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  • March

     

    By the time Ben arrived it was packed. D’s Bar, a haven for Iowa sports fans, was teeming with black and yellow. Ben pushed through the crowd toward the tall, wooden table near the center of the room where his family sat. He waved hello to his aunt, uncle, cousins, parents, and sister, and they returned the greeting with momentary surprise before turning their attention back to the game televised above the bar.

    “How did you make it over here?” asked his father.

    “Rode my bike,” said Ben, stuffing his messenger bag beneath his seat.

    His father stopped short of a drink with the pint glass in hand. “No shit? How long did that take?”

    “About forty minutes,” said Ben, wiping the sweat from his brow.

    His father nodded in admiration, then took his delayed swig. <

    “Can I get you anything to drink, honey?” interrupted a waitress with a tray wedged under her arm.

    “Ahh, I’ll have a-” Ben craned his neck to see the taps but was too shortsighted to make out the labels. “A Rainier, please.”

    “And another for you?” the waitress asked his father.

    “Yes, thanks,” his father responded.

    “Alright, I’ll be right back with those,” said the waitress. “Also, the kitchen will open at noon and I’ll be back around just before to place orders if y’all are interested.”

    His father thanked her then asked, “What time’s the rally?”

    “Meet-up time is noon and we should take off by one,” said Ben anxiously.

    “What’s it for?” asked his father with his eyes on the game.

    “It’s a Black Friday Protest,” said Ben sheepishly. Straightening his posture, he continued, “It’s put on by a group called Don’t Shoot PDX and co-organized by the Portland chapter of Black Lives Matter. They want to draw attention away from the shopping and onto the shootings and police brutality.”

    “Someone the other day was talking to me about Scott? What was his name?” his father asked. “Willie?”

    “Walter Scott,” Ben nodded.

    “While I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to run away from the police,” his father cautioned, “it’s hard to argue the officer was justified once you’ve seen the video.”

    “Yeah,” nodded Ben.

    His father nodded with his bottom lip curled over, then asked, “Where is it taking place?”

    “We’re meeting in the park next to Lloyd Center Mall on the east side.”

    “We’re on the east right now, right?” his father asked.

    “That’s right but we’re further out,” said Ben. “The mall is closer to downtown.”

    “You’re leavin’ already?” said his cousin, draping an arm over Ben’s shoulder. “Where you headed to?”

    “I’ll be here for a little,” consoled Ben. “I’m going to a march downtown.”

    “Oh yeah? Is it some kinda hippie-rally?” his cousin teased. Without pause he continued, “I remember when the park blocks were full of people camping out for Occupy.”

    “I don’t think it’s going to be like that,” said Ben defensively.

    “I hope not,” his cousin chuckled. “By the end those guys did so much damage to the parks it ended up costing the tax payers over a million dollars to put things back as they were.”

    “Yeah, but the corporate bailouts cost a lot more,” said Ben, indignant.

    “Some of the Occupy folks were camped out in downtown Phoenix not far from my office. I’m all for exercising your right to free speech and to gather together to protest,” his father matter-of-factly stated. “There is nothing more American than voicing political views and speaking out but I have a real contention with blocking roads and damaging public or private property. Those are criminal acts. If you want your beliefs heard and respected then listen and respect others.”

    Ben rolled his eyes. The conversation reminded him of the time he and his father watched Do The Right Thing. What started as a dialogue escalated into a heated one-hour debate over a broken window. “Where’s that drink?” Ben mumbled to himself.

    “Benjamin, you’re leaving?” asked his sister.

    “In not too long,” said Ben.

    “Where you off to?” asked his cousin.

    Ben cleared his throat, “A march downtown,” he said, realizing he had now referred to the event as a march, rally, and protest, and that a little clarification might help.

    “What for?” he cousin asked.

    “It’s a Black Lives Matter event. They want to draw attention away from all the shopping today,” said Ben timidly. In his head he wished he could say something like, “Activists are aiming to co-opt a holiday celebrating rampant materialism and capitalist values in favor of political outrage over the system’s continued refusal to indict and convict officers of the law engaging in police brutality,” but figured it was pointless.

    Cool,” his sister nodded politely.

    Not long after, Ben, finishing the last of his beer, said his good-byes.

    His father extended his fist for a pound. “Be careful,” he warned, with apparent trepidation.

    “Will do,” Ben nodded.

    “Be safe.”

     

    Throughout the previous year, Ben attended a handful of community discussions and panels highlighting solutions to institutional racism, police brutality, and gentrification. Incensed by repeated police shootings of unarmed black men across the country and the subsequent grand juries’ refusals to indict and prosecute the shooters, he felt morally obligated to throw what weight he could behind the already mobile organizations in Portland.

    On his bike ride there, Ben passed patrol units setting a perimeter three blocks out from the mall. Taken as an indication of how the day would play out, Ben was excited. It gave credence to his somewhat superficial notion that he was participating in something real. Movies and books had filled his head with romantic fantasies of what the day may look like. Still, he had no desire to end up in handcuffs, and even less desire for cracked ribs and tear gas-scorched lungs.

    Ben arrived an hour late to a crowd of nearly two hundred in Holladay Park, the grassy square on the south side of the Lloyd Center Mall. Assembled was a racially diverse, mostly young collection of punks, artists, and camo-clad activists, with a few aging Pete Seeger liberals among them. There were teachers, parents, college students, and union representatives present, along with organizers from the Fight for $15 campaign. They had arranged themselves in a double file line and were preparing to depart.

    Near the front, three white males from a fundamentalist church resembling the Westboro Baptists harassed protesters. They screamed, “White Lives Matter.” Whether because they were talked down by those eager to avoid a blowup from what was surely the first of many antagonisms, or because their lack of courage prevented them from stepping into the streets with the protesters, the three men disappeared as the march took off.

    Frustrated at the absence of racks in a public park, Ben locked his bike to a bench and joined the line now spilling into the street. He found Louie, his roommate, toward the back of the line.

    “Did you see those three guys?” asked Louie with agitation.

    “Yeah,” said Ben, leading them deeper into the center of the mass of protesters.

    “Like, why would you come here just to get in everyone’s face?” asked Louie.

