By Ray Van Horn, Jr.
"Man, just stop."
"What? We've been friends for ages, Marcus. Why can't I..."
"Because you can't, Sam."
The sun torched the city with a seeming intent to break wills with no apparent discrimination. The beams pounded both ebony and pale skins alike with 93 degree fury, adding to the agitated swell already in the air. The summer vapors were like a broth. To both men approaching their fifties, it smelled and tasted of effluvium, a pungent tang of must, char and rotten vegetables. Having retreated from a tear gas retort at the front line of a well-fortified demonstration, Marcus had said the heat felt "appropriately like oppression."
A block away, a swirl of reggae swirled imploringly like an urban prayer to Jah for justice. The rasta-pocked dissent wafted above the derelict row homes here on Smallwood Street, their tenants, banged-out inheritors of long-standing poverty.
Shards of broken glass from smashed windows glistened on the asphalt like a false sparkle of hope. Businesses around the block were boarded up against further looting, which had begun here the prior Thursday, fueled to full-on pillaging in the DuBois section a mere two blocks away. Only a week ago, people were getting their hair done, their groceries bought and rubbing elbows over beer and barbecue. The optimistic lure of smoked meat from Hip Hop Pit Beef had since been replaced by taint.
Only a week ago, people were picking up the city bus where the public bench had now been knocked over, the backrest slats defiled with the blue-sprayed edict, "FUCK D12! FUCK THE POLICE! B.L.M." Along the side of an old Buick that had been ignobly serviced a Molotov cocktail when the protests began with no focus but outraged destruction, someone (perhaps the same would-be graffiti radical) had scrawled the edict, in the same primary color, "RODNEY KING...FREDDIE GRAY...GEORGE FLOYD...B.L.M.!!!"
On the blistering street it lay, stomped and smudged amidst a rubble of rocks, glass shards, bottle caps, cigarette butts, Big Mac containers and discarded latex gloves. Less than a hour ago, it had been a cardboard sign held high in support of the forthcoming marchers. It bore the declaration, boldly impressed in black magic marker, "EQUALITY IS LIFE...BIGOTRY IS DEATH."
"I didn't think someone would actually swat it out of my hand like I have no right," Sam muttered, looking cautiously at his friend, who was sieving water from a plastic bottle into each of his eyes.
Marcus squeezed his pupils and kept his head tilted backwards, letting the water flush them. His gray button-down shirt and khaki pants were both drenched in sweat and grit. Marcus grunted at first from a carryover sting, then he let loose an audible sigh that wasn't exactly relief.
"Whoever it was did you a favor," Marcus murmured as he blinked a few times before dropping his head down slowly. "The rubber bullets were flying faster than the canisters. I'm lucky I didn't get clipped. I saw a lot of bad swelling, bruises and large cuts on folks. More blood than you'd think. People were screaming as if they'd been shot by real bullets."
"I know I'm not black," Sam beseeched, looking down at his crushed homemade sign and shaking his head. "Hell, I struggled with the entire idea of coming down here, the way things keep escalating."
"Well, I am black," Marcus said in a gruff tone, "and the gas bath I just took tells me the escalation's shit on a stick bad, heading for worse. It's best you stay the hell out of this. It ain't your fight anyway."
"Maybe not," Sam responded, softly at first, but his pitch began to rise. "You are my friend, though. That's all the reason I need to..."
"I told you to stop this Freedom Fighter trip you're on, Sam. You don't belong in this. At our ages, I'm a damned enough fool for getting involved myself, but it is the right thing."
"How can you say that to me, Marcus?" Sam exclaimed. "I mean, Jesus, you're acting like I'm doing this as some sort of fad."
"Says the skeptic who argued with me a couple years ago Kaepernick was only doing the kneel to sell jerseys."
"Right, and look what it's become now. I get it, Marcus."
"What it's become," Marcus growled, squinting through his pain, fluid leaking down both sides of his chiseled cheeks, "is bigger than you or me. Just because you can still recite old Rage Against the Machine lyrics and you wear that Curtis Mayfield shirt like you're some ageless proletariat insurgent don't make you one of us."
Now it was Sam's turn to sigh.
"Look, Marcus, we have a lot of miles between us, starting all the way back in college. We both did papers on Malcolm X for Sociology 101, remember that?"
"Yeah," Marcus answered, showing the first sign of a smile while swabbing his eyes with his shirt sleeve. "We were both on the hunt for Malcolm X Talks to Young People in the library. You got there first."
"You were kinda pissed at me, too, as I recall," Sam said, running a hand across his close-buzzed dome. "You sounded then like you do now. Like I was trespassing."
"Yeah," Marcus said again. "There was no tear gas or pepper spray then, at least."
For the first time that afternoon, Sam laughed. It was hearty, robust, anticlimactic to the sweltering chaos that had been quelled by the city police only moments ago. To a few other stunned stragglers shambling into the block, Sam's laughter seemed out of place. In fact, their puzzled and seemingly incensed expressions forced Sam to compose himself. From across the street, he could hear someone sneer, "Laugh it up, cracker, then get your white ass outta here."
Despite his searing eyes, Marcus gestured toward the heavy man who'd shouted his derogatory dismissal, insinuating silently Need I say more? The man's left cheek was as swollen as his belly. The hole in his soggy olive pants was stained crimson.
"I heard him, man, okay? You want me to go, I'll go, but you hear me out a minute. Can you do you that for an old friend?"
Marcus let his woozy nod serve as his response.
