I awake Saturday morning. Awaiting me is a team text from Shana about IG. I lie there, lamenting my lack of sleep. I rub my Quarantine Food Baby and think about Danielle’s upcoming postpartum post. I speak with Shana about said IG post. I check the news again, to see if the situation in America’s cities has gotten worse overnight. I do not want to face the day. I do not want to face my guilt or my sadness. It is all too heavy. I try to think about how we’ll get outside today (we’ve committed to going outside five days out of seven during quarantine) — without putting ourselves in potential danger of a protest that could potentially get out of hand. You can imagine how selfish this feels.
I move to the living room for my morning yoga. I watch the line of the cars on the highway. I know in my gut these cars are coming to Center City to attend the protest I am going to skip. I begin to think about my response. I watch as the city’s police force, in their cars with their bicycles attached, head into Center City to get into place for the protest I have decided we are not attending.
I had struggled through a day of “wrong responses” on Friday. First, Mr. Trump’s inflammatory response to the nation’s protests (the looting and shooting one). “Wrong response,” I thought. Then I listened, appalled, as columnist David Brooks gave another “wrong response” when Brian Lehrer asked him to put the President’s tweet into the context of his previous days’ column “If We Had A Real Leader”. Instead of condemning the president’s call for violence against protestors and looters, Brooks buried the idea in a lament about us living under the barrage of Mr. Trump’s Twitt-ocracy over the past three years. He said maybe it’s a complicated response, because he doesn’t condone rioting. He — clearly — could not bring himself to condemn the president’s call for violence. This seemingly insignificant moment overshadowed — and dare I say ignited — my mood of overwhelming sadness for an entire weekend. This glaringly incorrect response to a people’s suffering and its leader’s failure.
During our team catch-up Friday, when prompted by Syd, Shana said she would write her weekend post about “something light.” She said she has just written about Ahmaud Arbery’s death and that nothing changes. Disappointing response, I thought.
I had an afternoon check-in with A. I was sad. I needed to regroup. We re-grouped. We spoke of Woke Sadness. Maybe we’d do a Facebook Live for TME on Woke Sadness. S checked in. She’d written a post. She had sat down and gotten angry and written. I love when S does that.
As I do yoga, my mind is cinematic. I had scrolled through the AP and NY Times apps the night before, as I have done nightly since we’ve been in quarantine, and looked at all the pictures of chaos coming out of America’s cities. I do not have a TV for this reason. My mind is visual enough. Living in a pandemic has given any obsessive or compulsive anxieties new life. My amygdala is already working overtime.
I watch my mind as I do yoga. It explores my own response — or lack thereof.
Is it the images — the ones my mind is stuck on — of people — officers and protestors, their faces within inches of each other — yelling, my mind translating this as a transmission of COVID-19 — that is keeping me from protesting today?
I mean…anyone who has been hospitalized as a COVID-19 patient, and had no test or inconclusive test results, has no interest in being hospitalized for COVID-19, and therefore, quite frankly, no interest in being near other people.
The nonchalance of Derek Chauvin, smug and calm, spread around social media…I don’t need to watch the video. I finally learned that in 2016, after years of traumatizing myself by doing so every summer (Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille). Of course, it took someone else to point out that people of color viewing so much violence against other people of color can be traumatizing. It is.
Perhaps it is because I am no longer an expat? I attended plenty of protests in 2016 and 2017 with Goose in tow — from Standing Rock to the Women’s March and the Healthcare March — and even in 2018. Even though I returned to the U.S. in 2014, I still considered myself an expat for a number of years. As an expat, I had power. I had power, because for the six years I lived overseas, I got to be an American. Just an American. Nationality, ethnicity, religion…yes, I had to answer some of those questions and check those boxes—but for both nationality and ethnicity, I could simply write U.S.A or North American. I didn’t have to go through the mental minefield and jungle of arguments to determine whether to choose “Black,” “African-American”, Native American”, “White”, “Multiracial,” “Other,” … “Should I choose one, or check all that mathematically apply? America’s history is complex. Being African-American is complex.” “Is there a benefit to one over the other on this particular form?” “Will it work against me to declare my “race”? “Why are they asking for a race? Race is a social construct and we should stop giving it power.” So by the time I returned to the U.S., I felt human. I felt strong and independent and socio-economically invincible…even if I was broke.
I’ve done this before!! I’ve grabbed my bike, strapped my 4- then 5-year-old daughter in for protests so she could learn social justice the way other young warriors have. I was not worried back then – Obama too, had made me American with his notion of a shared narrative.
Philly for 20 years has successfully and peacefully protested, and I have experienced that. Granted, I learned to get there on time and leave when it was officially over (usually because it was a weeknight, and we had to have dinner and get ready for bed), but I showed up. I showed up — and with Goose.