    “Racists,” replied Ben, uneasy. Not even a week had passed since four white supremacists opened fire on a Black Lives Matter protest in Minnesota. Who was to say that couldn’t happen in Portland, a seemingly progressive city with a string of racist attacks stretching all the way up to very recent years? While those around him chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police!” he eyed the rooftops, patios, and overlooks for suspicious persons.

    The march began by flooding Multnomah Street, obstructing traffic on both sides. They immediately drew attention from pedestrians, tourists, and of course those in vehicles. Some scowled, others signaled their support, most were simply curious to know what was happening. As they reached their first major intersection, a megaphone called out from the rear instructing everyone to fan out and cover the four sides of the intersection to halt traffic. Rosie, a coordinator and trans-activist, voice raspy with fiery indignation, moved to the center of the intersection.

    “We will hold this intersection for four and a half minutes,” she declared. “We will hold this intersection for four and a half minutes in remembrance of Michael Brown who was murdered by police and whose body was left to lay in the streets for four and a half hours. We will not remain silent! Today, we refuse to pay tribute to a system that prioritizes profits over human lives! We refuse to remain silent while our brothers and sisters are brutalized and shot!”

    When she finished it was quiet, all but for the hum of engines. Onlookers emerged from the Red Robin across the street. Ben watched the faces of those caught in the standstill. Some craned their necks out their windows, while others took pictures with their phones. A group of white teenagers in a pickup truck amused themselves by yelling indiscriminate obscenities. Bystander more than ten feet from the intersection had to read the banners to get a sense of what was happening.

    Rosie signaled the end of the four and a half minutes by calling out, “Hands up!” to which the crowd roared, “Don’t shoot!” And again and again, until all hands were raised above their heads. After, the group would move north on Grand Avenue, a one-way street five lanes wide.

    Ben looked behind him to the oncoming traffic that began figuring alternative routes, since Grand would surely be clogged. Already he saw cars pulling down side streets, maneuvering in whichever way they could. He empathized with those stuck in traffic. There must be folks running late to pick up their children or on their way to appointments. What did these inconveniences amount to? he asked himself. Exactly how much time was lost? Even by generous estimates he concluded that ten minutes, at most, were taken. The day before, he had missed his bus because of a conversation about a summer vacation, and the day before that he arrived late to a dinner because of a long shower. Were those in their cars any more efficient with their time? He had no way of knowing.

    They moved north with traffic at their backs. It was open road, and Ben, initially reluctant to yell with the crowd, grew emboldened among them. What scared him? He knew long before the march how much easier it was to maintain a morally pure stance from the sidelines, to condemn and to denounce without having to get his hands dirty, because surely there were others willing to. How quickly he found his place, though. How at home he felt among those of like frustrations. Here he could put those frustrations to new use.

    The crowd moved unabated for several blocks as Grand, veering to the left, merged with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The march spilled over onto the other side of the road and claimed the entirety. The last wave of southbound traffic honked, whistled, and waved in support. In it, Ben spotted his Priya in the passenger side of a pick-up driven by her co-worker, Rina. The two cheered on the crowd. A minute later his phone vibrated with a message from Priya. “Hey love, please be careful. There are SWAT units roaming the neighborhoods.” And sure enough, at the following intersection he spotted a white police van, one block off with four officers in riot gear clinging to the outside. Why are they waiting? Ben wondered. Perhaps it would be too messy to confront a group of protesters on such a busy street. They will stop us when they stop us, he thought, embracing the uncertainty. He knew that, far more than the police, the march welcomed the attention.

    The symbolism of taking MLK Boulevard did not go unacknowledged. There were cheers from front to back. Ben relished in the act. How long had the revolutionary’s words been twisted and redacted to fit another agenda? The King he was raised with was not anti-war, nor did he want America to grapple with poverty; rather, he called for polite submission during even the most heinous of racists attacks. King’s legacy was reduced to some vague notion of peace for a colorblind America. But the march was vindication. The hollow monument, which derived its significance not from its legendary namesake but from its central location, its shopping outlets, and it being an accessible alternative to the freeway, would breathe new life. “Black-lives-matter,” they shouted. “Black Lives Matter.”

    Not long after, the crowd moved west into a cluster of residential neighborhoods. Their chants paused only long enough for them to catch their breath. Men, women, and children enjoying the afternoon from their porches and front yards stopped to watch the procession go by. Again people peeked out of windows and pulled out their phones for pictures. One couple pulled off to the side of the road and jumped out with expensive cameras. They orbited the line while snapping pictures. “Thank you for doing this,” they said appreciatively.

    Approaching a dead end, the crowd turned to move south through an area bordering an old industrial district. Not only did the street narrow, but many of the buildings to their right weren’t in use. Strategically, it was clear the march would need to readjust to reach a more populated area, but another problem was about to present itself. It took Ben, at the center of the crowd, a minute to spot what lie ahead of them. Riot police had formed a blockade three streets up. The line was seven officers wide, each wearing a vest and layers of padding. They were helmeted and equipped with three-foot-long steel batons. Their van was parked in the middle of the two lane street behind them while several other officers milled about.

    How absurd and overblown their preparation seemed. What did they expect to happen? Ben wondered. Organizers had explicitly stated that it was to be a peaceful march. Even the public invitation over Facebook stated that in bold. Yet there they were, staring down a force as if ready for battle.

    Soon, they were face-to-face with the police: a row of expressionless faces behind clear protective visors. The officer who spoke addressed the crowd through a large megaphone bolted to the top of the van. “This is the Portland Police Bureau. You are ordered to turn back,” he called out. “You may proceed north if you please. A route has been cleared for you.” Ben laughed as he thought to himself, “Do they really expect the group protesting their excessive force to heed their commands? Do they expect us to follow their perfectly mapped-out route? If the day was about anything, it was confronting their institution.

    With things at a standstill, Ben moved in for a closer look. Not four feet from the line, Ben looked at the expressionless faces behind the visors. These were men and women with families and loved ones, who at a moment’s notice would bring down their steel batons indiscriminately upon the peaceful assembly. If Jim and the others could see me now, he sighed, what would they think? Across town, they must be oblivious. They were eating tater tots and drinking beer in another dimension. How could he describe to them the exhilaration he felt standing in front of the officers without the burden of fear, how it was like standing next to the lion’s cage with only strength in numbers acting as the iron bars keeping them separated and safe?