"We started off, not so much as adversaries, but competitors, maybe? Is that the right word?"
"Sounds about right," Marcus acquiesced. "Competitors for an A on the same paper with the same figurehead."
"You couldn't get your head around the fact I'd been inspired by Malcolm even before choosing him for my paper. I'd been studying him, the Panthers, Watts, the CORE, the SNCC, the Little Rock Nine..."
"Point taken, Sam."
"Then I evoke how we shared our research with each other. You were impressed by what I'd dug up and vice-versa. We swapped numbers. We agreed you would check out the book and you read it in two days before handing it over to me. On a leap of faith that I would return it, someone you'd just met. We collaborated, but we used our own voices and made sure we wrote different sequences. We both got A's on our papers. I've never made a friend quite the same way I did you, man."
"Yeah," Marcus said with a creak of a smile. "You were alright. It helped we both loved football, Shaft movies and Caribbean jerk."
"Funkadelic, Clint Eastwood, Prince, pepper and onion sausages, tacos, baseball, the freaking Muppets, all the things that's made us buddies. What's it going on now, Marcus, 27 years? I know we don't see each other but a few times a year for cookouts and Ravens games because of our schedules and families, but it was civil rights that first brought us together. If you stop and think about that a moment, then why wouldn't I be here, at this critical moment in history, to be there for you, brother?"
"You don't have to, is what I'm saying, brother."
"Don't mock me, man. Please. Our wives would rail us both if they heard all of this stupid bickering."
"Trudy's gonna rail me anyway for being out here. She begged me not to come down. I gave her everything but a promise."
"If Rachel knew I'd come down here, she'd..."
"She'd be right to, Sam!" Marcus interrupted. "It's not a white man's burden!"
"Are you even watching the news these days, Marcus? I'm hardly the only white guy coming out. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, male, female, LGBTQ... injustice is injustice, and enough is enough. Man, why am I having to tell you this, of all people? Did you even learn anything back in college?"
"Alright, Sam, alright. You want to stay and get your head beat in, be my guest."
"It's my choice if that happens, isn't it?" Sam asked lifting his hand up a moment with the intent to soothe his friend, but he let it drop back for the time being.
"One of the guys who fired the tear gas," Marcus mused, the burn in his eyes beginning to ease. "Even through his face shield, I've seen him before, in front of the old courthouse. I remember the last name on his badge, Lambert. We were both getting a hot dog from the street vendor, Charlie Shreeve. Everyone calls him 'Ol Shreevy downtown. Officer Lambert let me in front of him in line, polite as all get-out. We even talked for a moment about Mustangs and Chargers, since a few had rumbled by in the street. Nice guy, I thought. No racist cop there. That was before today. I want to say the man's just doing his job, and I'd like to hope he was as scared of us as we were of him and his SWAT backup. I don't know, man. I can't pretend to know what it's like being a cop, but killing a man in the wide open, a brutal detention like that...Christ, Sam, the poor brother was crying for his mother..."
"We're all pissed, Marcus," Sam said firmly. "That's what you need to understand. The whole scope of the problem is beyond black and white now."
"But it's a black people's problem."
"For which outsiders are taking an interest in helping to rectify. Strength in numbers is the only way change will ever come. You have to see that. All these years, Marcus, I never realized you could be so...stubborn."
Marcus remained quiet while Sam continued on.
"I mean, what legacy did Malcolm X really leave for us? He broke off from the Nation, took his hajj and he found enlightenment in the motherland of Islam. You know where I'm going."
"You can probably quote him better than I can, since your meticulous brain is hard-wired like an encyclopedia."
"I don't need to tell you I'm getting older, so I'm not as meticulous as I used to be," Sam noted, letting his eyes flutter a moment in recollection. "I still read his speeches a couple times a year, though. They energize, dude. Malcolm said, 'I tell sincere white people, 'Work in conjunction with us - each of us working among our own kind.' Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do, and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people! We will completely respect our white co-workers. They will deserve every credit. We will give them every credit. We will, meanwhile, be working among our own kind, in our own black communities, showing and teaching black men in ways that only other black men can-- that the black man has got to help himself. Working separately, the sincere white people and sincere black people actually will be working together."
Nodding, Marcus added, "The quote finishes with 'In our mutual sincerity, we might be able to show a road to the salvation of America's very soul.' I remember. That's how I ended my paper."
"I'm for truth, no matter who tells it," Sam replied, opening his arms apart to his friend. "I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against."
Marcus received Sam in a tight hug that ended up with loud claps upon their respective backs. More people entered the block and over his friend's shoulder, Sam saw a few heads bob appreciatively in their direction.
"Sorry they dissed your sign," Marcus said after they let go of one another. He reached down into the street to retrieve it. "I wasn't seeing straight to get the message, but people should see this."
"That means a lot, Marcus," Sam said. "You alright, though? Your eyes look like the maroon side of a Rubik's Cube."
"They hurt like hell, but my heart hurts worse. This isn't going to be a quick fix, any of it."
"No, it isn't," Sam affirmed, squeezing Marcus' shoulder. "You and I are a little long in the tooth for this, but we can't let the youngbloods shoulder it all. First time I've had genuine optimism for their generation. I'm trying to get my head around our parents doing this same thing right before we were born."
"Heavy stuff," Marcus said, handing over the battered cardboard over to Sam. "Get your sign up and let's take another lap. Together. See who follows."
"Right on," Sam said, holding his sign above his head as the two stepped into the street, rallying for change louder than the reggae down the street.