• Derek Neilson

A Mixed Perspective on Our Current Times and 20 Years Ago

Hey all,

It’s your boy, D here...

This past week has been extremely busy and fast-moving here at USEFULL, formerly Coffee Cup Collective. However, in light of the week's events, we will share a bit more about our journey next week. In the meantime, I wanted to share something personal, as I pause to reflect on current events as well as an apprehensive anniversary of my own.

As a person of color, I’ve been struggling to put words to my thoughts & emotions given the current context. If you’ll allow me a few minutes of your time, I’d like to share a little of my perspective on our current times and 20 years ago.

First, I should say that my perspective is framed by experiences unique to me, as well as by the experiences of others. Second, I realize my perspective also comes from a position of privilege, as I have led a mostly charmed life surrounded by love and support. Third, as an person of Cape Verdean and Swedish descent, I identify as an "African-American" though as two of my sisters like to say “we’re mocha, you’re more of a cafe au lait.” The accepted term often used to describe similar people is "Mixed", though that term in itself has connotation issues; as many, like myself, believe the concept of "race" is an artificial construct.

My racial ambiguity has always been a double-edged sword, especially when dealing with police. Let me give you two examples from my own experience, one from 2018 and the other from 20 years ago this very weekend.

In 2018, my house was broken into around 6am on a random weekday. The thief walked in, grabbed the phones and iPad charging on the couch and a computer bag that my girlfriend left at the bottom of the stairs as she did her daily prep for work. When the detective came to investigate, I was treated with the normal respect and such that everyone should expect in interactions with officers in the community. I was then told I could pick up the report and investigation details within 48 hours at the station. When I saw the detective had written my “ethnicity” as White, I couldn’t help but wonder - had he perceived me as “Other” would I have been given the same accord? I hope so, but who knows?

This second experience, I am now able to even see humor in some of the horror, but only because of the long-term result. On the first weekend of June 2000, I went barhopping with two friends. My attendance was required, as I was to be the Designated Driver. We ended up on Boston’s Boylston Street as the bars let out just before 2am.

On a dare, my friend convinced me to play a plastic bucket drum with a couple of buskers. As I played, he somehow started an outdoor dance party with the random other drunks walking by. I sensed some nonsense brewing and I wanted a slice of pizza from Little Stevie’s anyway, so I gave the guy back his sticks, called over to my friends after a bit to tell them where I was going and started walking down the street. Out of nowhere, I was then tackled from behind by two people, presumably my drunken friends. So I said what any sober friend would say to their two drunk idiot friends, “You two fine gentlemen please refrain yourselves from touching my person” but using more colorful words to that effect.

I will never forget what happened next, and it’s been playing out in my mind since I saw the George Floyd tape. Most days, it doesn’t even cross my mind, but some days, it gives me almost PTSD. However, every day since, it has given me pause in my interactions with police, or any type of “authority” figure really.

As I took a couple of knees to the right rib cage, I knew it wasn’t my friends. I had my face pushed into the concrete before the cops picked me up and walked me to the cruiser, through the 20 or so people that they had to pass before targeting me. When I began to realize what was happening, I tried to reason with the cops. “Sorry, officers! I thought you were my friends,” I explained as they were cuffing me with no resistance, as I was confident they would soon see their mistake.

Instead, with my hands already in cuffs, one of the officers grabbed me from behind the head and bounced it off the trunk of the car. I could hear the crowd let out a collective "Ooohhh!" as I staggered back a step or two. He then slammed me to the ground face down, hands still restrained behind my back, and stood over me, kneeling into my spine until he and the other officer picked me up and threw me into the back seat of the cruiser, where I hit my face again on the opposite door. We then drove off speedily down Boylston. As I regained my composure, I again tried to ask the officers what was going on to which the reply was, and I’ll never forget the dread when I heard these words, “Why don’t you keep your black mouth shut?!?” Then I heard them deliberate aloud, perhaps purposefully, as to whether they should “take a ride down by the Seaport first” or “just head into the precinct.”

