A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY–– This photo is stunning!
Note: This post has taken me nearly two months to write. It has been percolating in my head, in my dreams, in my thoughts, since the events that prompted it. I didn’t want to write it, until I felt ready, and I didn’t want to leave anything out. This is a long piece, but it needed to be. None of this can be said briefly. Also, I have not used certain names, to protect the privacy of those involved.
What is there to say about Black lives, that hasn’t already been said–– by people living Black Lives, and by people far more informed than many of us? As a white woman, who can’t deny the white privilege I have always had, what can I add to this sticky, traumatic, deeply upsetting topic? What do I have to offer, and how do I make a difference, without complicating things further? These questions have troubled me for weeks now–– since a very unexpected meeting in a Walmart parking lot, the day after the murder of four Dallas police officers, by a black man… one day after the killing of Philando Castile by a white police officer, and two days after the killing of Alton Sterling by two white police officers. The complexities have kept me from even trying to address that meeting, beyond a Facebook post and Tweet, which stirred responses from many unexpected sides.
July 5th, the night that Alton Sterling was shot, I was up late, because… well, I just don’t sleep enough. My daughter was getting married in a couple of weeks, and my head was constantly spinning. I found myself up, with the TV tuned to CNN. As I sat writing lists and half listening to the news, they aired another numbing video of a black man being shot and killed. During the Iraq War, President George W. Bush placed a ban on showing the caskets of US servicemen, killed in action, in news photos or broadcasts. This was a highly disputed move. Yet, in recent years, it is increasingly common to see black men and women being shot and killed, as our nation weighs in, like so many armchair quarterbacks–– swayed by details that are rarely unbiased. I can’t speak for others, but I hope I never find viewing the killing of another human being as normal or anything less than horrifying. To see a young man shot in the back, as he runs away; to see a man bleeding to death, while his girlfriend films him and a child cries in the back ground; to see a man wrestled to the ground with a Taser and shot in the chest at point blank range… these are things that we should never see as normal. On July 5th I felt shaken and outraged, watching the replay of Mr. Sterling’s death.
Barely twenty-four hours later, July 6th, the story of Alton Sterling’s death had already begun to be debated by all sides. The hashtag #AltonSterling was trending, as far too many names have done before him. I was up late again, and switched over to the news, just as another “breaking story” interrupted. The story cut to Diamond Reynolds filming with her cell phone, what would be the death of her fiancé, Philando Castile. In the video, which she made because she feared that his shooting would be glossed over, she clearly believed he was hurt badly, but didn’t seem to realize he was dying. She stated repeatedly, that the officer had “shot his arm off.” Mr. Castile is seen bloodied and moaning, beside her in the car. Given the amount of blood, I found myself incredulous that someone wasn’t applying pressure, and getting Castile some urgent medical attention. Instead, a police officer is seen pointing a gun at them and yelling. Clearly very upset, he repeatedly asks why Castile reached for something, and Ms. Reynolds calmly but firmly recounts that Castile was shot while reaching for his ID–– which the officer had requested.
The video was so stunning, I called my nineteen year-old son to the den, and we watched in shock and horror, as Philando Castile died. It was a whole new level of first-hand account, and it shook me to the core. I felt a terrible pit in my stomach, realizing we had just watched another man die, and I began to cry from the impact of these two incidents. My son and I talked about the shocking frequency of such events, and I could not sleep. How do you turn off the TV and pretend the world is not imploding?
But the horror continued. On July 7th a lone sniper targeted and killed 5 Dallas police officers and injured 9 others. The shooting took place after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, in Dallas. The police officers were there to protect and oversee the protest march, which all agree had gone off smoothly and without incident. The shooting of these five police officers, a clear and undisputed ambush and murder, added shock upon shock, following the previous two nights. Like so many, I watched the news shaken and stunned that these killings were escalating, and when I got up, on the morning of July 8th, and had to go to our local Walmart, I felt numb and hopeless. I had things to get done for my daughter’s wedding, but I felt sad and withdrawn; going to Walmart was the last thing I wanted to do.
