For the second night in a row, it happened.
This time, I was standing in my kitchen consulting my Google Home on how long I could safely thaw raw meat at room temperature before bacteria began growing.
The moment the shrill, public alert alarm broke through the locked screen of my smartphone as it sat in the living room, I felt my heart sink and my eyes shut involuntarily. Oh, no, I thought, and inched towards the living room as if through wet sand. Oh, no. Oh, no.
It was the same message as before. This time, however, a woman’s mechanical cadence recited the announcement, in case I hadn’t been able to access the screen. “There is a curfew set for the entire city of Atlanta, from 9 pm until sunrise the next morning. Stay home.”
Any pleasantries were discarded. There was no time to be polite. That knowledge–and the knowledge that, in the hearts of many of the busiest cities in the United States, people were protesting and rioting against the latest string of violence and prejudice against African Americans–terrified me more than anything had in my life.
With the murder of George Floyd by the hands of a white police officer, it feels as if a worn motor, shuddering and running threadbare after inconsistent years of repair, maintenance, and neglect, finally exploded. It is a pattern that has happened so many times before over the last centuries, but the fact that it keeps happening, and that it happened at all, tells us that somewhere, we have failed to merge as the so-called “Great American Melting Pot.”
The wails that followed the declaration that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated shook the nation in the spring of 1968 and sent ripples of fury born of desperation throughout every black citizen.
Ten years later, the country surged again as the verdict for Dan White, the assassinator of openly gay American politician and activist Harvey Milk, was read as voluntary manslaughter. Milk had pushed for a re-focus on anti-discrimination and was executed by White in the very office he sought to begin the change.
This list is far from complete in the men and women who wanted nothing more than to see goodness and equality for all forms of human life. So, too, is it incomplete in the people who support them, who also want nothing more than to seek their own share of life, liberty and happiness. It is the United States’ Declaration of Independence that entitles us all to that right. When that right is challenged–when that supposed promise is taken away, along with those whom we hold so close and so dear–it is only natural that we will want to respond.
We break when those who would lead us into times of progression, unity, and peace are struck down by those who know no other way to address the flow of change. We grow tired of standing helpless as those who want nothing more than to make it home safely, lose their lives just because their skin is a different shade than what others would prefer.
We grow disgusted and frustrated when those in places of power only peer upon the shiny new baubles of money, control, and dominance, and clutch them closer and closer to themselves as a variable shield against the reality that lies beyond the veil.
Finally we erupt, because we have had enough.
We are supposed to be living in a country of freedom, happiness, and equal opportunity. Nobody should ever have to be terrified to walk out their front door just because the laws of nature make them look or live differently than their neighbor.
Why should anybody be hated just because their skin is different? Why should anybody be hated just because they fall in love with someone that you never would? It takes so much more effort to hate, to hurt, to kill, than it does to help and save and improve the quality of human life. In destroying your fellow man, you destroy yourself.
We as a race are supposed to be superior in intelligence to animals. What superior skills do we display when we taunt and then uselessly end the life of another? Not for food–not even for the dispute of property. The reason for doing so is foggy and marred–and that is most concerning.
We are caught in a global pandemic where something potentially taken for granted as greeting another human at close range has been all but outlawed. And yet, here we are with civil servants using their oaths of protecting and serving to instead mock and serve their own personal agendas–in turn exposing those fighting for their rights and the lives of their loved ones to the deadly effects of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus.
All these thoughts consumed me as a I sunk down onto my couch, my phone in my hand as I stared down at the curfew alert. Almost like clockwork, my phone beeped again–this time from several friends–some that I hadn’t heard from in weeks, months, even nearly a year. All were checking on me, making sure I was alright, that I was safe. They could only imagine, they said, what was going through my mind, what I was thinking in regards to the killings and the protests. I must be so angry, so scared. It must be so scary living in a time like this: after all, many of the protests are bringing forth even more violence against black people.
What could they do to help? How could they, as non-black people, show their support and help protect their black friends, neighbors, and neighbors’ black spouses from getting killed?
And that was–is–the terrifying part of it all.
What could they do?
What could I do?
To ward off my own rising panic, I quickly dialed my mother. It wasn’t necessarily for advice or even for words. I just needed to connect to her. I needed to know that she was still somewhere in the world, healthy and happy. The pandemic left any practical cross-country travel near impossible, but to hear her voice–her healthy, vibrant laughter–was more than enough.
