Our Protest Story
There is no music in a revolution.
The air is full of sound, but it’s the hum of errant chatter and the stampede of shoes traversing asphalt; it’s the roar of engines and the pings of shattering glass; it’s the chorusing of lone cries into a symphony of voices. I hear the crack as polycarbonate fractures bones, the buzz of blaring sirens, the whistle of gas canisters, the pops and rat-tat-tat of gunfire, the BOOM of explosives. Sometimes I even hear singing, but there is no music in a revolution.
At dawn, I step into the cool, crisp fall wind and start east until I come across an old steel framed cabin with cracked wooden walls. The cabin rests on the street opposite the university campus, and features windows boarded with wrought iron bars. On the south facing wall’s interior, there’s a colorless poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in front of an American flag, behind a podium, frozen mid-sentence, brow pressed down against his steely eyes. His right arm is extended forward as if reaching out to greet your palm. Beneath him a quote reads All Labor Has Dignity. Something to boost morale, I guess.
The cabin is the hub for custodial operations. For as long as I’ve been a student here, I’ve held a position with the maintenance staff. It’s a work-study job, something stable, and the only one that fits my schedule. Up until I started working here, I had been living off scholarships and loans, and when those started to run out, well, I needed the cash. The pay is abysmal, and, in addition to my collegiate responsibilities, I’m required to clock in at least twenty hours each week.
Still, the bi-weekly check I received delivers a momentary exultation on the first and third Friday of every month, every time. I taste the sweet semblance of emancipation borne by a thin, quartered sheet of paper with my name printed on it. It’s not much, but it’s something. If I keep this up, by the start of the next semester I’d pay for Dostoyevsky and Rousseau and Tocqueville out of pocket, no loans. Hell, with all the extra hours I work, I might buy myself the time to write my own treatise.
For now, anyway, I work.
This cabin only has enough space for a single office, so our equipment is stored in a rusted shipping container adjoining the north wall. I check the assignment sheet, unlock the cargo doors, retrieve a broom and dustpan, and start towards the university grounds.
Every now and then I daydream about walking out of that cabin for the last time, throwing my broom to the floor, shredding my nametag, burning my uniform, and never looking back. But it’s just a dream. I never act on it. Instead, I escape into an existence of fragments and purity, a space detached from the whole mess and pain and truth of the world. I burrow further and further into a hidden, hollow pit veiled by a frail daze of contentment.
It’s all the same to me really, now. Sometimes, I launder and fold gym towels with deep yellow-gray sweat stains marred across the white cotton surface. At other times, I scrub the top of steel cafeteria tables with an opaque, soapy concoction that reeks of white vinegar and lemon juice. Occasionally, I mop the resin floor of the chemistry labs during the inactive hours of ten p.m. to midnight before trekking home accompanied only by the dim glow of a distant moon and the pungent stench of remnant cleaning material carried in my clothes.
At dusk, I step into that other world to confront the mess of progress. It’s in that other world where I see the sights of new beginnings and listen to the concerto of struggle. That world which reveals a snapshot of what’s to come behind the smudge of today’s woes. That world rings a melody but falls shorts of something like music.
The sights in this world are alluring. Tonight, a fire brings the city to its knees. The flame is sensational; white at its core, engulfed in a pronounced orange glow, crusted by thick black smoke lifting into the night sky. The blaze reaches up some forty feet above the ground and radiates through the chill of this autumn night, piercing my skin with harsh heat.
I’m terrified; but I’m not alone.
There are at least two hundred of us, maybe three. We occupy the street in front of City Hall and the two blocks east of it. Most are young, angry, hostile, and dressed in long black clothes with bandanas covering their faces. Some are wearing thick, dark vests with backpacks and gloves; others have gas masks fitted firmly around their heads. I came with a friend, but I lost him hours ago.
A segment of the group has pushed ahead to rattle a fence separating us from the steps. Every few minutes a firework is shot through the barrier, flaring out bright flashes of red, blue, yellow, orange, and green. I’m behind the front line. It’s loud and tense and the heat is incredible. I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with a woman to my left whose hair is twisted in two braids underneath a tactical helmet and she’s shouting behind a mask; sweat is pouring down her temple. To my right, a man’s veins are bulging from his neck and spit is flying from his mouth as he yells. He’s wearing protective eye gear and a helmet. I’m yelling too, but I’m underdressed.
