That Night re: Ferguson
August 7, 2015
I told this story a few times when it happened, and then I sat with it for eight months. Some stories are like that.
On August 9 one year ago, I was preparing for a family vacation. I packed a book to read: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. And then we heard that things were indeed falling apart: Michael Brown had been shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
On December 3, a grand jury in New York failed to indict the police officer who presided over the arrest of Eric Garner. Garner suffocated to death during his arrest and did not receive CPR or other emergency treatment.
There were other stories, other names, in between Michael and Eric.
I was beginning to understand that we were not talking about isolated incidents or rare accidents. We were opening our eyes (having our eyes opened) to recognize a pattern in a system that perpetuates the pattern. Disbelief had been my first response but repentance was mine to eat now. I felt like I was slowly waking up to a reality that was new to me, but had been true all along. Like waking up groggily from a dream into a nightmare. Before, it was somebody else’s nightmare, not really mine. But more and more, it felt like a truth I should know better.
On December 4, I went to my first #blacklivesmatter protest. I carpooled with my friend Wil; we met another couple of friends there. We ate an awkward dinner before the protest began. We listened to some short speeches yelled through a bullhorn, and then we began to walk. March? Maybe. We were walking with purpose, I suppose. But I did not yet understand what the purpose was.
There were police officers nearby. They rode bicycles on the edges of our group, returning our (my?) friendly smiles. They had set out cones to reroute traffic for our walk. They were helping us. I thought, This is going just fine. This will all feel better soon.
After we had walked for about an hour through the streets of downtown Dallas; after we had lain on the ground in a peaceful, four-minute “die-in”; after I had marveled at the city lights and the beauty of the night and the camaraderie of the crowd; this is what happened.
Somehow I got the sense, along with everyone around me, that something was suddenly and definitely wrong. There was a rustling in the herd of walking people, consternation on furrowed brows ahead of us. We felt nervous, all together. The police officers on bicycles had disappeared — when did they go? Now there were police cars beside us, and look! behind us, too! The cars had their red, spinning, rooftop lights on. The officer-drivers were not outside with us now; they were behind glass. They were not returning our (my?) hopeful smiles.
My friends and I realized together that we were no longer being protected by the police; we were being herded. The loose crowd of protesters was squeezed into a narrower and narrower space. The police cars with their dizzying lights multiplied, came closer, nudging us with bumper and horn into a kind of roadway chute. There were no more city lights; we were in near-darkness except for the nauseating spinning reds on the cars. We realized slowly that we had been corralled under an overpass, with concrete pylons towering over us, no way out on the other side, no streetlights to see by. That’s when the sirens came on.
Now there were 30 police cars behind and beside us, sirens blaring. The noise bouncing off the concrete was deafening. The cars edged close enough to touch our bodies; I hopped out of the path of one that was nipping at my right hip. My diminutive friend (a comment on her physical stature, not her character) was braver than I; she hopped in front of a blaring, glaring car, wearing no more armor than her Episcopal collar. And I thought in panicked fragments, “Don’t. Your skin. Not safe here.”
When she hollered at me to take a picture, so it would be documented if they hurt her, I did the best I could. I could barely hear her voice over the sirens and the sound of my own pounding heart.
We were barricaded under the overpass for some of the longest minutes I have known. (As long as the four-minute die-in? I don’t know. But I could breathe.) The leadership of our purposeful walk was lost to us; the bullhorn couldn’t be heard over the sirens in the echo chamber of cement and asphalt. We dithered. We were like sheep without a Good Shepherd; only the menacing police-car-sheepdogs barking and biting and bullying.
Eventually the word came to the back of the crowd that we would have to turn around and walk out of our situation. Our safety in numbers would be diminished, even destroyed, as we separated from each other to thread through the narrow channels formed by the officers’ cars. One by one we would make our way through, turning our bodies sideways to fit, taking tiny steps on tiptoe to get out. No more marching. Very little purpose to our walking now, except to escape.
The rest of the night was uneventful. There were no arrests. Certainly nobody was hurt, or killed. There were no media witnesses to the part of the protest I’m describing here. No explanation offered by the police department. I have theories. No proof.
But here is what I came away with that night: for the first time in my life, I was afraid of the police. It came to me like an electric shock: This is what my African-American neighbors feel all the time. Like the people who are meant to protect me could arbitrarily turn and use serious force against me for no reason that I could discern. Even if I followed the path they had marked with the cones. Even if I was peaceful, lawful, my hands in the air, my heart exposed.
That’s all I can say about that night eight months ago. It’s one person’s experience on one night in one city. There’s no prescription here for fixing it; only my recollection of how I came to believe that it’s broken. Some stories are like that.