It is a Friday night not long after I have moved to Enderly Park, which is located on Jesus’ side of the tracks. Our living room is filled with teens. We are playing cards, not because we like cards that much, but because we like being together. The cool fall air has brought us in from the porch, but we can still hear the drum line at the high school football game just down the road. The hour is growing late when two of our favorite young men come dashing in. They have been out walking and have heard gunshots near them. In fear, they run to the nearest safe place they know.
They recount the whole experience to us — the proximity of the shots, the sounds of the voices, their dash down the street. We laugh together because their narration is funny, though their subject matter is serious. Humor hedges against terror. But while we laugh, their insides are roiling and ours are too. We all know that this is neither the first time nor the last time we will have this feeling, knowing that a life can vanish at any time and maybe almost did. Our love for one another cannot prevent cruelty from snuffing out a bright light.
We begin to settle back in when we note the drone of a helicopter above. The police are out searching for a suspect. They are being aided by a few cruisers riding down the street. We are grateful to be inside, safe and together.
But then an officer walks onto our porch. I greet him at the door, cautious and respectful, and note that there are three others running down our driveway. There are two more in the front yard to the left. Three near the pecan tree by the street. Two cruisers parked on the side street. At this point it becomes clear that the helicopter is not just close by, it is hovering above our house. We are surrounded.
“We are looking for two black males, one shorter than the other, wearing dark clothes,” I am told. “Two who match that description were seen entering your house a few moments ago.”
This description fits basically every pair of black males on any street at night, which I now know was the point. To live with sun-kissed skin is to always be suspect. The concentration of melanin constitutes the crime. I did not yet know that, but the lesson comes down hard on me, and immediately. In any neighborhood where the disinherited stand, as Howard Thurman says, “with their backs against the wall,” the freedom to move without restriction can be seized at any moment. Worse, life can be snuffed out. It can be ended, in public, on video for the whole world to see, and no one will be held responsible.
I try to explain to the officer: “These children who just entered my house are looking for safety. I know them and can assure you they are not responsible. You are in the wrong place, and the real suspects are getting further away.” Nothing works.
We discuss, insofar as you can have a discussion when the other side is fortified by a dozen armed men and a helicopter droning overhead. The course of action is laid out to us in this way: The victim of an attempted carjacking is one block over in a patrol car. The two young men are to walk out onto our porch, and an officer will drive the victim by our house. Every police car is equipped with a blinding light mounted to the roof. They will stop the car and shine that light onto our boys for the victim to see. He will either positively or negatively identify them.
We are surrounded, we are nervous, and we do not know what to do. We intuit this is risky, but the boys, portraying confidence in themselves, insist that they should do it. Out of options, the rest of us adults choose the only thing left — we will join the lineup as well.
I do not know if allowing those young men to step outside was the right thing to do in that situation. At that moment I did not then perceive that we had a choice. Here is what I do know: I know that when the weight of a system designed to crush people you love is bearing down on your friends, you stand next to them. You become potential suspects, loving accomplices. When you love your neighbor, you stand shoulder to shoulder to stare down the heat of the blinding white gaze. When the spotlight is robbing them of their dignity, turning boys into men far too young, you keep your eyes open and refuse to look away. When you can, you stand in front of those boys, using your body as a shield. You become a party to the crime of demanding full humanity and nothing less. When you still see that light later that night because it has seared your retinas, you sit with the scars. The scales will soon begin to fall off your eyes. You learn that the Damascus Road runs through your neighborhood.
The call comes. These are not the guys. But our legs still tremble. Our relief is tempered by cold reality. It is not hard to see that having a burning, blinding spotlight aimed at them is not new for my friends. I sense that the “hounds of hell,” in Thurman’s phrase, will show up in many forms. They will always be nipping at my neighbors’ heels. Standing next to one another, holding hands and praying, is all we can do sometimes. Sometimes that prayer even works. But the day is coming when it will not be enough.
Here is what I know, years later: for all of us, but especially for those of us who believe we are white, the day has come where our prayers are no longer enough. No, that is not quite correct. That day came long ago. We have been told for decades, even centuries, about the destruction that has been wrought in black communities around our country. Much of this destruction has been entirely legal. Now we live in a day where only obstinance and indifference can explain our ongoing recalcitrance. We have refused to listen, refused to believe. The terror of the gaze of white supremacy continues beating down upon children of God, and now we are seeing it ourselves through cell phone videos, surveillance footage and body cameras. There is no sand left to bury our heads in.
The spotlight is on all of us today. We may risk burning our skin and damaging our eyes, but the call is as clear as it ever has been: Join the lineup. Get in the streets. Raise a ruckus in the boardroom and the council chambers and at your family reunion. Commandeer a pulpit. Take over a highway. Examine your own soul. Stop believing the lie. Raise up your children in Truth.
Neither dispassionate analysis, nor careful moderation, nor silent contentment, nor running away and pretending not to see will suffice any longer. It is time to show up, to stand up, and to put ourselves on the line for justice. Love compels us, and it is only Love given birth in flesh that will finally save us.