“When I get mad, I put it down on a pad.”
Some thoughts on Black pain, anger, trauma and reactions, in these times. They may be unprecedented, but in other ways, been here before. Warning ahead of time–this one is long. Bring water, snacks, and a gas mask.
Image: Protestors watch fireworks go off as the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct burns.
A Familiar Road
The year was 2000. February. I was sitting watching television when the news on Amadou Diallo broke. The name might ring a bell with some. Diallo was a Guinean immigrant and peddler, who in a case of mistaken identity, was stalked and confronted by police officers late one night–who then proceeded to shoot him 41 times outside his own apartment. Forty-One. Clap it out. The verdict that came down that day shouldn’t have been surprising. Not guilty. But knowing the hit is coming for your gut, doesn’t always lessen the blow.
There was no social media back then–just ancient things called listservs. So you couldn’t sit and share your feelings instantaneously or read what others thought. You were mostly left to deal with your own emotions. And I was feeling…everything. Pain. Hurt. Sadness. The seemingly worthlessness of being born as I was.
And rage. Lots and lots of rage. And nowhere to put it.
Luckily, Chuck D of Public Enemy had years earlier offered me a path. In the now classic Welcome to the Terrordome, Chuck declared: “When I get mad, I put it down on a pad.”
So that’s what I did.
That night, as I sat thinking about Diallo’s stolen life and denied justice, I used all those feelings–especially that anger–to craft my own answer to the acquittal. The setting was in the wake of a similar killing, in a city that was not-quite-New York. Like in our own reality, the police were acquitted. Only this time there was justice–in the form of African gods summoned to the world to mete out Black vengeance with an Old Testament type wrath. Perhaps, ironically, the protagonists were police themselves: two detectives, one African American, the other Afro Latino, on a case that has them dealing with racism in a corrupt police force and supernatural powers beyond their reckoning. Before that night was done, I’d sketched out the entire thing. Soup to nuts. I held fast to the varied emotions that had driven me over the next few months and ended up with an entire novel. In the path past Black writers like Pauline Hopkins, struggling to deal with the hate that America gives so freely, I had found some solace in using creativity to confront the seemingly unending racial terror.
Nothing much became of that novel. A story about vengeful African gods murking corrupt cops? Be real. That’d be a hard sell in 2020. In 2000, fergetaboutit. Twenty years ago the publishing market was a different place, and I was restricted far, far outside its boundaries. Didn’t even have a short story publication under my belt then. No agent. No nothing. Just lots of fury to work out through my imagination. And my writing at the time–didactic and overtly political–reflected it. I did pitch the novel though at least once. Amazon used to hold these contests for aspiring writers, with the hope of winning and getting your joint published. I submitted the novel and made it past the first round one year. But didn’t get much further. The reader who rejected the story decided to offer his “advice.” I was chided for stereotyping policemen, and told I should get to know them more instead of painting them as one-dimensional. Most police officers were good people. And my depictions were the true harm. It was almost like they were urging me to be “born again” into accepting the police as my “protectors and saviors.” But I’d already long gone through other baptisms.
Baptisms, or Fun Times With Officer Friendly
Being Black and growing up in America, I’d gotten to know the police. And not through any choice of my own. Sure, there were un-bad experiences. No, I didn’t say good. I never had any good experiences with police, because I didn’t usually go seeking them out. I was taught by nervous Black parents very early to stay away from police. To keep out of their way. To obey every law in and out of their presence. To stay out of any activity that might involve them. Some of the more memorable rules included:
“Don’t hang with so and so, lest you get in trouble with the police.”
“You think you can get away with what those white kids at your school do? Police will arrest you first!”
“If the police stop you, don’t talk back.”
“Always carry identification. Police don’t like it when you don’t have ID.”
“Whatever you do, don’t give them an excuse.”
The police of my Black life weren’t people to interact with or to think of as friends. Instead they were fearful wraiths–that could snatch you away if you stepped out of line. No need to ask “an excuse to do what?” Arrest, injury, or death was just always a possibility. An accepted part of life that buzzed at the back of your head, the way other people absently worry about catching a cold. Even if you needed to summon them up for their aid, you had to be certain you’d drawn all the runes to the spell just right…or else.
But no wards could protect you completely. I hung with the right kids, and we still got stopped and searched at the mall–for the crime of being young and Black. Or watched police cars slow down and look us over as we waited at the bus stop.
“What are you doing here?”
It’s a bus stop stupid. “Uhh.. waiting for the bus?”
“Where are you going?”
None of your damn business. “Home, sir.”
“You know anything about *insert random crime*?”