    Some of the more cavalier protesters began hurling insults and guilt upon the officers who, for their part, remained silent. They invoked the names of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Jamar Clark, Michael Brown, and Kendra James. “Why are you doing this?” they demanded, with barely a foot between them. “Don’t you guys have more important things to do?” Some shouted “fascists,” while others offered hugs.Most of the crowd stood by with their hands in their pockets; there were limits to how radical their day would be. The moments that followed were like a broken record as neither party offered to budge. The police continued to instruct the protesters to turn north while organizers demanded that officers clear the way south. Perhaps because there was ample opportunity for tensions to escalate, or maybe because time was needed to reorganize, the group agreed it was best to take a seat.

    Ben reflected on the strangeness of sitting in the middle of the street while waiting to agree on the best way to disobey the police. He looked around for Louie, whom he separated from along the way. He looked at the faces of those he sat with and wondered what they were feeling. Were they nervous like him? Were they excited like him? The moment was being filmed on smart phones from every angle. The accountability the recordings would provide came as a comfort to him, though he knew they wouldn’t be a full deterrent. It was only after noticing the children among them that Ben realized the police would chose violence only as a last resort.

    Finally, it was decided that the march would simply circumvent the police line via the sidewalk and move east. Some were initially skittish as they passed undeterred. Ben felt a very tangible fear that the officers would pounce upon them as they shifted direction. The muscles in his back stiffened, and every fifteen seconds he looked back, without stopping, to make sure they weren’t being rushed. As his and everyone else’s pace quickened, calls came from the back to “tighten up” and “stay together.” It would be much harder to disrupt the march if they stayed in a cluster. The officers trailed close behind them, but not too close.

     

    Much to everyone’s surprise, the march emerged back onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard unscathed and proceeded southbound toward Holladay Park and the mall. Confused, and somewhat pleased, Ben wondered why the police had gone to so much trouble to get in their way, only to allow them back onto arguably the busiest street in the city. Was the blockade a bluff? There was no time to ask questions.

    Along the way they claimed two intersections, pausing for four and a half minutes at each. When an ambulance approached during the moment of silence at the second intersection, a pathway was cleared for it to pass through. As soon as it was gone, the opening was sealed up and the silence resumed. Though they continued unmolested, the number of riot police multiplied like wasps around a beehive. More and more appeared as they neared the mall.

    Moving east up Holladay Road, the march halted not only traffic, but the red and blue Max lines as well. The light rail was forced to wait between stops as the march passed around both sides of the train cars. Passengers watched the procession with annoyed curiosity. Ben watched them as they watched him. Their perturbed faces seemed to say, I see what you’re doing, but did you have to do it now?

    The final stretch brought them through a cluster of budget motels set up to bolster Portland’s commercial tourism and accommodate the convention center a few blocks away. Guests with rooms directly facing Holladay Road came to the windows to see what all the commotion was about. By this point, Ben had reached the front of the line and was enjoying himself a great deal. His voice was as loud as anyone else’s, and when he noticed those in the windows above he shouted even louder. It was one thing to disrupt the locals, but another thing to shock the tourists. After all the luxury grocery shops and four-story condos going in, it was nice to show that Portland still had an unruly side.

    In Holladay Park, everyone gathered in a circle for a few words from some of the march coordinators. Then Contessa Lavalle, a lead organizer of the march, spoke. “Thank you all so, so much, for your participation today,” her voice, blown out from the afternoon, sounded tortured through the small crackling megaphone. “We will not remain silent as police continue to brutalize our communities and profits continue to trump human dignity. Instead of spending your dollars today you came out to take a stand.” Contessa paused for a second to speak with another organizer. “We said when we started the day that we would march for four and a half hours,” she continued. “Well, we still have half a hour left. What do you say we rush the mall?” With that there came a roar of applause. “Black lives matter!” she chanted, and the crowd responded,

    “Black-                        lives- matter!”

    With little instruction, the group formed a double file line and spilled back into the street, heading for the south entrance of Lloyd Center Mall. Ben found Louie in the crowd as they were lining up. The two exchanged nods of mutual excitement. They entered through Macy’s and within seconds caught the attention of everyone on the floor. This is so much easier, Ben thought. In an enclosed space their voices carried much further and those shopping had no choice but to listen.

    A minute later they were on the main floor, capturing the attention of virtually every shopper on all three levels. Families with their children at the indoor ice-skating rink turned and watched anxiously, and teenagers at the food court on the third level looked down with curiosity as the march wound its way across the floor and up the escalators like an agitated snake. “Hey-hey, ho-ho,” they chanted, “these racist cops have got to go. Hey-hey, ho-ho.”

                Ben was mostly intrigued by the families they passed by; specifically the white families, though not excluding those of color. Whether in that moment or later in the evening, those parents, for better or worse, would have to explain to their children why two hundred or so folks defied social conventions of politeness to storm a large shopping center. Perhaps their children would ask why black lives mattered. Perhaps it would provide some parents an opportunity to address race with their children, and perhaps it would force others to acknowledge it. It was too hard to say, but the unadulterated attention the mall provided gave him hope.

                After twice traversing the mall top to bottom, they congregated in the center of the first level near the ice skating rink and the bridge overlooking them from above. The four and a half hour march concluded with another four and half minutes of silence. An audience of nearly twice their size clung to the railings to observe. Local news had arrived with their lights and cameras. Those working the kiosks were now cramped with the mass of people. Here and there were shouts of “All lives matter,” among those watching. A disgruntled old man threw his trash from the second level on those below, and from an indiscernible location someone yelled, “Go back to Africa.”

     

    They dispersed quickly after the moments of silence, as news of impending arrests traveled rapidly down the line. Outside, people were already going their separate ways. Ben found Contessa speaking to a group in the park. They hugged and thanked one another for the day. As he unlocked his bike from the bench, his phone vibrated with a text from Jim.

                “Just saw you on TV,” he said.

                “Haha. Oh damn,” Ben responded.

                “Yep. We all saw you. Headed to hotel now and then to Cary’s sometime in near future. Hawks won!”

    “Nice,” said Ben.

                Louie rolled up as Ben was texting. Ben looked up and smiled. “My dad saw us on TV.”

