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Stand for Something

Heart pounding and stomach churning with anger Keith slowly raised his hands as he stood stock still. He took a deep breath and said to his friends Michael and Malik, “Don’t move.” They were at the pier when the police pulled up, blinding headlights on high beam. Mama’s voice came to him, “If the police stop you, don’t run, keep your hands where they can see them. Don’t admit to anything. Call me as soon as you can.” She had said it so often that when it happened, he heard her words as if she was standing right next to him.  The next image that flashed through his mind was of Grant with his hands raised. Keith’s face hardened. He had watched the video over and over again. “Why are you still shooting, my hands are up.” were the last words Grant spoke before slumping over in the street.

“I hate the police,” Malik whispered.

“Me too,” Michael and Keith said at the same time.

He hadn’t told Mama. They’d handled it, like men. Nothing bad happened.

“But Mama! That cop just killed him, for nothing. He wasn’t armed. He didn’t run or “resist”. What if that had been me?” Keith said.

He quickly wiped away tears that rolled down his cheeks against his will. He was determined to convince Mama to agree for him to participate in the protest organized to demand that the police officer be held accountable, fired and arrested. He and Aisha had been chosen to represent the school on the city-wide committee organizing as part of the nationwide protests. There had been protests following the murder that brought more and more people to their community. The crowds grew more massive and roiled with emotion. The air was filled with chants of  “No Justice, No Peace”. Hand made signs made in haste read “Justice for Amadou and Grant”, “Black Lives Matter”, and “Fire, Arrest and Try Killer Cops!” Every 28 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement. Now, the nationwide protests were being organized to demand police accountability in cities across the country where young Black men had been murdered.

“I know baby, that’s exactly why I don’t want you in it. The police might come after you.  If something happened to you it would kill me.”

“You are thinking of Malcolm, Martin and Medger. The police are not killing us because we are leaders. It’s not the same now as it was then.  Aisha and I got chosen out of all the kids in the whole school. People think I can do it. They believe in me. Why don’t you? You always said, ‘If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.’ “

Mama glared at Keith as she pulled the last tissue out of the box, “I told you to stop using my words against me. The only marching you are going to be doing is down the street to the schoolhouse. First get your education, then fight for justice. You can become a lawyer, teacher, or doctor. I am not fattening frogs for snakes! I’m through talking about it, Keith.” As he turned to walk away he could hear her sobbing softly.

Keith knew Mama was doing what she thought would protect him. He could see the heart break on her face every time she thought about what Grant’s parents were going through. He heard her talking with Auntie about what people on her job were saying about it. Every Black person he knew had been talking about the murder. The men in the barbershop were shaking their heads, trying to figure out what to do. At the basketball court his friends argued about what should happen. So many thoughts passed through Keith’s mind.

As he crossed the threshold to his room his phone rang. It was Aisha.

“Hey Keith, What cha doin?” she asked.

“Arguing with Mama about the protest. She’s still saying I can’t go.”

“Ahh man, that’s messed up.” Aisha replied.

“She’s treating me like I’m a little kid. But I’m not. I’m a man. I know what I should and  shouldn’t do. Right from wrong.”

“What are you going to do?” Aisha asked.

“I’m going to keep working on changing her mind. I’m know I’m not going to stop  working on the protest. That’s for sure. I got chosen out of all the kids in the whole school.”

“You mean WE got chosen.” Aisha said.

“Yeah, right, I mean we got chosen.

“This is how history is made, by ‘we the people,’ Aisha said.  “It’s deep to realize that we’re were making history too. People in 17 cities across the country will be protesting on the same day. We’ll all be standing for something together. Even though your Mama is scared, it’s important for us to be part of it. I feel lucky that Ms Shabazz helped us get connected with the city wide organizing committee.”

“Ms Shabazz is the best teacher. She makes sure we learn about historical struggles for justice like the Anti Lynching Crusade, welfare, workers rights and fair wage campaigns, civil rights for people of color, anti war organizing, and the right to marry for gay and lesbian people. The part I like the best is when speakers come to class to talk about present day organizing. The Palestinian Hip Hop crew and the environmental justice and climate change organizers were dope,” Keith said.

“My favorite part is talking about different kinds of strategies to get justice: letter writing, sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, lobbying  officials, marches and rallies, civil disobedience. Remember she showed us those pictures of  the Black Panther Party for Self Defense with guns they used to defend against the police. We learned things in her class that are helping us get ready for this protest,” Aisha added.

“Yup. I can’t wait until tomorrow’s planning meeting.”