After the most harrowing car ride of my life, we entered the police precinct (which is now where the aptly named bar “Precinct” at the Loews Hotel is located) and I was processed. The officers made the claim, which I had to later fight in court, that I was drunk & disorderly and had “attempted to incite a riot” and that in my drunken haze, I had fallen and injured myself. Sound familiar? To my benefit, I don’t think the cops had expected that I had not had alcohol for 3+ months at the time and I blew zeros on the breathalyzer, negating much of the rest of their false narrative, in the eyes of the desk sergeant whom processed me and eventually the judge whom heard my case 2 months later.

The following Monday, I had to suffer the embarrassment of going into the office with a black eye and a lime-sized welt above my right eyebrow and having to relive the story over and over to concerned colleagues, I had to again suffer the indignity of hearing well-intentioned people of European descent say dismissive things like, “Well, maybe you provoked them in some way” or “It probably could have been worse if you were darker” or “They probably just thought you were drunk”, as if these reasons would somehow excuse the police officers' actions. It stung to know that some of these people, while trying to be supportive, were engaging in some of the same microaggressions that make larger aggressions possible. It still stings, especially now.

Now, I know that not all police officers are bad cops. I’ve known some great cops over my lifetime and have some in my family and friend circles. Most times I’ve had an interaction with a police officer, it has been perfectly appropriate and professional. But due to this experience, my view of police has been tainted forever, despite ultimately having the case dropped in court. That’s a whole other story and where most of the humor comes in, but in the interest of time, I’ll spare you.

Now here we are, it’s 20 years after I was assaulted, almost 30 years since Rodney King and more than 50 years since MLK’s assassination and we’re still sitting here asking ourselves and our society how do these things keep happening to people of color and how do we get it to stop? Sadly, I have a feeling that we’ll be having these same conversations another 20 years from now, unless we learn from our mistakes. George Santyana said, “Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So, let’s learn something this time. Let’s use this elevated awareness of the injustices of society to make the changes we want to see in the world. Let’s tackle the problems previous generations didn’t and ensure we don’t leave these same problems as a legacy to the generations of the future. Let’s learn from their mistakes and ours.

I’ve been asked a number of times over the past week plus about the key takeaways I think people should reflect on at this time, so I have three:

  1. Golden Rule. That old maxim of “treat others how you would like to be treated” highlights what I feel should set the foundation of society. We should be approaching interactions with empathy and respect toward that other person, even if we don’t agree. This goes for interactions on the Interwebs as well as IRL. As an individual, I am attempting to use my ears more and my mouth less as I attempt to learn more from others.

  2. Accountability. We should be pushing for accountability from our police, our politicians, our media and ourselves. There needs to be a change in the dynamic between the General Public and the Public Servants, where we as constituents are empowered to oversee and influence the services we fund. There also has to be a change in whom we hold accountable for these issues in society, because some of the blame is also on who we each see in the mirror. As an individual, I am holding myself accountable to not just point out wrongs, but to be more active in making rights.

  3. Privilege. The way I’ve been viewing privilege recently sort of encapsulates the previous two points. I think the point is best illustrated by a quote by the educator-activist Jane Elliott of the famed “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes Experiment.”. I’ll let her pose the question to you and have you come to your own answers, but for me this has raised my awareness of my own privilege. As an individual, I will no longer passively accept injustices when I see them, whether they affect me directly or not.

I’ve also been asked what I think people should be doing at this time. To that, there is no “one size fits all” answer, but in general just lead with love. Tell your friends you support them, attend protests & vigils, write your representatives, support businesses owned & run by people of color and womxn, engage others in conversations aimed at sharing perspective instead of pointing fingers, tear down the patriarchy, hug someone in a socially safe way. I dunno, do what feels right for you. Doing something can literally and figuratively save a life. I won’t even fault you for doing nothing at all, but I feel like this isn’t the type of audience for that.

Anyway, if you read this far, I want to thank you all for your support in my personal and professional life. I wouldn’t be here without advocates and allies like you. And this business wouldn’t exist without people like you, whom are willing to put change into action. Let’s be the change we want to see, now and always!

Much love and respect,


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