They had killed one of us again; those beasts in badges. To converge between the books of history was not a meeting for war but a cry for help. The woman shot today was Breonna Taylor. Two days ago, it was Michael Brown. Tomorrow; me, my mother or my friend. To come dipped from a fountain of chocolate is not all sweet because everyone wants a piece; some to love it and some to tear at it. To walk the earth as black is more bitter than it is sweet yet my heart beats wildly with a fierce hope when I hear the name Martin Luther King.
On my way to the library, my only fear was that my black hoodie made me look like a thief but without it, I’d be like a red dot on a dartboard displayed in the open streets where my black skin has marked me as meat for white men police teeth.
In the alley, we were all trash. We smelled like dirty socks and rotten food, and that was just the mouth. Out there, we were game for all; both animals and man. They’d shoot one of us off like stray mad dogs and laugh about it over coffee and cigarette breaks outside the police station’s verandah. It sat opposite the park and I’d scooch over to a bush and watch them in this merriment whenever they showed themselves. This arrogant display of ego made me more resilient in joining protests against black discrimination.
“The good fight is trying to keep alive. Steal what you can, even from me. I know I’d steal from you,” said Mr. Walsh, a friend that once took a knife to his stomach for me. As I walked under the bridge, towards the abandoned train tracks, I felt the flyer that led me on that journey in my pocket. My grip tightened on the fragile thing. Justice for Breonna Taylor.
When I got to the tracks, I followed them until they led me past the trains; ghosts with broken windows, brownish-reddish rusted metal, torn off cream and yellow paint, and faded black words. At 10 p.m., that site made the hairs on my skin stand. Through the broken windows, I could see the red leather seats with cotton vomit all over almost every inch. A stick cracked under my feet and made me soothe my wildly beating heart with the magic power of my swift hand. It worked, but not until I saw a shadow move in the train, rattling the debris inside. Instantaneously, my feet went rushing after each other, one chasing the other like it was owed money and the other running like it had broken out of prison. The cone shape of a building ahead made my pace quicken; seeking safety, finally. But, the closer I got, the more my fear intensified, terrified that this running black hooded woman would be seen jumping over the fence of a library and would be shot in the head, no explanation that she was on her way to help in making history, that her Obama dream was walking down the street with an assurance of safety from colorism and this dream was not too far from reach, if only she arrived at the library.
But I would be dead already.
Nevertheless, the watchman couldn’t allow me in because I didn’t have any form of identification. Any other reason would be discrimination. The non-electric welded mesh fence was about 120 cm tall because who would want to break into a library. Still running, I jumped over it and continued towards the back. I could see groups of people huddled together making their way through the blue gate where the guard, also black, let them in with a wink. Once they were all in, he faced the crowd, bumped a fist against his chest and lifted his arm in the air. The crowd mimicked his movement, a silence awoken in solidarity. I hurried to the back, the circular building becoming bigger and bigger as I got closer.
I wish Mr. Walsh had agreed to come but you can never guess what is up with the man. Since I found myself in the streets after the passing of my mother and disappearance of my father, he had been a guardian to me, threatening to bite off the ears of anyone that dared to touch me when I was asleep. I was not only black, but also a young woman, albeit with an advantageous flat chest and bony structure that sometimes made me look like a boy, especially in oversized clothing. Still, if he came, he would get to see Alice Brown and Chidi Uzokwe; some of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. He would also have gotten to hear about their plans to reclaim humanity but Mr. Walsh had been gone for 38 hours now. I’d shown him the flyer four days ago, the same flyer many of the people then standing in the middle of the library were holding, including Chidi. Though not from America, he said that he did not escape SARS in Nigeria only for him to come and die on the land of the free where he once though his green pastures lay.
Chidi was standing at the front of the spiral staircase facing the crowd, his back to my eyes, his words to my heart. The books had been arranged in horizontal rows all around them and the crowd stood with teary eyes, clenched jaws, folded fists, dilated pupils and sweaty foreheads, eager to hear what’s next in the fight for justice. I was crouched under one of the slightly open windows, occasionally peeking then quickly retreating.
“You say violence is not the way, and I respect that, but what other choice do we have?” A voice asked from somewhere in the back. Chidi raised his head, floating his eyes through the crowd searching for the face behind the voice. Once their eyes met, Chidi gave a nod and proceeded.