As soon as Ms. Shabazz had taken attendance she asked Keith and Aisha to give an update on the rally. They walked to the front of the room. Keith began, “ There’s two weeks left before the protest. Ms Martin and Ms James, agreed to speak. They have been working with us on the demands. ” The class was silent as they realized that the mothers of two young Black men from their own community who had been killed by the police were going to participate. “We want cops who kill to be fired, arrested and then tried for murder. We are demanding that the Police Chief and the District Attorney take action to hold accountable Officer Zim who killed Amadou and Officer Briggs who killed Grant.”

Aisha continued, “The chant and banner committees are helping us get clear powerful messages out. The media committee has set up interviews. They’ve also written articles that will be published this week and next. Our facebook page has over 600 likes and most of the teachers have been tweeting about it. We finalized the march route –from City Hall, to the police station and through Clearview where most of the police shootings happen. Ms Martin will speak at the bus stop where Amadou was murdered and Ms James will speak at the park before we leave to march. We’re meeting today after school in the gym. We need people to put up flyers and posters.”

Mama’s face and voice kept interrupting Keith’s thoughts. He had decided he would speak at the rally with or without her permission. He wasn’t in the habit of disobeying his mother, but he felt so strongly about this that he was willing to risk it.

The bell rang and every body got up to leave. “Here!” Keith said loudly over the rustle of  the students collecting books, jackets and papers, “Take flyers, share it on facebook and instagram. Tell everyone you know to be there. We gotta represent.”

As the class emptied, Keith approached Ms Shabazz. “Nice work Keith.”, she said smiling.

Keith lowered his eyes and mumbled, “Thanks. Mama said I can’t go to the protest. She’s scared the police will come after me, but I ‘m not scared. Grant and Amadou, they didn’t even do anything wrong. The police are getting away murder. I don’t get it.”

Ms. Shabazz looked at him directly. “Well, here’s what I think. Some police shoot Black  people because they have learned to think of them as criminals and as ‘less than’ white people. Those in power could stop these shootings if they really wanted to. But stopping the murder of young Black men is not really that important to them. They think that police violence will scare us into keeping silent and passive so they support and protect the police. I’ve been watching this my whole life. In Chicago, where I come from, the cops used to shoot Black children just because they saw them running. They had no respect for Black life, at all. It’s a problem nationwide. Some people call this institutional racism to help us understand that the laws, the courts, the government and the police are all involved. That’s what ‘fight the power’ means.”

“Sometimes demonstrations do change things and we do get some justice. In 1991 four Los Angeles police brutally beat Rodney King. Someone actually caught it on video. At first the police were acquitted. But there was a second trial and eventually two of them were found guilty and spent 2 ½ years in prison,”  she continued.

“I get what you are saying. That makes me hekka mad! I’ve got to go to the demonstration. I gotta stand for something.”

Ms Shabazz sighed. “Your mom loves you. I can tell it’s important to you to be involved, and that your relationship with your mother is important too.”

Keith was sure she was going to say he had to obey his mother. Instead, she said, “I really  appreciate your clarity and commitment. You’re doing a great job. How can I support you?”

“I –I’m not sure,” he replied. “Let me think about it.”

Keith stood up straight and pulled his shoulders back when the idea came to him.

“Ms Shabazz, I think if Mama had a chance to meet Grant and Amadou’s moms, and  talk to them it would help her understand why I have to do this. Can you help me figure out how to make that happen?”

“Sure,”  she said. “I can arrange a meeting. What night is your mom off work?”

As Keith and Ms Shabazz walked into the gymnasium, Keith turned to Ms Shabazz saying, “Aisha said she would meet with the media committee and finalize the press release and work on the press list. She is going to be on the radio with Fernando tonight. If you can’t listen to them live, it will be on the website later tonight. I’m going to check in with the out reach committee. We are putting teams together to put up flyers along the march route and posters in stores and restaurants.”

“That sounds good Keith. I will check in with you before you head out. Thanks for the reminder about the radio interview.”

As Keith rounded the corner leading to the hallway to the gym, Rodney, the School Resource Officer walked out of  teacher’s lounge. “Watch where you’re going Keith!”

“Sorry, I didn’t see you coming.”

“Yeah, you weren’t looking. Where are you rushing to?”

“We’re meeting about the rally. I’m already late.”

“Well, hold on. I’ve been hearing about this rally and it sounds like a bunch of outside people stirring up trouble for you, and for us.”

“What outside people are you talking about?”

“Are you questioning me? Why are you raising your voice? You better watch your step Mr. Community Organizer.”