Now I’m supposed to do your job for you? “No, sir.”
In college, not having a criminal record didn’t save me from laying face down with a member of the New Orlean’s Police Department’s 9mm pressed to the back of my skull in a case of mistaken identity. Didn’t matter that it was in a posh hotel I was renting on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter either.”If he moves, shoot him!” I could hear another cop say, as the gun pressed harder. Around me, three more of us (all Black) who I shared the room with, were similarly detained–with an assortment of weaponry. I remember at least one shotgun. We were all stunned, still trying to make sense of police breaking down our door after one knock.
The only one not stunned, was my frat brother Deshawn’s older brother. He wasn’t in school. Spent his time on the streets of Sunnyside in Houston. And he was accustomed to this. The moment the police swarmed the room and started yelling, he went to his knees, arms out, his body prone and going absolutely still. He’d been trained in how to survive from a brief lifetime of accumulated encounters. The smoothness of his movements was almost rote. Like muscle memory. Even managed to hold onto his drink cup and not spill a drop through the whole thing. Impressive. There was some bit of brevity. Between the police all yelling “Who has the gun?! Who has the gun?!” another of us replied back smoothly: “Y’all got the gotdamn guns.” We still recount that story to each other and laugh to this day. You take the jokes where you can find them.
Then there was the one time NYPD’s finest snatched me up as I emerged from the Q train on 34th, slamming me up against a wall with hands on their holsters and yelling in my face about some theft at Macy’s. Somebody grabbed a watch, which it appears they conceived of as an executable offense worthy of all this bother. That I had just entered a doctoral program that Fall didn’t shield me. Nor that at the time I worked for the largest ratings firm on Wall Street (one time a glitch I didn’t catch caused a global kerfuffle and panic in the German bond market–but that’s another story…). None of that personal background mattered. They didn’t even give me a chance to practice my well-honed politeness in their presence. So I just stood there, hemmed up, as passing tourists snapped my photo. I probably provided an exciting story in Paris or Ljubljana. Hope they got my good side. Luckily, the police dispatcher repeated the suspect was light-skinned and short and wearing blue sneakers. I was wearing blue sneakers. But I’m 6ft. Definitely not light-skin’ded. The officers thought that was a great joke. Sent me on my way.
I have my share of other encounters. Stops and being followed and pulled over. Oh and a whole book load of Amy Coopers. As a kid, convenience store owners would threaten us with “I’ll call the cops” if we lingered too long. Later as a teenager, in the video store I’d be followed and asked, “you want me to call the cops?” The best one was in college while visiting with a frat brother in Dallas. We’d done the usual after party Black ritual in the South, and ended up at a restaurant–Denny’s, Shoney’s, one of em.’ On the way out, my frat brother noticed the manager had shorted him his change. We were joking about something else so his voice was very amiable when he pointed this out to the white manager at the register. I’m sure he probably even added a sir. As he always said, he was raised a polite Nigerian. We went back to joking–then felt something hitting us along the arms and one bounced off my neck. Pebbles? No, the white manager, had just thrown the change at us. Physically thrown it. Like we were being fed, at a zoo. Maybe he was having a rough night. Maybe he had problems at home. Or he didn’t like being challenged on monetary mathematics. Could be all three.
After the shock wore off, my frat brother got (understandably) heated, and started yelling. Maybe it was the string of Igbo between English or he realized he’d just done f–k’d up, but dude went from red to pale to paler. He grabbed up his phone, dialed 9-11, and with a shaky voice claimed, “two Black men wearing all black with hoods were threatening him at the cash register!” Now we were Black. Check. We were also wearing black hoodies–pullover nylon windbreakers to be exact, with the very big letters of our predominantly Black fraternity stitched onto the front. This spot was near a local university. It wasn’t the first time Black college students wearing Black fraternity letters had eaten there. He had to know who/what we were. But he decided to make his descriptions to the police in the worst possible terms. For the same reason Amy Cooper did.
Here’s the dirty little secret. No one really has to be educated on police interactions with Black people. Everyone who’s not Black, including those of you reading this, are already well aware of those dynamics. And everyone knows, like Amy Cooper did, like this restaurant manager, that the police can be called upon to exert control over Black lives. Or end them. You just have to know the magic words.
I did the math, saw the trap, and grabbed my frat brother up and forced him out the door to the car–before we became statistics. Know an assassination attempt when I see one.
Over the years, I learned that if you were Black you always had a story…or three. Got to the point where we’d share them over drinks like jokes or old war scars. Laughing, though inside we all knew they were near escapes. Most of us never even shared these events with family. Definitely not our parents, who we knew might be too shaken at thinking about how things could have gone so very differently. In a way, we normalized them. This was just another extra tax for our skin, accumulated atop all the others. We paid it and kept moving.
