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Why We Explode

Issue 256

Nicholas Powers Jun 8

I refused to see him die. I did not look at the newspapers in bodegas or on Facebook, or texts from friends. At a restaurant, a TV showed a white cop kneeling on a Black man’s neck and I left before my food arrived. 

The video of Officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd ripped the scab off our Blackness. Inside, where Color connects us, pain throbbed. We just buried our grandparents and friends who died from Covid-19. We just lost our jobs. Maybe the worst was over? I mean damn, can we catch a break? 

Outside the bodega, neighbors stared at cellphones, faces twisted in horror. “Did you see how they did that brother?” “I can’t breathe?” “Fuck the police!” I saw open pain in their eyes. Beneath their mask of street machismo was a deep underground cavern where life’s bitterness had pooled. And Floyd’s death was a lit match falling in.

The next day the news showed Minneapolis burning. And then D.C. burned. And Brooklyn too. Headlines focused on the fire. Pundits focused on police brutality. But it was larger than Floyd’s murder. The white officer who killed him was a symbol of racism. In this case, police brutality. In other cases, the violence is muted. Our bodies carry the hurt that sloshes inside like a sea of gasoline and it, not the latest headline, is what sets the world ablaze. 

To Serve and Protect 

A police SUV whooshed by us. We swiveled our heads to follow it. Another police SUV sped by so fast it spun the sidewalk trash into mini-tornados. One. Two. Three more. Loud alarms echoed down the street.

“Man,” T. said, “I keep tracking these cops, I’ll sprain my neck.”

We laughed. I asked him if he was protesting. He said “naw.” He avoided my eyes. And fidgeted his COVID-19 mask. We had had this talk before. When Sean Bell was killed by the NYPD, I went to the funeral and joined the protests. He did not. When Eric Garner was killed, the same. Most of my neighbors do not march.

In their long New York lives, they’ve heard too many gunshots and saw too many dead. They watched mayors make promises that never came true or protests that shook the city but left no lasting change. To protect themselves from the vulnerability of hope, they developed a stoic fatalism. Nothing gets better. Just do your hustle, man.

“I gotta go. Things to do,” T. said and we bumped elbows. What hope he had left was stuffed into a zip lock bag and thrown into the cavern we carry. Splash.

He had been arrested once. When he got out, we cheered. Damn near everyone here has been in detention at one time or another. It is to be expected. 

Jail gave us crazy hallway talk-a-thons, and midnight stoop confessions. I laughed at neighbors’ tales of faking illness to get out of jail and into a hospital, or masturbating so much it hurt. At some point, the tone shifted. I heard of rape, or learning an aunt or grandpa died after the funeral, or coming out and their child not running into their arms. They gasped, mid-sentence, as if drowning in themselves.

 It is easy to get caught out there. Lord. I’ve seen old men stopped and frisked, and teens carrying groceries. My ex-roommate, a Nigerian student, went out for a loosie, and came back wild eyed and sweaty. The police stopped and frisked him. His hands shook while lighting the cigarette. I tried to avoid that fate with middle-class camouflage. Nice clothes. Nice diction. Didn’t work. I was busted for an unpaid fine. The cop clamped handcuffs on me. I spent 16 hours in jail. I paced the dirty cell in an endless circle, breathing in and out slowly.

 After I paid the fine, and was released that night in jail plummeted somewhere inside me. I’m not sure what happens there. I’m not sure I can open it again.

Breath Work

Helicopters circled the city, needling the protests below with thin spotlights. I stood on the roof under a purple New York night, scrolling my Facebook feed and seeing friends’ protest photos. A beatific glow shined on them. The truth that guided them was so sacred and so strong. They marched fearlessly into rows of police armored in riot gear.

Text after text came.

“Are you coming?” “We’ll be at this rally. Join!” “We’re bringing this system DOWN.” 

“Maybe,” I texted back. I knew I was going. But the video had to be seen first. Googling up George Floyd, I saw his face on screen, lifted it to sky where he looked like a patron saint, a big handsome man that could blow the helicopters away.

The link to his recorded murder was there and I pressed it. A wobbly camera showed three cops crushing him with their knees. “I can’t breathe man. Please.” Chauvin grinds his knee into Floyd’s neck. “I can’t move”. He gasps. “Mama.” Eyes shut. No breathing. I stopped the video.

His last words echoed in the night. Helpless and scared, he called for his mother. The father in me wanted to push the cops off and stand him up, wrap my arms around Floyd as if he was my son and tell him he’s safe.

In a way, he was my son. He was my father too. And brother. He was my uncle and grandfather. He was my aunt, sister and mother. He was every one of us, because all of us can see ourselves or someone we love in him. When he died, a piece of us died.

I closed my eyes and Floyd’s face fell like a shooting star down, down into that place where the night in jail was buried in my body. The deeper it went, the more it illuminated. I saw again, Sean Bell in the casket, and remembered how young he looked, and I heard again T. saying how he missed his kid while locked up, and, further in, I saw again Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, even deeper, Emmitt Till and the Scottsboro Boys, and the nameless burnt bodies of Black people lynched as white crowds cheered, and, deeper yet, was the memory of white boys in a car, shouted slurs at me and speeding off as I threw a rock, or hearing that my best friend’s dad had called me a “nigger friend.”

The obscene light of Floyd’s death illuminated not my pain but the pain others shared with me, like the night a Black poet told me her sister, a sex worker who sold herself to mostly white men, died of a drug overdose, or a Black man I met walking home at night, lifted his shirt to show me knife scars. Or a close friend, embarrassed at wearing wigs, after years of straightening cream had burned her scalp bald. Story, after story, after story. 

Voices poured into the basin of the soul to form a sea larger than space and time. And Floyd’s face touched its surface and it ignited. In that brief moment, the ancestors’ one demand was clear: Take responsibility for that pain and remake this world into one, where everyone we love can breathe.

“Thank you, Floyd,” I said to the sky, “Thank you, brother, for showing the way.”

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