I cannot seem to get out of my head the image of the black man laying on his stomach on the ground shielding his face from the pavement by curling his elbow under his head like a sleepy child resting on a school desk. He had two white men on top of him. One had a ponytail and a knee across his neck, the other had a cut-off shirt and two knees setting into his back. At 3 pm in the afternoon in the middle of my street. Face level with the ground, his eyes locked with mine.
My mind bounced, “This could be how he has felt all his life, two white men pinning him down…” I shook myself back to reality to engage…
It started when I walked out of my house to drive to a meeting while kids were being picked up by their parents from the school across the street. An SUV passed in front of me with a car behind it, repeatedly ramming in the back of it as they drove. Sheer insanity. My eyes followed them down the street as I threw my things in my car. Just past the next intersection, the driver of the SUV stopped, blocking the car from escape, and a white man with a ponytail got out of it and approached the black man in the car hitting him from his driver’s side door. “Someone could die right now,” I thought, and I ran inside my house to get my phone and straight towards the men, like several other neighbors had done.
By the time I got there, two white men have the black man from the car pinned down. White and latino neighbors all flock to the scene, and emotions fuel a feeling of chaos as people dictate what’s happening, “did you see how hard they threw him to the ground?,” “this is crazy!” and “this all happened outside of a school when kids were coming out!”
As people turned about in confusion talking to one another about how alarming “that” was, the fight is not finished in front of them. The cut-off tee man holds him face down to the ground while the pony-tailed man pulls his foot out from under him where he had been apparently wrestling, stands up, swings his leg back as high as his waist and kicks him in the back of the head as he lay on the ground. Chatter continues, and without any thought, I yelled, “You didn’t have to do that! He’s down.”
The cut-off T guy kneeling into his back replied, “He’s not down, don’t you see him struggling?”
The white man who kicked him now has his knee rested on his neck and tells me, “He bit me.” And before I know it, I’m having a conversation with all three of them, as if between children. This is when the black man’s eyes met mine.
Instantly out of my mouth came, “Don’t bite people. You know that,” and I hear him say, “He called me a nigger.” I respond, “Well that’s not good. No one should call anyone that.” And I later felt so embarrassed at the simplicity of the words coming out of my mouth to grown men fighting on the street.
Fully engaged but fully confused, two sets of eyes look at me and three men are hearing my voice. At some point I had heard the black man say that his car was hit first. My eyes dodge from the black man to the less distressed set of eyes of the white man holding him down. “Is it true? Did you hit his car first?” I inquired. He looked down at his victim’s head and the conversation ended as quick as it started.
At some point in there I also asked the black man why he very simply didn’t call the cops on the license plate of the ponytailed white man who he claimed hit his car first. In his silence, thoughts flashed through my head of the black men who had fallen victims to cops. And I realized, maybe that isn’t his first idea for retrieving safety or relief, as it is so often for me, and I digressed.
I stepped back from the crowd to call 911, like many others already had. And I return to find the men standing up, separated, waiting on law enforcement to arrive. I had to leave, but I felt strongly about one thing, so I told a trusted passerby, “When the cops arrive, please let them know a black man restrained to the ground was kicked in the head by a white man, and that was unnecessary too.”
I drove away and thought back on the moment and realized… they heard me.
In a crowd full of chattering people, for some reason they heard me and responded. I have no clue who they are or what their individual stories are or how they really got there, but we had a moment of engagement amidst a lot of busy voices.
Once out of the situation and looking back, I texted my roommates. We had had a series of instances where we found ourselves in a place to intervene for people on our street recently, so I texted them about the newest on our block, and I added my observation: “There are many people in a crowd, but it takes “us” to have a voice.” I looked down at my voice to text before sending and saw that my phone auto-corrected “us” to “church” and I couldn’t help but think that my phone was onto something.
There are many people in a crowd, but it takes the church to have a voice.
Chaos is disarming and distracting people, and I’m afraid we are too often in the crowd of chatterers talking about how crazy things are, than we are seizing moments to cut through the atmosphere with truth and peace. I’m afraid we use our voice a lot on things that don’t really matter and not enough on things that do, including advocacy for people.
I love you, church. And a voice is not our own to keep in. I pray we go where people need it most and stand unwaveringly in the gap.