Thursday, April 5, 2018

White Privilege

Washington D.C. April, 1968
Fifty years ago this week I was living in Washington D. C., near DuPont Circle on New Hampshire Avenue. I worked at the Peace Corps office, which was across Lafayette Square from the White House. It was less than a mile walk on Connecticut Avenue from home to work, and walking was sometimes quicker than taking the bus. This was before the Metro, so everything was above ground.

The city ignited with Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, and our basement apartment was only a block or so away from the National Guard’s line, established immediately to cordone off a mostly black neighborhood in disarray.

I can’t remember whether we went to work on April 5 or 6, but do remember that there was an immediate curfew in the city (in memory, 4:00 p.m.).  So when we did go back to work the Peace Corps and everyone else shut down by 2:00, so that we could get home and inside.

The curfew went on for days, our basement apartment got dimmer, and, with the curfew, alcohol deliveries at night—a questionable D.C. practice, but one I enjoyed at the time, were not possible.

So after a few days of it, frustrated and looking for a way around it, a work buddy named Charlie, who lived with his wife just a few doors away, my roommate Ash, who worked at the Washington Times, and other Peace Corps friends arranged a pizza and monopoly party at the latter couple’s apartment. Which couldn’t have been more than 4 blocks away.

On a weeknight after work, instead of scurrying home, we grabbed pizza and beer and met at Ted and Carol’s apartment. And after a long game of monopoly, but certainly no later than 11:00 at night, Ash, Charlie, Charlie’s wife, and I started walking home. We hadn’t gone far when a police car wheeled back and put its lights on us. Two black officers got out and asked us what the hell we were doing. And, flashlights in our faces, why did a bunch of well-off white folks think the curfew didn’t apply to us? And why did Charlie, who was black, think that having a white woman at his side and hanging out with white people should exempt him from the curfew?

We were soon at the closest jail, which had been turned into a triage center where protesters, drunks, streetwalkers, and miscellaneous out-too-late-during-curfew folks were sorted by sex, condition, and, presumably, seriousness of suspected offences. After a couple of hours in a crowded cell, we were herded onto a bus and sent to Lorton Penitentiary. There a large gymnasium sized-room had been filled with cots, and we each got one.

I don’t remember much about the night at Lorton, but do remember that we got “tickets,” and that the curfew breaking cost us each about $30 and a missed morning of work. And I remember details of the stop, the jail and the bus ride, where a few black cops used the time—and maybe their grief at King’s death and the turmoil in the city—to spit out a little venom about white privilege.

It would be years before I heard the term.

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