At curfew, a thick white haze envelops the group at the fence, and they scatter back from the steps. By the time the haze reaches the rest of us, we’ve begun to break our formation. We’re corralled back to an intersection, shoved by long black shields and prodded by thick batons.
The woman who had been standing to my left is thrown to the ground before kicking and thrashing, trying to release the grips on her wrists and ankles. Some ten feet in front of her, a tall, heavy set man is struck repeatedly with a club to the beat of an unheard drum. I spin around and at another ten feet, someone is shot by a close-range rubber bullet; thick streaks of blood begin pouring down his cheek.
I hear a long hiss behind me and panic. I feel as though a thousand needles are coursing down my throat and my limbs tense up, straining to reach my face. I start to choke and cough incessantly and my eyes are stinging, struggling to open. Around me, others are bent over their knees spitting and hacking. Gradually, a white mist expands the entire block. Those out of range flee to refuge. Quickly, a small unit in gas masks charge into the mist, pick up the canisters and throw them across the intersection.
I hold my breath long enough to stumble behind a brick building around the corner. My heart is racing and I’m nauseous. There are still at least a hundred of us running and shouting in the intersection. Sudden sporadic bursts fill the air and almost all hundred or so bodies duck down, placing their hands behind their head for cover. Others disperse.
A helicopter lowers beneath the treetops. It’s blades cut swiftly through the air, stirring up dust and pebbles in a thunderous gust of wind. It’s shining a blinding light onto the pavement and echoing commands to leave.
I join the evacuees and dart through the street, mapping my escape home. The flame is still casting a dazzling glow over the shadow of the night.
When I return to my apartment, I find an envelope in my mailbox. It’s return address belongs to a woman I had written to weeks ago. Her name is Sandra Brown. Last winter the woman’s grandson was killed in front of her home.
Her grandson, Nate, was seventeen years old and weighed no more than a hundred and thirty pounds. It made no sense, then, when the police officer who killed him explained that Nate had put up a real fight. The officer stands just above six feet and weights at least double what Nate does. There’s no way a boy like that could so much as have shaken this officer, but that was his story.
The officer was responding to a call about “a suspicious dark man sort of lurking in the neighborhood.” Within minutes of his arrival, the arresting officer had Nate in hand cuffs, pinned to the ground, and one of his large, muscular arms wrapped firmly around the boys neck. After a minute, the boy was unresponsive; after three, lifeless, there, on his family’s estate, where his body laid for some time before an ambulance could arrive to treat him.
The trial was a joke. Within two days, the city’s police department presented the facts of the case to a jury and, in three and a half hours, the officer was cleared of all charges.
A mother had lost a son. A father had lost a son. A grandmother lived in a home stained by the blood of her child’s son. And nobody could explain why. It’s true that inexplicability has a way of producing anger, and the public outrage here was palpable. A community was lost.
The boy’s death was a spark that lit a fuse; a fuse wound around an incendiary injustice, that undermines any postulation of judicious integrity.
We began to ask ourselves; how could we coexist with a body that’s payroll hinges on an incentive to seize ours?
We could not, was the answer. We could not live as prey. We took to the streets because the rules governing our lives were not written into any constitution or municipal statutes. No, the four-word edict commanding our existence was enshrined in the laws of nature: survival of the fittest.
I bring the piece of mail up to my apartment, I retrieve a knife, slice through the adhesive between the paper, and take out a letter. The message inside reads: Please come by 828 East Washington Ave. on Saturday at 8 a.m. It’s the little brown house with the white fence in front. Thank you.
I fall asleep consoled by the letter and the thought of the woman’s gesture, the expression of a warm spirit, a comforting spirit.
On Saturday, I get on the bus and go south. I stay on it for six stops until I reach downtown. The address from the letter leads me to a neighborhood two blocks from the stop, the same district that housed the city’s former precinct, a building now reduced to ash and ruble. The neighborhood is full of run-down homes surrounded by chain link fences. Angry, stout dogs roam the sidewalk; a trademark of the wilderness of a ghetto.