As I walked around the store, looking for the few things I needed, I couldn’t help but feel a similar sense of disconnectedness and loss, that I felt the morning of 9/11. While the death count and scene was different, the cumulative impact of three days of violence and senseless deaths, felt huge. I looked at other shoppers, wondering if we all felt the same way. As I was getting into my car to leave, I saw a black woman, about my age, getting out of her car, one aisle away. In that moment it was hard not to notice that she was the only person of color in a parking lot full of people. I imagined how alienating that must feel, on a sunny day that felt over-shadowed by recent events. Impulsively I walked toward her. Later, it hit me that this could have gone many ways. I would not have blamed her for feeling threatened: to see a stranger coming toward her. As I approached, it hit me that I really had no idea what to do or say.
“Excuse me, Mam,” I started, as she looked at me expectantly. “I don’t know what to say…” I fumbled and realized again, how intrusive I must seem.“I don’t know what to say or do, but I feel sick… about everything that’s happened…” I faltered, unsure of what I wanted to say, as she watched me I fell silent.
Before I could say anything else, the woman reached out, and pulled me toward her, into a full body hug. We embraced for minutes, and then we both began crying. I noticed other people pausing to check out what was happening; I noticed that time seemed to stop, and I felt so grateful that this stranger and I could share such a real and meaningful moment, despite these things. When we’d wiped our eyes and stepped back, we introduced ourselves, and “Mae” shared that she is a Reiki healer and massage therapist. I told her that I am a writer. “What do you write about,” she asked. “Whatever’s on my mind: aging, motherhood, this right here.”
Mae watched me for a moment, and then said: “You should write about this. We should both tell everyone about this connection. There needs to be a lot more of this.” She patted my arm reassuringly.
“But I feel like it was really presumptive of me to just assume that you would want a stranger approaching you; it hit me as I approached you. I’m sorry about that part.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Mae told me. “When I saw you coming toward me, I just knew it was love walking my way. I wasn’t worried at all.”
These words, these simple words from a stranger, stopped me stone cold. Such loving words, such reassurance, on a day when it was so easy to feel completely isolated and hopeless; Mae’s word were a gift.
“But my daughter feels completely differently. She told me this morning, ‘Mom, if one white person walks up to me today, to ask me how I feel, I think I’ll just smack them!’”
“Well, then I’m glad I walked up to you, Mae, and not your daughter!”
We both laughed and hugged each other again.
We fell into an easy conversation, talking about our lives: she moved her children from Chicago to a small town in Wyoming, to give them opportunities they would not have had in Chicago, where she grew up. “Trust me, there were not very many Black people there! But over time, people got to know us, and we had a good life there.” As I listened, thoughts raced through my head. It was sobering to imagine having to move to a remote place, to keep your children safe, and guarantee their education.
She also shared with me that even though her son is a grown man, she worries every time he has to drive long distances for work. This is not something I worry about for my son–– aside from the risk of an accident.
“I’m sorry, Mae; I can’t imagine worrying about my boys that way.”
She nodded solemnly. “It’s a hard thing to live with, but that’s the way it is for mothers.” She didn’t need to say, black mothers.
“Last night my husband, son and I were talking about the idea that it’s probably always been this way for Blacks in America, but we have all been shielded from it,” I continued. “Now that everyone has a cell phone, things are out there for everyone to see. Do you think things are worse, or just more visible.”
“Absolutely! It’s been this way for a long time, but no one heard about it. I know my parents worried too, but now it’s all over the Internet before the ambulance arrives.”
We both stood there absorbing the day. It was a beautiful, blue-sky morning. We stood there absorbing the impact of our meeting, on this hard, painful day. Then we shared one more hug; thanked each other again, for having shared the time together, and we said goodbye. As she started to walk away, Mae turned around and said: “Be sure to tell people about this; write about it. We need to change things, and this is how we start.” I smiled and waved goodbye.
This was the FB posting. The Tweet was this photo, of the FB post.
At home, I felt sheepish about how to explain what had happened, how to “share it.” Just as I’d had second thoughts about just walking up to stranger, I suddenly worried about sharing our meeting. How to share it? What to say? How would it be perceived by others? The answers would come to me over minutes, hours, days and weeks. I posted a brief message on FB first and got lovely comments, almost immediately. These folks are my friends; I wouldn’t expect harsh words or criticism. I tweeted it; something that sends the story out to a larger audience, not just friends. But the response on Twitter was surprisingly positive too. Most of the people who Re-Tweeted my message, hit like, or commented, were Black. Their words were encouraging and appreciative. I felt grateful for that, but undeserving. This was something two people had shared; I wasn’t sure how to share the story in a fair way.
