Esquire (USA)


I dread a future for my older son in which people fail him, and a future for my younger son in which systems fail him.


I UNDERSTAND THE PROTESTS,” MARCUS SAID ONE MORNING over breakfast at the kitchen table of our home, in the suburbs of Seattle. A little more than two weeks had passed since George Floyd’s murder and the start of the nationwide uprising it inspired. “But I don’t understand the broken windows or the buildings set on fire. It’s not right to burn down a building you don’t own.”

Over the years, I’ve fielded countless questions about systemic racism from Marcus and his older brother, Malcolm. As they’ve grown, my answers have evolved. How I explained everything when they were ten was different from how I explained it when they were six. Still, I’ve struggled with how to prepare my sons for the racist world into which they were born while also making room for their dreams. There’s no easy way to sugarcoat the explanatio­n to a child of why they cannot play with toy guns outside, a required conversati­on in our home after Tamir Rice was killed by a white police officer in Cleveland—that a Black boy is at risk by holding anything that an officer could perceive as a weapon.

Malcolm is eighteen and entering college in the fall, and he—like every other teenager—prefers to discuss social issues with people far cooler than his mother. As Marcus, who’s twelve, approaches those hellish, hormonal years we know as junior high, he still turns to me to help him make sense of the world. I’ve raised him and his brother to know that standing for Black liberation and against white supremacy is good. Breaking things—especially other people’s things—is bad. When you’re young, moral rules seem settled matters.

Now, at the kitchen table, Marcus wanted me to help reconcile the movement for Black lives with the destructio­n in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s murder that people carried out in the name of this cause.

Marcus looked at me expectantl­y. He wanted me to agree with him. Ever since he could talk, he’s sought to understand how the world works, and why, and what the rules are, and who’s responsibl­e for making them. He’s what you might call a systems thinker.

“I just think it’s wrong,” he said, hoping to prompt a response. He wanted me to cast the situation in terms of right (peaceful protest) and wrong (rioting and looting), to reinforce the moral guidelines I had raised him to follow. He wanted me to comfort him. Make him feel safe.

And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell him that the rioting was wrong. I searched my soul for a way to explain a lifetime of experience that left me unable to condemn the fires and the broken windows. It felt too raw, too deep, too vast. All I could say was: “One day you’ll understand.” Which is the king of crappy parental answers.

“Ugh, Mom, I’m not dumb,” he snapped.

“I don’t mean it like that,” I tried to explain. “I don’t mean that you aren’t smart enough or mature enough.” But he wasn’t listening. He walked away, frustrated and insulted.

But really, I didn’t mean it like that at all.

I WAS A YEAR YOUNGER THAN MARCUS WHEN, IN 1991, RODNEY KING was brutally beaten by police. I remember my fear as I watched the footage of batons crashing down on King. I was Marcus’s age when the officers involved were acquitted. I remember the riots that erupted in the streets of Los Angeles. Like Marcus many years later, I didn’t fully understand the fires and looting, but I was starting to understand that what had inspired them was bigger than a few bad officers or one instance of brutality.

Growing up, my brother and I didn’t talk much about King’s beating or the riots with our mother, who’s white. She condemned the officers’ actions, and she understood that racism was at the root of what they did and why they were set free. She loved her children’s Blackness. But she did not have the lived experience of being Black in America, nor the sense of rage born of living in a system designed to oppress her. Whatever questions I had about the riots, it did not occur to me to ask my mother.

I was Malcolm’s age when I attended my first protest, in 1999. I started out big: the biennial gathering of the WTO, held that year in Seattle. We—more than forty thousand protesters from all different walks of life—were standing against the globalized exploitati­on of labor. I wore shoes that weren’t nearly comfortabl­e enough. I chanted and sang. I stood between white, male union members in their fifties and sixties and a group of young, female climate activists. I felt immense love emanating from those around me. Then came the tear gas and the screaming. The Seattle Police Department responded to the mostly peaceful crowds with crushing force. Later, their brutality would be recognized as marking a new standard for the militariza­tion of police in quashing dissent—which, in the coming years, would be perfected on Black bodies.

After 9/11, I campaigned to raise awareness about the government’s unjust detention and deportatio­n of people of color who lacked citizenshi­p. I protested the invasion of Iraq. I wondered how those in power so easily ignored the voices of hundreds of thousands joining together in dissent, but I kept marching. I marched for Trayvon Martin. With each action—each protest, each meeting, each rally—I felt that I was part of something much bigger and more powerful than myself, and that we were changing the course of history. Each time, I believed that we were on the verge of great change. Until I didn’t.