I arrive at the address and see a tawny home with an attic and a four-foot white fence stretching across the yard. I open the latch on the gate, ascend a short flight of stairs and knock on the door. The home is a relic of another century; the stairs squeak and crack with every step and the porch bows inward as if wilted by time. It’s an old home, certainly, but the most well-kept on the block.
Moments later, the door opens, revealing an elderly woman, no taller than five feet, with short curly hair and small wrinkled hands. She raises her head, and her face is full of life. I stare into her eyes which are like stones. I toil with the image of this woman.
“You’re late,” she says.
“Yes. Hello. Sorry. Are you Mrs. Brown?”
“Ms. Sandra Brown. You the one who wrote me?”
“Yes, Ms. Brown.”
“Well, you’re late.”
I apologize again. She steps aside and gestures for me to enter her home. It smells like mint and carpet cleaner. The living room is furnished with deep magenta curtains that match a long couch. She has a walnut coffee table positioned in front of a vintage television set. She offers me a glass of water, which I accept.
The east facing wall has a shelf adorned with portraits of her family, various African figurines, and a map of the continent. Ms. Brown must catch me looking at them because she asks, “You ever been?”
“How old did you say you are?” she hands me the glass.
“I didn’t. But I’m twenty-one.”
“Oh, you’re so young. You must visit someday.”
I tell her I would like to. There is an awkward silence that fills the air. The woman is old and leans forward slightly when she walks. It looks like she might fall over with every step. She paces in front of a second shelf on the opposite wall, a shelf lined with hundreds of books.
“What is it you study in school, young man?” she asks.
She looks at me funny, “Is that right?”
She looks back to the shelf before handing me a copy of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. “This was my absolute favorite. I used to spend hours talkin’ to my kids about just this one book. Here, take it and tell me what you think about it.”
“Looks interesting,” I respond.
“See, I was a teacher,” she explains, “many years ago. I used to love talking about great black writers. And this man here, he was the best.”
She sits down on a cushioned chair in front of the coffee table and gestures for me to sit on the couch.
“You know, you almost look like him, too,” she says.
There’s a photo of her grandson hanging against the wall behind her. I think she was just making conversation because there’s hardly a resemblance. We have the same nose, but my lips are far too thin, his cheekbones sit lower than mine, and his eyes are much brighter and a different color than my own.
“Is there a particular reason you asked me to come here today, Ms. Brown?”
“Oh, yes. See, my grandbaby—he used to help out around here, but that was before he was killed. Now, I’ve got nobody helping me to keep the yard, fetch my groceries, or fix my television when it’s broke, see. It’s just been so hard,” she says behind tired, tearful eyes. “And, I figure, since you wrote me, I might have you step in from time to time. If you can.”
I open my mouth to speak, but she interrupts me.
“Only if it’s no trouble to you of course.”
“And I will pay you.”
“I would love to help.”
“Oh, I am just delighted to hear you say that.”
Before I leave, she shows me a couple of very old images of her family. One is of a field. In it, a group of slaves are hacking through thick sugar cane under a brilliant summer sun. They’re young and they have tough, dark skin. The men are wearing loose linen shirts, woolen trousers, and brown leather shoes; the women, woolen waistcoats with full skirts worn above the ankle and the same leather shoes.
Another is a painting of a second group of slaves is sitting around a fire behind a shack beneath the stars scattered across the night sky. Some are laughing, some are dancing, others look like they’re crying; they all look tired. One man is standing, speaking to a small group of children with a book in his hand. I wonder what he’s reading.
She tells me how about how hard these people worked and that her grandson was just like on of the men in the field who she points to with her long finger. The images remind me of my job, my uniform and of these deep, dark spots I come across on the on the hallway floors. The thing about them is, no matter how hard I scrub, they don’t go away. My hands can be clenched in fists around the handle of my mop, knuckles white and bulging, but it won’t do any good. Whatever they are, they won’t go away. I can keep wiping and wiping, I can soak and wring the mop and push and pull the handle and press the bundle of thick loose strings across the floor, back and forth. I can move the mop, but some things just don’t change.
The next Saturday, I get on the bus and I stay on for six stops. I walk through the neighborhood until I come to the white fence. Ms. Brown is seated on the porch with a broom leaning against the wall behind her. She has a big grin on her face and yells from across the lawn.
“What’d you think of the book?” she asks.
