For Thanksgiving this year I invited over three Americans to my tiny shoebox apartment in Nanjing. Max brought his Chinese wife and with my Chinese wife that made six people, two of whom had no real connection to the holiday, packed into my apartment on a freezing cold day that was supposedly in autumn but felt like the bleak, hollow cold of winter. Thanksgiving in the cold is a new discovery of mine. California, where I grew up, doesn’t have seasons so when I think of autumn I think of Boston and pumpkin and 400 year old houses and Native Americans and a whole history that has nothing to do with the West which doesn’t seem to be the real America. But then I think of the romanticized West, the Wild one, the cinematically preserved American West of Johns Ford and Wayne where I grew up; but no, the West is really Kansas or maybe as far as Texas, probably Arizona. So then I think of vaqueros and Alta California and I think maybe I’ve never had a proper American Thanksgiving or maybe I’ve never been properly American, whatever that means.
I tried this year to be as American as possible. I made stuffing with fresh sage and thyme and homemade cornbread. I made a pumpkin cheesecake from fresh pumpkin. I made mulled wine and orange crème cookies and macaroni and cheese from scratch. I wore a white dress shirt and a bowtie and put jazz music on and played host. I laid some snacks out on my wooden chest in the living room that doubles as a coffee table. I felt so adult and so American even though we were in China and our bird was a duck and not a turkey.
My guests arrived around 7:30pm. We all had to work that day because China, rightfully so, does not recognize Thanksgiving as a national holiday and none of us were fussed enough to ask for the day off. We were a day in the future anyhow and the football games wouldn’t come on until after we were already in bed.
The food was a hit. I was partial to the stuffing because my mother always made amazing stuffing and I aspired to reach her lofty heights. The crowd favorite was the pumpkin cheesecake. Of course you can’t really mess up macaroni and cheese so that was also well-received.
I kept glasses filled with mulled wine, heating up a new batch when necessary, using only the Tesco brand dry red for the mulled wine and saving the three good bottles for later. Later when we would open up, after our wives took pictures of the food and the people and we all posed, later after the pleasantries, later when you get to holiday talk. The key to any good holiday party is to invite complete strangers because if you invite those with whom you are familiar a reaction occurs in the blood that reminds you that you can’t go an entire holiday season without rankling the ire of persons whom you know so well.
After a few glasses of wine Tim, from Chicago (the suburbs of Chicago, a fact he often forgets to point out), brought up the video of Laquan McDonald that had recently been released. Maybe he brought it up or maybe I brought it up. Probably what happened was Max, from Ohio, asked me about my upcoming trip to America. I was going to bring my wife to the States for the first time. I probably made a dark joke about wanting to not get shot, a reference to our gun epidemic but not to our Police pogroms. From there, over wine, we kicked around the various mass shootings, the likelihood of being shot, the inanity of a country that is supposed to be civilized, advanced, intelligent, etc. but allows mentally diseased people to purchase powerful weaponry and then marvels at the fact that these same people waltz into public places and relieve themselves of the pressure building in their brain by way of their phallic, purchased appendage. One big gigantic ejaculation of hatred before signing off. Dead or alive, captured or on the run, they’ve finally achieved catharsis.
We would have kept talking about this, me making sardonic jokes, Max earnestly advocating for mental health checks, Tim and Ricky raising objections and discovering new angles from which to deconstruct the issue (mental health, gender, race, economic background, education, geopolitical location, religion, hobbies, media, ad infinitum) if someone hadn’t mentioned that there was another epidemic going on over in Chicago where black people were dropping like flies. Does that sound inhumane? It’s meant to be. When 29 current and former Harper High School students die in a year, in one city, excuse me, around one high school, what else are you supposed to say about it? Are we supposed to believe that those lives are registering as something more than insectile?
