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​How I Learned to Stop Being Cynical and March for Black Life

I am intimately and daily aware of police power and the public perception of my black skin.

by Amdé Mengistu
Jul 19 2016, 4:00am

A recent Black Lives Matter rally in New York City. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

I remember watching the nightly news with my parents as Rodney King was beaten to within an inch of his life. I had just turned 12, but already knew the only thing different about his beating from the rest was the presence of a camcorder. I feel the same now about bloody snuff films depicting the deaths of men like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These killings are constant—only the phones and 4G coverage are new.

I have practiced as a social worker in rural Virginia jails and detention centers, and as a public defender on Staten Island. I've talked to cops guarding jails, on witness stands, and late at night in my local, loosie cigarette-selling bodega. I am intimately and daily aware of police power and the public perception of my black skin.

But when a white friend of mine was biking to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for some kind of Black Lives Matter rally a few days back, I did not want to join him. In fact, I was sure the thing wouldn't matter. I was hungover and depressed, still reeling from binge-watching the police killing videos, and the footage of cop killing in Dallas. Little did I know what was coming in Baton Rouge this past Sunday, when six more officers were shot, three fatally.

I had no desire to mourn in public, nor walk past beat cops stuck on protest detail. I'm a black dad whose two mixed-race boys pass for white. They were away for the weekend with their mother, but they've taught me that skin color does not matter when it comes to feeling basic, human love. Still, I loathed the thought of seeing white liberals chant rote and reductive slogans. My friend texted and pleaded, though, and I reluctantly walked out the door to meet him. He was just around the corner, and I needed a hug.

That's when I froze, stunned. Rounding the bend, I saw the march was full of children—family after young family streamed out of Fort Greene Park, past cops peacefully holding back traffic, in a silent march organized by Brooklyn Families for Peace and Social Justice. Having lived in my neighborhood for a decade now, this was a tableau vivant unlike any I'd seen—a quiet, moving picture of gentrifying Fort Greene. There were white families and black ones, Asian folk and Jewish people, international expats and their American anchor kids. There were corporate types and freelancers, Shabby Chic moms and dads pushing SUV-sized strollers. Black fathers were there with their toddlers in tow, and older kids I've known from weekend hoops at the park nearby.

Most of all, I was floored by how many white people cared publicly for blacks like me. I was amazed to see little white children with homemade Black Lives Matter posters, tiny cardboard cut-outs shaped like hearts, marching slowly and peacefully, imitating their parents, who were just trying to mourn and connect and get to know their own community. I cried. It felt like I was in a hospital bed, immobile and numb, and someone I loved but did not expect had just come to visit.

When the Cleveland kid Tamir Rice was shot almost two years ago, I thought about Civil War reenactors on old battlefields. Like them, the 12-year-old with a toy gun was just playing war games on a grassy knoll. I remember thinking one reason the Civil War is so fascinating, and enraptures people still, is that it purports to be over. But casualties of that era are all around us, every day. American fear and violence could draft us into reenactment anytime.

The wages of original American sin are deaths like Tamir's, as well as fear that fuels our gun lust. The past is blood soaking through Philando Castile's shirt, pouring out of Alton Sterling's heart.

The Black Lives Matter event in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, attended by the author. Photo courtesy Stanley Lumax

But why would American slavery heal quickly? What is the human precedent for that? Every year at Passover, we still hear tribes cry out in pain from old slavery. A century after Emancipation, in 1963, James Baldwin wrote his nephew that we were celebrating 100 years of freedom 100 years too soon. We still have 50 years to reach his forecast.

As the march wound down, the multiethnic and multigenerational crowd gathered around a plaza on Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. The crowd mingled, confused about what to do next, but earnest about connecting. It felt like the end of a funeral, when you are tempted to embrace pretty much anyone around you.

It felt like grief, and it felt like hope. These children were in such closer proximity to American blackness, to humanity, than their parents were, or their parents' parents. It is so hard to stop integration once it begins, or retract acceptance once it is given. America is strong enough to contain multitudes.

These children rallying on Flatbush will grow to imitate their parents, and spread love the Brooklyn way. Unalienable rights will seem especially self-evident to them. This racial violence, even as it worsens, is the last gasp of the Old White America, going down with a fight by desperately embracing a reality-TV host peddling past greatness. Despite all the hate and divisiveness of this political season, the children on the street that day displayed love and acceptance.

For a few hours, in my black life, my corner of Brooklyn felt like the way forward. It felt like all the blood spilled, and the bleeding yet to come, might just be brutal moments in a long story of hope.

Amdé Mengistu is a recovering attorney raising two boys in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.