Our Heroes Got Us Into This Mess. We Have To Get Ourselves Out

(Illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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I am not the hero of this story.

No amount of wishing or dreaming, or even good intentions, can change that. Although of wishing and dreaming, I have done plenty, and I always felt I had the best of intentions.

Whenever I want to give someone an instant Polaroid of my life growing up in Escondido in the '80s, I refer them to the suburban idyll of that Spielberg classic, E.T. Picture cul-de-sacs and costumed trick-or-treaters, a tract-home maze tracing ever outward with new development, we kids racing our bikes down one dirt embankment after another on hillsides terraced to make way for the California dreams of the newcomers.

We had room to breathe, room to explore, room to imagine that we were the heroes we idolized on screen.

So inspired were we by cinema that our play-soldiering gradually evolved into play-filmmaking, complete with makeup and fake blood and "special effects" that involved model airplanes strung up with fishing line, doused with lighter fluid, and torched in our garages. We recited our litanies from movies like Top Gun and The Princess Bride, reinforcing in ourselves and in each other a love for the wise-cracking maverick with a heart of gold and a deep, if imperfect, sense of justice.

My heroes were Indiana Jones and Han Solo, two variations of the cowboy archetype reimagined for our generation.

So imagine my surprise when, years later, I found my young self reflected in the words of writer and social critic James Baldwin, who in one line captured all the heartache and disillusionment of a boy betrayed by his Hollywood heroes.

"It comes as a great shock to discover," Baldwin said, "that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians — when you were rooting for Gary Cooper — that the Indians were you."

It was one of the many razor sharp insights Baldwin shared about surviving Jim Crow America during his famous 1965 debate with conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. (a debate Baldwin won, by the way, and which should be required viewing for anyone seeking to understand why race relations even today simmer and seethe like a kettle ready to boil over).

In just a few words, Baldwin had flipped reality on its head. He had gone from identifying with the hero to recognizing that the rest of society saw him as the villain, and it was a horrible shock. My reality was flipped, too, as the full import of what he was saying sank in: Baldwin wasn't the villain at all, and neither were the "Indians."

Looking at it this way, the villain was Gary Cooper. It was Indiana Jones. It was me. But then it also occurred to me that all of these characters were just artifacts, the crust at the edge of a festering wound.

The real villain in this scenario, in our world, the real world, is white supremacy — the insidious, systemic kind. The real villain is a society that not only has condoned oppression but has also trained its entire Hollywood mythmaking apparatus on the cynical task of papering over the truth, elevating the white savior at the expense of everyone else, while those of us who identify as white gobble up the affirmation like so much popcorn.

This, for me, was the start of a long, painful reckoning with race and identity. For starters, it made me for the first time really understand why my wife, an Afro-Caribbean American woman with cinnamon-pecan skin, crinkled her nose every time I suggested watching a classic black-and-white film. There. Are. No. Black. People.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MIGUEL

Miguel is the actual hero of this story. Miguel is the guy who got knocked down, who stood back up, who took on the system, who won. Miguel is the contender. Miguel is the somebody. And he is not white.

I met Miguel Contreras, the son of Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants, around the time I started my first job in journalism, both of us newsroom rookies.

Miguel is a private, soft-spoken man, not reserved so much as subtle — he's always quick with a pun or a wicked joke, which you can miss if you're not paying attention. He asks that of you, and he rewards you for it. He grew up in Tecate on both sides of the border, living in Tecate, Mexico and going to school in Tecate, California (and yes, he has been known to drink a Tecate or two).

Miguel had a story to tell, though he was reluctant to tell it at first.

We were becoming fast friends and drinking buddies, closing down the bar on a Tuesday night, throat-thrashing at karaoke on a Thursday night (remember the time one of our crew sang along with Joseph Gordon Levitt?). I can't remember if it was before all that, or after, or during, but he finally started to share his story.


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It came in pieces, over time. His injury was obvious: for a while his arm was in a sling, and later you could see the massive scar running over his elbow from tricep to forearm. He took a lot of trips to doctors, and eventually it came out that he was talking to lawyers, too.

It was maybe a year after the incident had occurred when I finally got Miguel's version of events. Miguel was visiting his cousin, Miguel Vasquez. At some point Miguel C. heard a commotion and notified his cousin. When Miguel V. stepped outside the apartment, he saw police detaining several people, including one of his friends.

