made my way with the crowd as if we were a herd of cattle. Straight ahead of me, I saw two police officers and a young man they were holding ominously. I wasn't sure if they were making an arrest, so I didn't want to get in the way. At the same time, I was curious. The police and the man they were escorting turned to walk up the final set of stairs to the busy midtown street. As it turned out, I was right behind them. The crowd continued to move like a herd, so I was just one step behind the two cops and the man. We moved very slowly. I noticed that the cops were holding the man's wrists firmly to his sides, but they had not handcuffed him. Dressed in saggy denim shorts, a khaki shirt (opened), and a khaki hat with a blue bill that cheerfully read "New York," he was a Lost Boy.

When the cops made it to the street, they released the young man then turned towards me to descend back into the subway. The stairway was narrow, so I tried to make room for them to single file back into the abyss. I looked squarely into the officers' young, white faces, scrubbed clean and tidy. Their short haircuts made them look official and enthusiastic. All of a sudden, one of the cops bolted for the street. Had something happened? Had someone said something to him? I didn't know because of Poncho Sanchez and his version of Watermelon Man playing in my ears. But what I saw with my eyes changed my life.

Cop number one ran over to the Lost Boy and punched him in the face. The Lost Boy was wide open. He didn't hide his face, he didn't punch back. Cop number one then grabbed the Lost Boy by the arms and kneed him in the chest. His aim may have been a bit off, because the Lost Boy was well over six feet tall and cop number one was well under. But being trained as a cop no doubt helped him to hit his target, albeit clumsily. Cop number one then began to pummel the Lost Boy in the stomach and abdomen with rapid punches in succession. The oddest thing was that the Lost Boy never ran or defended himself or even covered his vulnerable spots. It was almost as if he had some sort of survivor instinct that compelled him to tough it out until the ordeal ended.

I couldn't believe my eyes. I'd been in New York only a year. But you never, never expect to see police brutality on a busy Manhattan street corner. There must have been a dozen witnesses who stood there watching the sorry display within one or two feet at most. Then there were all of the cars and trucks and buses creeping up 6th Avenue in the morning traffic. I ripped the headphones out of my ears and called 911. The police. I just wanted the beating to stop, and I didn't dare throw myself into the fray. I'm brave. Not stupid.

"911. How may I help you?"
"I'm standing at the northeast corner of 32nd and 6th where the police are beating up a man."

Thus began my odyssey as a witness of police brutality.

While talking to the operator, cop number one continued to use the Lost Boy as a punching bag. The cop's anger was palpable and deep as the ocean. His radio flew off his belt, presumably with one of the punches. Another bystander picked it up and gave it to me, "Here, maybe you can call for help with this." The radio was smooth and gray. I fumbled with it a bit, but I couldn't find any buttons on it. I suppose you've got to be a cop to operate one. I stuck with my call to 911.

Everything was happening very fast, but I was mostly composed and thinking. I needed badge numbers to identify the cops. I got closer to the action. By this time, cop number two had joined the ruckus. He stood over the scene for a moment, thinking about how to be helpful I suppose. I may have glanced over at him at one point earlier in the action. He, like me, seemed to be waiting for the beating to end. Like my fellow civilian bystanders, I waited in horror. I can't say that cop number two was horrified, but he was patient. Finally, the Lost Boy had toppled to the ground. Cop number two took his wrist to handcuff it. Cop number one put his foot on the Lost Boy's back, very close to his neck. He was practically standing on it, but then he was a little fella. I never saw badge numbers, but during the cuffing, I did see names. Names!

I gave the names to the police dispatcher to whom I'd been passed along by the 911 operator.

The cops moved past me to take the Lost Boy back into the subway. I noticed their red armpatches said, "Port Authority Police." Cop number one took the radio from me and thanked me. I don't recall that I was able to utter a word to him. I believe I was mute for a moment, then I identified the officers as Port Authority police to the dispatcher. She took my name, address, and phone number. Then she gave me a log number, "5529318." Thank you.

I was shaken the entire day, and hardly able to work. Fortunately, I work for a civil rights law firm. My boss was supportive. I told her my story. I told my story to my co-worker who used to work as a prison organizer. I told the story again and again. I wrote down what I'd seen, and I e-mailed the story to friends in order to get a time stamp on it. I might need this if I have to testify in some sort of legal proceeding.

I made a formal complaint to the Port Authority Police. I told them the story. I gave them my log number. They thanked me for coming forward. I think they were genuine and a bit horrified.

The next week, I got a call from Internal Affairs.