                “Really?” Louie laughed.

                “Yeah, guess the news was on at the bar.”

                “You should’ve invited them to the march,” said Louie.

                Ben cringed slightly. “I don’t know.” The irony of his apprehension to push his parents after a day of prodding strangers had not escaped him.

                “Why?” Louie pressed. “They would support this.”

    “I don’t know,” sighed Ben. “I think it’s too radical.”

    “Really?” asked Louie. “Maybe next time.” Wiping his nose, he continued, “I guess most of your family doesn’t live here but maybe there’s something in Phoenix they can check out. You should look around for them.”

                “I don’t know,” repeated Ben. After the success of the day, the thought nagged at him like a tiny rock inside a cushioned sneaker.

                The sunset faded as they rode home. Ben took his time washing up then put on a change of clothes. In half an hour, he would meet his family for dinner.

     

     

    ***

    Imaginary Creatures

     

     

    “And of course, it was dark because it was late,” said the nervous woman, three seats away. With the full attention of the circle she paused to tuck the loose strands of blonde hair behind her ear. “I noticed someone behind me. It was an African-American gentleman. He might have been a teenager but he could have been in his early twenties. He was very tall,” she assured them. “And he was moving toward me, so I sped up. Then so did he. I didn’t even have time to think and my hands were so jittery. I couldn’t find my keys at first and finally I dropped my purse on the ground and dug through it as fast as I possibly could. The whole time,” she paused as tear slid down her cheek. The woman next to her began rubbing circles on her back. “The whole time, I had these visions, of what could happen, y’know? Finally, I gave up looking for my keys and took out my phone and typed in 9-1-1 and held my thumb over the call button.” The woman paused as though short of breath.

    “No need to rush,” Rebecca spoke softly. “Take all the time you need. We’re here to listen.”

    The woman continued, “I must have startled him when I screamed, because he jumped back a foot," she said, wiping away another tear. “What had happened was, I left my keys at the self-checkout station and the young man followed me out to return them.”

    “The man, or the boy, was it? They worked at Whole Foods?” asked Rebecca.

    The woman nodded while dabbing her eyes with a tissue.

    A few around the circle huffed and sighed.

    “Let’s talk about that, if you’re comfortable,” Rebecca asked. “How do you feel about the interaction you’ve shared?”

    “I don’t know,” she struggled. “I knew that the man following me was African-American but I was more worried that any man was following me. Was I racist?”

    “Well, it’s important to remember that racism isn’t a whole individual, it’s a set of beliefs and assumptions that lead to behaviors. It’s important that we continually examine our own behavior. Why don’t you take some more time and feel this out,” advised Rebecca. “It seems like you’re still sorting through a lot and I’d love to discuss this more with the group. Do you think you’d be able to speak again in two weeks when we meet?”

    Blowing her nose, the woman nodded.

    “I’d like to give someone else a chance to speak before we have to close out, but I see some of you have places to be. So, let me just say this now while I’ve got most of you here. In the time before we meet in two weeks, let’s focus on intent versus impact. I’ll review this next, but let’s remember that as humans we all have innate prejudices, and despite how we may perceive ourselves and our actions, if we seek to fight our own racism, we need to focus on how our actions affect others.”

    Many in the circle nodded.

    Rebecca looked down at her notepad and etched out Megan’s name. “And finally, we have Tori, Tori, correct?”

    “Yes.” Tori waved. Her face was tight with an impatient expression.
    “Would you mind saying a few quick words about yourself before you share?” Rebecca asked.

    “Hi, I’m Tori,” her tone was void of enthusiasm. “I live off of Broadway and Roosevelt. My boyfriend and I rent a house. There’s a Mexican family that lives right behind us and they just will not turn their music down. I don’t know what you call it, it’s the stuff with all the horns, the mariachi music. It is loud. And every weekend, they’ve got the whole family over there, the cousins, the aunts, the uncles. We can’t even hear ourselves think. My boyfriend’s had to call the police a few times but they won’t do anything. What am I supposed to do? We pay to live on our street, too.”

    It took Rebecca a second to realize the woman had said all she needed to say. “Is there more to your story you’d like to discuss?” she asked.

    “No.” Tori shook her head casually.

    Politely, Rebecca responded, “I guess I’m unsure what is it you’re looking for.”

    Tori replied matter-of-factly, “I want to know to how to talk to the Mexicans so I can get them to quiet down.”

     

    Where do you wanna sit?” Benjamin asked. “Inside or outside?”

    “Either is fine,” said Rebecca from soda fountain.

    “Outside it is,” Benjamin replied cheerfully.

    The two carried their slices on paper plates to the patio picnic tables.

    “So, she just straight up asked you how to talk to Mexicans?” Benjamin laughed.

    “Not just that,” Rebecca snickered. “But yeah, that was the gist of it.”

    “How’d you answer?” asked Benjamin, forgoing the first bite in anticipation.

    “Time was almost up on our meeting, so we couldn’t really get into much,” said Rebecca.

    “You didn’t just tell her to go have a grown-up conversation with her neighbors?” replied Benjamin sarcastically.

    Rebecca let out a slight laugh. “We both know it’s not that simple. And you’re one to talk,” she chided. “You’ve gone out your way to avoid the people you’ve lived next to for the last two years.”

    “True,” Benjamin chuckled. “Did you ask her why the mariachi music bothers her so much?”

    Forgetting the bite she had just taken, Rebecca opened her mouth, then waved a finger to ask for a minute to chew.

    “We didn’t have time for that,” she responded. “Basically, I asked her to make a peace offering, something small for the family. Something to open up a dialogue.”

    “What’d she say to that?” Benjamin asked, brushing off the Parmesan cheese in his beard.

    Rebecca looked down at her shoes for a second. “She said she didn’t have time for our ‘white liberal bull crap,’ and left just after we finished up.”

    Benjamin rolled his eyes while wiping the crumbs from his face.

    “What’s the name of your group again?” Benjamin asked.

    Overcoming Racism: A Conversation for Whites on Race,” said Rebecca.

    “And she didn’t know what she was stepping into?” Benjamin smirked.

    “She said she saw my flier in a laundromat on Sandy,” said Rebecca.