Of course my fears — because that’s what they are, anxiety running amok in the midst of America’s Crisis of Violence in the midst of a Global Pandemic — are not about The Protest. And my reasons for staying home are not about not wanting to protest.
My fears? Are of a police system on steroids.
The militarization of American police departments — if you remember that exploration in 2014 after the riots in Ferguson — is one of the greatest fears I live with. It has only become amplified since I have given birth and reluctantly returned with my daughter to a country that has taken the bodies of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many more.
I have no fear of a protest or protestors or even of rioters or looters. I have no fear of my fellow citizens (except maybe some of the gun-toting ones). I can get myself in and out of a dangerous situation — all the more easier when my daughter was in the seat on my bicycle than if, like now, she’d have to be on her own, us unconnected. It is an inappropriate police response that paralyzes me, imprisons me in my own home — and in my head.
A, K and I check in over text. K expresses her desire to head to the protest. I express my guilt over my lack of will. I feel ashamed of my response — or lack of response.
Unfortunately, the stream of police cars with the bicycles attached (that I associate with peaceful protests) morph throughout the day into a traumatizing montage of invisible — but not silent — unrest — in a very disturbing way.
I try to go about my day — Monday is looming and the housework and home admin must get done. But what does Monday even mean right now? What does work even look like on Monday? I sit at my desk to start the grocery order. I move to the kitchen to cook. I start moving plants to the balcony that have been waiting to be planted for months. I lay out a “magic screen” to hang on the balcony door. I tell Goose to get ready because we are going outside soon. I do all of this over and over and over again, in circles, unable to quiet the monologue in my head. Mid-afternoon, I see there is no traffic on the highway — 676, aka the Vine Expressway — which runs through the city. This is not a good sign.
The expressway is eye-level with our apartment.
We look. The police have blocked the highway. And then it begins. The activity that will continue throughout the weekend — that continues until now. Caravans of police — police vans, paddy wagons, state trooper SUVs — with their sirens back and forth across the expressway. Helicopters above us. The police car that is blocking the off-ramp angled just so, so that it is facing us. It is clear we are not going to go outside today, that I am not going to prove to myself that I am not afraid. I anxiously check my phone for news updates. Last time I had looked, the scheduled protests of the day had been peaceful; the first even socially distant. It is time to pot the plants.
We go to the balcony. In front of the police, with helicopters whirring above us, my stomach churning, Goose starts planting the herb garden my mother sent her for Easter; I am propagating plants.
How can I sit here potting plants? I am a coward.
I am planting new life, new life in honor of George Floyd. I feel calm for 30 seconds…or the length of that thought.
I am — if that officer is white, if that officer is prejudiced — defying a stereotype. I am planting plants with my daughter on a “nice” Saturday afternoon.
It is a good thing we did not go on the roof of the parking lot to jump rope. Are those police helicopters or news choppers? What if we had gone to the roof, and they mistook our jumping rope for aggressive behavior or got confused and thought we had weapons?
You are being a good parent for staying home. You could have gone to the City Hall protest and things would have been fine, and you would be continuing to model for your daughter social justice, like you used to. You would be doing what countless others are doing, and risking your life, because at this point, for us, it’s either the Coronavirus or the Police State, pick your poison.
But there’s your daughter.
I am a “high yellow” woman. I fly under the radar of the police. I could likely go protest safely. My daughter identifies as a person of color or as a black person or as a brown person? Even though she’s not a black boy, we are black. Even though she is light-skinned, bi-racial, a dual citizen, a third-culture kid. She has been raised as a person of color, but she has not been overly racialized or imprinted by colorism (well, she was, but we took care of that — for now). And even though she does not look like the traditional object of police violence, I find myself with an overpowering need to protect her body from this very American phenomenon.
I am exhausted. I cannot imagine going anywhere right now. Why again? Why are we dealing with this death again? Every freakin’ summer. I am overwhelmed with sadness. What is the correct response?
I wonder what the police are doing to the protestors. I wonder how many are protesting and how many are rioting.
I am being terrorized by these Vehicles Of Aggression.
No matter. I hope the police respond appropriately — which is, in effect, not to respond. Let the police cars burn. That is what’s happening nearby and so far, the police are there and not responding. They are letting it burn and not hurting anyone.
I am calm for another 30 seconds. I am certain our mayor, Jim, gave strict instructions not to shoot. I have to believe this.
Oops…that lasted for about 5 minutes…now they bring the tear gas.
Should we warn our friends that the highway is closed? Do I say we hope they are safe? Do I hope they went to the protest today? Who am I?