Our talk was hardly laughter, however–which of course I expected. She voiced her fears of what the world had become as a whole: the pandemic, killings, protests and riots–everything. “We’re back in the 40s and 50s, B,” she murmured at one point. I could hear the strain in her voice; no doubt she was speaking from memories of her own childhood, where she’d had to suffer first-hand through events like integrating into an all-white high school.
She went on, and my heart broke even further with her words. “We’re going backwards, even back towards slavery times. I don’t understand how people could be this way. I don’t understand how other people can let other people be this way. How could a human being consciously take another person’s life, just like that?”
I’ve asked myself that question all weekend. I asked myself that when my nephew and I visited Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights exactly one year ago. Though the museum highlighted the plights that humans of different races, genders, religion, and sexual identity have battled against for centuries, it began with a room that focused on American segregationists in the first half of the 1900s. My nephew wandered slowly through the room, listening with an almost suspended state of disbelief as gritty, black-and-white broadcasts projected the “benefits” of keeping separation between black and white communities. Occasionally, he would glance at me, a flicker of doubt in his eyes.
“Is this real?” he’d asked incredulously after a particular video had finished its play-through.
“Yeah,” I’d said, a bubble of hope drifting in my chest. I wanted to believe that most–if not all–of the latest generation had evolved so much towards an integrated mindset, that the segregated ways of thinking were more like a tall tale.
“You know your grandmother went through this, right?” I added gently. I knew that there were many times I would read a historical article and, as moved as I would be, could keep myself disconnected from it personally. I’d wondered, in turn, if my nephew had ever connected that the murals and TV screens surrounding him were the livelihood that his living, loving, vibrant grandmother–my mother–had experienced herself.
His head spun to stare at me, realization dissolving general sympathy and replacing it with genuine horror. “She did?“
I nodded, watching as he lifted his gaze around the room once more, seeing it maybe with a renewed sense of understanding.
With that memory, I returned to the present and my mother’s questions. How could people act like that towards one another? How could they do that?
The questions ran through my head repeatedly, each time in my mother’s soft tone. Frustration, helplessness, and rage boiled within me. My mother was in legitimate pain because of all this. Somewhere, my nephew was–is–living his life the way he is meant to: fully and without fear. And yet, there he is–a young, tall, strong, African American man.
A young man who has done no less wrong than wonder what he can do to help counsel troubled kids and his own friends through tough times and mental struggles.
A young black man.
There, locked away in my home, bound by thousands of miles of distance and a citywide curfew that kept me from doing anything physically, I rallied against my fears with the only answer I could find.
“Because they’re not people,” I blurted out. “They’re monsters.”
It is the truly intelligent who seek to enhance the world by creating, expanding their awareness, and extending their knowledge and their skills to improve the conditions of those around them. It is the truly human who seek to save, to love, to spend their time nurturing and educating those who can’t care for themselves.
Monsters are monsters because they can only function based on the amount and the magnitude of destruction they can incur. If they could, they would have us all behave like monsters, until there is nothing left of the world but chaos and hate.
My mother and I ended the call shortly after, but I did my best to throw out a joke or two so that we could part with the reminders that, despite how things seemed to be, there were still blessings and positive people working to help the world. There were still the blessings that the friends whom I hadn’t heard from in so long and thought about me and reached out to make sure I was okay. We hung up with a promise to talk again soon, one that I look forward to more than anything.
But even after hanging up, I wondered if my answer was too full of emotion, if maybe I wasn’t being fair. I wrote this in hopes of gaining some perspective, some respite from the helplessness that continues to unsettle me. I’m still emotionally wound up, even as drowsiness slows my typing these last few lines.
Monsters come in different forms, but they are all borne from the dark. To defeat them, we must cultivate our light. We must not shatter under their footfalls of hate and cruelty. We must keep sharing our love, our hope, our yearning to see this country–this world–heal and thrive together.
That doesn’t mean that we simply forgive or forget what they have done. We must remember the cruelty, because we have to stop it from continuing or reoccurring. We have to stop the monsters, stand up against them to show them that they cannot stop us. We have to let them know that their ways won’t win, that they cannot oppress us by trying to drag us down to their level. The only way to dispel the darkness is to spread the light.
Only then will monsters no longer be able to rise from the shadows.