“Haven’t read it yet,” I say.
“It’s a real masterpiece. Make sure and take your time with it.”
“Will do, Ms. Brown.”
She rises from her chair, descends the steps, and looks up at her home. “I thought we might start with the roof.” She hands me the broom and a pair of full-length gloves. I climb to the top of her roof and, for some time, sweep the leaves that have fallen from tall trees this autumn, then I scrape out debris collected in the gutter. The sun, fully awake, strikes against my dark skin and my clothes cling to the sweat on my body as if stuck by glue.
When I finish, I climb down from the roof and Ms. Brown asks me to replace that old television in her home. I don’t know much about electronics, but I agree to help. Some time passes with me tampering with wires of every color, screwing and unscrewing bolts and nails, plugging and unplugging cords until, I call the company that made the set. The representative is incredibly helpful, and we get the thing working no time. When I turn on the power, it’s set to a local news channel. They’re covering the recent protests.
The anchor says, “The unity at these demonstrations is truly remarkable. This is something we have never seen before. Black, white, brown, everybody is coming together for this cause.”
“That’s right,” the co-anchor affirms, “Folks on the ground are saying now is the time for change, that this young man was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We are watching history.”
I turn to Ms. Brown who is standing behind me staring at the screen. She says nothing. Her face twists into a deep frown. Her lips begin to quiver, and I think she’s about to speak, but she grabs the remote from my hand and turns the television off.
“You know, Ms. Brown, I’ve been out there some nights. It does feel different. I think we are bringing about real change.”
“You’re foolish!” she snaps, “My baby didn’t die for some cause. There ain’t none of that. Just death, senseless, meaningless killin’.”
I struggle to find the words, “I just mean, we’re finally being heard. My generation is more outspoken on these issues than any before us.”
“And my baby’s still dead,” she says sharply, “Marching and shouting and burning ain’t gonna to do nothing but wear you out. This’s been going on since Emmett Till and my baby’s still dead. He died ‘cause he didn’t have no choice. This country been tellin’ folks like us the same thing since before I was born, young man, you hear me? It’s the same story you’d have heard marchin’ on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma or boycottin’ the city bus in Montgomery or shirkin’ your crop yield in Virginia. We’ve always been the burden. And that’s all my baby was to them: a burden.”
On my way out the door, she cups her frail hands around mine which are cold, and in a soft, quiet voice, says, “I already lost one baby. I ain’t losing any more.”
In the evening, I return to my apartment and find the copy of The Souls of Black Folks. I open it to the first chapter, and I read. I fall into the sea of Arthur Symon’s poetry. I drown under the mass of his words, longing for black tears to cease. I drift along his rhythmic muse and find myself caught between a space of ease with the flow of time and resistance to the tides of anguish. I want to cry myself; I want to cry all night. Like the poet, I cannot understand the voice of my heart and I cling, desperately, to Ms. Brown’s words, searching for something familiar, something familial.
Maybe she’s right, I conclude. Maybe some things don’t change.
In the morning, I rise to a clear, dark sky. I lift open a window to let in a soft breeze ruffling the leaves adorning a grove of pine within view. I listen. It’s the only sound at this hour. It’s dawn and I start to prepare something to eat. I cup my hands under the cold water flowing from the kitchenette faucet, watching it cascade down the bright, ruby skin of my apple before collecting in the sink and clearing. The sweet, smoky aroma of warm roasting coffee penetrates my nostrils and I look over to the clock. I have time. I step outside; the sun is still rising out beyond the landscape and, a few hundred yards out, I can see some two dozen students sauntering through campus.
Before work, I cut through the university’s courtyard, a pristine piazza with monochromatic wildflowers, thick oak trees, and an imposing clocktower. In the winter, most of the leaves have left their posts, gathering along the pavement leaving a trail of burnt scarlet leaves scattered along the walkway.
Finally, I arrive at a large, exposed brick building with chipped beige paint. The building’s interior is populated with portraits of former deans, chancellors, and alumni; and where there aren’t images, there are busts of renowned painters and writers and poets. One of the busts is of Mr. Du Bois. I notice he has the same stony eyes as Ms. Brown.
I look at the sculpture of the man, a descendant of slaves, and I think, she’s wrong. A change will come, and she’ll be here to see it.