On the same day I posted my status, this went viral on FB. Several people sent it to me.
I received a few private messages, from strangers, who thanked me, and then I received a strongly critical response from a friend, via messenger. She started by saying that she knew I had a good heart, but very quickly added that she thought this action and my posting it, was “self-serving” and inappropriate. She told me that I should never have presumed that it was ok to just walk up and hug a stranger (though my posting clearly states that the woman had hugged me). She noted the many levels of White Privilege it demonstrated, and the many ways I might have insulted the woman, and Blacks in general. She stated again that she knew my intentions were good, we have known each other for some time now, but her criticisms made it hard for me to not feel patronized to. I respect her opinion, and so I read her words carefully, more than once. I know this is a very important topic for her, and she wrote her message thoughtfully and wanting to be honest. I value that. However, it’s harder to feel criticized by someone who does matter to you, than someone who doesn’t. Admittedly, her’s was a hard message to read, made worse by her mention of having shared her angry feelings about it, to her writing group–– a group of women who I know well, a group I’d been a member of for many years. Why hadn’t she just told me? Her words left me stung, even as I appreciated the intention.
I felt misjudged and defensive. I wondered if maybe I’d read Mae’s words and actions wrong, and if my friend was right. I began to second guess all of it, and wondered if Mae had just been kind to me because she felt stuck. And yet, even as my brain turned on me, in my heart I knew that what we had shared was authentic and connecting. I felt so touched by our meeting, and questioning it under this microscope felt wrong. We were supposed to meet to discuss these things, but my friend got busy and couldn’t make it. She hasn’t brought it up again. I kept getting both private Twitter messages and public ones, all supportive of my actions, but this one message from a friend followed me for a week, as I continued to examine events and my feelings about it all. I found myself increasingly disappointed by the judgement of me, and the lack of closure. I felt misunderstood and chastised. I felt angry and hurt. And then, I let it go. I know who I am; I know what I did and why.
During the week of the wedding, family members shared with me that an in law of a sibling, had found me and my posting “ridiculous.” He had brought it up many times to my family members, I was told, feeling that my behavior was crazy, and possibly not even true. He mocked me, and my intentions, to people I love. While I was surprised by this, this didn’t hurt me as much as the words from a friend, because this other person isn’t someone whose opinions means very much to me. Yet, still, the idea that my family members had participated in a discussion about my actions and intentions, wiggled in my gut. No one wants to feel judged, but behind my back feels rougher. I found myself wondering: why is it so strange to people to seek connection with others? Why would my actions be seen in such a negative light by two white people, but not by the black people who took the time to respond? Was I missing something?
Time has passed, as it does. My daughter had her wedding; it was beautiful. The summer passed: hot and filled with family and friends and wonderful moments. More police officers were killed, in the weeks that followed those horrible three days. More Black citizens were killed. The opinions of friends, strangers, and in-laws of in-laws have faded with the summer heat. But the morning I met Mae has stayed with me. Her words: “I knew that it was love walking my way,” touches me and reassures me that reaching out and connecting was the right move that day. That caring and trying to speak out about what is so inherently wrong, was right.
Maybe I don’t have anything deep and meaningful to add to the discussion or movement of Black Lives Matter, but I believe that we all need to do something. We all need to take even the smallest steps forward and work for change. We can not just watch the news at night, shake our heads at the latest black person killed, and go to sleep. If we don’t each make an effort to change this, if we don’t care about Black Lives, the dark, sticky mess we’re in will destroy us all.
Other articles/info about this topic, that has impacted me:
11 Times Police Successfully Disarmed People, Without Killing Anyone (This one is particularly shocking to me); The Counted (a stunning daily tally); Don Lemon and Sheriff Clark; The State of Race in America; Why It’s So Hard To Talk To White People About Race; 11 Major Misconceptions About The Black Lives Matter Movement; Original video of Philando Castile’s death; When The Media Treats White Suspects and Killers Better Than Black Victims; 10 Ways White People Can Help Make Black Lives Matter
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