I bring up these 30 or so dead bodies and Tim doesn’t know what I’m talking about; he is from “Chicago” but he doesn’t know. Who am I to judge? We live in China. I only know from This American Life. What am I doing about it? What are these kids but a hot-button topic of conversation, something I can kick around over mulled wine in my apartment on Thanksgiving?
It’s probably then that Tim brings up Laquan McDonald.
I remember where I was the night I heard about the South Carolina church shooting. I was out to dinner with my wife’s family. I had had a few drinks at dinner. We left the restaurant and we were walking up the street. Behind us was the lake of our courtship where we used to walk in the days before I met her parents. I would drop her off at home and before she would go upstairs we would steal a few more minutes together walking around the lake. That night, like every night, it was teeming with retirees going for an evening walk. On both sides of the narrow street there were dozens of people and vendors selling their wares. We passed the café that I used to get coffee at while I waited for my wife to come downstairs from her parents’ house. One time we were in the café and some guy made a remark in Chinese that I couldn’t understand. After he left my wife told me that he had said that miscegenation was wrong because the genitalia of the races were mismatched.
There is no way we were talking about anything like shootings in America at dinner. I must have read the article on my phone while we were eating. I managed to keep quiet about it at dinner but as we were walking the weight of the shootings hit me. Suddenly I couldn’t take it and I began to cry uncontrollably right in the middle of the street. I completely lost myself and couldn’t explain to my wife what was happening. She couldn’t understand what had made me so sad.
Another shooting in America, I said. “But doesn’t that happen all the time?” she said and then her eyes asked me, What was so special?
I was choked up, coughing and trying to explain myself. My wife and I have never really discussed the history of race in America. I thought maybe I should start at the beginning with the boats and chains and slave labor. She would have read about that though so I could skip ahead to reconstruction or the Civil Rights era, to the era of church bombings, to a period of pure evil. There is no excuse for slavery but at least it happened before 1900. That doesn’t make it right, but at least we can look back and say it was in a time of savagery. Slavery was happening in many places1, but only in a place as progressive as America did it manage to last as long as it did. Americans have that enviable ability to selectively see and shape the reality in front of them.
The Civil Rights era though, is there any explaining that? Other than evil and hatred? There is nothing more despicable than bombing a house of worship. Fast forward 60 years and a mentally diseased young man decides to spark a race war by shooting up a church. Try to slow the procession of images marching through your mind when you hear race war and church shooting. Try to not think of black and white images, churches on fire, fire hoses aimed at children, riot gear and the KKK, Selma, Emmit Till, body parts and mutilations. In one instant all of that comes rushing up the cerebral vertex, hitting like mainlined heroin and the fissures erupt. Stay the flow if you can; it’s difficult for those like me, ensconced in our cozy apartments on Thanksgiving, who occasionally forget that pain exists. It is, after all, nice to live abroad.
I made it to the bar near my house wiping my face off on God knows what and sitting down and hoping that my rubbed raw face wasn’t too noticeable. And I swallowed it because nobody wanted to talk about the dead black people in a church in South Carolina. Including myself.
Laquan McDonald had a knife. Every time I look at the news I have my fingers crossed. First I hope that there hasn’t been any violence committed by police2. Second I hope the victim was innocent. I want martyrs because Emmitt Till didn’t have a gun.
What if he did have a gun though? He might have become an (even bigger) inspiration to Huey Newton instead of a tragic story. Maybe he would have become Robert Charles. More likely he would have become both. He was, however, weaponless so he has been immortalized as a martyr. Laquan McDonald, on the other hand, had a weapon, a knife. He was shot 15 times from distance because he turned and he had a knife. That’s all they needed. All they needed was the fact that Michael Brown stole something, that Eric Garner resisted arrest, that countless others put themselves in those positions, put themselves in those positions for better or worse. They weren’t put there, they put themselves there. They stole, they ran, they reacted instead of complying; they forgot the rules of survival.