Miguel V. tried to ask the officers what the problem was. Everything moved very fast then. One of the cops told him to back up, and then all of a sudden Miguel V. was being taken to the ground and beaten.

Just as this was happening, Miguel C. had stepped outside to move his car, and he saw his cousin there on the ground. Miguel C. pleaded with the officer to stop, and then suddenly he was on the ground, too. The other cop was beating him with his baton.

The violence — "use of force" in police parlance — lasted about a minute. The damage — physical and psychological — would last many millions of minutes more. Miguel's arm was permanently disabled.

Years would pass before Miguel's case would be resolved, which I learned is not uncommon for use-of-force cases. In that time — so much time — Miguel had plenty of room to hurt, plenty of room to fear, plenty of room to doubt.

It didn't help that I, like many others in Miguel's life, secretly had some doubts of my own — I say "secretly," but he would later tell me that he could sense it.

On the one hand, I felt for my friend. On the other, I could not reconcile his story with my picture of the justice system, nor with my idea of common sense: why would the cops have responded with so much force if he had done nothing wrong? Why risk their careers over a night of senseless brutality? It didn't add up. For me, the catalyst had to be something more than talking back to an officer.

The story became more complicated. It turned out that Miguel V., my friend's cousin, was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. And months after the incident, Miguel himself would be charged with obstruction, though his attorney would tell him that this was a tactic cities use to guard against lawsuits — you can't sue them if you're the subject of criminal prosecution.

The case dragged on. I would ask Miguel for updates every now and then. Talking about it always seemed to make him uncomfortable. I suppose it made me uncomfortable, too.

Eventually, the charges against Miguel were dropped. His cousin pleaded guilty to a lesser charge to avoid the risk and expense of a criminal trial. But a long road lay ahead as they built their case for a lawsuit. Both cousins had lost work and racked up medical bills — in Miguel's case, substantial ones — because of their injuries.

Somewhere along the line, Miguel finally shared a witness video with me. It was dark, grainy, and almost impossible to decipher visually, but the audio was clear. You could hear Miguel V. asking the cops why they were detaining his friend. Miguel V. cursing at them. A lot of shouting, then screaming from both Miguels.

You could hear my friend Miguel pleading, telling them he was down, that he was not resisting.

DAY IN COURT

(Illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist)

I remember thinking that it didn't look good for the police. Maybe this is when I became more willing to believe Miguel's version of events — that there had been no resisting, that they were assaulted, blindsided — but I think I still had my doubts.

Maybe I was just trying to be a good journalist. Maybe I was just programmed to believe the cops.

It was some six years after the incident when Miguel's case finally went to trial along with his cousin's. We, Miguel's friends, rallied to support him. We would show up on different days of the trial, each when we could. The day I went, Miguel V. testified. So did the officer who had beaten up Miguel, my friend.

The case laid out by the defense went something like this. It was 2 a.m. It was dark. When one officer attempted to push Miguel V. back, Miguel V. slapped his hand away — thus assaulting a police officer. While the officers attempted to arrest him, an angry mob that had gathered began to move in on them, and they ordered everyone to back up. My friend Miguel was the only one who got too close, they said, which is why they had to use the baton.

All of this played neatly to my doubts about Miguel's story. But so much of it simply didn't add up.

Miguel V. and Miguel are both professionals. Their character was on trial, and witness after witness vouched for them. In fact, the witnesses themselves seemed to be on trial, since the defense was arguing that none of them understood what they saw that night, and so their testimonies should be discounted.

The claim that the police used no undue force, the implication being that they were not overly aggressive or did nothing to escalate the situation, also seemed dubious. Miguel V. can be heard saying in the video, "Don't [expletive] touch me." The officer who took him down can be heard responding on the video, "I will touch you anytime I want to touch you. You understand that?" — the kind of bluster you expect from a barfighter, not a beat cop.

That mob the defense described? That was the four or five witnesses who were at the scene. Others were shooting cell phone videos from apartment windows.

But what haunts me even now is the sheer brutality of the encounter, documented in video, in audio, in X-rays and medical charts, in witness accounts. The two white cops tower over both Miguel V. and Miguel — one of them stood 6'9" and weighed 265 pounds, the other 6'0" and 200 pounds. Miguel C. is just 5'6". Miguel V. is 6'0" but slender, almost slight.