As Keith made his way to the meeting Mama’s worried face came to his mind. He knew that he couldn’t tell her about this run in with Rodney. No way.

Mama could tell by the look on Keith’s face there was something wrong. “What’s the matter?”

Keith rolled his eyes and said “I’m tired of you treating me like I’m a little kid. I’ll be 15 in  June. When are you going to get it that I can make decisions for myself. You can’t just wrap me in bubble plastic and put me on a shelf. That won’t work Mama.”

Mama’s eyebrows drew close together and made an arrow towards her nose. “Don’t tell me when you will be 15. I was there when you got here, remember, I am your mother. I almost lost you at birth.

Three pounds you weighed. I had to leave you there in the incubator. You were so tiny. Now you’re calling yourself a man. I’ve got news for you, Keith you are not going to be involved in that protest and I mean it.”

“No disrespect Mama, but what if it had been ME shot down waiting for the bus and  YOU were trying to hold the police accountable? What if Malik and Michael’s mama’s told you they couldn’t be involved? You know that wouldn’t be right.

Please, Mama, I want you to come to this meeting and talk to Ms Martin and Ms James. It’s on Tuesday night and you don’t have to work. Whether you want me to or not I’m gonna speak at the rally.”

Keith stomped out of the living room down the hallway past his baby pictures, pictures of him and his dad, class pictures all lined up on the hall wall that led to his room. He slammed the door so hard the picture frames were jostled on the wall. Mama’s tea cup rattled on the saucer as she bumped the kitchen table getting up from her chair.

Before the pictures settled on the wall Mama was at Keith’s door. She took a minute to  calm herself and let her breathing return to normal. Then she knocked.

“I don’t feel like talking to you.”

Mama opened the door. “Everything is not about you and how you feel. We have got to  work this out. This is our home. We’ve got to figure out how to live peacefully.”

“The police killed Grant, and before that they killed Amadou. I was friends with Grant since kindergarten. He’s the second young Black man they killed this year. What am I supposed to do? Just stand back and watch. I can’ t do that Mama. It hurts too much. I gotta do something. You feel me?”

“Welcome, Ms Anderson, hello Keith.” Ms Shabazz said as they arrived. Mama looked around the room which was filled with signs, banners, stacks of flyers, t-shirts and parents and teachers.

“The protest is coming together and Keith has been a steady and strong presence. You must be proud.” Mama looked at Keith, then at Ms Shabazz. She didn’t know quite what to say.  Amadou’s mom, Ms James. They’re excited to meet the mother of this dynamic young organizer.”

“Pleasure to meet you.” Ms Martin said as she shook Mama’s hand.

Ms James said, “Glad you’re here tonight. It means a lot that we have support. When the police murdered my son Ms Martin came over and we cried together. I didn’t know if I  was going to make it. She looked at me and said, ‘We have to make it. We raised our sons to be strong, good men. We won’t let them die in vain and no one held accountable.’”

Mama’s eyes were glistening with tears. “You have my sympathy. I am so sorry for your loss. I’m not as strong as you. I don’t think I could make it if something happened to Keith. To be honest, I am not in support of him being involved in the protest. Keith is my only child. I have been to so many funerals and wiped tears off the faces of my sister and her kids when my nephew was shot. I am so worried for his safety. We have been arguing about it for weeks now. I have to have peace in my home. I’m doing what I think is best for him.”

Ms James said, “That’s what we’re all doing, the best we can. Mamie Till said after  Emmett Till was murdered, ‘Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When they killed Negroes in the South I said, That’s their business, not mine. Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.’”

Mama said, “I remember my parents talking about what it was like for them to see the small mangled body of Emmett Till, lying in the open casket for all the world to see. The image of his mother Mamie was etched in their minds.”

The three mothers were silent for what seemed to Keith like a very long time. At last Mama turned to hug Ms. James and Ms Martin. “Thank you. I haven’t been able to wrap my mind around this. The two of you have helped me see what Keith has been saying, something he heard me say from time to time, that we have to stand for something. I’ve decided I will be there at the rally.”

On the day of the rally Keith passed out leaflets as people arrived. When it was his turn to speak he walked up the stairs to the stage. Keith’s eyes swept the crowd until they landed on Mama. Tears were streaming down her face but she looked happy. She nodded her approval. He took a deep breath, and started to speak.

END

*In 1955, Emmett Till 14 year old African American youth from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi was tortured and murdered after being accused of flirting  with a white woman. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the men who murdered him were acquitted at trial.

Nell Myhand is a board member of Making Contact. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.