Following the events in Minneapolis, there was a day-long protest downtown. Several police officers, including the commissioner of police, marched with the protesters. At dusk, when told to disperse, some of the crowd turned riotous. Police attempted to contain the riot. Several instances of looting and breakages were reported. Shots were fired. An officer was hit in the head with a brick. A black boy was killed that night.
I’m a gas station owner. My name is George Bailey. I know, I know, like in A Wonderful Life. Or It’s A Wonderful Life. I don’t really know, I haven’t seen it. I just hear it from my customers a lot. They come in to use to bathroom and buy Pringles and granola bars and gummy bears. They look at my name tag and say, “George Bailey? Like in It’s A Wonderful Life?” Then they laugh and laugh. It doesn’t bother me much. It’s okay if I can make people happy by simply having the name George Bailey.
The station’s a bit old-fashioned, but people still use it. Logan Freeman, the one gas station attendant, comes in for his afternoon shift. There was once a time when I didn’t need any help to manage this station store. Ah, well, he needed a summer job.
Logan’s a good kid. A bit wild, like all kids nowadays, but good at heart. He’s got a big wild black afro that bounces when he walks and a shiny new car with tires that squeal. I know that kids are always the most proud and flashy with their cars right after they get their permits.
He clips on his name tag, bounces over to the dried snacks shelf and starts restocking it with Pringles from the box I left out for him. “Yo, Mr. Bailey,” he calls. Yo means hello, I learned on Logan’s first day.
There are protests going on further downtown. I don’t mind as long as they don’t turn their protest into a riot. They’re chanting something, but I can’t make out what.
“What are they chanting?” I ask Logan.
He pauses in stacking Pringles cans. “Dunno. Couldn’t hear them over the squeals of baby’s tires. ‘Cause she is fiiine.” Baby is Logan’s car. He describes her as fine. Apparently fine means something different than it used to. I have a hard time distinguishing half the things modern teenagers say.
As long as the chanting doesn’t turn into yelling it’s okay.
I’m the police commissioner. My name is Ron Smith. What happened in Minnesota was a felony and there’s no other way to describe it. It’s a disgrace on the whole police force. I march with the protesters today, holding a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter.” And they do. Nobody can tell me otherwise. My own wife is from Rwanda. Because of her experience, our family especially feels the force and violence that racism can take. But I know that no one, no matter how cruel, can take away the value of a human life.
The protest marches up and down the streets of downtown. Cars honk at us and people wave. Everyone is friendly. We are marching for our rights, and, well, I'm filled with pride.
As night falls I bid goodbye to my fellow marchers and head home. My wife is waiting by the door. Her eyes sparkle in the twilight.
“Did you march well?” she asks, smiling.
I raise my sign. “For all our rights!” I kiss her and we go in to dinner. Dan isn’t here this evening. He’s on duty.
I’m a police cadet. My name is Dan Smith. I marched with the protesters in the morning and then from lunch onwards I was on duty. Now we’ve been called up to patrol the outside of the protest. Jack, my patrol partner, and I don’t see why. They’re just peaceful protesters. One of the older officers says that anytime a crowd gathers there’s danger.
“We’re not here to hurt anyone,” he says. “Just to make sure no one gets hurt.”
I’m okay with that. I wave at some of the protesters as they cross the street past my patrol car. Some of them wave back and raise their signs. Others scowl and boo at me. I was just marching with them this morning! Sheesh.
The ladies who organized the march call a halt at the square. Everyone cheers for a day well done. One of the ladies says it’s time to disperse. People begin to walk back to their cars or homes.
Except for several small groups. They just hang around the park, not doing anything. Someone yells something at us. I can’t hear what he said.
“Protest is over!” Jack calls. “Time to go home, gentlemen!” One thing my father always taught – be courteous. They have the same rights as you do.
I wave and smile. “That’s right! Thanks for coming!”
