For Alton. For Philando. For All.

1.

070616-national-Alton-Sterling

He had a grin made of gold. Veneers once considered as hip as the compact discs he was selling. Remember the ’90s, when yellow gold was preferable to platinum and the cassette tape had yet to become entirely passé, but if you were still playing those when CDs were all the rage, you were clowned through the halls of your high school? In locker-lined hallway parlance, you were “an impossible herb.” Alton Sterling was in high school in the 90s. I know because we are nearly the same age. He was 37. I will be 37 in mere months.

I still play CDs in my car. It has a six-disc changer. The CDs I play are mostly burned, from the MP3s I listen to everywhere else. I do not purchase them, neither in stores or in the street.

For me, these are the details — the gilded teeth, the compact discs — that stand in starkest relief. They feel like relics: the former a trend I wish would fully fade, the latter a medium I thought already had.

Time tends to forget cities like Baton Rouge. Like Ferguson. Like Charleston. Cities adjacent to larger, more tourist-friendly ones, cities that, no matter how large or small, still seem to function as sleepy and insular towns, cities where blight may be easy to cover with natural beauty, by simply directing a driver three miles to the left or the right.

To those who live without, cities like these seem quaint, kitschy, preserved in the amber of time bygone. Until a massacre. Until the body of a teenage black boy is left dead in the street for four hours. Until someone videotapes one of the scores of police confrontations that happen to the town’s black residents every day — and until one of those videos happens to be of a brutal, unjustified murder.

We are jarred into recollection then. Time isn’t what forgets cities where trends seem to linger for decades past their prime, where hustle men still sell CDs in a largely disc-less society. It’s the rest of us who forget, the rest of us who rarely have occasion to consider the gross neglect of a slow-ambling city’s black schools or their lead testing or their water supply or their police force. Sufficient unto every hometown, after all, is the evil thereof. We are too busy reckoning with the corruption next door. We have not considered the mostly silent, daily terrors stalking other towns.

By the time the national press gets involved, by the time they see something salacious enough to remind us, we are awestruck, woebegone, looking for the logical ties between Baton Rouge and Baltimore, Baton Rouge and Los Angeles, Baton Rouge and the Bronx. They are not so unlike us, we say of the town’s time “forgets.” We should fight for their basic human rights as fiercely as we try to protect our own. And we do, as long as the news cycle lasts. We do, until the next tragedy of large scale takes precedence, until the little things — gold teeth, compact discs — are all we can still bear to remember.

2.

ad_212147518-e1467877947114

He served tater tots and rectangles of spongy pizza to students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, Minnesota for over a decade. I imagine it was work that he enjoyed. The scent of school cafeterias is pungent. It is not an odor everyone can stomach. Cafeteria workers are not always respected as they should be. It is not a profession whose thanklessness everyone can stomach. Philando Castile was younger than Alton and I by five years. He was 32, and he was driving, a privilege only appreciated by those who have not always been able to feel its benefits. The ability to regularly transport one’s family in a car is no small accomplishment, no minor blessing.

We can assume that Philando knew well that privilege, his girlfriend in the passenger seat, her daughter in the back. We can also assume he knew his rights, owner as he was of a legally registered gun, the presence of which he reportedly notified the police, while reaching for his driver’s license and registration. The gun was in the glove compartment, where it could be retrieved in case of danger, where it was concealed from the children in his life, from the family he was chauffeuring through town.

There is no gradation of deservedness in situations like these. There was no more justification for Alton to be executed while already apprehended than for Philando to absorb several bullets in quick succession while reaching for the identification an officer asked for, reaching from within the former comfort of his own car.

They are both dead, regardless of the details, when they should both, by most accounts, still be alive. Alton’s 15-year-old son should not be sobbing for a father who can no longer reach out and envelope him. Philando’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds’ four-year-old should not need to console her mother. Still so certain of her toddler-body’s invincibility, of her spirit’s ability to heal whatever hurts, she should have no cause to put either superpower to the test.

And the rest of us should not find ourselves debating the psychic, emotional, and ethical merits of viewing and disseminating the recorded details of victims’ murders. It’s a sad state of affairs that we so often bicker over whether or not we should watch the myriad ways that black folks can die.

3.

Minneapolis is not like Baton Rouge. It’s 8.4 percent black, where Baton Rouge is 58.5 percent black. And Minneapolis is like Baton Rouge: it does not do right by its black population. Its police force perceives immediate ill intent in the black residents they’re meant to serve.

https://twitter.com/MinajShield/status/751102064692953088

There is no city in this country any safer or objectively “better” for a black family than another. This is true for many reasons and racial bias in police forces is just one. But we delude ourselves, don’t we, searching for someplace seemingly more progressive, some place where our breadwinners can find legitimate work — even with a criminal conviction, some home in a community where crime is rare but not so rare that we’ll be mistaken for breaking into our own front doors, should we ever misplace our keys. Some place where we can pull calmly over to receive a broken taillight citation and feel somewhat assured that, if we comply, we will not die.

