I was maybe eleven or twelve years old the first time I saw police officers grab a man and slam him to the ground. The man was not being violent. To this day I don’t know what he did. I know that he was a drug addict. This was Bushwick, Brooklyn during the crack era so it wasn’t a far stretch. I knew that from the way his face sagged, how his eyes shifted in that sad, lost way unique to drug addicts. His clothes were caked with dirt and grime. He was whispering to himself and his hands jerked nervously.
The man was walking in front of us when the cop car rolled up. No sirens, just the loud screech of brakes. The doors shot open and those men in blue hurtled out, guns drawn.
I was with a group of kids walking just feet away. We were on our way to get free lunch at the school down the block. It was summer time. I was hot and we were hungry. The cops didn’t look at us once. They tackled that man who wasn’t resisting, whose hands were up in the air, and threw him to the ground. By the time they threw him in that patrol car, he was bloodied and I was on my knees, crying. Helpless.
I remember the screams of the woman that ran up and tried to pull the officers off. I would later find out that man was her son. Those screams have come back clear and loud and guttural, the pure sound of agony, when I’ve witnessed police brutality, seen its victims lying in blood or in a casket. When I’ve seen it splashed on the headlines.
The first time I experienced racism firsthand, I was in La Ceiba, Honduras. My brother and I were pulling oranges off the tree whose branches leaned over into our family’s patio. The neighbor came out roaring over her fence. She would rather those oranges rot than let us eat them. She called us prietos sucios, asquerosos, criminals and a slew of other horrible things. I was all of nine years old, my first time in Honduras. My brother was eleven. He pulled me behind him and gave that woman the finger. Later, when my mother heard, she almost climbed over that fence to get that woman, she was so enraged.
I didn’t understand that this was my first experience with racism. I didn’t understand when my mother told me and my brother to stand back and away when she put my blonde, pasty skinned sister to hail a cab.
I didn’t understand until I was thirteen and in boarding school and was on my way back to my dorm with a St. Lucian friend and a lit cigarette was thrown at us from a passing truck. I remember his red face. Red from hate. I remember his yellow teeth pulled back in a snarl. I remember the way the spit flew out of his mouth when he yelled, “Go home, niggas.”
Yesterday we saw yet again a great miscarriage of justice. Another police officer, this one named Darren Wilson, will face no charges for killing an unarmed black man. Michael Brown joins a devastatingly long list of young black men killed by police, or an overzealous neighborhood-watch captain, as was the case with Trayvon Martin, who was deemed “suspicious” by George Zimmerman, who claims he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense. Trayvon was wearing a hoodie and carrying a pack of Skittles and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea. Zimmerman was later acquitted of all charges.
No one was surprised when the “No Indictment” decision was handed down yesterday, but we were all on edge, that is, those of us who care, who see what’s going, who understand that this is just another example of how, according to the judicial system, the lives of black and brown young people don’t matter.
I went for a walk in Inwood Hill Park with my daughter last night. I was looking for reprieve. I was tense. I felt the weight like hands clenched around my throat so I could barely breathe or swallow or talk. I was angry at the circus that was orchestrated around the announcement—delayed for hours, a state of emergency announced in Ferguson, the National Guard brought in. Was this in preparation or a set up?
We were standing in the middle of the baseball field looking up at the stars, when something told me to check to see if the decision was finally announced. “NO INDICTMENT” stared back at me, taunting. I fell to my knees, crying. I was that kid again watching an injustice occur right before my eyes and I felt helpless to do anything about it. I thought about my students, all those young men and women of color who when I asked them, “Do you feel safe around the cops?” answered with a chorus of “No” and “Hell, no” and “They don’t protect us.”
My girl put her arms around me and asked, the question more an answer than anything, “Did the cop get away with it?”
I stared into those giant eyes that feel so much and nodded. She started crying with me. “Why is the world so cruel, mommy?” What could I say? How do I explain such loss, such injustice to a ten year old who has such faith in this crumbling world?
Much of the work I do is around writing as social action. This semester I created a curriculum around Ferguson, the media coverage of the case and the portrayal of Michael Brown and other young black man men and women.
My daughter has sat in on these classes. She asks questions and I answer. She knows about what happened in Ferguson. She’s felt the menacing ways that officers approach and carry themselves. I took her to Occupy Wall Street and involve her in the work I do. Shielding her from the world won’t save her from its pain.
As we walked home, holding each other, I said, “You know what really scares me?” She looked up, her eyes still shiny. “What mommy?” I looked into the forest, up at the bare branches of the trees, at the moonless sky, and then back to my girl, “I’m scared that we’ll lose hope. We can’t lose hope, mama. Even when it gets ugly and sad like this, we have to have hope.” She was quiet for the rest of the walk home.
My brother’s death in June last year broke me in ways that will never come together again. What surprised me most about the grief was the rage that it stirred. A rage that was hot, it was old and it terrified me. The more I write about violence and dig into the history of it in my life, the more that rage makes sense. The more I can understand and even sympathize with that rage. The more it seems a natural reaction to a devastating loss that brought up griefs I had never dealt with.
Last night, after the decision was announced, protests spread across the nation. Few were violent, most were not, though the media would have you think otherwise. In New York, protestors closed down three bridges. In Oakland, CA, protests began with a mass “die-in” where dozens of protestors lay on the ground and had their bodies outlined in chalk on the street, as if it were the site of a huge crime scene. Marches brought traffic to a standstill in both directions on I-580. There were protests in Seattle and Chicago and cities across the nation.
People went to social media to spout their views. Some applauded the protests. Others called the looters “animals,” “criminals,” etc.
This morning I posted the status: Grief manifests in myriad ways. One of them is collapse. Another is rage. Remember that before you call people animals.
Almost immediately, a friend who I’ve had many a political argument with, went on a rant saying that there is no evidence to show that Darren Wilson was racist but there is evidence to prove that Michael Brown was “a thug.” “Those people protesting and rioting are mourning a thug.” I deleted his comment and told him to stay the fuck off my page.
Another person (who I later unfriended because, fuck that, I can) wrote: It’s a correct metaphor. They are behaving like animals.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the microaggressions that stack up to ruin you. I didn’t experience real blatant racism until I was nine. Imagine having experienced it consistently from a young age. Imagine the kind of damage that does. Imagine what it’s like to be told time and again, both directly and subliminally, through the media and books and this fucked up educational system, that you are less than and that your people are less than. Imagine the damage that does. And don’t even get me started on this legal system and the industrial prison complex which now houses more black men than there were slaves in 1850.
I understand I have privilege. I am not a black man. I do not have to worry about walking into certain neighborhoods and risk getting shot because of my skin color. I have dealt with prejudice, yes, I deal with it every fucking day, trust me, but not on the level that young black men do. I understand that. I understand because I work with young brown and black men who do. I have heard their stories. I have heard them tell me of the times they were stopped and frisked. I have read their pieces about the cops running at them with guns drawn, about how it felt the first time they were followed around a store. This shit is devastating. These kids are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old.
I am not condoning looting and rioting, but I understand it. I understand that grief can manifest in rage. I understand that anger seethes. I understand helplessness and how it can strangle you. I understand because I wrote this with a rage and anger that was burning me from the inside. I have my writing. I know to sit here at my desk and put on some classical music to accompany me while my fingers tap. What would I do if I didn’t have this release? I don’t want to imagine it. I know that this is privilege.
Last night, during prayer, my daughter thanked God for hope. I hope the universe listens.