I want you to try something for me. Please. For this this blond-haired, light-eyed white guy who strides these streets without worry. Who might have no right or reason to ask something from you but is going to anyway. And it’s not easy, either. But if you can, I want you to imagine, and hold both things in your mind.
First, I want you to imagine being four. I want you to imagine being four and thinking your thoughts about your daycare and that little girl who wouldn’t share her toy. And it’s the one you really liked, too. The one your mom told you she’d get around to buying, but you kind of know she won’t. And then there’s the little boy who’s mean. He’s older, but in the same class as you, and he just doesn’t like you. Or anyone, really. And while it’s never been too bad, he doesn’t say nice things, and then today he was at the school where your mom works and he put dirt in your hair. Right in it! And you went to your mom and she brushed the dirt out the best she could and told you not to worry. That you still looked pretty and a little dirt never hurt anyone. But she also told you that if the boy did it again to let her know, and you could tell by the tone in her voice that meant a little bit of trouble.
She looks out for you, your mom does. And it makes you feel safe.
And now imagine you are riding with your mom and her boyfriend. And this is the first thing. So really try hard. Because I’m going to ask you to imagine more in just a second. But imagine he’s good and kind, this boyfriend of your mom’s, and he works at a school and some of your friends go there. And you like him well enough. And you’re sitting in the back seat with all your four-year old thoughts, and you notice the flashing lights. The car gets kind of quiet. There’s a tension. And you–not the four-year-old you I’m asking you to imagine into being, but the you you of the here and now. You recognize the tension as maybe that feeling where you think you’ve done something wrong. Like, on the few occasions I’ve been pulled over by police or the many occasions I’ve been driving too fast and passed a police officer going the other way. There’s that moment of tension: maybe the officer’s going to turn around. Maybe there’s something going to happen I don’t know about. And that’s just for me. Just this normal, blond-haired, light-eyed white guy who strides these streets without worry.
But just to get a starting point, let’s say the car feels like that.
And then a policeman walks up to the car, and he says some things, and then shoots your mom’s boyfriend. This man you call Philly. Let’s say you call him Philly and you watch a policeman come up to the car and pull out a gun and fire three shots through the window. And then your mom pulls out her phone and starts making a video, talking in this weird, quiet voice like you’ve never heard before, really, and all the things you’ve been thinking about are instantly erased and for a second your mind is blank and then all you can think about is your mom and your whole brain is just full of questions like aren’t the police supposed to help people and why would anyone shoot Philly? He’s so nice.
And then you’re dragged from your car and put in the police car and your mom just turns inside out and cries so hard and so fiercely you’re afraid she might not be able to breathe, and all you can do is pat her arm and say, “It’s okay, momma. I’m here with you. I’m here,” because you’ve heard her say the same thing to you when you skinned your knee or bumped your head or rose up screaming in the middle of the night because you dreamed hordes of spiders were crawling out from under your bed. When those things happened to you, your mom was there and rocking you gently back and forth and you felt better. So you do that now, for your momma. You tell her it’s okay. And though you can’t quite articulate it, you know that’s not the way things are supposed to be. Not yet. Not when you’re four.
But right this second, it’s all you can think to do.
So that’s the first thing.
And now I want you to imagine you’re another little girl, living in Dallas, Texas. You’re another little girl, and your dad got a job with DART. DART! Just the name sounds exciting and sometimes you race through the house saying it over and over and over again: DART DART DART DART DART! And your mom–you’re young still. Maybe not as young as four, but maybe six. Or maybe seven. And you know the way your mom looks at him when he puts on the uniform. She’s proud of him, and she beams the same way she beamed when you got all A’s on your report card, or that time she beamed when you all got this house. And she’s happy, and your dad is happy and it’s a good day, this day. Your dad has to work tonight, but he’s humming that song as he gets ready. There are folks marching downtown, but, he says, the Dallas police have done good things in the community. He says that people live side by side here and that everyone understands it. He says that Mr. Brown has done a lot of work to help people feel safe no matter who they are, and then he swoops down and gives you a big hug and tickles your face with his mustache, and he gives your mom a kiss and tells her not to worry.
And she doesn’t, at least not for a while.
It’s summer, and she’s been letting you stay up later than usual. It’s summer and the long hot nights stretch out around you while the sun takes its dear, sweet time sinking below the horizon. And tonight, after your dad leaves, your mom spends time on the porch watching your ride your bike up and down the sidewalk, and then she calls you inside and you and your brother eat ice cream. The evening spools towards night, and you find yourself in a dreary haze on the living room floor, watching videos on your Kindle. Your mom rests on the couch with the TV on and a book in her lap, and your brother goes off to close himself up in room and play video games on his small TV.
And then it happens. You feel your mom first. The way she stiffens and the way the room goes hard. It’s in the air. And maybe you’ve felt it before. Again, the you you, not the you I’m asking you to imagine. Maybe you’ve had the phone ring too late at night or too early in the morning. Maybe there was a knock on the door, or your phone beeped out some warning: a message for you. And you knew. And in that moment the way the room felt changed. The air seemed charged or your skin felt clammy, or there was something inside you that just wouldn’t settle.
So the imagined you, the you of Dallas, Texas, whose dad has gone off to help the marching folks, you feel something like that. And maybe your mom’s book falls to the floor. Maybe. But I will say this: she makes a sound you haven’t heard. It’s a sound like something getting choked in her throat. Not that she’s choking, but that there’s some other her, some small, fragile her that lives in her throat and that her is choking. There’s a small mom inside your mom and the small mom chokes for a second on some piece of grief, and then your mom stands up fast and walks like you haven’t seen before to the kitchen, and then you hear her asking questions on her phone. And on the TV it says people started shooting at the march.
It’s hours later she turns inside out. She’s called and talked to people and you’ve drifted off but wake up when you hear a knock on the door. You wake dreary again and there are two police at the door. And one puts his hand on your mom’s shoulder and she makes another choked sound, but this time it’s her. Not the small her inside her, but her. And she staggers back and sits on the couch like she’s made of rock and says, Oh, oh, twice and reaches out to you, her hands white and stretched and straining. And even though she looks like something you’ve never seen before–something kind of scary–still you go to her and let her clutch you close because you know she needs this now more than anything she’s ever needed before.
His name was Philandro Castile. He was killed by a cop.
His name was Brent Thompson. He was a cop who was killed.
Both of them lived and loved and had people who loved them back, and we can imagine the lives surrounding both of them, and we can feel that loss, and we don’t have to pick sides.
We really don’t.
What we can do, and what we must do is understand. We must understand that being black in America is something profoundly different than anything we (I) might have experienced. We must understand that being a cop is a dangerous job with great unknowns made ever more dangerous by the goading of politicians vowing to be tough on crime. Made more dangerous by the clamoring of affluent white people to isolate and kow those deemed undesirable. Made more dangerous by equipment meant for military thrust upon them and an edict: budget for this or lose your budget.
We must understand that a people divided serves no one but those in power. And we must be unafraid to look one another in the eye and say, “I am sorry you have loss and pain and struggle. I have had some, too, and I want to begin to understand.”
And then we must all be ready to listen.