I don’t know when exactly this change occurred. But I do know that I was no longer the same optimistic activist by the time Mike Brown—eighteen, Malcolm’s age—was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. I remember sitting at my desk at the office where I worked at the time, trying not to cry as I read that this young man’s body was left in the street for hours like a bag of trash. When the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that no charges would be filed against the officer who’d shot Brown, I felt a distinct hopelessne­ss. One of my bosses, who was white, said that while he didn’t think Trayvon Martin deserved to be killed, Mike Brown was probably a bad guy and the world was better off without him.

Desperatio­n sank in. There was nothing I could do to ensure that I, my family, or my community would be safe from violent white supremacy. The world would never see our marches and enact change. Our demands for freedom would be met only with force. Our society prized the comfort of the privileged, white few over the basic humanity of the disenfranc­hised many. I still faced racism every day—the microaggre­ssions, the macroaggre­ssions. I still received a lower standard of health care. I was still underrepre­sented and undervalue­d. I would still fear for my life at every traffic stop. I would never receive support from those in power, or from those who at one time were on the right side of justice but who’d long ago resigned themselves to the status quo. For all those years of protest and action, I’d been shouting my pain into a void. I felt tired, hurt, desolate, and enraged.

Still, I marched: for Charleena Lyles, for Philando Castile, for Sandra Bland, for so, so many Black lives lost. And sometimes at those protests, a fellow

protester who also felt tired, hurt, desolate, and enraged would break a window or set a fire. When that happened, those in power felt that the things they held dear were under threat, and only then would they pay attention. Time and again we’ve witnessed that in this country, Black humanity has a dollar value, and a low one at that. Our pain has mattered less than cotton, corporatio­ns, or the national anthem at a football game. Your storefront­s are made unsafe not by the violent nature of Black protesters but by society’s refusal to listen to any peaceful form of protest. Black people have tried. Disruption works. Rioting works.

And that is what we witnessed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Buildings burned, and cop cars were incinerate­d and left in the street, and then Black people’s calls for change started being heard. We’ve made more progress toward demilitari­zing the police in the past few months than we have in years of protest. Anything to stop the destructio­n of property.

That is infuriatin­g—our words ought to be enough. Our humanity ought to be enough. But they aren’t. So all I could say in response to my younger son on that morning in June was: “One day you’ll understand.”

But then, not long after Marcus walked away in frustratio­n, I realized what I’d really said to him: One day the fire in his eyes would burn out. No matter what I did to protect him, he would be hurt so very much by our racist systems. He would see, as I have seen, that we could not appeal to the humanity of a country that did not see us as human beings. I’d told my son that one day he would give up the hope that his words, his ideas, his actions would be enough to change the world.

I’d written his future in the mold of my past. And I was devastated.

MY CHILDREN ARE NOT NEW TO ACTIVISM. WHEN MALCOLM was little and I was a single mother, young and still motivated to act, I brought him to every march, meeting, and sidewalk-flyer handout. Many of his earliest memories are of protest. To this day, he approaches the world with wide-eyed love and the belief that the right conversati­on can change the most stubbornly ignorant people. This worries me at times: He’s attending school in the Midwest, on an athletic scholarshi­p—he’s a competitiv­e bowler—and while I’m so excited for him, I’m so afraid of what will happen when his bighearted­ness runs up against the bigotry suffusing conservati­ve America.

Marcus has also been politicall­y active for years. At eight, he joined me at city-council meetings, where I spoke against the proposal of a police precinct in our neighborho­od. We celebrated when the plans for the new precinct were shelved. At ten, he joined a classmate to address the school board for his district, asking that it formally recognize the contributi­ons of Edwin T. Pratt, the civil-rights leader and executive director of the Urban League of Metropolit­an Seattle who was working to desegregat­e our local schools when he was assassinat­ed in our neighborho­od in 1969. Today, Marcus is so proud to walk past the Edwin Pratt Early Learning Center on his way to school.