    “Did you plan to have a co-host when you started?” Benjamin asked. “Or did you just want to moderate a room full of white folks talking about racism all by yourself?”

    “Just me,” Rebecca said, finishing another bite. “My friend Rachel, who’s white, was going to do it with me but she has too much going on at work, now.”

    “So, outside of the woman who doesn’t like Mexicans, is anyone else as candid?” asked Benjamin.

    “Sometimes,” Rebecca wiped her mouth. “There was an older gentleman who came to a few meetings back in April who wouldn’t stop using the n-word.”

    Like, to you?” asked Benjamin.

    “No, no, but he was confused why he couldn’t say the word,” replied Rebecca.

    “Hmm, I wonder why,” Benjamin chuckled.

    “To his credit, he was very sincere,” said Rebecca. “He said he’d used the word all his life! And that as far back as he could remember, his daddy and granddaddy used the word, and darn it, all the blacks say it, so why is it so offensive when he does it?”

    “You asked him to refrain from actually using the word?” Benjamin asked.

    “No, actually,” said Rebecca. “The others asked him not to say it.”

    “You don’t say,” replied Benjamin.

    “At the start of every meeting I ask participants to be mindful and respectful of the others in the room,” she said. “It makes them as uncomfortable as it makes us. Well, me at least.”

    “Nah, they just want to sweep it under the rug, make it go the way of minstrel shows. To them it’s just another reminder of how fucked up things were. Are,” Benjamin corrected.

    “I try to be more optimistic,” stated Rebecca.

    “You just have more patience with white folks than I do,” said Benjamin.

    “Maybe,” Rebecca replied with apprehension. “Don’t you ever feel as though you have a responsibility, being mixed, to offer the other perspective?”

    “I did,” Benjamin conceded. “I did for a long time,” he paused to scratch his neck, then continued, “but everyone has a breaking point. For me it was Tamir Rice. When there were, no charges filed after the shooting, a big part of me was just like fuck it. The system is broken, irreparably." Moving quickly to the next thought, Benjamin continued, "Plus, I don’t have the time or energy to walk every well-meaning liberal or naive racist through a seminar on why their behavior is problematic.”

    “I understand, and personally, I go back and forth,” said Rebecca. “You might get this too but I fly under the radar sometimes. People, whites mostly, don’t know what background is, so they speak frankly around me.”

    “You enjoy that?” Benjamin asked.

    “Kinda, yeah,” Rebecca laughed. “I feel sort of like an undercover agent. I get to hear some of their honesty and their grievances. And once they feel they can open up to me, I’m able to pull their racist opinions and beliefs to the surface. That way we can talk genuinely about this stuff.”

    “Again,” Benjamin chuckled, “I think you’re pretty courageous.”

    “I don’t see it as being courageous, just necessary,” said Rebecca. “A lot of these people don’t actually have any friends, or family for that matter, of a different race. For whatever their reason, they’ve interacted with very few people of color. Our group is a sort of safe space for them to express their feelings or to discuss whatever might be confusing for them. I don’t know if they trust me because I’m light skinned and sort of racially vague. Could be. Most of them just want to be able to talk about race without upsetting anyone.”

    “Brown and black people, you mean?” Benjamin laughed.

    “Unfortunately.” She shook her head. “But I use that to my advantage. I let them speak their mind and then, together, we unpack what they said.”

    “Are there a lot of tears?” he asked.

    Eyes wide, Rebecca nodded intensely.

    “How do you do it?” asked Benjamin, smiling.

    “It’s something I’ve been grappling with a lot, lately,” said Rebecca. “Do we have a responsibility as mixed people to bridge the gap? We’ve talked a lot about this but I know your opinion has changed over the last year.”

    “Right.” Benjamin nodded. “I am still working it out but I don’t know,” he looked off to the side, “at what point does it bother them enough to act?”

    “White people?” she asked.

    Yeah,” replied Benjamin.

    “I’d say that’s an unfair generalization to make,” said Rebecca.

    “It is, it is,” he agreed, then continued, “But it’s like I told my roommate, who’s white, after the Tamir verdict. If white people hated racism half as much as they say they do, then black kids wouldn’t be getting gunned down for playing with their toys in the park.”

    “But most of the whites I talk to, many of whom are relatives, will shut down whenever things get heated. Collectively, we need to be able to foster a healthy dialogue, one where both parties can explain themselves.”

    Benjamin nodded unenthusiastic as he bit into his crust.

    “You don’t get excited sometimes?” she asked.

    “How do you mean?” he asked.

    “To be mixed right now, in this moment,” said Rebecca, eyes full of excitement. “We can be the bridge. With everything that’s happening in the news and all this tension. Who better than us to speak up? What are we always talking about? How we exist in the space between and we see things from both sides. And you think about all the interracial marriages and all the new mixed babies coming up.”

    Benjamin listened with tempered admiration.

    “This is our time!” Rebecca proclaimed.

    “But we can’t be the answer,” Benjamin replied, forlorn.

    Why not?” asked Rebecca, rhetorically.

     

    Rebecca arrived early for dinner and caught her mother in a tug of war between meal prep and the last of the laundry. “I’ll take the basket and you check on the stove,” Rebecca instructed her mother. “Dad,” Rebecca called to her father, channel surfing and oblivious from his recliner, “wanna give me and mom a hand?

    “Yes, yes, I’ll be over in a moment,” he swatted in Rebecca’s direction.

    The retired couple lived in the suburb of Gresham in a large home with an excess of bedrooms, a spare living room, and more televisions than people. Her father was an anesthesiologist who emigrated from Nigeria during his schooling, and her mother, a white woman from New Mexico, taught high school Biology for most of her career.

    Rebecca set the laundry on her parents’ bed, then followed the garlic aroma into the kitchen. A tray of green beans was laid out atop the burners next to the potatoes. Through the stove window, Rebecca watched the buttery chicken glisten in the heat.

    After wiping her hands with a rag, her mother hoisted herself onto the counter top and poured herself a glass of white wine. She asked, “How’s your week been?”

    Rebecca sighed. “They let Terry go.”

    Shut up,” her mother frowned. “What are they going to do until August?” Her mother froze for a second, feeling guilty. “I’m sorry, did you want a glass?”

