Before Ferguson and New York our country was in tumult; we just weren’t talking about race, racism, power, hatred, and violence at the volume we are currently. But we have lived out racism each day- as folks of oppressed groups and as folks of non-oppressed groups, folks with privilege, folks without privilege, and as folks who deny that privilege exists.
I struggle to describe the rage I feel over the recent decisions in Missouri and New York. And, I struggle with how to act in the wake of overt racist violence and ongoing divisive and hateful dialogue. But tonight, my father reminded me of one small act I can do every day- act with an open, trusting, peaceful heart.
On Saturday night my parents received a loud knock on their door. My parents live in a semi-rural area, bordering on woods that back a few miles down to the local penitentiary. Also, they live in the deep South; where guns and racism are both norms. Our home has been broken into. My brother had a schoolmate shot to death in his home. I worked in a neighborhood for two years with young women of color- neighborhoods my friends castigated me for visiting at night when the girls I coached were homeless or in trouble. The state in which my parents live is a place in which people own either handguns or shotguns and pull them before they open the door at unanticipated knocks.
My father did as the norm. He got his gun and asked my mother to hold it and hang back in the hallway while he opened the door. At the other side of the unlocked glass door was a young Black man; my father guessed about 15 years old. He told my father, “I need your help,” and continued to describe being beaten by his father.
To keep a longer story shorter, my father told the young man that he wasn’t going to open the door, but that he wanted to know what he could do to help him. At the same time, he asked my mum to call the cops because he remembered all of our talks about domestic violence and child witness, and because this young man was just a kid. Through the door, he invited the boy to sit on the porch bench. And then, after a few minutes, my father joined him (without his gun), standing at the door and just talking. Was he thirsty? Was he hungry? Mum gave him a soda and make him a sandwich. Dad talked to him about his family and school. Dad said that he’d called the police for help; that they could get him to his mother and take care of this father. The boy had scratches on his arms.
The police arrived- and the boy’s story wasn’t true. He hadn’t been at his father’s house. He’d escaped from the juvenile penitentiary earlier that day. He’d gotten lost in the woods, hidden his jumpsuit, and wandered cold and hungry in the woods for over 6 hours until he found my parents house. My dad described that the whole time the kid was sitting and talking and eating, even after my father told him he’d called the police, that the young man was polite, saying “Yes, Sir” in response to questions and watching the Christmas lights across my father’s garden. He went with the police without resistance. And after, the police officer disclosed that he had been convicted of aggravated assault; a serious crime and, yet, one in which we know nothing about the context; self-defense, gang violence, domestic violence, poverty, racism, oppression, many of the things that could have led to that event and his conviction. And honestly, we don’t need to know.
After telling my the story my father said, “I was stupid. I went outside.”
I noted, “No. You didn’t.”
He responded, “You’re right. He was just a kid.”
And I began to cry. Quietly. And I told my father that I was proud of him. Because in this society, pre- and post-Ferguson, many people would have criticized my father for not keeping his gun drawn. Many would have criticized him for going outside. For feeding the young man. For talking with him. But, he was just a kid. He’s just a kid, and I truly believe that the trust and love my father showed to him in his actions was received and responded to fully by that young man.
What does this mean for me? That what I can keep do is talking about oppression and privilege. I can talk about race and racism. I can talk about how uncomfortable it makes me. And, I can act with love and hope and from the premise that he or she is “just a kid” or better- “another human like me”.