It is night. I get Goose settled in her room with a podcast, so that I can drink and try to watch some comedy. This is absurd. The sirens and the caravans — symbols of this police state and everything it represents — keep criss-crossing the highway. The Lights Of Death. The Sirens Of Oppression. The vehicles on their way to commit violence against a people. To restore “law and order.” Every time their caravans zoom across the expressway, they bring with them images of police dogs and batons and water hoses and guns and knees on necks and a country at war with itself.
I go to the window. I check my phone for the news. The city is literally on fire. I talk to A. She can see the smoke from her rooftop. I check on a friend to see if they were out in Brooklyn. They have seen the fire on social media. “You should try to get out of there tomorrow,” they say.
I see a man walking around the periphery of the building. He looks official, but I am unsure. I call the front desk — Fuck An A, who am I? I am a black Karen. There are people out there risking their lives for us — so me, my daughter, my brother, his family, my father, my uncles, my cousin…can LIVE, can stay alive, and I am calling security about a white man in khakis and a polo to make sure he’s kosher. He is. They’ve hired extra security tonight on account of someone trying to set fire to a nearby apartment. I am relieved. I wonder if I should have gotten a deadbolt for my apartment. I wonder about my privilege in even having that thought. What gives me the right to want to feel safe? That part of the Constitution does not apply to me. Safety implies I can continue up the Hierarchy of Human Needs to happiness, and the pursuit of happiness is not supposed to apply to me. Feeling secure makes me feel guilty.
The blue and red lights continue flashing, reflecting on my living room walls. I hear The Noises. Grenade? Firecracker? Gun shot? Tear gas canister? Rubber bullet?
Many Americans live in what we — during my 20s — referred to as the police state. Frequent over-policing, red and blue lights constantly flashing in windows, the sound of sirens on the daily, being prepared to get down at any moment. I am lucky, this, right now, is temporary — I hope.
I go into Goose’s room to turn off her twinkly lights. Welp, that’s not gonna work. The lights flash across her blinds, reflecting off her white walls.
How am I gonna go to sleep knowing these flashing lights will wake her or that I’ve left lights on in her room? Maybe I should go on the balcony and gesture to the officer that his flashing lights are keeping us up — as if they are the most disruptive aspect of this moment — No. That will surely get me shot. There are children in this country who fall asleep this way every night. What makes us so special that I should be upset about this?
It’s after 2:00 AM. I pace. I try to do yoga. I check the news. Finally things get quiet. The trooper blocking the highway departs. I am both relieved and a little worried.
K declares the protest could use her “white lady body” today. I give her my blessing, tell her she gets 1.5 hours to do so. A suggests heading downtown to clean up. I have a work call. We will be home. I am overwhelmed.
The police caravans begin again. The Parades Of Aggression Headed Toward Civilians who are assembled in peaceful protest, and also, in anger. This time, the caravans include huge tractor trailer-sized paddy wagons. And also prison buses from the Sheriff’s office. These things make me nauseous.
Goose is highly in-tune with the “excitement” on the highway. I try to figure out if she is scared. She says she is not. Yet every time we speak with anyone on Sunday and Monday, the first thing she says, even before “hi” is “we live by the highway. There are helicopters.” It doesn’t occur to me — until I hear someone on Monday’s Brian Lehrer Show explain that her child has no schema for these images YET to associate them with violence — that the reason I am a nervous wreck and my 8-year-old is merely in a tizzy is that she does not have decades of violent actions and horrific images to associate with these Death Squads. She just sees police cars and vans and SUVs and trucks and buses on their way to “deal with” the protestors — whatever that means for this 8-year-old.
Ever since we arrived back in the States, I think of her when I see the police. I freak out (inside) any time she’s near an officer other than the bicycle cops. My stomach sloshes if we are in line at the Starbucks — yes, THAT Starbucks — or on the bus, and in the holster of an officer is a gun, at right about the height of her head.
Explaining to my daughter that we live in a police state wasn’t on my agenda for this weekend, nor was reflecting on the degree to which violence is American. Or death by racism. I can manage to give her only bits and pieces, adding to what I’ve already taught her to protect herself. I don’t completely shield her from the truth — she gets the public radio version all day, every day. But the full horrors of race in America — for black and brown people — are so traumatic that they need not be rushed.
I am traumatized by this machinery of the state.
Things are not right. The National Guard is on their way. We check in on K. She has that protest high — the one where you are feeling good because you and your neighbors are taking action together — and declares her group is headed in our direction. We tell her to go home. She finally says OK as her group gets closer to crossing the river toward West Philly.
Then the crazy sirens begin, and the caravans are more ominous. The black, armored military-style vehicles are in on the action now, heading west. I am nauseous. I text K. “Your ass better be on this side of the river, —!” and I use her given name.