That is the great conundrum. We don’t want a populace that fears the police but we don’t want our young men committing crimes either. We shouldn’t teach our children fear of the police. We shouldn’t teach our children to be subservient to some power structure. That would be limiting. The repercussions are immeasurable. When you start explaining to a child that he must fear something the child ceases to learn. There can be no understanding where there is fear. That’s not to say fear is unfounded or silly. There are legitimate reasons to fear, but that’s not the world we want to create moving forward, a world born of fear. At the same time we have to encourage compliance with the law. When laws aren’t complied with, however, we have to demand reasonable reaction from police officers. You know, like not indiscriminately killing black folks.
Here I sit in my high rise apartment on Thanksgiving telling the young black youth of the inner city to behave themselves so that the police don’t kill them. To the people who are hard up, down on their luck, born into strife, you simply have to do better, right? How does that message sound coming from the 13th floor? Don’t break the law, don’t run, don’t fall out of line. Walk straighter than straight, be above reproach despite all of the toxicity that surrounds you on a daily basis. You have to. You who have been given none of the advantages in life, who have been born into dire straights, who have been ignored by the system, you have to do better. You have unfair expectations put on you by other people. Those expectations are necessary because if you do everything right you will not be judged unfairly, you will not be stereotyped; if you dress the right way and speak the right way and behave properly and play a sport like Tennis, for instance, you will not be tackled outside of a hotel in broad daylight in Manhattan3.
The promise is that if you carry yourself a certain way you will be safe. The implicit idea is that you have to play by all the rules, more so than other races. You have to be above reproach. This is what my Uncle David meant when he told me not to smoke pot in college. It’s what Dave Chapelle is talking about when he says that older black men know all the laws and will stop a younger man about to commit an error. It’s what my great grandmother taught my father and my uncles: fear the police. The sirens came by wailing and she sent him to hide under the porch with his brothers. When the police come, you hide. The lesson never really took (i.e. my father is fearless), but the idea stuck with him. That was about limitations. He wasn’t supposed to clash with the authorities but he also wasn’t supposed to leave a town of only six thousand people. Here is what you’re capable of; now go hide under that porch.
And yet, you can’t help but ask if that was the lesson that kept him alive.
That is the great conundrum in 2016 and it’s illustrated perfectly by one of the legends of hip-hop. The RZA tells his son not to wear a hoodie. This is not about hip-hop or the fact that the hoodie is a symbol or that The RZA wore hoodies or that The RZA made his money rapping about a life that glorifies people who wear hoodies or that The RZA himself probably still wears a hoodie. This is about the porch and whether or not we should or shouldn’t hide.
Laquan McDonald had a knife and he was shot down for it. He shouldn’t have had a knife. Illinois law states that it’s perfectly legal to have a knife unless you want to commit an unlawful act with said knife. We are assuming Laquan McDonald wanted to do just that. He had just slashed the tires of a police cruiser. He was walking, not even running, but walking with a little hitch in his step, maybe excitement, maybe adrenaline, maybe fear, maybe a jolt from the drugs he may or may not have been on (PCP was found in his system); all we know of his intent is what Officer Van Dyke knew before he opened the door and started firing. Could Van Dyke have seen the knife? Did he really believe that McDonald was going to lunge at him or that he was going to spring up from the ground after being shot multiple times and slit his throat? It doesn’t matter because Van Dyke has the knife to point at and Tamir Rice had a toy gun and Michael Brown was stealing and Eric Garner was resisting arrest.
Tell your children not to play with toy guns. Tell them not to run when the law comes. Tell them to say sir and ma’am and to follow all the rules. The game is fixed. Don’t carry knives. Don’t carry guns, don’t arm yourselves, don’t protect yourselves. Live your life differently than other people. Allow yourself to be defined by these limiting parameters. The effect is real even when it’s miniscule. It’s the constant feeling of otherness that everyone has but is more acute in the Black mind. That otherness that hums and glows, constantly picking at your brain reminding you that you are different. James Baldwin said it, Franz Fanton said it, Bigger Thomas defined it.
