I’ve been turning over a few questions in my mind these last few weeks.
How do I let go of my Black daughter’s hand, let her walk out into the world, exercising her right to be a free individual?
Harder still, how do I allow her, a high school freshman, to join a protest march against violence where there has been violence? How will I endure the wait — the wait until she walks back through the door, alive and well?
My daughter has valiant ideals: to transform a nation birthed in racism into one that lived up to its lofty ideals.
I watch her from the kitchen as she sits on the living room floor and works on her poster with such focus and dedication. “I CAN’T BREATHE,” she colors in with marker. It’s as if she had lived through these moments of violent injustice and police brutality herself. Moments, at least to the best of my knowledge, she has only experienced on her screens.
It’s as if she had lived through these moments of violent injustice and police brutality herself.
I have experienced this kind of brutality. Upon my recollection of those moments, I feel an immediate and visceral feeling of anger and hot shame.
The first time I’d walked into those cross-hairs I was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Living off-campus for the first time, I got off the bus on the east side of town carrying my History of Western Civilization textbook.
The neighborhood was modest, and overwhelmingly white. I was passing the bar on the corner with the cheap French onion soup I loved when I heard the rev of a car’s engine, then brakes, then car doors opening, then two policemen walking fast.
The first one was wide, face red. I didn’t have time to focus on the second one.
What the f--k you doing around here?
Then came the shove, the one I could have dodged or muscled up for. (I was on the college baseball team and athletic — but I wanted to live on, and have kids some day.) I went flying onto a neighbor’s lawn. There I lay, blades of grass tickling my nose, pressing against my face, at the mercy of the red-faced white man with the badge pinned onto his chest.
It was then that my mental “dead switch” clicked on. My father, the auto mechanic, had installed it in my brain, just like a part he’d repaired in so many cars with his aching hands. The “dead switch” was his advice.
They will say things that insult you. They might do something to hurt you. But if you can, keep calm and don’t make it worse than it already is. It doesn’t matter if it’s your fault or not.
The lead officer was yelling at me. What the hell are you doing here? I told him I was going home. Where? Under the pressure, I couldn’t remember my address, so I just said I was going to the next to last house on this block. Get up. I moved as slowly as I could.
Should I have reached into my pocket, even though he asked me to? My shaking hand dug into the back pocket of my jeans for my university meal card and driver’s license. The cop frowned like he was disappointed, offered back my cards, stuck between his fat forefinger and middle finger the way cool guys did in movies. I took them.
Why would he call me that? What had I done? The second officer sneered. I looked away. They left. I felt the grip of eyes on me, everyone peering at me through cracks in their curtains like I’d done something wrong. Glancing down, I caught sight of my history of western civilization textbook lying askew on the sidewalk.
The significance of the book being about the history of western civilization hadn’t occurred to me back then. I was too shaken. But now, with my daughter ready to go out the door to rally against police violence, the history of western civilization — one stained with inhuman subjugation of people of color — becomes all too clear. It’s a history my daughter wants to shape for the better.
“If you don’t speak up against something you think is wrong then it’s like you approve of it. Sure, you can post a black square on Instagram, but I think you really show that you approve of changing things when you go out on the streets,” she said, and I couldn’t have said it any better.
The second time an officer put hands on me I was 21, working my first real job as an advertising junior copywriter at a large agency in New York City. I’d left the office around 6 p.m. to go to the gym for a workout, and was on my way back to the office to write package copy for Jell-O pudding when it happened. Turning the corner of 41st Street onto Madison Avenue, Converse gym bag in hand, I saw an NYPD paddy wagon racing up the street. It didn’t make me shiver or anything. The police were always rushing around the city back in the ‘80s.
Then, the paddy wagon veered toward the sidewalk. That was strange. Then it bumped up onto the sidewalk. Oh no! The doors on the passenger side swung open. Several officers rushed out. One, tall and wide, and white made a beeline for me. I froze. He grabbed my shoulders and threw me up against the grill of a closed shoe store. With one side of my face against the cold steel, he grabbed my bag out of my hand.
My dead switch took over again.
They will say things that insult you. They might do something to hurt you. But keep calm and don’t make it worse than it already is. It doesn’t matter if it’s your fault or not.
I treated the moment as if I were looking away from a needle that a nurse was using to draw blood. Stay calm and wait it out. This too shall hopefully pass. Time was not important.
It’s not him.
Van doors closed. The van engine revved. I waited there, face against the cold steel. It might still be too dangerous to turn around. At last, I did, slowly, to see my dirty gym shorts, shirt, underwear, jockstrap, sneakers and Master Lock, all scattered on the Madison Avenue sidewalk — a yard sale. I’d been so proud to be working on this street, but now all I could feel was the heat of embarrassment. Pedestrians stole glances as they walked by, probably thinking the worst of me, even though … It’s not him.
I treated the moment as if I were looking away from a needle that a nurse was using to draw blood. Stay calm and wait it out.
I’m standing in my kitchen waiting for my daughter and thinking back on those two incidents. I wonder what might have happened to me, if my father hadn’t warned me.
Then, at last, she returns from the march.
Before she says a word, I can see in her proud stride that she’s come back with agency, and a dignity I’d been robbed of by those officers when I’d been left there to pick up my pieces.
We’re all thankful to be alive but we want to be more than just alive.
With lingering stress, and lots of relief, I’m glad I let my girl walk out the door to protest because maybe, just maybe, one day she won’t have to warn her child.
This segment aired on July 23, 2020.