Leaving the house sometimes, I imagine what it would be like if I never came back. What if the run of good luck that has kept me from the fate of so many Black men and women who meet guns or bullets or chokeholds or night sticks runs out? All of those awful possibilities came rushing back to me last Sunday as I got ready to go to the #BLMChiYouth protest against the police shooting of Paul O’Neal.
I said goodbye to my five year-old daughter, Lucy. She was cross-legged on her bed looking at a book. I gave her a hug. She asked me where I was going. I told her about the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Chicago.
“Are there going to be police there?” she said. She brushed a strand long brown hair away from her forehead.
“I guess so,” I said.
“You’re not going to get arrested, are you?” she said. I still couldn’t get the image of all those police officers standing around, slapping fives, checking themselves for injuries, while the life ebbed out of the young man at their feet, his hands shackled behind him. What a terrible way to die.
“No, baby,” I said. I gave her a kiss on the cheek. “I’m not planning on getting arrested.”
After navigating traffic and finding a parking spot, I got to Wrigley Square about thirty minutes late for the protest. The sun was still high in the sky, and people were crowding the sidewalks, enjoying the last moments of the weekend. On the square there were about 200 or so people sitting on two sides of a grassy field. The crowd skewed younger and whiter, but there was a good presence of black and brown faces as well. Across the street, lines of police were arrayed along Michigan avenue.
The protest organizers stood in a circle at the fountain nearby. Eva Lewis, a young black woman with long black and purple braids, thick glasses, and yellow ankh earrings was earnestly reading a long list of names over a bullhorn. The names were all people who had been killed by police.
I walked around the perimeter of the square so I could get a lay of the land and get a sense of the group’s vibe. Despite the fact that I grew up in Berkeley, California, where demonstrations are an unofficial part of the curriculum, large gatherings always make me nervous, especially when they involve interactions with police. The Dallas shootings at a BLM rally last month added yet another layer of gruesome possibility. But despite my discomfort, there is something deeply satisfying about getting with a bunch of like-minded people to draw attention to an injustice that should not be ignored. Exercising the right to free public assembly and speech makes me feel most American, I suppose.
I immediately noticed the white guy with dirty blonde hair and a large green backpack walking near the crowd’s edge, muttering about something Eva had said.
“Did she just say that America was created to protect white men?” he said. He repeated the question over and over, shaking his head and laughing. I moved away so I could keep an eye on him and the nearest exit. From the way some of the black people in the crowd were stealing glances at him, I wasn’t the only one wary of his disbelief.
On the other side, I noticed a light-skinned brother taking deep draws on a cigarette, also muttering about the proceedings. He had a blue baseball cap tipped forward at a jaunty angle. He was skinny, but tall and tense. He surveyed the crowd with disgust, his eyes light green and googly.
“This shit weak,” he hissed and shook his head. “This shit lame.”
He didn’t appear to be talking to anyone in particular, but a woman with a notepad sidled up to him and identified herself as a reporter. His face brightened a little as he talked and she scribbled.
Honestly, I had some concerns, too. Having white allies is important to any stand against white supremacy, but I can’t help but have Malcolm X’s Message to the Grassroots speech in my head, where he complains about white influence making the March on Washington whiter and more palatable. Like cold cream in hot black coffee was the analogy he used. Being black often means occupying spaces designed with the comfort of white people in mind. I didn’t want to protest with knuckleheads, but I also didn’t want this to be about making white people feel comfy.
After a moment or two, Eva came back out and made a shocking statement about what we were going to do: the goal of the march was to shut the streets down, but not get arrested.
I’ve been to a lot of protests and before an event gets started, usually you’ll get advice about what to do if you got arrested, but can’t recall anyone ever saying the goal was to avoid arrest. Protester street cred is supposed to come from getting locked up. Throwing your body against the gears of the machine, and all that. But this new approach felt oddly subversive.
“If you a CPS student, I know you not trying to get arrested,” she said. “Because I know I ain’t.”
It was startling to hear a young activist pragmatically consider what a clash with the police might mean for her and all the people gathered together. There are times when an effective protest may require people sacrificing their freedom, but she was letting us know that this wasn’t that kind of party. (Besides, there's ample evidence that mass arrests are a tactic being used to dismantle BLM movements around the country) I had already promised Lucy I was going to be coming home that night, but hearing Eva say this made me not feel like I had to carry the promise like a secret.
As a teacher, I admired her classroom management acumen as she made everyone repeat several times that no one was going to get arrested. She also said that we needed to stick together. If we were by ourselves, we should find a “protest buddy” who could look out for us. We shouldn’t put our hands on anyone. We shouldn’t cuss at police. We should not do things that would get us arrested. We should listen to instructions from the organizers. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia were all unacceptable.
Everyone was smiling and looking ready to go. The gaggle of young women and men who were organizing the event were holding a powwow on the side to go over the final details, and Green Eyes came over. He moved his hands wildly, but seemed mostly calm as he mansplained how “weak” and “lame” the nascent protest was and detailed his idea for making it less so. They tried to placate him by listening, but he stomped away when he didn’t get the reception he wanted. He walked to the center of the still-seated crowd.