Neither cousin was much more than half the weight of the larger officer, so for that officer, girded and weighted with a utility belt and protective vest, taking Miguel V. down would have been like a linebacker mowing down a water boy. Miguel V. on the ground, then, the cop stomping on his flattened hand, boot on bone, grinding away until his pinky snapped.

And my friend. From what Miguel remembers, he was hit from behind with a baton without warning, repeatedly, until he, too, was on the ground, the baton blows landing on his shins, his calves, his shoulder, his elbow, over and over like an axe chopping wood — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen times — to a soundtrack of screaming and pleading.

REVELATION

Miguel had to have multiple surgeries and undergo painful physical therapy to repair the damage from the officer's baton. He still cannot straighten his arm. (Courtesy Miguel Contreras)

Movie imagery makes powerful propaganda. The hero wears a badge. The bad guy is merciless, and he often meets a fittingly violent end (thou shalt not kill, but we know justice when we see it).

In reality, in all its infinite complexity, we have a much harder time recognizing injustice. We have plenty of evidence for this assertion. See, for instance, the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Shock Experiment. The two studies showed how easy it is for good people to surrender basic decency. Morality was lost when individuals were forced to play a role in a corrupt system as ruthless prison guards or allowed to retreat behind blind obedience, like regular Germans who were complacent as the Holocaust took place.

But to witness injustice day in, day out — to partake in it, even — and continue to believe oneself just, that is a special kind of cognitive dissonance that requires great effort to maintain.

I think Miguel's story was one of many short circuits that forced me to confront this simple truth: that I have witnessed signs of injustice throughout my life, and as often as not, rather than confront them, I have chosen to seek comfort in my heroes and my myths instead.

Ta-Nehisi Coates comes embarrassingly close to capturing this dynamic in his book Between the World and Me when he writes of the white majority's habit of forgetting its history of slavery, segregation, and violent suppression:

"They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body."

It turns out injustice is about as common as a sneeze.

It turns out the suburban idyll is full of mean kids and casual racists.

Growing up, I would hear a relative call a football player on TV the N-word, modified by "stupid," for dropping the ball. When I called them out, I was told "there are white n——s, too" — the implication being that the word could be neatly divorced from its racist roots. It was gaslighting, of course: I never heard the term used against one of the white players.

And then there were the kids, ruthless as kids can be. This was San Diego County in the '80s and early '90s at the height of a historic wave of immigration from south of the border. The anti-Latino slurs my friends used were thrown around so casually as to be commonplace — even though at least one of our schoolboy crew was Mexican American.

I could go on listing the racist, sexist, homophobic transgressions I grew up around, and you could find a way to write off each. Boys will be boys. You're being too sensitive. But before long, you start to see the whole crooked outlook has gotten tangled up in the roots of our institutions like an invasive vine.

APOLOGY

I don't know if race was a factor in officers' decision to use force against my friend, Miguel. It's hard to say whether it played a role in a lot of cases.

But then a few months ago, George Floyd was choked out by a police officer in Minneapolis. In death, Floyd became a bare bulb in a dark room, throwing light on all the muck that's been growing in the shadows — bigotry, hate, systemic inequality. Suddenly we could see, too, the names written on the wall — all the shootings, all the beatings, all the people we've lost to the poor training or carelessness or orneriness or power-tripping or mistakes of the very people who are charged to protect us.

Now that the lights are on, you'd have to shut your eyes not to see a pattern. And that doesn't help anyone.

My looking the other way, my not seeing, my not questioning, my not speaking up, my lack of introspection, has helped to buttress systemic injustice in this country. For that I am sorry, and I am sure I will be sorry to the end of my days.

But feeling sorry is not the same as apologizing to a person.

It apparently took all of this — a pandemic that divided us, the death of George Floyd, national protests — for it finally to occur to me that I ought to tell Miguel how I had felt all along.

It happened on a weekly Zoom call, a pandemic-era happy hour some friends and I were doing every Friday. The protests were ongoing, and the backlash was fierce. I realized I had been having a lot of arguments with friends and family about the nature of the protests, about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the many others who've suffered like them, about whether racism was even a real thing. It had taken a toll on me. I was feeling other people doubting me.