“It is not just by what we do that we are defined, it is also by what we choose not to do. Violence does not eradicate violence, only an energy with opposing force. Thrusting stones at them and burning up their vehicles is not the way. I feel this rage too and sometimes, I don’t know where to take it. But, when I think of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, I know that taking violence back to its source is not the way because in the heat of things, the chance that I might be the next victim you are mourning is 90%.”
“99!” someone shouted and the crowd clapped.
“What we need to do is get the government administration to endorse and sign the legislation to end qualified immunity for offending officers.”
A hand shot up but I could not raise my head high enough to see who it was because this person was either very short or in a wheelchair. “What is qualified immunity?” the soft voice asked. Chidi once again responded with a nod and begun, “It’s a legal defense that enables police officers to conduct unconstitutional and unlawful actions while avoiding prosecution because the crime was so apparently evident that it could only have been committed by ‘the clearly incompetent’. In short, a police officer assumes you are guilty because of your ‘disposition’ and gets off the hook for any consequences after.” “Damn!” went another voice.
“On the streets, we will show up for our people who were arrested during peaceful and lawful protests. We will show up for the ones who can no longer show up for themselves. We will show up because this is what it means to defend our democracy. Tomorrow we march to The Washington State Capitol and make camp outside the fence until that legislation is passed. Lethal use of force should be a last resort, not the first tactic officers rely on. Last time, they came at us with aggressive, militarized force and payed no mind to the white supremacist militias that showed up to counter protest. We have been in the thick of things and we know that they will spy on us with their drones, they will have their tear gas ready, palm on gun ready to disarm. They will beat us up with their clubs, cuff our wrists like they did while enslaving our forefathers and try to barricade us away, but what shall we do?"
“We shall stand unarmed yet undeterred, cracked as a pot can be but still standing. We shall beat, beat, beat,” the crowd proceeded, pounding their chests at every beat word like an anthem sung at a military camp. “We shall beat, beat, beat. Defeat, repeat, until success is our history.” Chidi’s head was bobbing up and down. They repeated this song again and again until I found my lips moving to the words, my hand -with the flyer still clenched- beating against my chest.
“We have also spoken to the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Committee,” started Alice, “and they have agreed to come on board our cause. We will win and we will do it right because we are not them.” A cheer ensued followed immediately but a chorus of shhhhh. Who could remember that we were in a library at night with such powerful energy in the room?
Drawn into the conversation, I pulled the window in a painstaking motion. Maybe if I was clean and well-adjusted into the society, I would be right in there with all these men and women. Chidi went on to say that in 1992, Toni Morrison told the Guardian: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” He also had a piece of newspaper that he pulled out from his coat’s pocket and lifted it in the air for all eyes to see. He read it out loud.
TO BE SOLD on board the ship Bance-Island . . . a choice cargo of about 250 fine healthy Negroes just arrived. He took out another piece of paper. TO BE SOLD on Thursday the third of August next, a cargo of ninety four prime healthy Negroes consisting of thirty-nine men, fifteen boys, twenty-four women and sixteen girls. On both pieces of paper, he pointed to the black stick figures with sisal skirts drawn on the side.
As he turned around to grab a file with what I presumed to be more newspaper cuttings, his eyes caught mine with only a quarter of my face over the window. My heart jumped, my eyes bulged and my feet were ready to dart through the grass and over the fence, back into the shadows of the streets. We remained in this eye embrace until Alice tapped on his shoulder, making him jerk, apologize, then pull out more clippings. As he turned around, he threw a gaze in my direction again and my forehead went kissing the grass, counting my fingers one by one as a way to relax.
He showed the astonished crowd pictures of the history they were never taught in class, the history that their blackness had survived. From images of slaves being thrown overboard ships to slave markets where children were being sold. He had pictures of iron masks and collars that were used in punishing slaves; items that looked more like torture tools used in horror movies. From public whipping, kidnapping, to the most recent cases of police busting into colored people’s homes and shooting them in their beds, unarmed.
