After a year spent earning an LL.M. at the University of Cambridge, during which she wrote our series “Cambridge2Cambridge”, JESSICA CORSI has returned Stateside – and was shocked by the culture she found awaiting her.
My first week back in the US, I stumbled upon what at first struck me as an unbelievable scene in Central Square. I had been living abroad for the past 15 months, and I had returned to the US and to Cambridge, Mass. only to finish my J.D. I was trying to make the best of being back, and yet here I was, standing on Mass Ave, watching three police officers arrest an African American homeless man who was screaming at the top of his lungs. The police officers soon multiplied from three to seven, with several police cars flanking them. Was this actually happening my first week back? I mean-really? Did someone phone ahead and request that I be immediately confronted with all of the worst aspects of the US? I was reminded of when I had moved back from Mexico City in 2003, and had landed in a snowstorm and to CNN playing a looped tape of white police officers beating a black man in L.A. Welcome back.
That day in late August in Central Square, I was walking down the street eating a muffin. If I was going to be here, I was going to eat all of my favorite American-esque or American only foods, and the muffin is an American specialty, as is eating while walking down the street (see also eating while driving.) So here I am, walking, pleasing chocolate muffin in hand, and my baked goods revelry is interrupted by yelling somewhere immediately in front and to the left of me. Up ahead on the sidewalk there is a space with two benches facing each other. An African-American man who appears to be homeless-he is surrounded by many bags of the kind that homeless people carry their belongings in-is sitting and watching a scene. I look where he is looking: there is another African-American man, and he is yelling what sounds to me like nonsense; I can’t pick out anything that he’s saying. A white police officer is speaking to him, seemingly calling him by his name. The police officer is saying, “[Name], don’t make me do this; come on [name], you don’t want to make me do this.” Right; so; what am I witnessing here exactly? It sounds like a bully provoking a fight; an abusive partner about to throw a punch but before he does he wants to verbally establish that it was the other person’s fault. I stop walking and stand to watch. I feel incredibly awkward; I haven’t witnessed a scene like this in a very long time. Several times in the past I’ve interrupted these types of arrests, either against homeless people or against political protesters, and its all flashing back in my head. I figure that I should stand there and make sure the police don’t do anything funny. Not many other people are around.
Then, very quickly, the police officer that was calling the man by name takes him by the arm, bends the man’s arm behind his back, and pushes him over the hood of the police car. He takes both of the man’s hands and slaps handcuffs on him. The other two police officers that are there stand very closely behind the arresting officer but don’t move. One of them is white, one of them is not. For a minute or two, the scene is completely frozen; the police officers standing; the homeless man handcuffed and laying on the car, screaming.
Did I really just see that? Has it taken less than a week back in the US to see a white police officer push an African American homeless man onto a police car and handcuff him? This was my first day back in Cambridge; I had yet to sleep one night in my new apartment. Really?? This is really my first day back? It sounds like a bad movie. I stayed and watched for a while; they had sat the man down and nothing was happening. Other people had come out of their storefronts to watch. Satisfied that nothing was happening, I walked on. Ten minutes later I walked back past the same spot. Another police car had come; now there were seven police officers. I counted because I wanted to know how many police officers it takes at 11 a.m. on a Monday morning at the end of August to handcuff a homeless man in Cambridge, Mass. It took more than I would have expected.
Maybe I should have anticipated seeing this type of thing upon my return. Perhaps because I’m looking for it, or trying to categorize it, I feel like I have the most stereotypical and quintessential elements of a place thrust in front of me, wherever I go. I can never remember or anticipate all of it, though. I was expecting the Nantucket Reds in the Square, and the boat shoes with them and with the perpetual khaki shorts, but I had forgotten about how grown men in the U.S. wear baseball hats at all times, and that in Harvard Square they wear them with shirts, Nantucket Reds, and boat shoes all at once. I’d forgotten that student in the U.S. like to wear their gym clothes in public, all day long. I can’t tell how old anyone is or what they do as I walk through Harvard Yard; they’re all in t-shirts and gym shorts and so to me they all look like they just got out of bed. I’d forgotten the eccentricity of Harvard Square-why is there a guy there holding a “Free Africa!” sign. Free Africa? What does that mean? Why has he been there for three hours now? I’m sure he has some deeper purpose. But I can’t tell what that is just by seeing him hold that sign as he stands by the magazine stand.
But I think that what I had truly forgotten about was the jarring juxtaposition of it all. In Harvard Square, people are playing chess in front of Au Bon Pain, a romantic feature of where we live and fitting for such an intellectual center. But, you can’t walk past them without encountering a homeless person selling a “Street Sense” newspaper. I went to meet someone at the COOP, and it all came flooding back that this doorway is where homeless people that live in Harvard Square sleep at night. The contrast is striking: the privilege and charm of Harvard alongside abject poverty and the American nightmare of homelessness. Central Square was pretty quiet that first Monday; it was sunny and the largest crowd in sight was in front of the Starbucks. But there, in the sleepiness of late Monday morning in late summer, I witnessed the arrest of a homeless man who, from the sounds he emitted, seemed to be mentally unwell. This was much more American to me than the fact that I could now get my French fries (not chips; not frites; French fries) with BBQ sauce at the drive through from Wendy’s. I had forgotten the extremes of American daily life.
And with this shocking return, I was back in Cambridge, Mass., USA. Let the semester begin.