It’s a Thursday morning, my turn to take my 4-year-old son, Samaadi, to school. I feel tired, broken. Thirty minutes up the highway in Baltimore they’ve been raging for days.
A man’s spine was severed while in custody on the way to the police station and we’re supposed to regard this as a small thing, a misfortune, a tiny kink in the (basically fair) criminal justice system (these things happen), a broken egg in the larger omelet of America. Some even imply, or say outright, that what happened, that man’s death, is justice.
I’m tired. Weary. I put myself back together, stuff the loose straw back into my chest, oil my rusty joints, grow a lion’s mane and matching face as a mask of bravery to skip toward what I’ve come to regard as wizardry, a falsehood: the hope needed to get through these days.
I load Samaadi into his car seat. Before I pull off I hear his voice from behind me. It seems Baltimore is calming down. Right, Daddy?
His voice is baby-like, cherubic. Not built for discussing adult things, but Baltimore is all his mother and I can talk about, all that plays on our television screen. Months before it was Mike Brown and the fire that followed. In between those: other outrages, other deaths.
I’m tired. To speak now is to further diminish my emotional reserves. To brush off his curiosity is to put my black boy in danger. I speak.
What do you think is happening in Baltimore, bud?
He tells me people are jumping on cars, but he doesn’t understand why. He continues on with a disjointed mix of things he saw on the news and things he made up.
Remember, I say, cutting him off, when you were learning about community helpers in school and I told you the police were not always nice? Well, yeah. Some of those mean police hurt a guy named Freddie Gray and people are just asking that they get in trouble. You understand?
Yes, he says softly.
I feel ashamed. Sad. I’ve said nothing and have no more words.
He’s growing, shedding his cuteness; there will be more conversations. They’ll become more complex, more nuanced. Some will focus on how to stay alive when so many like him are, for no reason at all, dying. I’ll tell him that the individual goodness of the mythical good cop is nothing in the face of his job upholding systematic terror and inequality.
And he’ll get older and there’ll be other outrages, other deaths and sometimes I’ll apologize for not solving this for him and other times I’ll ask what he’s doing to avoid ending up old and weary and apologetic.
The scratches on the passenger side of my wife’s car probably came from a rock. No rhyme, no reason to the design. Haphazard curlicues drawn in the night. Maybe while we ate. Perhaps while we slept.
Tiny finger marks in the dust as if the assailant thought better of his handiwork, wanted to wipe it clean, put the car’s black paint back to its pristineness, its unblemishedness.
My wife and I, we sit with the violation, the disrespect. Our minds fly in a gnat’s arc, dancing between annoyance and anger.
So, I say. You want to call the police?
We become silent. The ever-present fear again, emerging as if from nowhere, but it’s always there, a weaponized cloud of gas placed above our heads; we only pretend it doesn’t define our movements, even our breaths.
I ask the question, become flushed with fear, but my fear isn’t that the police won’t show, that they won’t find who did it, my fear is that they will. I imagine the culprit. A little black boy, twelve maybe. Same age as Tamir when police shot him in the belly. Younger, maybe. Perhaps they’ll find him. Perhaps he’ll run. They’ll chase. Radio to each other that a man about 20 is dashing through the neighborhood. They’ll catch him, snatch him by the neck, angry at having to give chase. Throw him against a car. To the concrete. Several of them swarming, swinging, like a gang initiation—another sort of initiation altogether—beating him until his face is empurpled, swollen. Unrecognizable to his family, to his neighborhood. But still something recognizable. Something we’ve seen before. See all the time in fact.
We don’t call the police.