“You see those motherfuckers over there?” he said, pointing to the police lining the sidewalk on the other side of Michigan Avenue. “They taking this shit for a joke. I’m tired of this bullshit”
Eva grabbed a bullhorn and yelled back.
“If you have any respect for the black girls who are putting this together, you will stop.”
But Green Eyes was in his own world, at the center of everyone’s attention. He was a model of righteous black fury. Cursing and jabbing at the air. The crowd fidgeted and news cameras were hoisted on shoulders. I felt the impulse to pull away from the spectacle, but an older brother with a black beret and a large black liberation flag stepped in front of the young brother. And then another one of the young poets, and another, and another. Nobody was being overly aggressive, just letting him know what he’s doing is not acceptable. They surrounded him like bullshit antibodies.
It was tense for a moment as he yelped, “Get your goddamn hands off me,” but then the organizers told everyone to stand up and we were on our way. Crisis averted. As we marched down Michigan, a chant starts, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”
Green Eyes approved.
“See, that’s what the fuck I was talking about,” he beamed.
Walking down State, the organizers tell everyone to link arms and come in tight. I’m hesitant because I don’t know anyone, but I guess that’s the point. They encourage us to share names with one another (Two college-aged white kids, Elaine and Kareem, are on either side of me) just in case anything happens. As we’re marching and yelling, I’m a little surprised at how connected and strong I feel amidst the tall buildings and roaring traffic.
Side note: Participating in public protest nowadays means being ready to not only confront the stares of bystanders, but also their cameras. A protest should disrupt the normal flow of people and capital so the public is forced to consider the injustice. Disagree with the cause or not, people are forced to think about what they think, even if what they “think” is just a product of brainwashed thinking. The thing that’s complicated now is that people insulate themselves from thinking by holding their phones up. When thought and emotion get too intense, people feel the impulse to point their cameras at it. I notice the wry smiles on people’s lips as they stare at their screens as we pass. I wonder are they thinking about police brutality or how many likes their footage will earn them. Hashtags in their eyes.
As someone participating in protest, this raises the stakes because at any moment, anything could happen that could be beamed to screens all over the world. Don’t trip over your shoe. Don’t throw a rock. Don’t say the wrong thing. Really, the police don’t need to patrol a crowd that’s being recorded, and recording itself.
But I also get it. The young ladies who organized the protest had put the whole thing together online and were very aware of how to use it to their benefit. They encouraged people to take out phones and take pictures of them and tweet about the event. After all, that’s how I heard about the event. So it can be an important tool, but you wonder when the effort to encourage awareness mutates into a performance of “wokeness”.
I saw the scruffy white guy from earlier as we walked up State. He had a friend with him and they were both sipping cans of Milwaukee’s Best. The crowd was chanting “Black lives, what? Black Lives Matter!” and these guys are chanting “All lives matter!” Some people around me hear it and yell at them, but they just flash silly grins and keep chanting. I leaned over to one of the guys.
“Why are you doing that?” I said.
“Well, because they do matter,” he said, matter-of-factly.
I agreed that all human life is significant, but that wasn’t the question that Black people have had to answer in this country. The question of valuing the lives of Black people is the question that Paul O’Neal faced as he scrambled over that backyard gate, heavy with breath, school backpack jangling with nothing but a screwdriver inside. (By the way, why was he so committed to that little backpack? He was either driving around in a brand-new stolen Jaguar with the backpack pressed uncomfortably against his seat or he grabbed it in and put it on after he crashed his car and fled the police gunfire. Something about it was important to him. He’ll never be able to tell us why.) Black Lives Matter is necessary because it’s an answer to a question that this country has not yet set itself to come to terms with.
I didn’t say all that too him, but basically I fussed at him like I would fuss at a student who was being disruptive during class presentations. He got the point and apologized. I told him I was glad he was there and how important it was for guys like him to represent, but I restrained the impulse to share my name with him and I walked away.
My adrenaline had gotten going talking to Milwaukee's Best and within a few steps I felt like I had been running wind sprints. The sadness came all of a sudden and the weight of why we were marching put lead in my feet. I stopped chanting and just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, just being a part of the crowd. Just being a vessel for someone to use for good purpose.
I credit the organizers for that moment. Not only did those young ladies take ownership of the event, providing a very clear vision of what they wanted to happen, they also did little things that made me feel cared for, like encouraging those who had come on their own to link up, like pausing the march to have people share hugs with people they didn't know, to adopting chants the crowd contributed. All stuff that made me feel cared for. Stuff that made it easier to just breathe and be present.
And maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Black women have always done this kind of organizing, it’s just patriarchal nonsense that has kept some of our best and brightest leaders on the sideline. I noted the young brothers who formed a line of security and consulted often with the main organizers. The love and respect that they showed was a model for everyone there.
I had to leave the march early to keep my bedtime appointment with my two year-old, but I felt a bit of catharsis as I drove home. I didn’t leave the rally feeling like I had ended police brutality or the state-sanctioned murder of black people in America, but it certainly left me with a vision of the type of leadership that will move us there. That will move my children there. Thank God for that.