Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I believe a person is never able to truly empathize with another individual unless they have experienced first-hand the circumstances that have led to the feelings that a person possesses. We as a community continue to watch the circumstances that are unfolding in Baltimore and Ferguson and all over the United States, as people are becoming enraged at the brutality and abuse of power that those in authority have undertaken against our men and women. I recognize that so many people who diminish the protests and riots as mere fruitless acts of violence are unaware of the racism, classism, and socioeconomic factors that have enabled this pot to boil over. These public naysayers and political pundits that shake their heads in disbelief and comment on the regrettable actions of those who are responding to injustice in such a way are proof that though sympathy for our struggle may be there, empathy is an entirely different emotion; One that if felt would broaden their understanding.
I learned first-hand how being on the receiving end of what can only be described as a racial charged situation, will bring you back to reality and allow you to truly connect with your brothers and sisters in the struggle. I began my company, Dream Team Inc. (which includes DT Nation and PTSQ) 10 years ago as a simple company that threw a handful of parties. Today, the company has grown to a level of which I could have only dreamed. Through hard work, the development and nurturing of relationships, and key business moves, DT Nation has become one of DC’s top promotions companies and we are only going to continue to grow as we expand the brand’s business portfolio and capabilities to new heights. I have grown accustomed to the privileges that come along with being a successful businessman in the District as well as being front and center of the lifestyle scene. I understand it; I accept it; but I’ve never taken it for granted.
I routinely shop at my local Dupont/Columbia Heights Whole Foods grocery store and am a patron of their establishment at least three times a week and have even come to know by face some of the employees and store regulars. On this particular day after hurriedly shopping for myself I decided to use the restroom. I went up the stairs towards the restrooms, as I have done on several other occasions without incident, where I was stopped by a security guard who told me that I could not enter that portion of the store with my unpaid items. I responded to him that I was unaware of the policy as there were no signs on the stairs indicating such, but I was only trying to use the restroom. He proceeded to question and accost me; becoming increasingly aggressive and verbally forceful.
After explaining my situation numerous times and demanding to know why I was being treated in such a manner, even going as far as to show him the cash in my pocket as proof that I had all intentions on paying for my items, I was escorted to the back of the store where I was further questioned and berated by various store managers. I was informed that I would be barred from the store and arrested for theft, even though I made no movements towards the exit with my items. This situation was mind-boggling to me as I have never stolen anything in my life and have a completely clean criminal record. The manner in which I was being treated was egregious and unnecessary and reminded me of the racial profiling that my friends mentioned when discussing their experiences with certain establishments. Up until yesterday, I had never directly experienced it myself.
What would make them approach me and question me as such when I had not even made it to the restroom? As a long time customer and community resident of over eight years, was I not entitled to the benefit of doubt? Was I not entitled to some type of respect? I was a teacher at Annunciation Catholic School in Georgetown for three years. I sat on the Board for Washington, D.C.’s Pediatric HIV/Aids Care for roughly three years. My company hosts and supports numerous of local and national nonprofit organizations in DC and around the country on an almost weekly basis through my events and gatherings. None of these facts mattered as the situation ended with me being escorted out of the store, banned from Whole Foods, and not being charged, but further extending my humiliation.
I was angry. I was livid. I was hurt. But more than anything I was fed up. I called a few associates to explain the situation and see what my options were and the results surprised me. An overwhelming number of those I spoke to who had experienced something similar to my problem reacted with anger and pushed me to seek retribution in some way or another. Yet those who were far more removed from these types of transgressions basically told me to just lick my wounds and move on. They hadn’t experienced the pain of being treated like a criminal for no apparent reason. They didn’t get the knots in their stomach like I did just thinking about what had happened. They cared about me. They sympathized that I had gone through such a thing; but they could never empathize with me.
As I watch the effects of the death of Freddie Gray play out on the streets of Baltimore via the media, my situation, though nowhere as prominent or life changing, reminds me that so many of those who have such negative and hurtful reactions to the response from those in our community are reacting solely out of their own ignorance. They are reacting based on misinformation and their own shielding from atrocities and injustice. Two days ago, I would have immediately clashed with anyone who didn’t support my views on the black lives matter movement and the call for justice within our communities. Today, though my position remains strong, I now understand the effects having actually been a victim of racial profiling has on one’s involvement and ability to care. I have taken the time since then to try to educate those around me that shake their heads in disbelief and call our young men and women on the streets of Baltimore thugs and hoodlums.
I try to explain to them the struggles and pain that we as a people are feeling, coupled with the circumstances of poverty and societal issues in which many Baltimore residents find themselves. I urge them to think about the sheer number of people violated by those in positions of power and the blind eye that the justice system seems to turn. I know that although they may never truly be able to empathize with what we as a people are going through together as we traverse this seemingly never-ending fight for justice, that they may now be able to understand the human element to this saga.
Today I drove by Whole Foods in an Uber on my way to a business meeting as I held a newspaper that once again was sensationalizing the situation in Baltimore and I wonder how many of those on the other side would have to die at the hand of injustice before they feel our pain. I tucked my newspaper in my hand and realize that the question may never be answered, but hopefully justice will prevail before it needs to be.