When I told Max and Tim about being pulled over and harassed by the police they apologized. It was funny. I told them not to apologize. Their race doesn’t make them guilty, not in my book. I don’t ask my white mother to apologize or my half white siblings to apologize. For one thing it’s really truly not their fault. For another thing it is absolutely, irrevocably their fault and my fault and every American’s fault, regardless of race.
I’ve been pulled over by the police about ten times in my life. This is significant when you consider that I only drove a car for about a year and a half. Maybe two years maximum. I’ve been pulled over on a bicycle too. Twice. I was pulled over coming home from the gym one time back in my hometown, about a block from my house which was next to the high school I graduated from and walked by for ten years everyday to the YMCA where I was gainfully employed; I was pulled over at night and my car was searched and we were sat on the curb like criminals and the police cracked wise about girlfriends, or lack thereof, when they saw a bottle of lotion. Good times.
I was pulled over in Orange County, where I went to college, and accused of (asked about, I could say but won’t) stealing my own car, a 1989 Toyota Corolla that no person would choose to steal. I was pulled over one time, that I can recollect, when I was actually breaking the law. I was stoned as are a number of California drivers. I did not receive a citation.
I was humiliated only once. It was another time that I broke the law. I was driving my girlfriend’s Nissan Altima around the parking lot. She was upstairs studying in her dormitory. I didn’t have a license yet and I wanted to practice. I didn’t leave the parking lot, but still, I wasn’t supposed to be driving without a licensed driver in the car. I didn’t crash the car. I didn’t floor it and do donuts. I was practicing turning and parking. The police were called because someone saw a suspicious character driving an unfamiliar car in the university parking lot.
I had been playing pickup basketball at that university for five years, was dating a girl who went there and practically lived at the dorms where my best friend and his girlfriend also lived. The car was my girlfriend’s car and was always parked on campus. Nevertheless the police were called.
I’m sure I was angry. I’m sure my protestations went further than they should have. I know that they threatened to arrest me, to impound the car, to suspend my permit. What saved it was my girlfriend who was white. I don’t remember if I called her or if she came downstairs by herself. I do remember that they pulled her aside, that they lectured her, that they told me to keep quiet and they told her about my character and the kind of company she was keeping and the kind of people that she should associate with if she valued her future.
It was of course after this story that Max and Tim apologized. It was funny because every story for the last three years4 hadn’t hit home for them. People have died and it hadn’t hit home for them. The impossibility of death in the mind of the living; the impossibility of oppression in the mind of the majority.
That incident happened ten years ago. I was angrier then, bigger, more muscles, more fire, more braggadocio. I would have been wearing a wife beater and my tattoo would have been visible, my earrings gleaming, my eyes fiery. I would have been how faraway from something horrible happening? I think pretty far but given the videos of this summer…I don’t know. Still, I don’t want to pretend that I’ve been in life threatening situations or that if they had that potential that I didn’t always believe that I would come out on the other side of them without harm. I’m not Laquan McDonald because I was given tools to navigate through situations. Really, I’ve been so goddamn lucky that Laquan McDonald and I are worlds apart. And yet, tools or no tools, the police dehumanize in the same way.
Laquan McDonald was born to a fifteen year old drug addicted mother. The drug was PCP, a drug which he eventually would come to use. PCP has been around as a street drug since the 70s at least. Laquan was born in the 37th ward of Chicago which is the most violent neighborhood in Chicago. In fact that neighborhood is more dangerous than Honduras, with a homicide rate of 116 per 100,000 people. I’ve never been there but I imagine it’s not unlike some neighborhoods in San Bernardino, the town where I played college basketball. I imagine Laquan’s neighborhood is a neighborhood short on hope and long on drugs and violence. It’s a neighborhood overrun with a particular strain of Black nihilism. There is nothing outside of this, there is only the muck that I am forced to live in, the ugliness that I am forced to see. The impossibility of success in the mind of the oppressed.