Marcus’s faith in systems has not wavered, even after those systems were used against us. Last summer, white supremacis­ts who were unhappy with my work documentin­g racism in this country targeted my family and me. Early one morning, someone called the police pretending to be Malcolm—they used his name— and reported that he’d just shot his parents. In fact, I was at a work conference. Armed police officers were sent to my home. The impersonat­or intended to bring the full violence of the state into my safest of havens by inciting officers to kick down my door, who themselves expected to confront a teenager with a gun.

We were lucky that morning: I’d recently received threats and had informed the police that my address had been compromise­d. The department knew to call me before its officers arrived. My door was not kicked in. But my sense of safety was shattered. And once the news spread, the threats only increased. Finally, we moved.

To me, my partner, and Malcolm, the experience underscore­d how often, and how easily, police forces are weaponized against Black people. To Marcus, it represente­d the danger of angry strangers—the “bad guys” from whom the police protected us.

One evening a few weeks after we moved, I left Malcolm and Marcus to get groceries. When I returned home, I fumbled with my keys while juggling the grocery bags. I opened the door to find Marcus, scared, holding a knife. When he saw that it was me, he quickly hid it away.

“What are you doing with that?” I asked, alarmed.

He said that he didn’t know if I was a bad guy. He thought they may have found our new address.

Heart pounding, I explained that our new home was secure but that if the bad guys did find us, they would likely try to swat us again. And if the police arrived and Marcus came to the door with a knife, the officers would shoot him. He chuckled nervously. “But I’m a little boy,” he said.

I looked at my beautiful son, almost as tall as me already, with his beautiful brown skin and curly hair, and said, “A lot of cops won’t see a little boy. They’ll see a Black man with a knife.”

Still, Marcus’s faith persists. He so desperatel­y believes that our systems can be saved. He so desperatel­y believes that they deserve to be saved.

I do not share that belief. Some of that comes from communal exhaustion. But a lot of it comes from years of studying the deep roots of brutality and exploitati­on built into criminal justice, education, the economy, the government, and so many more of our systems.

I know that my anger, desperatio­n, and even resignatio­n are valid.

But so is Marcus’s fire.

INSPIRED BY MY CONVERSATI­ON WITH MARCUS, I’VE SPENT more time lately talking with, and listening to, young activists. These young people have come of age in the trauma of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. They have seen with their own eyes the brutality that our system seeks to bring upon them. They have every reason to be far angrier than I am. And they are angry. But they are so much more than that. They have seen us struggle, and the price we’ve paid for that struggle; they have seen the fire go out in our eyes, and they still decide that they, too, will try to change the world. They are sure they’ll succeed. After more than four centuries of brutality and oppression, how amazing is yet another generation that demands revolution?

What an unfathomab­le tragedy to meet this wonderful gift with apathy and resignatio­n.

We have the chance to help our children in ways broader society didn’t help us or those who came before us. To receive their fierce love with equally fierce respect. To meet their vision for change with material support. To advocate within our systems while the youth protest in the streets. To let young people’s vision for a better future dictate how we leverage our power of seniority. To use our dollars, our votes, and our voices to dismantle policies that seek to harm them. To honor their commitment to fighting for justice. To teach them the heritage of Black resistance. To ensure that they feel they are part of something so much larger than themselves. To make clear that their lives matter.

When I talk with young people, they do not see me as jaded or out of touch— though I often feel that way. They see my work—my very existence—as hopeful. They remind me that I am still very much on my own journey, that I have not come to the end. A lifetime of resistance and disappoint­ment need not break me, even if it has taken a real toll.

I STILL DREAD A FUTURE FOR MY OLDER SON IN WHICH PEOPLE fail him, and a future for my younger son in which systems fail him. But I’ve regained a sense of purpose that I’d lost. Some of the fire in my eyes has returned. And Marcus is responsibl­e. He reminded me that for most of my life I operated from a place of love and possibilit­y, and that love and possibilit­y still exist.

I don’t know how many people will still be in the streets when these words are published, or whether the enthusiasm of the many allies will have waned. But I do know that our children will still be Black, and they will still fight, and we will still have the opportunit­y to honor them by doing everything we can to support their fight for liberation.

How beautiful is that?

 ??  ?? A Black Lives Matter protest on the steps of Borough Hall, Brooklyn, June 7, 2020.
A Black Lives Matter protest on the steps of Borough Hall, Brooklyn, June 7, 2020.
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 ??  ?? Leimert Park, Los Angeles, June 6, 2020.
Leimert Park, Los Angeles, June 6, 2020.

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