And that's when it hit me, how it must have felt for Miguel all those years. And I gushed. I told him everything, all about the back-and-forth that had played out in my head and how angry I still was with myself, right there on the call, right in front of my wife, in front of our friends, and the tears came streaming down my face and I choked out my apology and then I couldn't speak.

My friends, being the fabulous, open-minded, multi-ethnic troupe that they are, have called me out when I say ignorant things. They've watched me struggle to wrap my head around race in America. And tonight, as always, they took it in stride. They gave me a minute, and Miguel was appreciative, I recovered myself, and then we moved on.

But Miguel opened up to me recently about how it felt to be doubted. He said friends and family members had been reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt in the beginning, and that even to this day he gets that doubt from some people with whom he shares his story.

Miguel's trauma did not end after the incident. He said it was a motherf—— to deal with how low he felt, just having experienced that violence, through no fault of his own, other than speaking up when he saw a cop — or anyone, for that matter — beating the hell out of a loved one.

He also said there was a great deal of shame that goes along with being a victim of such violence, and that we don't hear enough about that. He struggled with the shame for years, though ask him now and he'll say the jury's verdict helped him finally realize he's not a "delusional piece of garbage."

"I fought them," Miguel told me. "It took me six years after lies and obfuscation, and I beat them. I played their game and won."

Including damages, attorneys fees, and other settlement items, the jury awarded them more than $2.4 million — the "ghetto lottery," Miguel said someone wrote in a comment on one of the news reports. He's had multiple surgeries, hardware drilled in, hardware pulled out, nerves relocated.

Still, he cannot straighten his arm. All of this, presumably, because he tried to reason with the cops.

My friend, Miguel. That's me in the back right, joined by our friends Rocio Zamora and Erik Esparza, at a festival a few years ago. (Courtesy Miguel Contreras)

He doesn't see the verdict as justice, since both cops are still working, and one, he said, even earned a promotion. For Miguel, it was a consolation prize.

While I have no mystic insight into what really happened that night, I choose to believe the jury. I choose to believe my friend. Through his story, and with a lot of help from my friends, I've come to realize just how insidious the myths we cling to are, how easy it is to doubt, how doubt works. How the presumption of guilt trumps all.

UNTANGLING IT ALL

But what I didn't know then is how easy it is to say you don't see color, while at the same time ignoring the signs of injustice all around us. We tokenize those we know and love while continuing to neglect, or even resent, an entire class of people. It's as though we who enjoy white privilege see ourselves as gatekeepers, arbiters of who should be allowed to partake of it. It's as though we're slipping them a guest pass with a wink and a smile and saying, "Don't worry, I'll vouch for you." "You're not like 'them.'" Et cetera.

This is the untangling that has to be done.

Perhaps the oversimplification that happens in the social media echo chamber has distorted the conversation.

"I believe the victim" is a powerful statement in the context of a system that has for most of our history made it a point of practice to brush aside the pain and suffering of anyone who is not a straight, white, cisgendered male. But if implicit doubt is corroding our conversations, the cure is not implicit belief — it's listening. Just listening, and challenging our assumptions.

We don't need heroes right now. Uniters, maybe. What we really need is to be human. We need to be vulnerable. We need to listen.

So if you relate to any of this (and you know who you are), then read Baldwin. Read Coates. Listen to Nina Simone.

Discover their voices, their truths. And maybe you'll find solace, like me, in having a guide who has been despised by people (perhaps people like you) but who does not ultimately despise them back, and who can help you navigate the shame and squirming discomfort that you may feel when you realize that you are not the hero of this story.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Brian Frank is an associate editor for LAist/KPCC and leads special projects for the station. Before joining Southern California Public Radio in 2013, he was web editor for SoCal Connected, the award-winning TV newsmagazine at KCET in Los Angeles. He has written for print, radio, television and web, and he dabbles in code.

Brian is happily married to a world-class dancer and choreographer, and together they're learning what it means to be in a biracial marriage in America in 2020.

Before all that, he was teaching English in a tiny seaside town in Japan, where he started to learn what it was like to be a minority, and overseeing a program for at-risk youth on the edge of the Alaskan bush. But those are stories for another day.