I have been in mental prisons before. Most people have with the result upon escape being cliché, i.e. an eye-opener, stepping out of the cave, blinders coming off. I have been in mental prisons before but I have never been physically stifled as well. I have been fortunate enough to live in safe places, to have been born to a father and mother who didn’t have much but decided they would stretch it and make sure their kids didn’t have to dodge bullets.
Dodging bullets is an actual phrase my father used to say and I always thought he was exaggerating for effect, but then there is Chicago. There are Laquan McDonalds who are born into a veritable war zone. I won’t even pretend that my life stacks up to his, that being pulled over by the police means the same thing to me as it does to him. We were never close. We were light years apart and now he is dead and I have on a bow tie in a high rise apartment in Eastern China where I make lively conversation about his tragedy. He is a dinner party conversation. He is not flesh and blood, he is in the ether, he is fodder for conversation, not even fuel for a fire. Laquan McDonald’s death can’t mean anything when there have been 6,000 shootings in Chicago since 2012.
When you start to talk about guns in America you don’t get very far. A brief history of when domestic gun ownership was useful: The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, The Black Panthers, and hunting turkeys for Thanksgiving. Three of those were for protection and one for practical use. The days of protecting yourself with a gun are over. If the government wants to kill you they will send a drone. If the police want to kill you they will shoot you.
We can, however delude ourselves, as Americans are wont to do, and believe that we still need guns. That’s fine. Even if we accept that we need guns we should be able to agree that some form of moderation is necessary. We should be able to sit down and say that there are only so many types of guns that a private citizen needs to own and there is certainly a relatively small number of guns a person needs to own. People are more willing to comply with flight security than gun security. After a rash of late night TV hosts’ jokes about taking your shoes off we all pretty much fell in line with airport security, but gun control eludes us.
If we return to the concept of mental prisons it’s not hard to understand the mentality of gun toting Americans. Convincing a child of the ghetto that there is hope outside of the ghetto, that there are cities that are safe, places that have jobs and less segregation, countries that he or she can travel to, that is a difficult task. It is to ask the child to swallow the red pill. In effect Americans are no different with their guns. For the people that own guns you are asking them to take away a part of their national identity.
This country was settled with guns and labor coerced by guns. It’s codified and mythologized and romanticized in books. It’s shouted down and belittled and vilified in other books. Guns killed the Native Americans. Native Americans scalped some of the people with guns. Guns put them back down. Guns kept the slaves in check until some of the slaves obtained their own guns. More guns put the rebellion down. Immigrants with guns moved out into the territories and the process repeated itself with more blood and frontier justice and mob justice all fueled by guns. In lands where your only claim to the land was how willing you were to obtain the land, willing to die, willing to kill, in those lands guns were king. Those lands are long gone now. They are the past and yet we cannot divest ourselves from the romantic mythos of the lone frontiersman, pilgrim, freedman, Native, immigrant. A gun is as much a form of validation to an American as a car and a nasal, neutral accent or a drawl south of the Mason-Dixon line.
It is to these Americans who are unable or unwilling to forget their antecedents that you must make your case. It is to the Americans that believe more guns are the answer to gun violence that you must make your case. On the Black side there is precedent; there was Nat Turner and Robert Charles and Ossian Sweet and Negroes with Guns and Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver and The Black Panthers. The solution there was to fight fire with fire.
And there is another faction of people who think that the movie theater and the church and the kindergarten and the community college and downtown Santa Barbara would be safer with more guns. Disproving this logic shouldn’t be difficult as we have unintentionally set up an experiment in one of our great cities. There is no shortage of (poor, Black) Chicagoans with guns. If they do feel safer because of said guns it’s purely an illusion.