We have always longed to live, and this country has long been ambivalent about that yearning. But we owe to Alton and Philando, we owe to ourselves and our children, what we have ever been owed: some semblance of life, the inordinate idea that, as long as we draw breath, that life can still improve. Against odds, in spite of history, alongside the omnipresent ache of injustice. We have always longed to live and we only can do so by reaching for one another, through melee and misty eyes, reach though our arms tremble with fear, adrenaline and rage, reach and fill the empty arcs of our own arms.

As in the bowels of ships, as in the segregated front-line trenches, as in the backs of paddywagons, the corners of one-room schoolhouses, along the chain gangs, outside governor’s mansions, on the curb where someone deeply loved was reminded of that love one last time, while bleeding out, reach for what will always find you. Us. All we will ever have for certain in this American life is us.

Advertisements

For Tamir, Who Was Stolen.

Photo: Fox8.com
Photo: Fox8.com

The first thing I am pocketing is your name. Tamir, like something uttered in prayer. We will all be saying it so much in the days to come, it will sound like a chorus of hushes in a holy place, a sacrifice, not of praise but of sorrow. I am drawing it close to me now, listening to the sound of it on my lips first, before all our commentary turns you into a cause, foreign and distant.

I’ve become adept at this, arriving at the scene early, committing key details to memory. After I turned your name — Tamir — over on my tongue, I Googled it. It means tall or owner of dates or palm tree or wealthy. Your father says you were, in fact, tall for your age. You were, in fact, wealthy in the ways that wind up mattering: of spirit, of intellect, of creativity. Twelve and already embodying the meaning of your name.

I will need to remember this, and it won’t be hard. I am sure you had heard of the boys and the girls before you, all gone before their time. I am sure that, by twelve, you may’ve had some sense that cops are not kind to black boys who are tall for their age. In death, you have joined an innumerable host of witnesses, carrying the truth of your final moments with you into eternity, while the rest of us spend years parsing speculation.

I’ve a system for marking tragedies like yours. I have taken to following your mothers on Twitter and checking your siblings’ Instagram accounts and listening to your fathers’ interviews, all for more insight into you. And I sigh with strangers and cry with strangers and try to conjure you as someone three-dimensional, someone whose breath I can imagine feeling on the back of my neck as you let out a raucous laugh with friends, while sitting behind me on a city bus.

You need to remain real for me, Tamir, because you were real and you were twelve and you had every right to reach adulthood, tangible and talking and marveling that you made it.

We all marvel at where we wind up when we’re grown. We think: Unbeknown, I could’ve gone to the mall with the shoplifting girls or rode in the backseat of an idling car whose driver had hopped out to rob someone.

I could’ve been pulled over by a cop while on a date with a guy who keeps an illegal gun and weed in his glove compartment.

I could’ve been asleep in my living room as SWAT raided the wrong black family’s house (or the right one’s). I could’ve been whiling away an afternoon in my yard or at a playground, like you were, when cops arrived, ready to shoot.

I could’ve made too little money to live in a safe community.

I could’ve lived in the “safest” community there is and still been black and still been murdered and still been blamed.

I could’ve made bad choices or had my good ones go unrewarded.

This could’ve gone so much worse.

Then we breathe deeply and honor the moment as it is: a better outcome, a sparing, a miracle.

We remember children and women and men like you most acutely in these moments, how maybe you were just minding your business, just daydreaming or playing pretend. Or maybe you were pleading to be seen as someone real.

Maybe your eyes begged: Before you unholster your weapon, look at the nubs of my fingernails. See how I chew them down till they bleed, how the pads of my fingers puff around them so that it’s hard to pop the tab on a soda can?

Before you disengage the safety, look at my left shin and the half-foot line of brown slashed across it. That’s where I wiped out on my bike when I was seven and tried not to cry because my boys were watching.

Before you rest your finger on the trigger, look at these waves in my hair. My uncle taught me how to brush along with the grain. Before you shoot, my daddy is around.

Before you shoot, I make my mama laugh. I am real. It makes me proud to make my mama laugh. I am human. I failed science. I am real. I stole a candy bar once. I am human. I might’ve planned to shoot this BB gun at birds. Before you shot.

We will never know what you were thinking, if you had time to think. We’ll never know exactly how afraid you must’ve been. You, specifically. Tamir E. Rice, twelve-year-old boy who died the day after being shot by police at a playground in Cleveland. You, whose eyes in the first photo released to the public, are soft and kind and so age-appropriately childish, the kind of eyes that couldn’t have known what else to do with a toy gun than play with it. We will never have the privilege of knowing you as anything other than teary anecdotes, than memories offered up to the court of public opinion as closing arguments.

But God help us if we ever stop imagining you, Tamir. Have mercy on our souls if we stop trying to resurrect you with vivid, near-futile envisioning. I am touching my hand to the tenor of your name in my pocket. Tamir. I am thinking of you as taller still, as wealthy in the way that should least matter. You are rich, and you are grown and, now, your eyes are more discerning. But there is still wonder in the glint of them as you marvel over where you’ve wound up. You think: I could’ve been mistaken for menacing. I could’ve pulled my airsoft pistol in a moment of play, and police may’ve been present, poised to kill me. Wouldn’t that have been wild? Wouldn’t that have been my family’s worst horror? You think, in your house made of crystalline air, your home in the Great By and By: Thank goodness I live in a world where things like that never happen.