Besides, we were the fortunate ones. We survived. Drowned whatever trauma we may have had in jokes, but escaped lasting physical wounds. Not like Abner Louima, who NY police tortured and sodomized with a broomstick, causing severe damage to his colon and bladder. Or my wife’s uncle, who during a regular traffic stop dared to break the rule and talk back. He was shot through the jaw for the transgression. As he sat, in his own car. The bullet went clean through tho. So he lived. Sued and even won monetary damages. Officer later said he was scared. Supposedly by a Black man’s moving and talking jaw. Menacing things.
Over the years, in newspaper accounts and on television screens and later computers and smart devices–those of us who survived all got to see worse. Stories of those who didn’t make it. More than often unarmed. Sometimes captured in video for stark relief. In the last decade alone, their names have become famous for what they represent:
a non-comprehensive list, courtesy of NPR
You’d think we’d become too accustomed to it all. Our everyday normal. Because it wasn’t that we didn’t know these things were always happening. That we hadn’t lived them and heard of them. But in our age of cameras everywhere, they were now being recorded. All that really changed was the medium.
So what was it about George Floyd that touched off such a spark. I don’t know. Maybe that it followed on the heels of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Aubery: knowing that even in the middle of a global pandemic that so far took 100,000 American lives, vigilante and police bullets hadn’t taken one day off from murdering Black people. Or maybe that it was caught on camera. The way it played out right before our eyes.
“My neck hurts,” he pleaded. “Please, please. I can’t breathe.”
The callous nature of watching that police officer rest his knee on a man’s neck. Killer Mike likened it to the way a lion grips his prey by the mouth, suffocating its windpipe. It reminded me of the way big game hunters, another type of predator, kneel and gloat over their kill. A trophy in human skin. To be dominated, then mounted, stuffed, and bragged about.
I’d watched enough of these scenes of police brutality to think myself able to endure it all. Not desensitized. Just weary. And numb. After all, I make my professional living researching, teaching, and documenting slavery. I’ve got horror stories in abundance living just behind my eyes. But every once in a while, something seeps through.
A few years ago, I was on my way to a SFF convention in Massachusetts. Decided to take the bus instead of driving. On the way, someone sent me a video. It showed a large white policeman kneeling on the side of the road. It took a moment to make out the figure beneath him: an older Black woman. Pinned down, just like the predator with his kill. And as she tried ineffectively to stop him, he rained down punishing fists to her body, her face. This wasn’t subduing a suspect. This was rage. Each of those blows was delivered with force enough to burst eye sockets or break teeth. That she was smaller than him. That she was a woman. That she looked like someone’s grandmother, made no difference in how savagely she was treated. It reminded me of a line I’d seen in the ex-slave narratives of the WPA. A former slave relating to an interviewer her former owner’s acts of domestic abuse upon his white wife, stated that he “beat her, his wife, like he beat a nigger [sic] woman.”
No explanation needed.
Watching that woman being brutalized broke me. On that bus, I cried. I mean I bawled. Every defense I’d weaved around myself, every bit of armor to keep me numb, was shattered. It just came undone. Like that time WEB Du Bois walked by a butcher shop in 1899 Atlanta, and saw the severed knuckles of a murdered black laborer, Sam Hose, kept on ice on display–a grisly trophy of its time taken by the white mob that had dismembered his body after lynching him. The incident left Du Bois thoroughly shaken, witnessing what he would later call a cruxificiation. Like Jeru once said, “even men of steel rust.” And I’m far from steel.
That prior incident is what it felt like watching the video of George Floyd’s murder. The callous disregard as he pleaded for his life. As he tried to appeal to the humanity of his killers, as ineffectual as the pleas of the lion’s prey, or Sam Hose, or that Black woman being pummeled on the side of the road. All of this, even while bystanders pled for some reprieve. They could only watch, like we all watched. And to hear Floyd call out, “Momma! I’m through!” was more than I could bear. Even writing this, it gives me chills.
I’d heard stories of that happening before. In accounts from the Civil War, soldiers dying on the battlefield would call out for their mothers. Like Floyd, it didn’t matter if their mother had long been dead, or was nowhere near in those last moments. The call was a primal one. Born out of sheer terror. A reversion to childhood. A search for solace in that one place that offered unconditional love and safety. Listening to that cry, as the breath was crushed from his body, before Floyd finally went silent, and remained pinned and unmoving–that broke me all over again.
Turns out, it broke a lot of people. The reaction(s) were a long time coming.