I came to see these pictures because Chidi conveniently placed them against the window sill and walked back to the gathering. I glided my hand against the wall, rising a little with the motion, grabbed the clippings and quickly crouched back. I was completely captivated by the markings on some of the slave’s faces and, in this moment of bewilderment, I felt a hand tap my shoulder. My head shot up at once and before me was a chubby man in a blue uniform. He had a club swinging in his hand and a Taser secured at his waist. I was not sure if I should relax because I was busted by a black guard or panic because I was busted. Before I knew it, he was chasing me away. My dirt patched hoodie, torn jeans and shaggy kinky hair did not help my case at all but where was I supposed to do my laundry if I didn’t have a home? How was I supposed to afford toothpaste with no job and how was I ever going to get a job with no education?
He pointed his club at my chin and looked me straight in the eye. “How did you get in?” I pointed towards the fence and said, “Even a baby can jump over that.” He huffed and puffed and asked me for my ID but just before I could make my way past him, Chidi’s voice rang by the window. “Mark, this one is on me. I asked her to come.” The guard took a step back, eyeing me up and down. “Her?” he questioned with an elevated pitch. “Yes, her. Can she come in?”
The guard started to swing his club around, tapping his right foot on the ground and darting his eyes between me and Chidi. Finally, he said, “I’ll lead you to the main entrance.” With a nod, Chidi showed his gratefulness and walked back. I put the clippings in my hoodie’s pocket and quietly, he walked me towards the main door. Upon arrival, he eyed me once more with his foot tapping against the marble floor. “Why are you here?” he enquired.
“I’m black too. Living in the streets does not change the effects of racism. I’m here because I want to live.”
“I’m sorry,” he said tenderly, and walked away.
I never went through the doors. Not with all this dirt and stench on me. When the meeting was over, I hid behind the curve of a wall and waited for everyone to leave. Chidi and Alice came walking by last. Count on a black person to feel the presence of a shadow because as soon as he was past the curve. he abruptly turned around. This too is a reflex of fear because everywhere you look people are screaming, there is no justice here. A reflex of fear is hurriedly trying to get your identification out of your pocket which is seen as an attempt to pull out a concealed weapon. A reflex of fear is in pulling the trigger before his/her hands are out of their pockets. Fear feeding on fear. The worst thing to fear is already here. What water we think we are saving for the future should be poured on the fires burning away at humanity’s nucleus now.
I emerged from the dark curve with the clippings in my hand and stretched to give them back. Or maybe touch his hand…He smiled, approaching me and folding my hand back to my chest. “Keep them,” he said. Watch this little thing; that even as I fight for freedom, poor and smelly, my heart does a dance at the slightest chance of romance. This stretch of a smile would lead a whole race to its freedom and I, wherever I be, would follow the vision of the man I see. I managed to say, “I stink,” before giving in to embarrassment and shutting my dry throat.
He asked if I was busy because he was famished and needed some company. I insisted he take back the clippings but he said that if I had them, it was just the same as if he had them because we were fighting for the same cause. I ate cheese for the first time in seventeen months on a serving of fries. His mistake was in granting me access to the menu saying, “It’s okay. Pick whatever you want in as much quantity as you like.” I added on a burger, a bucket of chicken to share with Mr. Walsh, and miso soup, knowing that the next time I would see Chidi would be in a rally. That my fantasy attraction was simply that; a fantasy.
Three weeks later, a two-block area of 16th Street NW in Downtown DC was renamed to Black Lives Matter Plaza NW. Chidi was put in charge of data collection for mapping police violence to help increase real-time accountability and is working with a team of scientists to accomplish that. After another month, the legislation to end qualified immunity was passed with little opposition because immense pressure that had mounted on the government now that the world was paying attention. The BLM movement also sought to demilitarize the police from lethal weapons such as grenade launchers, bayonets and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPS) aka military trucks.
“These arms are leaving a war mentality in people’s minds. We cannot have our protectors thirsting over the day they’ll get to use a bayonet on a real person. That is not forging an America to be loved or respected,” Chidi once said. According to researchers, the murder rate decreases by 9% and violent crime rate by 6% for every ten organizations in a community of 100,000 people where there is a high number of non-profit organizations. Because of this, he encouraged the founding of NGO’s not just in America, but also back home in Nigeria.
Another thing he did just a few weeks after we met was say I love you. Chidi, a man I happily get to share with the world; I love you too.
I don’t have to be an African American to know how the fear behind being black feels. However, this has been my take on racism in America. Nothing can be done about what has happened, but of what happens next, we have no excuse to say I don’t have the chance now.