    “Sure,” said Rebecca. “And I don’t know. I’ve spoken with Kelsey already and all my options would be lateral moves.”

    “Hang in there,” her mother offered as mild assurance. “Here you are.” She handed Rebecca the glass and returned to her perched seat. “Dinner should be ready in ten or so.”

    “I’m fine. I had a late lunch anyways,” said Rebecca.

    “How’s the support group?” her mother asked.

    Confused, Rebecca asked, “Support group?”

    Her mother looked as puzzled. “Your discussion circle,” she said, and lowering her voice, “y’know, for white people.”

    “Oh!” Rebecca laughed with ambivalence. “It’s going. We’re in our fourth week and it’s been interesting. We get men and women from different walks of life and they really open up. In a room full of strangers, too. Then I do my best to handle it with as much grace as possible.”

    “Does it ever get heated?” her mother asked.

    Rebecca rolled her eyes while taking a drink. “At least twice a meeting.”

    “Why?” asked her mother. “I know it’s sort of a confessional situation but I’m just curious.”

    Rebecca exhaled, "Let’s see: Are all white people racist? Is it racist to pay attention to someone’s race? Is is racist not to pay attention to someone’s race? Can you still say ‘oriental’? What about all the white people shot by police? Is Black Lives Matter a hate group? What about black-on-black crime? What about freedom of speech? What if your family was Irish and came over after slavery? What do I do if a friend or family member says the n-word?”

    “All of this stuff is sorta beyond me. I wish we would’ve talked to you and your brother more when you were little, but honestly I didn’t know what to say.”

    “Mom, it’s fine,” Rebecca waved.

    “No, it’s not,” her mother replied firmly. Seldom did she take this tone with Rebecca. “I didn’t know. I came up in an era when we didn’t look at people by their color. You weren’t supposed to. But now with all the shootings and the tensions and protests. We thought we were past all that.”

    “It’s okay,” Rebecca assured her mother, now visibly perturbed.

    Rebecca wrapped her arms around her mother. “You did the best you could and I love you and it’s okay.” She smiled, then kissed her mother on the forehead.

    The two held one another for a moment before her mother hopped down and resumed dinner preparation in a hurry.

    “You make me proud, you know that?” said her mother from the cabinet. Turning around, “With the work you do and your passion.”

    “Alright, what’s this I hear about you arguing with white people?” said her father, sauntering into the kitchen.

    “Thanks mom,” Rebecca blushed.

    Her mother handed her the plates and silverware. “Set these, would you?”

    “Yes,” Rebecca replied. “I’m not arguing with anyone, dad.”

    “What was the group you were speaking about a moment ago?” he asked. “What you were telling your mother.”

    “It’s a conversation on race and racism for white people. I told you about it,” said Rebecca.

    “Black Lives Matter?” he asked. “Don’t tell me my daughter’s an activist now?”

    Rebecca laughed, “No dad, it’s not that kind of group.”

    “But you’re getting the white folks riled up.” He chuckled to himself.

    “Stop being a stinker.” Her mother nudged her father as she passed behind him. “You know that’s not what she does.”

    “People come to my group to share their feelings and ask questions they find too difficult or uncomfortable to ask elsewhere,” said Rebecca, mildly defensive.

    “White people have so many emotions, they cannot manage them all,” her father chided.

    “Remi!” her mother shouted from the bedroom.

    “It’s true!” he taunted. “I was waiting in line at the store last week, and a very distraught white woman came in to make a complaint. The woman was sobbing and red in her face. Apparently, a shopper left their dog in the car with the windows up. She was so disturbed she could not finish her sentences. And get this, she wanted the store manager to give her permission to break the car window,” he laughed. Her father had a deep, rich laughter that filled the house.

    Rebecca rolled her eyes. “You don’t even like dogs.”

    “I don’t,” he chuckled.

    “What is it you’d always tell Brandon and I? Owning a pet is a luxury?”

    “It is!” he replied from the sink as he filled a glass of water. “Question?”

    “Yeah, dad,” Rebecca replied.

    “Why Black Lives Matter?” he asked. His tone was genuine, though Rebecca was ready for surprises.

    “Uh, what about them?” she asked.

    “It’s your father’s new obsession,” said her mother, emerging from the bathroom. “He’s convinced the Obamas are secretly donating millions of dollars to the organization.”

    “I suspect a few more major donors, as well,” he replied, resolute. “But that is not why I asked. Why black lives? Why the focus on black? What is black? I’m Nigerian, not Kenyan, not Algerian.”

    “African-Americans, dad,” said Rebecca.

    “What is African-American? My passport says American. You are an American,” he proclaimed.

    “Dad, I’d prefer we didn’t get into anything tonight,” replied Rebecca. “Can we have dinner and keep the conversation topics light?”

    “Yes, yes, of course,” he said, brushing off the request. “But one last question, this is not me being facetious. Why do they hate police officers?”

    Dad,” Rebecca moaned.

    “Really. I’ve known many good officers since I moved to the United States. When I first arrived in Tampa and I was lost, roaming the downtown, unable to speak much English, it was two police officers who helped me find a hotel to stay at while I arrange my affairs. They checked in with me every week.”

    “I know, dad,” said Rebecca, empathetic. “But it’s not just about the police.”

    “But who would you call if there was an emergency?” asked her father, confidently.

    “Okay,” her mother butted in the conversation. She spoke lightly, “I think we need to take a step back.”

    “No, but I would like to know,” her father persisted. “If some of your possessions are stolen or you fear for your safety, will you call the police?”

    Rebecca bit the inside of her lip. “Dad, I would really appreciate it if we could not talk about this right now. I respect your feelings and I’d prefer if we could have a quiet family dinner.”

    “Yes, yes, I suppose,” her father grumbled, spreading a napkin across his lap.

    Rebecca took a seat at the table while her mother pulled the chicken from the oven.

    “How was your day?” Rebecca asked.

    “I went to Best Buy to look at new televisions,” said her father, unenthusiastic.

    “Oh yeah?” asked Rebecca.

    “Yes, and they had their teenagers follow me around the aisles, again,” he sighed, speaking slowly at first then faster with agitation. “For fifteen minutes, I cannot get a single employee’s assistance, but from the corner of my eye I can see them watching me, making sure I won’t hide anything in my pockets. And when they finally approach me, they direct me to the discounted televisions.”

