Last summer in Ferguson, MO, a police officer shot an unarmed teenager six times and the city left his body in the street for hours. I heard about this first in almost real time, as strangers’ unfiltered narration of the events appeared in my Twitter feed. I was living then in a mostly empty house in Madison, WI, and when I would leave my computer and go to eat at the bar next door it was like entering a different country, one where this story was barely happening. Then came the protests; then the teargas and riot gear, the images stark enough to command attention. The trial-of-a-body after the fact, the policing as revenue, the escalation of a jaywalking stop or shoplifting investigation to death, all of this audiences had learned to accept to the point that it was scripted routine, but the tanks and the gas were new, seemed to stop people, if briefly, from going about their lives as usual. So many people said that this was not their country. I recognized mine.
* * * *
A few weeks before the Ferguson protests began, I was settling back into the Midwest. My father had come to Wisconsin with me, to help me settle into my new home. When we returned from a quick trip to run errands, I realized that I had grabbed the wrong garage door opener, and it had no batteries. I left my father sitting in the car outside of the garage and walked around to the front of the house to let him in. As I was walking, a neighbor’s car pulled in to the parking area. The neighbor looked in our direction. It was not a hostile look, but it was enough to pull me toward panic, to remind me that my father was a tall black man, dressed for household chores, sitting in a car with out-of-state plates, behind a house that had been empty for months. I had moved back to a city I loved, but it was also a city where Blackness, even when discussed sympathetically, is more often than not a problematic otherness. I walked faster; afraid we might look suspicious. After I let him in to the house I went upstairs and wrote an email to the condo listserve introducing myself and noting that I lived alone but that my father was in town for a week. I did not know if my panic was necessary, but I knew that it was familiar, that I had lived around some form of it forever. I did not feel ashamed of my panic; I felt ashamed that I hadn’t sent this email sooner, that the day before, when we were celebrating the move and my father was wearing a suit, it had not occurred to me to worry.
* * * *
In March of the next year, less than a mile from my house, a black teenager was shot and killed, alone in the stairwell of the home where he was living at the time. His friends had called the police because he was having a bad drug episode, behavior not unheard of in a college town known for its drinking. There was the return to the script: was this boy innocent enough to mourn, and then a public mourning that veered from sincere to theatrical. There were no riots. There was some discussion as to whether Madison was like or unlike Ferguson, which seemed to conclude, in laudatory fashion, that it was not, but Madison is still America and there was still a body in the street. The officer is cleared of all wrongdoing. A few months after the shooting, an artist’s depiction of police in riot gear, with assault weapons turned on a small black boy with a toy gun, is displayed in the public library. After pushback, a statement from the Wisconsin Police Professional Association is hung beside it. The statement finds the display “indicative of terribly poor judgment.”
* * * *
I have been grateful time after time for the existence of video in cases that would have otherwise turned on officially reported lies, but I have yet to be able to watch one. I know there is a difference between a video a killer doesn’t want you to see and a video designed to make you afraid of the killer, but I have yet to find the emotional distinction, the logic that makes some deaths repeatable public spectacle and others sacred. The morning I almost bring myself to watch the video of Tamir Rice being shot, there is a small black boy on the city bus with a red balloon. I cannot look at him.
* * * *
In May, as part of a new faculty tour of the state, we see a juvenile correctional facility. Wisconsin has the worst criminal justice racial disparities in the country. In a state with a 6% black population, 67% of its incarcerated juveniles are black. We enter the facility through a building named after Harriet Tubman. There is a diversity mural on the wall. All of the dormitories are named after historical figures of color: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B DuBois, Black Elk. This is what America does when it means well.
* * * *
For two years I have been trying write a short story exploring that place of American innocence Baldwin describes, the “innocence that constitutes the crime.” For many years, I have been trying to write a novel. There is at the center of the short story a white girl who means the Confederate Flag as harmless. There is at the center of the novel a death in a prison that is said to be a suicide but believed to be a lynching. The death takes place in 1963. By July of 2015 I worry that these years of work feel crassly topical. I worry that they may never not be.
* * * *
It is my job to imagine what other people see; it is my job to know that empathy is not the same as forgiveness, and so I can imagine the fear of the cop who sees a boy as a monster, I can imagine that like many people in our criminal justice system, these cops may be more than their worst actions. But here is the thing that still surprises me: the outpouring of money from people who, every time this happens, however conclusive the evidence that there was no danger to anyone but the person dead, wish to donate to the defense. This is the part of the story where I am lost for understanding. Ralph Ellison said once that it’s “futile to argue our humanity with those who willfully refuse to recognize it,” and I hear him when I hear Black Lives Matter, even as I hear the urgency and necessity of the assertion in a country where the consequence of the failure to see humanity is, again and again, death. How do you write from a country that doesn’t exist?
Request: Permission to Occupy Your Body, Roger Reeves
From Within the Dark-Blood Depths, Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Other Outrages, Other Deaths, Rion Amilcar Scott
A Brief History of the Present, Morgan Parker
Rachel. Trayvon. Michael. Dying. Laughing. A. Fiction., Kiese Laymon
To not write another word about who the cops keep killing, Khadijah Queen
Am I a Reliable Witness to My Own Life?, Sarah Labrie
Keyword Search: “Ferguson” and “Mike Brown”, Angela Flournoy
Slow Dance, With Bullet, Hope Wabuke
Breath of Fresh Air, Yahdon Israel