I have scant experiences with guns. My father owns a couple but he was raised in the country and he is a veteran. He is what I would call a responsible gun user. I wouldn’t mind guns if everyone who owned them was like him. But they’re not so I hate guns indiscriminately.
Once upon a time in the history of our country the mob could have found the ruthless murderer who tried to ignite a race war in a South Carolinian church and dragged him through the streets before lynching him. Of course they wouldn’t have because he would have been White and 100 years ago White men were more likely to be lynched for stealing a horse in San Francisco than they were for killing Black people in South Carolina.
Nevertheless the power of execution has been rightfully remanded to the state. The individual has lost the power to accuse, to judge, to kill. Some of this aggression is channeled online where the most vituperative language exists. In the good old days there were wars and American football but the liberals have gone about demonizing those things too. And now they want to take away guns as well. Somewhere a Reaganite is silently weeping.
The American populace has been declawed, defanged, made harmless. Emasculated. There were once 80,000 wolves in Montana and they were killed in the name of civilization and civilization has swept through and killed the wolves who replaced them as well. The resonance of this neutering is two-fold. There are those who respond by asserting their power through violence and there are those who meekly accept the raw deals they’ve procured or helped bring about.
Look if you will to South Carolina where the churchgoers’ death resulted in, directly or indirectly, the dismissal of the confederate flag. Us bowtie wearers were happy about a piece of cloth coming down from in front of a capitol building. This is progress Tim, the “Chicagoan”, said and in one sense he is right. Maybe. Maybe the confederate flag is a symbol of hatred and maybe it’s a symbol of Southern pride. I personally like to believe the latter. I’m not big on destroying monuments to the past, even if they were painful. It’s not too far from taking the names of slaveholders off of university buildings. For my money I’d rather we were reminded of what this country actually was.
But if we have to take it down so be it. I’m not in love with a flag that certainly has painful undertones and overtones. Take the flag down and burn it for all I care, only do it quickly and quietly and then get back to the issue at hand. Or better yet why don’t we put the issue of the flag on the back burner and worry about those flies that are dying in the street?
We are all complicit. We are all guilty of murdering those flies. We agreed to it. We have failed the inner cities repeatedly. We have failed poor people. We have failed poor, Black people. This is not a call to arms. This is not a call for everyone to get up and get on their feet and shout out of their windows; do not write your congressman or congresswoman, do not lament the state of the world. If you’re already doing those things carry on; if you’re not, start them if you would like.
This is a call for acknowledgement. Let’s not lie to ourselves about symbols. Let’s not get fired up about non stories. Let’s not act like those things that don’t matter do matter. I don’t care about Black people at the Oscars or concussions in the NFL or depression in college students. That’s all happiness. That’s the third one. The first one is life. The second one is liberty. Acknowledge that we have failed to give those first two to a swath of the population. Carry that knowledge with you securely under your left ventricle. After lunch stretch and feel it there. When anger about Miley Cyrus’s appropriation of Black culture starts to cloud your thoughts consider that while you were thinking that a Black Chicagoan may have died. Do not worry about Iggy Azalea or Cam Newton or Donald Trump. Two of them are crazy and the other is misunderstood. America will figure that out without the yelling. Or yell if you want, but make sure you feel it in between your shouts. Meditate on those flies.
I’m in my apartment on Thanksgiving feeling like James Baldwin and simultaneously feeling about myself the way Eldridge Cleaver felt about James Baldwin. The guests have left and there is no more wine. I have to work tomorrow and I’m thankful that they did not stay too late. I am thankful that I have a job. I am thankful that I have my health. I am thankful to have a loving wife, great family and close friends. And I am thankful to be alive.
3 James Blake. Commissioner William Bratton denies racism had any part in the “arrest.” I think the most remarkable part about the story is that the crime is credit card fraud. I’m glad the police are out there putting knees in the backs of those dangerous criminals.
4 Or 100 years depending on how far back you want to go. Or 200. Or 400.