    Rebecca listened with sympathetic ears. It was painful to imagine her father, a man who maintained a regal authority even in white Reeboks and an old sweater, relegated to the level of a criminal simply because of his skin color. As she listened, Rebecca wondered, “How long before he connects the dots?”

               

    “So, what’s up?” asked Neal, nudging her arm. “How’s your week been? Did you do anything for the fourth?”

    Long,” replied Rebecca. “Depressing.”

    The two stood in line for concessions. Rebecca wasn’t hungry but the salty smell of popcorn was tempting.

    “How come?” asked Neal, cheerfully.

    “All the stuff with Alton Sterling. I’ve just been sorta out of it all day,” Rebecca sighed.

    “Alton Sterling?” Neal shook his head, unaware.

    “Alton Sterling,” said Rebecca. “He was shot by police for selling used CDs. For CDs,” she repeated.

    Neal’s expression was a mixture of disappointment and discomfort. “Where did it happen?” he asked.

    “Outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge,” said Rebecca.

    With mild excitement, Neal asked, “Louisiana, right?”

    “Yeah,” answered Rebecca with a sharp glance. “He was unarmed, too.”

    “Was there an altercation?” Neal asked.

    “I’m not sure,” replied Rebecca. “I read that police got a call, went to check it out, and now a father of five children is dead.”

    After a brief pause, Neal shook his head. “Not surprising it happened in the South.”

    “What makes you say that?” Rebecca asked.

    Neal took a second to arrange his words. “Y’know,” he eyed her with a heavy expression, then speaking softer, explained, “slavery and the KKK and all that.”

    Rebecca exhaled deeply, “But these shootings don’t just happen in the South. Oscar Grant was in California and Eric Garner was in New York City which are by all accounts liberal regions of America. It’s dangerous when we exempt ourselves from racism. This happens in all fifty states.”

    “Well, hold on,” Neal interjected playfully. “That sounds a bit like an overgeneralization.”

    Rebecca gazed down at her shoes as she spoke; it was easier that way. “If it happened in only thirty states, would that change things?”

    “I’m not trying to offend, really. It’s just a lot of the time when I hear people discussing this stuff it tends to be argued purely through raw emotion. I’m attempting to stand back and be more objective. And selfishly, I’m hoping to save some of the heated conversation for after the movie,” he joked.

    “I’m perfectly fine talking about this,” Rebecca assured him.

    “I’m just saying this happened, what, like a few hours ago?” Neal asked. “I try not to get too worked up before all the details surface.”

    With her frustrations approaching a boiling point and seven minutes until show time, Rebecca retreated into herself. Better to let things simmer while they watched, she felt defeated. Neal had picked an art film, with an all-white cast, about a white girl navigating the underworld of Los Angeles’ modeling scene. She found it vapid and uninteresting and didn’t stay long after to discuss.

     

    On the bus ride home, Rebecca scrolled through the updates on her phone. Social media was on fire. Once back, she plopped down on the couch and continued reading. The arc of emotions had already carried her from shock, to grief, to anger. The living room was silent, the lights were on, but a storm raged inside her.

    Half an hour later, her roommate Kelly descended the stairs and fixed herself a drink in the kitchen. Rebecca watched her from the corner of her eye, and as Kelly crossed the room again, she felt the words rise up in her as though they needed to be heaved out. “Have you seen the news?” she asked.

    “No, what’s up?” replied Kelly.

    “You haven’t seen anything about the shootings?” she asked.

    “No,” Kelly shook her head casually. “What happened?”

    “Baton Rouge? Minnesota?” asked Rebecca. “You haven’t heard anything?”

    “No,” said Kelly, this time her tone was serious.

    “Two more black men were shot by police. The first was Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That was yesterday. He was selling CDs outside a convenience store and two cops held him down and shot him. He was unarmed,” explained Rebecca.

    “Oh, my god,” said Kelly with her hand over her mouth. She took a seat on the steps.

    “Tonight, it was Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. They pulled him over because they thought he looked like a robbery suspect, and after warning them that he was reaching for his wallet, they opened fire on him.”

    Kelly gasped.

    “Yeah.” Rebecca nodded. “His girlfriend live-streamed everything to Facebook from inside the car just after he was shot.”

    The room was quiet for a moment. “Everything’s so fucked these days,” Kelly sighed as she shook her head slowly.

    “This isn’t something new, though,” Rebecca stated coldly. “It keeps happening and keeps happening, over and over-and-over-again.”

    “Well, I mean like the system and everything,” Kelly was quick to offer. “Like the cop, or cops, that shot these guys in Minnesota and Arkansas? Louisiana?”

    “Louisiana,” said Rebecca.

    “Right, like those cops probably won’t even be indicted or anything,” said Kelly.

    “No, they probably won’t,” said Rebecca. “But like what are you going to do about it?”

    Taken aback, Kelly asked, “Me?”

    “Yeah, like I wanna know what you’re doing,” stated Rebecca, bluntly. Her question seemed silly on the surface but was wholly sincere. “I wanna know what you plan to do.”

    Flustered, Kelly replied, “Well you just told me about all this, I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to read more.”

    Offering a sarcastic smile, Rebecca asked, “But I mean, what are you really doing to help? Being educated is great but all the information in the world won’t do you a whole lot of good if you don’t transform it into actions.”

    The atmosphere was tense. The two had talked about racism many times before, but this tone was in stark contrast to their usual back-and-forth. Rebecca no longer considered her words; they sprang forth without any effort. The anguish had eroded her restraint. Her questions came down like a hammer, with each blow more satisfying than the last. She knew it was unfair, but it felt good and necessary. It could have been any white friend, Kelly just happened to be present.

    “I post the things I see,” stated Kelly. “And I go to the community meetings when I can. I went to the last one when you asked me.”

    “That was five months ago, though,” Rebecca replied, sharply. “Like what are you going to do now?”

    “I guess I’m just still figuring out the best way for me to help,” Kelly calmly replied.

    Rebecca laughed. “This isn’t about big, heroic gestures. It’s about showing up and speaking out.”

    “I get that,” said Kelly with mild annoyance. “And I always treat every person I meet with respect and kindness. It’s who I am.”

