It was Marshall Gillinger’s first day on the job. He proudly drove the police car around, gun in holster.
Finally the day has come.
Marshall had always dreamed about being a police officer ever since he was a young kid. His father and grandfather had both joined the police force. He’d gone to church every Sunday. He’d grown up in Norman, Oklahoma, where everybody knew everybody and most folks were white and churchgoing. Most folks thought alike.
He’d never really thought about black people. He’d never really been around them. He prayed to God to guide him as he became a part of the police force. He wanted to do right by his people. He wanted to wield his power effectively.
On this particular day, his wife had yelled at him all morning because he couldn’t tell her the specifics of his job. He’d had a rough day before and all of the events that had taken place were strictly confidential. His fists clenched just thinking about it.
Women. Damn it. Why the hell doesn’t she understand that I do this job to provide for her and the kids? Family…
As he was thinking about family, his uncle, Jimmy, popped into his head. The man had been an avid hunter and fisherman. He had knocked back more beers down in one night at a party than most people had in a lifetime. The man had been a mean drunk.
Marshall still remembered that one night when him and all of his relatives, and in-laws, had gathered around a bonfire. His brother, Steven, had talked his girlfriend into coming along, and she’d agreed. Apparently, Jasmine didn’t love bonfires because it reminded her of all of the injustice that had taken place throughout history and she’d rather not think about, but, nonetheless, she cared deeply about Steven and wanted to make a good impression on his family.
“She you’re maid?” Jimmy snarled.
“No,” Steven shot back, “She’s my girlfriend. You’d best watch your mouth.”
Jasmine had then proceeded to retreat into the forest. Steven had followed her. They’d returned. Marshall remembered the pain he’d seen in her eyes.
“We’re going. Nice to see ya’ all,” Steven said.
Jimmy looked at Jasmine as if she were a fly who wouldn’t leave him alone. As soon as they were both out of earshot, the man went on a very long rant about why the south should have won the civil war.
“We needed to make money. It was economical. We needed labor. Slavery was necessary.”
Marshall’s stomach turned as he listened to this man he couldn’t believe he was related to.
“Don’t you ever marry a you-know-what, son, ya’ hear?”
“Bye, uncle Jimmy, I’m leavin’ now,” Mashall had said.
“I ain’t bullshitin’ ya. I heard that them black folks are angry. They threaten white folks who come near, ya’ know. Sometimes with knives. Sometimes with guns. They’re bitter.”
Jesus. I wonder why…
Marshall had walked away, but that had stuck with him. He kept driving. A black woman with a bandana around her head was taking a jog.
Well. That shouldn’t be a crime in Norman, Oklahoma.
He kept driving. There wasn’t much for miles. Just a bar here and there. He saw a man with ebony skin. He was wearing a bandana, ripped jeans, and a t-shirt. His hands were in his pockets. A woman was walking with him. Tears were streaming down her face.
Has he been beating her up? Is he engaging in domestic violence? Is he carrying a gun? Maybe he’s verbally abusing her. I need to stop this immediately.
Marshall stopped the car. He got out of it and chased the man down. He wanted to protect the civilians.
“Sir? Sir? Are you armed? May I check your pockets?”
He shoved Marshall.
“You serious, man? No gun.”
“Sir, I don’t like your tone. It makes you look suspicious.”
Marshall took a deep breath, trying very hard not to let his anger get the best of me. He’d had rage issues since he was a kid, and, although he was ashamed to admit it, he had broken many of my mother’s belongings, as well as her nose, because he had lost his temper too many times. He especially didn’t like it when people questioned his competence or ridiculed him.
“Just another police officer racially profiling me. Is that what you think your job is, mister?”
The man shouted and started walking away. Marshall kept walking.
Don’t do it, Marshall. Don’t you dare.
Marshall’s hands were already on the gun. He was already pulling the trigger aimed straight at the man’s head before he knew what the hell he was doing. The man fell to the ground.
Shit. What the hell is the matter with you, Marshall? What the hell? A man makes one fucking comment about your authority, and you pull a gun on him.
Marshall ran over to the man. His hands were cold, his body paralyzed in place.
I just killed a man. An innocent man. I could lose my job. I could lose my family. What do I do? What the hell do I do?
His heart pounded in his chest. He was having trouble breathing.
Best to not say anything. This could blow over, right? I could get away with it. God. I shouldn’t get away with this. But I need the money for my kids, for my wife. I can’t turn myself in.
He went back to the police station. The phone rang.
“Hello. This is Marshall Gillinger.”
“Hello,” a distressed woman’s voice answered.
“My name is Maybel. You just killed my husband, John Friedman.”
