Just listen. To a few sentences. Just … listen.
“It’s a whole different kind of universe for white folks as for black folks,” said Maxine Cousins. “It’s a whole different kind of reality with the police.”
It was Monday night, and Cousins, whose father died in police custody in a Chattanooga jail 30 years ago, was sitting on a Miller Park bench, in the middle of one of the largest rallies I’ve ever seen in Chattanooga. Marvin Gaye is singing from the loudspeakers.
“Our own son got stopped over on Lone Oak,” said Cousins. “He was 17. They threw him up against the car.”
Fifteen feet away sat Tyisha Brown and Shana Sanders, both 26.
“A situation like this could affect anyone,” said Brown. “The big issue here is about justice. How could you shoot someone and not serve a day in jail?”
“It's unfortunate,” said Sanders. “But this could affect any one of our families.”
Stop, here, with this one sentence. It’s this statement, this one, that does the work on me.
Because when I think about Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old shot by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer and the focus of Monday’s rally in Chattanooga and untold others across the U.S., I do not think — immediately — about my own son or family.
I do not believe this could happen to my own son in the way that so many black Americans think it could happen to theirs.
And that is why the idea of a post-racist America is so hollow.
“For every black man in America, from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedy is personal,” wrote Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post. “It could have been me or one of my sons. It could have been any of us.”
Had Trayvon been white, no one would have written those words.
Monday evening was not an Ice-T/Body-Count type of rally against the police. Please hear me say that. The folks I spoke with talked about building community and stopping gun violence. There were hugs and tears, handshakes and prayers.
But it was not difficult for people I spoke with to bring up hard feelings about injustice. It was like thumbing to page 39 of a 1,000-page book.
In my book, injustice is on page 985. When I see the police come, I feel relieved. We sometimes wave.
So why the radical difference in experience? The alternative universe, as Cousins said?
So many of the signs being held Monday pointed to this: “Yours Could Be Next.” And “I Am Trayvon” And “Could Be Yours Tomorrow.”
It was as if there was some word bubble next to these signs, some different language in invisible ink, begging to be heard and translated by white America: This is our experience. What we see in Florida is not exclusive to Florida.
“I feel like it’s me against them,” said Terrance McClarty, 36.
McClarty lives at the intersection of 12th and Kelly Street, a block over from the spot where Keoshia Ford was shot on March 17. She’s 13 and had been dancing with friends in the yard when a drive-by bullet struck her skull.
She remains in a coma.
McClarty said that afternoon began with innocent cookout.
“Hot dogs. Hamburgers. Kids out there and music. An ordinary block party,” he said. “There was no trouble.”
“Then the police pulled up and said shut it down,” he said. “I could have been at your house with 200 people and the police would not have come. I could have been at your house on Signal Mountain and it would have been OK.”
Is that true? Does it make a difference in your hearing McClarty’s story to know that he’s been arrested three times in the last two years?
“Make sure you put this in there,” he said. “Not all the police are bad.”
Yes, and not all black 17-year-olds wearing hoodies are threats.
“Brother, brother, brother,” sang Gaye. “There’s far too many of you dying. You know we’ve got to find a way … to bring some lovin’ here today.”
For us to ever bury racism, we must begin to listen. Because even though I don’t think my son could be Trayvon Martin, that doesn’t mean yours may not be.
“Talk to me, so you can see, what’s going on … what’s going on … what’s going on.”
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...