The Fires This Time
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!
In the cotton fields,
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!–Langston Hughes
photo from AP / Julio Cortez
The African American poet Langston Hughes wrote the above 1940s poem for Roland Hayes–a well known Black concert artist. One day he and his family accidentally sat in a whites only section of a Georgia shoe store. The event culminated in Hayes later being assaulted and beaten by a police officer, which captured the attention of African Americans at the time, leading to Hughes’s ominous poem. It was titled, “Roland Hayes Beaten:” written as a stark warning of a building explosion that might come.
It was perhaps odd for its time. Urban riots in which African Americans vented their rage at police brutality and racist repression were not yet a common event. They had happened, yes, as in 1935 Harlem and again in 1943–both following altercations with law enforcement, sped along by rumor and fed by long standing charges of misconduct and repression. But the term “race riot” for most of American history usually meant something else. These were most often scenes of white supremacy, asserting itself through rituals of mayhem and violence.
Not too surprising, as the nation had been founded in riot after all. Early Patriots regularly harassed, beat, and tarred and feathered authority figures, while vandalizing and destroying property—all in the name of liberty. In November 1765 the self-styled Sons of Neptune launched a riot against Ft. George in Manhattan, encouraging mobs to hurl bricks, stones and garbage at British guards while looting the waterfront. In harbors and ports from Newport to Wilmington, “sailors, boys, and Negroes” rioted against impressment. Perhaps most famously, in 1770 a runaway slave Crispus Attucks and “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes” incited a riot against British troops that propagandists renamed The Boston Massacre. Attucks and many of his compatriots were whitewashed out of the picture, but the event became one of the leading propaganda tools of the Revolution. You’re welcome America.
The newly formed republic had little time to grant citizenship however to Blacks, the majority of who remained in bondage. Free African Americans faced repeated pogroms and riots from whites who were certain to use such violence to ritualize who belonged to the nation, and who was outside its boundaries. Black people were driven from their homes in places like Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere. In 1835 Canaan, New Hampshire, local whites, incensed at the formation of a black school, assembled a team of some 90 oxen to rip the building from its foundation and drag it away. Anti-black race riots continued through the antebellum era, right through the Civil War, most famously in the anti-draft riots in New York of 1863–where African Americans were burned out of their homes and lynched in the city streets. All of this, while Black soldiers fought to preserve the Union.
The violence didn’t end after the war, as Southern redeemers used riots to destroy Reconstruction and establish a Jim Crow apartheid. By the early twentieth-century, white riots against black people became a common event–Atlanta, New Orleans, East St. Louis and elsewhere, even Springfield, home to Abraham Lincoln. Anything could set it off. When boxer Jack Johnson beat his white opponent James Jeffries in 1910, white mobs across the country attacked African Americans in multiple incidents–one black man having his throat slashed ear to ear for talking about Johnson’s victory. The worst events took place in the Red Summer of 1919, where anti-black riots roiled the country from Chicago to Omaha, as the sight of Black men returning from WW1 in their uniforms drove whites into frenzy. Private William Little was lynched in Early County, Georgia, for refusing to stop wearing it. The violence would happen again, destroying entire black towns and would-be utopias, in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida. For most of American history riots were for white people, as mobocracy helped sustain white supremacy.
Black people fought back of course, as they could. They met the mobs in clashes, with rifles and armed groups. Activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett claimed the best antidote to mob lynching and violence was for every Black family to keep a Winchester rifle. Poets like the Jamaican-born Claude McKay, urged that Black people meet the mobs “pressed to the wall dying, but fighting back!” During the Red Summer, Black veterans picked up arms to defend their communities. Rosa Parks claimed her grandfather sat with is shotgun to defend their home, and that she herself wanted to see him “kill a Ku Klux.” A few times, Black people turned the tables, and sparked the violence themselves in answer to the ceaseless racism.
But the image of the Black urban riot did not really take hold in the popular American imagination until the Black Protest era of the 1960s, where those “docile” Negroes “changed their minds”–and exploded in places like Watts, Detroit, and Newark. As usual, America forgot its own history of riot, wiped from the national memory. Race riot became, for the most part, perceived as a phenomenon peculiar to the disgruntled Negro. There was one overarching theme however. Black riots were never about attempting to assert supremacy over whites (we don’t live in bizzaro world). They didn’t erupt from seeing white people in military uniforms, or out of rage at white people winning a sporting event. With the exception of the riots in the wake of King’s assassination, the usual catalyst for Black led riots was police misconduct. From 1935 Harlem to Watts 1966 to Los Angeles 1992 to Baltimore 2015, the culprit was nearly always, always, policing.
