After Michael Brown was murdered, I started reading. I heard the voices of my friends, rising up in rage. I read voices that were new to me and thought, that’s what needs to get read. This particular white lady should shut up and listen. But I also felt that silence implied an implicit acceptance of the terrible crimes committed—against Michael Brown, against Eric Garner, against Trayvon Martin, against Renisha McBride. And on, and on. This is unacceptable.
Henry is almost twelve. (Time marches inexorably and mercilessly forward; our amazement in the face of this reality grows exponentially with each passing day). He is learning to navigate this world without my company. He walks around the neighborhood by himself. He runs errands for me; he visits friends; he accompanies said friends to buy ice cream or run around the park. Once they are out there, set free, I am sure they occasionally make too much noise. Out on the sidewalk, crossing a street, I can see at least one prim-faced adult shaking their head at the rowdiness of today’s youth.
As he outgrows his little-boyness and stretches toward the light, I worry about him getting into trouble. But “trouble,” for me, means, oh, that he might get arrested. His inherent goodness might be impugned. We might have to go to family court; he might be traumatized. These are the consequences that actually concern me, if I bother to consider them in any real way.
I never worry that a police officer is going to assume he’s a thug and shoot him.
He’s a good kid. I know he is. But no one else has any reason to know that. They assume it and they will continue to assume it, because he is white. He enjoys the absurd privilege of being, by default, a good kid until proven otherwise.
If he were black, it would be the reverse. And I would be scared as hell.
Back when Henry was a baby, there was a rash of violent muggings in our neighborhood. Beat cops were assigned to practically every corner. We lived in a co-op at the time, and at one of our meetings, we were discussing the weird police state in which we now lived. One of us concluded that although it was unnerving having so many cops around, at least we were safer.
One of our neighbors, a black woman, set us straight. It wasn’t safer for her; it was terrifying. Her two teenage sons, who couldn’t have been more than 13 and 15, were stopped every day. They were harassed if they sat on the stoop with their friends.
She would have been well within our rights to call us out on our utter cluelessness, but instead she only asked us to help, if we saw the cops giving either of her boys a hard time. She asked us to confirm that they lived in the neighborhood. That they belonged.
Never mind that they were good kids, who went to good schools. That doesn’t matter. They could have been drinking, they could have been troublemakers, they could have been teenagers acting like dopey teenagers. They were supposed to have that right. Instead, they were being treated like criminals solely because they were black. They were children, they were innocent, and they were afraid to step outside.
We enthusiastically agreed, back then, to provide whatever help was needed, but I remember wanting to do more than play the role of white saviors. Didn’t our stepping in also imply tacit acceptance of the system? I didn’t know what to do. Riot, maybe. Take to the streets. March until our feet bled.
Then, you know, the muggings stopped, the police presence diminished, and our lives went on. I stopped worrying over the inherent racism in the system designed to protect us. This was also a privilege that I enjoyed.
But of course it never stopped. It’s still going on, all around us, everywhere. And it is an obscenity. That’s the only word I can come up with. That parents live in fear for their children is an obscenity. That there is even a discussion over whether Mike Brown’s homicide was justified is an obscenity.
Innocent people are assaulted and murdered because of their skin color. This is something beyond an obscenity. I don’t have words for it. I don’t know how to make it stop. But I’m ready to fight. I'm ready to find out where we go from here, because we can't stay here.