“I have. Yes, I have. I-I’m sorry. I thought you might be in danger. You were crying.”
“I was crying because I had just had a miscarriage. You just left him on the sidewalk? What the hell is wrong with you? He wasn’t doing a damn thing, and you fucking shot him? Why? What the hell gave the right?”
“I-I had no right. ”
“I will make sure you go to jail.”
“B-But my wife. My kids.”
“Do you realize that I have children too, mister? I just lost my husband and the father to my three boys. You are going to jail for your crime. Mark my words.”
Marshall sighed, “Yes, ma’am.”
She’d been right. She’d called another office later that evening and asked for the police station to pay for a proper burial. When Marshall was confronted, he couldn’t bring himself to lie. He confessed his sin for everyone to hear. He’d killed a man.
There was blood on his hands. He would never be able to live that down. He was arrested for murder. He was now being taken to his jail cell in an orange jumpsuit with metal cuffs around his hands.
God, Marshall, why do you have to be such a God damn moron? You piece of shit.
When he was behind bars, he did a lot of thinking about why he’d done what he’d done. Why he’d shot a man based on the color of his skin. He even thought about why the man had said what he’d said to him.
There was systemic racism in this country and I had become a part of it. I’d been so upset by his words that I’d confirmed his bias towards me as a police officer, which, I now realized, he had every right to have. He’d been right about me. He’d been right about a lot of us. He’d been right about how hateful the police force can be towards black people. He’d been right that I had racially profiled him on that day. I would never have stopped the man if he’d been white. I’d never have been suspicious of him in the first place.
Marshall wrote three letters. One to his family, one to John Friedman, and one to Maybel. The first one read as follows:
I am ashamed to admit that I shot an innocent black man. I am now behind bars. I miss you and the kids. I love you dearly. Please do not feel sorry for me. I received the punishment that I deserved for the crime that I committed. I killed a man and left him on a sidewalk.
He had a wife and three children. He was doing nothing except walking down the street with his hands in his pockets, and I suspected the worst. He provoked me, saying that all police officers were racist, but it was all my fault. I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did. His head had hit the sidewalk before I’d even realized what I was doing. He was right.
Many police officers have racial prejudice. I know I do. Of course he was angry. Anyone would be angry after so many years of injustice. Please know that I love you.
Tell the girls I love them too. If they ask why I’m behind bars, all I ask is that you tell them the truth. Tell them that their dad has a lot to work on and that he has made a very big mistake. Tell them he’ll always be there for them but that he needs to reflect on why he shot an innocent man. Tell them that they should never judge anyone based on their race. Tell them to learn from their father’s mistakes.
The second letter read as follows:
Dear John Friedman,
I am a monster of a man. A villain. A demon. Maybe even Lucifer himself. I allowed my temper to get the best of me because you angered me. You had a right to speak out. You had a reason to be upset.
Many police officers do have biases towards black people. I am so sorry I confronted you in the first place. I wouldn’t have bothered if you’d been white. I wouldn’t have been suspicious in the first place. I have become the epitome of everything I hate about the police force. I have abused my power and privilege as a white man.
I have committed murder and intend to spend the rest of my life in prison. I deserve to. John Friedman, you are dearly missed. I deeply regret my actions. Bless your soul.
The last letter was by far the most difficult to write. It was to the black woman, Maybel, whose husband Marshall had killed. It had to be done. As he put the pen to paper, all of the demons from Hell swirled around in his mind, cursing him. He thought his head was going to explode.
Don’t do it, Marshall. She’s not one of you. She doesn’t deserve it. He was humiliating you. Questioning your authority. Your uncle was right. What the hell do you think you’re doing?
“Shut up,” he screamed.
A few people gave him looks as if they’d thought he’d lost his mind.
Maybe they were right.
Marshall raised my eyebrows and penned the following letter:
I cannot begin to ask for your forgiveness for what I have done. My behavior was unforgivable. The murder of your husband was unforgivable. Please know that I am sorry, from the bottom of my heart. I am sorry about your miscarriage. I am sorry about your husband.
I should never have confronted him. It wasn’t fair. He wasn’t doing anything wrong and I allowed my temper to get the best of me. I regret that every hour of every day. If there is anything you would like from me and my family, please do not hesitate to ask.
I want you to know that I will spend the rest of my life in prison. I deserve to. The punishment fits the crime.
As Marshall sat there in his cell, behind bars, he realized how wrong he had been. He realized that he should never have taken an innocent life just because someone questioned his authority. The man had had every right to do so. He never should have suspected the worst simply because of a man’s skin color. He never should have done any of it. He sighed. His heart was heavy.
I will never kill an innocent man again. I will never assume a man’s guilt simply because of his ebony skin.