Alice Cole knew when rain was coming. With an uncanny accuracy, she could point to the sky and predict its blessings and its curses.
She used to say she could feel it in her bones. There was something about the way her feet swelled ahead of an afternoon summer shower, something about a left hip giving her trouble just before the first clap of thunder. She never wore a watch, but Alice could tell you the time with near precision by the way the sun hung in the sky.
I learned a lot at my grandmother’s knee about the phases of the moon, about tasting dirt to see if it was right for planting, about human frailty.
In the days following the Zimmerman verdict, as Alice was prone to do, I paced the floors, hovered over stewing pots and sat out on my back porch long after nightfall watching the clouds dance in the sky overhead. Feeling a twinge in my own proverbial hip, I waited for the coming storm. It was brewing somewhere in the distance, I knew.
Rain is inevitable.
There were those of us who accepted the verdict, if not the judgment, as a beacon in the night urging us toward change. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, we believed, deserved a more honorable “home going” than George Zimmerman’s defense lawyers afforded him. It was not difficult to see through the coded language, to hear the shrill wheeze of the archetypal dog whistle, and understand that it was Martin on trial, rather than the hapless Zimmerman.
But this case was, and had always been, about more than what happened that night near Retreat View Circle. For mothers like me, mothers of African-American boys, we saw ourselves reflected in Sybrina Fulton’s eyes. Our sons were her sons. I watched Tracy Martin testify to hearing what he believed were his son’s last cries. With a suddenness I cannot explain, I was stricken with grief. It was as if the bottom of the world dropped out.
Quite honestly, I was not surprised by the verdict. My heart was already broken well before the jury instructions were given. I am not a lawyer, but the ability to take hold of and embrace our collective humanity, no matter how vigorously I chased after it, escaped me. I could not forget the frailty of humankind.
The very notion that shooting and killing and unarmed an black boy was deemed fair to so many people, people who clamored for ways to defame him, to castigate his parents, was maddening enough. They held Trayvon up as the very embodiment of all they believe wrong with black America. That somehow, because of his clothing, because of his skin, he deserved to die.
A conversation about black men and boys was immediately ignited. I, and others, wanted to know: What kind of free is this? We wondered where that fundamental sense of fairness was hiding itself. Peaceful protests were mounted in 100 cities across the country. We took to the streets, bridges, federal and state houses demanding an end to the genocide. Available data tells us that justice does not always bend toward justice based on the race of the shooter. Rather, the race of the victim is all too often the determining factor in investigation, prosecution, conviction and sentencing.
Profiling, you see, does not always result in a physical death. But every instance represents a spiritual death for the society that allows it to persist.
Those of us who study the justice system understand well the institutionalized inequality that lurks in its corridors. We watch uneasily as the name of New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly, who defiantly defends “stop and frisk,” is bandied about as a potential nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
A long walk home from Fruitvale Station
My knees were unsteady as I walked into a showing of Fruitvale Station. Some 90 minutes later, rocked with grief, I said crying and mumbling as the movie credits began to roll. You see, I remember asking my own mother — just as Tatiana Grant did — “Mama, where is Daddy?” I was five when my father was murdered. My brother Christopher was shot to death when we were 22, the same age as Oscar Grant. Grant was fatally shot in Oakland, CA by a BART police officer on New Years Day 2009. The oldest man in my family is just 27.
I pushed open the doors leading to the street. Soused in tears, a catch in my throat, I started the long walk home. “When will this stop?” I asked out loud to nobody. A fellow moviegoer touched my shoulder and said, “Are you okay, Sister?”
I pressed forward, nearly walking into the path of an oncoming car. I stopped, found a waiting bench and let myself fall onto its metal slats. I had been on television and radio every day, doing my damnedest to keep the complex issues confronting black men and boys in the forefront. Asking this America to look beyond cruel and vicious stereotypes, to step out from behind shrouds of bigotry laced with preloaded statistics that say everything about correlation, yet nothing about causation, seemed worthless in that moment.