What we’re seeing now, follows in a long seemingly unending trend.
So if policing has been so often at the root of this social upheaval, how is it we haven’t yet gotten to the root of the matter? How is it we’re plagued by the same dynamics that set off in Harlem in 1935, here in 2020? How is it the same fire that keeps burning? And when do we plan to finally put it out?
The Naked Now
Protests for George Floyd in Minneapolis, Scott Olson
What now then?
Something about this moment certainly feels different. The intensity of the protests. The way they spread from Minneapolis to all fifty states. Heck, to other countries on every continent! The sustained nature that’s captured the attention of the world. And of course, the police themselves–whose heavy-handed and brutal tactics against protestors, reporters, and just about everyone only serves to underscore the issues at hand.
The protests have mostly been peaceful. In the overwhelming majority. Even artful and creative. If anything, it’s the police response that has been too often disproportional and seemingly out of control. But it’s almost naive to expect that they’d only be peaceful. Like Langston said, wind enough to “uproot trees.” When the 3rd precinct went up in flames, the fireworks that followed were almost cathartic. A real Fourth of July. Our American Bastille. Seems most Americans agree. But riots are by nature chaotic. And it’s difficult to celebrate them, because honestly things should have never gotten here. A riot of this sort isn’t only “the voice of the unheard,” as King eloquently put it; it’s also a societal failure. Worse, there’s always collateral damage. So the killing at the hands of police doesn’t stop.
And of course there are the chaos agents: white supremacists out to cause further mayhem and mass death, and white “allies” who think this struggle over Black Lives is their turn to play out their best anarcho revolution Mr. Robot dreams. Not much to say about the former; that’s what hate does. To those latter folk tho, tagging BLM on Starbucks when no one asked you, or smashing Black and minority owned businesses alongside some chain store is not an attack on the corporate infrastructure. Instigating already out-of-control police waiting to attack us, is not allyship. We asked for solidarity; you’re doing co-option. Fall back, take your cues properly, or go back to your little boring trust fund lives. This isn’t a thrill ride. White privileged Karens doing their best cosplay Black bloc impression while on college break, are still Karens.
But at the end of the day, it’s the police who are the greatest instigators of violence. Yeah, I said that. In fact, one can call much of what we’ve seen as a police riot. The disparity in treatment of these protestors to armed mostly white protestors of just a few weeks ago (carrying Confederate and Nazi symbology) is stark. Physically push your way through police, shout in their faces during a pandemic, bear assault rifles and actually storm and take over a statehouse–and police seem to show amazing restraint.
But let a water bottle come sailing out of a crowd yelling “Black Lives Matter,” and suddenly they’re a militarized army that needs to fire tear gas canisters and turn as violent as possible. Most of what the worst among the protestors are engaged in (and again, a decided minority) is property damage. What police are doing–blinding reporters with rubber bullets, pepper spraying people only for yelling, slamming protestors to the ground enough to cause seizures, tear gassing toddlers and then refusing to offer aid as they scream–that is actual VIOLENCE. Not against property, but human beings–THE ONES WHO PAY TAXES THAT GO TO YOUR SALARY. And the only thing it leads to is more anger. This is not de-escalation. This is not to serve and protect. This is unchecked power, reacting to citizens who dare to defy it.
And the whole world is watching. They see us. They see YOU.
Not going to talk about the Orange Bigot here. VOTE his ass out. Only thing for it.
We don’t know where all this going to end. But arrests and firings are sure happening faster. Already there are calls for police reforms, on local and federal levels. Even from presidential candidates. There’s greater talk of divesting from university police. And all it took was sparking a national crisis to be heard. If the protests had not been as strong. If they had not persisted in the face of police violence. If they hadn’t burned some sh*t down, would any of this even be happening? Wrestle with that.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.–Frederick Douglass
So for those of you who are creatives, especially Black creatives, what do I suggest now? Take a breath. Then when you’re ready, do what you do. Create. Make some beautiful art with that hurt and anger. It won’t be easy. And it may seems like it takes a lot to be motivated to create. But it’s what we do. And if not us, who then? Make your beautiful, terrifying and bold creations. They can be about this moment. Or they can give us the escape and reprieve we need. Because that’s important too.
If you need some inspiration, read this profound essay by writer Tochi Onyebuchi. Remember writer and activist Walidah Imarisha’s call for “visionary fiction,” that uses the “science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres to envision alternatives to unjust and oppressive systems.” We need all of that right now. We need everything. More than ever.
Me myself, I’ve already got some ideas turning around in my head. And my imagination is ready.
“When I get mad, I put it down on a pad.”