    “That’s not enough,” Rebecca shook her head.

    “Why not?” Kelly asked.

    “You’re fighting racism only so long as it’s within arm’s reach,” replied Rebecca coldly.

    “I said I want to do more,” Kelly reiterated. “I just don’t know what I can do right now.”
    How many times had her white friends uttered this after a tragedy? Rebecca lost count. “Just so we’re clear,” she said. “While you’re figuring out the best way to help, black people are still getting shot by the police and you’re still benefiting from your white privilege.”

    “I get that, but—” said Kelly before she was cut off.

    “Do you?” Rebecca fired back.

    “I do! But you act like I don’t care about this stuff,” said Kelly.

    “If white people hated racism as much as they say they do, then black people wouldn’t be getting shot by police. Daily. And that’s just one element of systemic racism. That’s what you don’t understand. We need you to speak up. Like now,” said Rebecca.

    “But where do I go to help?” said Kelly, defensively. “I really just don’t know what else I can do.”

    Rebecca chuckled. “You have so much power and you don’t even realize it. You’re white and people will actually listen to you. You don’t see that your voice has the potential to reach a lot more people than mine. You can speak up.”

    “I get that,” replied Kelly, sharply. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I promise I’ll find some better ways for me to get involved.”

    Rebecca nodded while looking away. There were tears in her eyes she wanted to conceal. The silence between them was painfully loud.

    After a moment Kelly spoke, “Well, I’m going back up to my room. If you need to talk about anything else, I’m here.”

    Rebecca, still looking away, nodded once more.

     

    When Rebecca woke in the morning, sunbeams cut through her blinds. She didn’t go back to sleep after hitting the snooze button. She didn’t get up either. With the comforter pulled up over her head and an arm protruding out, she scrolled through her social media news feed. Videos of the victims’ grieving families were circulating. Several notable musicians and actors had already weighed in. Once up, she moved slowly. She stood in the shower for a full ten minutes before washing herself. Later on, as she prepared breakfast, tears ran down her cheeks.

    Around the office that day, people were talking. Most of her co-workers were glued to their phones when she arrived. But they weren’t alone; they were doing it in groups. And they were smiling. Somewhat perplexed but still shaken, Rebecca went to her desk and began her work day without any of her usual greetings.

    Around ten, she pulled herself from her monitor, walked around the corner to the office kitchen, and made a cup of coffee.

    “Have you caught anything yet?” asked Steven as he entered the kitchen.

    “I’m sorry?” Rebecca asked, confused.

    Y’know?” Steven waved his phone.

    The two exchanged blank looks.

    “Oh, so, you’re going to judge me on this,” Steven laughed.

    “I’m sorry,” Rebecca spoke softly. “I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

    “Pokémon Go!” Steven proclaimed.

    “Oh,” Rebecca replied, feeling a slight revulsion. “There’s a new game?

    “Yeah! You can download it right on your phone. It’s like crack, I swear,” said Steven, sifting through the coffee mugs in the cupboard. “I was up ‘til one-thirty last night.”

    Rebecca rubbed the ball of her palm over her eye socket. “That’s not my thing,” she said, politely.

    “C’mon, we’ve already got some office teams going. Breanna, Tyler, Bethany, and I are Team Red,” said Steven enthusiastically. “You could be with us.”

    “Honestly, Steven, there’s much more important things I have to worry about right now,” said Rebecca, taking large gulp of coffee.

    “Okay,” said Steven, disheartened. “Well, if you change your mind, let me know.”

    Rebecca walked away before Steven finished his sentence. She had no desire to be rude but knew if she stayed any longer, she would be.

    It became clear, as she moved through the hallways, how engaged her white co-workers were in the game. Men and women laughed as they scoured the office, boasting about their rankings and congratulating one another on joining the game. Even the mail carrier was comparing stats with the receptionist. They were, by all appearances, joyful and ready for the weekend to come, ready for cook-outs, ready for happy hour. The alternate reality became frightfully apparent to Rebecca. While she held back, with all her restraint, the deep, sorrowful aching to cry out, uncertain for the safety of her brother, her father, her cousins, the only things they cared about were imaginary creatures.

    The lump in Rebecca’s throat grew until she found herself choking on sentences, barely able to compose herself. She took the elevator to the sixth-floor bathroom, where she could cry without having to worrying about a co-worker hearing. Afterward, she gathered her things and decided to take the afternoon off.

    She felt unsafe on the bus. She showed the driver her pass, strode down the aisle, and took a seat, all without the slightest attention. And yet she felt unsafe. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so unnerved on public transit at one in the afternoon. Her fear wasn’t rooted in any one concern, but that anything could potentially happen. It was an ugly, awful way to feel about her city.

    Halfway home, her phone vibrated in her pocket with a text from Benjamin.

    “Hey, just wanted to check in and see how you’re holding up?” he sent.

    Rebecca read the message and smiled, nearly losing her grip and descending into more tears. “I left work early,” she wrote back. “I had to get out of there.”

    “That’s probably for the best,” Benjamin replied. “You shouldn’t be there, today. You should be at home taking care of yourself or with your people.”

    “I can’t stop crying,” she replied.

    “Me too,” Benjamin wrote. “I’ve cried three times today, already.”

    “Why do they hate us?” Rebecca replied.

    “I love you,” wrote Benjamin. “And you’re important to me.”

    “Thanks,” typed Rebecca after wiping her eyes. Feeling awkward but also reassured, she wrote back, “I love you, too.”

    A minute later, Benjamin typed back, “There’s a march against police brutality happening tomorrow night. Starts around 7pm at Yamhill and 10th. Round nine hundred folks have confirmed. Can you make it?”

    “I’ll be there,” sent Rebecca, wasting no time.

     

     

     

    About The Author

    Matt Smith 2

    Matt Smith

    Matt Smith was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Since then, he has spent some years in Phoenix, Arizona and Ulsan, South Korea. Mr. Smith currently resides in Portland, Oregon, and works for the Portland Children’s Museum. Previously, he taught ESL for both public and private institutions. Matt is preparing a collection of short stories which will center on the multiracial perspective in America. His work has been published in Angle magazine, Gravel magazine, and Cecile’s Writer’s magazine.