My mind is a hell. On top of my guilt about not protesting, I am now left to imagine what will happen once these Awful Symbols Of Hate And Violence reach their destination. My imagination is a hell of images — of batons and police dogs and fire hoses and armored vehicles and tear gas and officers in riot gear and people giving each other COVID-19 with their yelling.
Somehow, in between nervously looking out the window, (from our vantage point, we can see if the officers are going North, West, East or South, and that is where my mind goes) I get a few things done. Bathrooms get cleaned, groceries get ordered, dinner gets made. I remember none of this. By now I am no longer thinking about my inappropriate response to the protest — about not going. I am obsessed with the wrong response of our government. By their very presence these officers are inciting violence, and then turning it back on The People.
I know exactly where the police — that word seems so inaccurate — Upholders Of A Militarized State? — are. We see and hear the helicopters. We watch their Symbols of Hate. We hear The Noises. Grenade? Firecracker? Gun shot? Tear gas canister? Rubber bullet?
We eat dinner outside on the balcony. Throat tight, I am tense. Is that officer watching us? Can I leave Goose out here alone to go in for dessert? How can we sit here eating on the balcony when the police might be beating and killing the people who are protesting police brutality?
What gives me this right? What is this privilege? Can I leave my daughter out here, alone, while I step inside and know that when I come back out she will be here, alive?
Finally, around 10 PM, the news feed is updated. The pictures on the ground are reassuring. Much better than my imagination. Yes, people were tear gassed. Yes, rubber bullets were fired — at people. Yes, it is the Wrong Response. But so far, all the people are alive. One of our city council members is there, engaging with the protestors, letting them speak with the mayor by phone. The officers are there, but they are standing, and the armored vehicles are in the background. I am reminded that during the actual protests, it is OK.
If I had gone to the protest, would I have experienced that protest high, would I have felt like I had done something and not spent the weekend anxiously imagining all the terrible things The State is doing to The People? On one hand, maybe. On the other, would I have returned after our hour and a half was up, and witnessed the “police activity” along the expressway and watched my mind devolve into What Hell Might Be Happening Once The Peaceful Part Is Over anyway? Instead, in my overwhelming sadness and my exhaustion and my obsessive tendencies and my ‘protecting my daughter’ excuses, I let my friend and her “white lady body,” go. I don’t know how I feel about this.
Sometime on Sunday, while chopping the garnishes for dinner, I call my dad. I think I should check in on him. I am worried about the effect this death of another black body might have on him. He has TVs all over his house. He would have been unable to avoid the video. When he answers, I am surprised that he is in the garden to clean the grill. He is concerned about us. He is reassured that we are home. He tells us to take care of ourselves and not do anything stupid. I am surprised. He asks about our coronavirus precautions. He seems — relatively — unperturbed and un-engrossed in the news. This man who cheered around the house when he reached his 34th birthday. (At the time, in the ‘80s, that was the average lifespan of a black man in America.) This was a man who was devastated by the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. This was a man who’d spent much of the ‘60s and ‘70s as a dashiki-wearing revolutionary, no stranger to protest and anti-establishment actions. The same man who was proud of me only half-an-administration ago, for going to protest was now encouraging me to keep myself and my family at home. And somewhere in there he says — the phrase I never want to hear, the phrase that negates the idealism I have lived my life with in all my anti-racist, diversity-cheering child- and adulthood; the phrase I never expected to hear from my father, who even while working for a major, natural resource-exploiting capitalist corporation tried to protect the rainforest and has spent his retirement as a master gardener who plants trees in his metropolitan city — “Nothing ever changes.”
Another disappointing response.
A few articles of interest and related to this essay, have come out since Sunday. If you’d like to explore some of the topics touched on further, they’re below. Also, since Sunday night, at least a dozen people have been killed during the unrest, some by police, others in acts of vigilante justice. If you don’t check out the posts below, at least listen to this Fresh Air interview: From Freddie Gray To George Floyd: Wes Moore Says It’s Time To ‘Change The Systems’
On Protests & The Police Response
- The Past And Present Of Protests In America (Listen)
- Was That A Firecracker Or A Gunshot? Uncertainty In America’s Streets (Read)
- In America, Protest Is Patriotic (Read)
- The Videos That Rocked America. The Song That Knows Our Rage. (Read)
- Corrosive Effects of Tear Gas Could Intensify Coronavirus Pandemic (Read)
On Images Of Black Death & The Trauma They Cause
- Please Stop Showing the Video of George Floyd’s Death (Read)
- For Black Americans, Using Social Media Means Risking PTSD (Read)
- Check in on Your Black Employees, Now (Read)