“What, you gonna kill us like you killed him?” The group starts advancing towards us. I swallow and try not to show fear. I don’t want to get out any of my weapons or hurt anyone. I look at Jack and see he feels the same way. We’re just cadets! I can shoot a gun but I can’t stop them without hurting them if they jump us all at once.
I’m not prepared to deal with this situation.
Evening comes, and Logan gets ready to head home. The protesters passed by several times during the day.
“What’s your opinion of all this, Logan?”
Logan shrugs. “Weell, we gotta march for our rights and all.”
I can see he wants to go on. “But?”
“But I mean, what are we tryna do, exactly? It was bad that that cop killed that guy, but now he’s lost his job, right? And he’s goin to prison and stuff. And, I dunno, I just feel like why are we still marchin?”
I shrug. I don’t really follow politics anymore. I heard about what happened to that poor man, but like Logan I'm not sure what we're trying to do about it.
Logan pulls on his jacket. “I mean, everyone can see that we’re all equal now, right? I mean, I’ve never been out of state, so maybe it’s different there…” He stops at the door. “I feel like, watcha gonna do? There’s good cops and bad cops and bad criminals and…good criminals I guess. And…stuff happens. And it’s because of different stuff every time. And we don’t know if that cop killed that guy because we don’t have enough rights or because he was just a horrible person that wanted to kill people, right?" He shrugs. "I don’t think it’s as simple as, haha, black and white.” He leaves laughing. I chuckle dryly. A white person would never be able to get away with a joke like that.
A moment later Logan comes back to the door and sticks his head in. “I hope you don’t think I’m being offensive or anything,” he says quickly. “I mean, I’m black. Like I’m totally all for equality and stuff. I’m just sayin that I feel like we won the…war. Like we got all the legal rights that the law can give us. But, you know, there will always be people who, like, hate other people. So that’s why this stuff happens. And stuff.”
You know, under all that jargon and slang, there’s a really bright kid.
Logan’s young. I’m actually surprised he’s thought about this as much as he has. His tires squeal as he leaves the gas station. Pretty soon, and I know but Logan doesn’t, this place is going to go out of business. The chain gas stations are cheaper and more efficient. Plus, they stay open all night. Mine used to stay open all night. Not anymore.
I hear yelling and hooting from down the street. Some dark shapes come into view. Something smashes. A streetlight. Some people are smashing streetlights. A minute later a small group of teenagers come into the station. It isn’t officially closed because the lights are still on. One of them still holds a sign and one of them stumbles as if he were drunk. They hang out around the aisles, not looking up. I can see they’re looking for trouble.
“Time to make your purchases and go, kids,” I say from behind the counter. “I’m closing soon.”
“Closing?” one of them says. “Most gas stations stay open all night, old man.”
I look him in the eye. “Not this one. Make your purchases and leave, please.”
Another one takes a rock out of his pocket and looks at it curiously, then looks up at me. “We’re not done choosing yet.”
The third kid quietly slips something into his pocket but I see him. “You take that out and pay for it now!” I snap.
The one with the rock comes closer, tossing it in his hand. “We’re stayin right here and if you have an ounce of sense, old man, you’ll-”
I take my old shotgun out from under the counter and fire it into the air once. The kids scramble out, yelling.
I lock the door, then back away. I take a deep breath and sit down. I’ve had to use the shotgun twice before working this station. Before Logan’s time. Dangerous types gather here, but gunfire always scares them off. They were just three kids looking for trouble. Probably they were just innocent well-meaning kids who had gotten a little worked up. Three kids against one old man, I had actually been a little bit afraid. You could never tell what kids would do when they got wild. But it was alright. They were probably just good kids at heart, like Logan. They had just gotten a little worked up.
I’m a gas station attendant. My name’s Logan.
Baby squeals around the curve, oh yeah! The music’s blaring, oh yeah! Oh yeeeeah!
I love driving so much. Windows down, wind blowing my afro back, music loud, it’s just the best. I pass some of the protesters walking home, signs down. I wave and they wave back. Yeah! Black lives matter, all lives matter. It’s a great day. I appreciate what they’re doing. I just kind of feel that maybe we shouldn’t need to do that anymore? But they want to do something, I get it. What happened with that guy in Minneapolis was terrible. I guess protesting is something we can do to show respect maybe.
