by Valerie Morales
The protesting hordes, regardless of what city they are in, and regardless of the specific details of the slain, carry with them ghosts. The ones who have been stolen from them, and the ones who are forever gone. Self-defeating as it may seem to outsiders, the need to act communally after tragic loss is nobly human. In a very clear way, protests are agnostic and haunting milieus. They are always about misplaced aggression, and more fluidly, a history of violence.
A 100 years ago, there was a large group of protestors who marched obediently in a parade down Fifth Avenue. They were protesting racial violence and in the aggregate, they were an impressive group of black people dressed in fine clothes. The women wore white and the men wore black and neither spoke, not to each other, not to the crowd that had gathered to watch. Their silence was a shattering echo that aligned with their sorrow and their footsteps. You are killing us. Please. Stop. They called it The Silent Protest Parade.
Two years later, a mentally disabled farmer named Jesse Washington was lynched and burned while 10,000 watched in ecstasy. After the charred flesh of Jesse Washington cooled, the crowed grabbed whatever they could off of the smoldering ashes, a trophy for their repressed desires. It was absurdly racist and sadistic.
Black murder isn’t a warm story; Eula Love was shot in her doorway over an unpaid gas bill and the cops never had to stand in a courtroom to face their brutality. I was disgusted and my mother, sick of my whining about it said, “tell the D. A.”
That year my mother was on the County Grand Jury and she had access. She slipped me the District Attorney’s phone number.
But this was the problem. In his office that felt like the size of a baseball field, I was arguing morality and ethics and he was arguing the law. His argument was dispassionate and had nothing to do with a South Central mother shot in her doorway but instead what cops have a right to do if they feel threatened. I left his office feeling defeated and invisible.
Long after I was that 17-year-old arguing with the District Attorney of Los Angeles, I witnessed white juries unwilling to convict cops of black murder. And perhaps that was what District Attorney John Van DeKamp knew.
But black jurors have their biases too.
After Martha Morales was murdered, the jury came back with a 10–2 verdict. 10 guilty, 2 not guilty. One of the not-guilty jurors was a black man. Sure, he heard the testimony about Martha being smothered with a pillow while she lay in bed. And the testimony about the killer moving into her house, selling off her possessions to finance his crack habit. He heard the disgusting details of depravity. But he didn’t want to see another black man in prison (just like white jurors don’t want to see white cops in prison.)
After Martha’s trial, after I came back home and reflected on one of the saddest chapters in my life, I thought about that juror. I wasn’t mad at him; I understood the conventional nature of his sadness. He was about 30 years old. For the entirety of his life, he had been traumatized by police violence. Scar tissue builds up over time.
Which explains on a certain inequitable level how it is that two men have cried out the same poetic desperation. I can’t breathe. The first was Eric Garner whose crime was selling cigarettes. A decade later and what have we learned?
I suppose there is some moral victory that the Fraternal Order of Police has called the death of George Floyd a tragedy. But excuse my eye-roll. What about Michael Brown? And Trayvon Martin? And Renisha McBride? And Jordan Davis? And Tamir Rice? And Samuel Dubose? And Walter Scott? And Philando Castile? And Freddie Gray? And Sandra Bland? And Laquan McDonald? And Kindra Chapman? And Joyce Cornell? And Ralkina Jones? And Alexis McGovern? And Raynette Turner? And Sean Bell? And Amadou Diallo?
Marc Lamont Hill of Temple University said “we are erased from the social contract.”
This is what he meant. After Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old, was shot by the Chicago Police and the crime was covered up, the police superintendent worked another year. After Michael Brown, a black 18-year old was killed in Ferguson touching off nationwide riots, the police chief had another seven months on the job. After Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died in custody in Baltimore, the police chief lasted three months. But three years ago Justine Damond, a white Australian woman was killed by Minneapolis police, and the police chief was removed within the week.
All murders are not equal. Black lives don’t matter as much. We are not perfect victims. Our bodies are disposable. As a series of agreements, it is depleting and numbing to listen to.
Professor Hill summed it up like this. We do something ordinary like driving without a working tail light. Or walking down the street with a bag of Skittles in our pocket. Or not using our turn signal. Or playing in the park with a toy gun. Or selling cigarettes. Or playing music. The ordinary is then observed to be criminal. The violent response forthcoming is procedural, in the police handbook. We are them. Others. Strangers. Not human.
Sean Bell was murdered the night before his wedding. He was leaving a strip club with friends when NYPD fired 50 shots. One hit him in the neck. That was in 2006. Fourteen years later and what have we learned?
Bell’s fiancee Nicole Paultre-Bell had this to say in 2017. “I’m still seeking solace following so many unanswered questions about a criminal justice system that failed our daughters and took away their father. With the negligence, assault, the civil rights violations, and the egregious misconduct all pointing to guilt, the police officers are still acquitted.”
One of the most frightening moments of my life was when I was driving home after a church service, hours after Rodney King’s killers had been acquitted. In the passenger seat was a 5-year-old oblivious to what was going on in the world. As I drove down Crenshaw Blvd rocks were being thrown, fires were being set. It was terrifying, like a war zone. In front of me, a car stopped and doors flung open. Black men exited and began running after something or someone. I couldn’t be sure. I drove with my heart in my throat looking at Chase who was enthralled by the arc of the fires and the color of light.
What to say to him? That Paris is burning. That the world is cruel? Was I to invent a story to explain mess and madness?
Two days after that frightening night, after the smoke had dissipated and power was restored, injustice laced the sky and the phone rang. New Orleans calling about Martha. She was dead. It was a surreal moment, the riots, and then a personal tragedy. But I know this from the pace of time. All the buildings in Minneapolis that are torched, looted, ruined, destroyed, all the businesses that have been gutted by the same people who weep for George Floyd, those ruins will be a testament to what happened to him. They will be empty spaces for years. Jobs will be lost for years. The community will have wounded itself.
A white friend asked me why? If it takes a decade to return to normal why then do black people hurt themselves?
I didn’t quite know how to answer her so I told her about a black boy named Eugene Williams who went swimming in Lake Michigan. He ventured past the place he was supposed to be in, the colored section. He was stoned to death. The Chicago police refused to do anything to the ones who tossed the rocks. Young black men fought back and the riot lasted 13 days. 38 people were killed. 537 were injured. 1,000 black families were homeless. The year was 1919.
When a tree is yanked out of the ground, when cruel men mangle the roots, when they kill the fruit, when they damage the ground, when the rocks cry out, when trauma survivors self mutilate, and when dry blood rivets in sidewalk cracks, when the fallen and the criminalized are defeated idols, when you never have justice, when year after year after year a knife stabs you in the back and then stabs you in the front and you are half of what you used to be, when the wind never blows east and the sun never bathes light, you react. You can’t help it. Despite the damage of the moment. You react.
The past is not dead, William Faulkner once wrote. It is not even past.