By Ian Willey
The other day while squandering time on YouTube I came upon the video for Summer of 69 by Brian Adams. Do you remember it? It’s a love song but in the middle of the video you see young Brian and his friends having fun by breaking into the back of a store and having an apple fight, and when the cops come charging in the kids run and the cops trip over the apples and fall to the ground in comic fashion. Mirth! Those were the best days of young Adams’ life.
If you’re of a certain age, and from a certain neighborhood, the scene will make you smile. You can even imagine what would have happened if the cops had recovered from their apple-induced falls and managed to corner Adams and his golden-haired friends before they could make their getaway. “Aren’t you Adams’ boy?” says one cop. “Yes, sir,” says Adams. “Well, I suppose you father and me done worse when we was your age. You boys hurry home before I call your mamas.” “Yes, sir.” “Oh, and Adams, next time you get the idea to go break into a store, let’s make it a shoe store or something, shall we? I do hate apple sauce.” Freeze-frame. Back to the music.
Now imagine how that scene would have played out if Adams and his ne'er-do-well friends were Latino, Middle Eastern, or Black. Suddenly you would have a Public Enemy video. Suddenly there would be guns drawn and shoot-first protocols in effect. There would be nightsticks and choke-holds. There would be no questions about your father. How different the music would be!
This to me is another example of white privilege. If you are white and middle-class you can be “young and restless” like Adams and his friends. You can go out and raise a bit of hell and be fine in the end. You will not be choked or shot. And more than that: you will be able to look back on those memories as the best days of your life.
I know this because I had a similar experience when I was younger. It was the summer between my junior and senior years in college. My parents were out of town for the weekend and I came home late after my work finished at a grocery store to find that one of my brothers had invited his friends for a big party at our house. Things quickly got out of hand. A guy, recently dumped by his girlfriend, took his anger out on the toilet seat, tearing it off, and then went out to the front yard to howl at the moon. One of our neighbors must have called the cops because a squad car came down our street with lights flashing, whereupon that particular boy and a few others fled and a cop came to the door and my brother and his friends said I should be the one to talk to them since I was the oldest and most sober and was majoring in English. One guy—whose name happened to be Brian—stood behind me with a massive late-80s video recorder just in case the cop forgot to read us our rights or something.
I can remember talking to the cop who came to our door but not very clearly. I remember he was tall and well-built, 30s-ish, and had a big flashlight. He said there was a complaint about the level of noise on this property. He asked if there had been drinking here and Brian behind me shouted “no, sir!” despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. I gave Brian a look of death and decided to go the honest route. Yes, officer, there was drinking here. I told him someone got upset because his girlfriend broke up with him and we’d tried to restrain him but he ran outside and went wild. Is that so, the officer said. The poor guy. He asked where our parents were and I said out of town. He then said well you guys sure have a lot of work to do before they get back. There’s a toilet seat on your front lawn. I said yes, we’ve got a lot to do. And that was that. He left; we cleaned up. My brother repaired the toilet and my parents never found out. At least we thought they’d never found out. It never occurred to us that one of our neighbors would say something to them. How young and restless we were.
It’s easy to imagine how things would have gone if we’d been living in a different neighborhood, and we’d all been Black rather than white. The conversation between the cop and me wouldn’t have been so subdued. The officer would have had backup and, in all likelihood, entered our house with weapons drawn. Later they would have been out searching for the guy who totaled the toilet. Maybe we would have never seen him alive again. He almost certainly would not have gone on to be one of the co-founders of a successful start-up in Silicon Valley, driving around in a BMW before his 21st birthday.
That’s white privilege. But America is undergoing a demographic change, and at some point the privilege that white people enjoy will inevitably be spread more evenly around. Imagine this: a few decades in the future—maybe by the summer of 2069?—the world will become one in which you can watch videos of young Black people being young and restless and having light-hearted hijinks with the cops and there’s no sense of terror or tragedy; you can sit back and laugh and know everything will be fine, as it was for me and Brian and the other Brian with the video camera. The double standard that exists now will be gone and forgotten. I guess nothing can last forever.
Ian Willey is a professor of English from Ohio who lives in the inland sea area of Japan. His poems have appeared in such online journals as One Sentence Poems, Unbroken, and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. He received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020 and 2021. He writes from Takamatsu, Kagawa, Japan.