Woooh, oh yeah. I can’t even hear the wind anymore over the music.
The Pringles can I brought with me rolls around on the floor. I stop it with my foot and crack the top off with one hand. I love Pringles. I munch on some at the stop light and wave at more homebound protesters.
Mr. Bailey gave me a raise today! It’s a good day. Cel-e-brate, good times, uh-huh!
I make the sharp corner and head down the long country road to our house. I go too fast. I lose control.
I hear on my police radio that some of the peaceful protesters refused to disperse and are looting in some parts of downtown. Shots have been fired. My wife covers her mouth with her hand. Dan’s on duty. Has he ever been on duty during a riot? Has he trained for that? I want to go out there but I’m not called in. All we can do is wait and hope and pray he’s okay.
“Alright, the protest is over,” I say. “I need you gentlemen to disperse.”
They keep coming towards us. One of them has his hand in his pocket. Is it a gun?
“Defund the police!” one of them shouts. They start yelling and getting wild, throwing trash and rocks. I get out my cuffs and Jack does the same. We start to advance towards the little group of rioters. But the group gets bigger. We can’t deal with them all. They’re all screaming and throwing things. We need backup. One of them throws a brick and hits Jack in the head. He falls, dazed, and I panic, grab him and pull him behind the patrol car.
“I need backup on the west side of central square. My patrol partner is down. The mob is throwing bricks. Um, we need backup.” Only after I turn it off do I realize that my father probably heard that.
Something heavy hits the car. I can’t deal with this crowd unless I get out my gun. Should I fire into the air to scare them off? What if it just incites them? I can’t believe this. What a terrible officer I’m going to make. I’m crouched behind a cop car, hiding from the same people I marched with that morning. What has happened to these people? I thought they cared about rights!
Suddenly and with deafening clarity I understand. That senior officer was right. There’s danger anytime a large crowd gathers, and not because of rights. Because of emotion. It’s crazy how insane people can get when the people around them are acting the same way. It’s like the crowds at a football game. These people are angry and they’ve lost control. The crowd is getting more and more worked up the more worked up they get! My mind is spinning round and round, I need to focus.
They’re getting closer and more violent. One of them shouts that they should kill the cops. I shake Jack so that he doesn't fall unconscious. If you have a concussion, it’s dangerous to fall unconscious or asleep. I don’t know if he has one or not. He looks dazed and I can’t get him to respond to me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know anything! Yelling and throwing things. I only have my gun.
In a flash I think back through our history, to the Boston Massacre and on. Angry crowds and police officers making a mistake. Just one mistake and boom! Tragedy so fast you can’t see it coming.
I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to be convicted of manslaughter. How can I deal with this without messing up?
The next day I file a report about the looters and firing my shotgun.
“It was a blank,” I explain, and show the officer my almost antique weapon. I believe he’s trying not to laugh.
Logan doesn’t show up to work that day or the next. He also doesn’t answer his phone.
After a week I get worried and call his mother, the number he left in his application as his backup number.
“Oh,” she says. “You’re Mr. Bailey.” She almost sounds like she’s crying. I tell her I was worried about Logan and had anything happened.
She tells me. He was in a car crash. Driving home that night.
I’m suddenly angry. “Was it because of the rioters?” Innocent well meaning kids? “Peaceful protesters” and they got somebody killed.
“N-no,” she says, sounding confused. “It was an accident. They said he was driving too fast.” She lets out a shuddering sigh. “I...I mean, he was just a block from home. And I don't understand it! Nothing to do with the protests or the rest of the world. Sometimes...sometimes bad things just happen and I don't know why!” And she starts to cry.
I tell her I’m sorry for her loss and hang up. I have no one to stack Pringles cans now. He was a good kid. Things are crazy.
Sometimes bad things just happen. Whatcha gonna do?