I Will Only Bleed Here
by Bijan Stephen
I spent last night at a bar, very drunk, trying to figure out what I’d say. I’d spent the day trying to accept what I already knew—that there’d be no indictment, that justice didn’t and never has lived here. I don’t know that she ever will. I’d blind her if I could.
After work, a friend and I split a bottle of wine at some place downtown. We sat outside, in the unseasonable warmth, and I thought about the heat in Ferguson on that Saturday in August, five days after my birthday; that heat from the summer that hasn’t died down. I didn’t tell my friend what I was thinking, but on the way there I told her how my body felt. My mouth is dry, I said, and there’s a lump in my throat. There is a tight low ache in my stomach. “Those are classic symptoms of anxiety,” she replied. The wine didn’t help.
A few summers ago, while I was back at home in Tyler, Texas, after my first year in college—I was 18 then, Michael Brown’s last age—a few friends and I decided to go to the lake. The heat was seasonable then, hot and wet. We jumped in my friend Jamie’s car—he was always the driver—and raced 10 over the speed limit because we were young and invincible and full of life, piss and vinegar. There were a few country families who probably lived near the lake, white and southern, enjoying the water and their watery beers that come in shiny blue cans.
Of course something had to change. I think it started in the air. But suddenly there was yelling and then there was a gun in someone’s hand and I was flying and I couldn’t feel anything but alive, my body on autopilot, thousands of years in the past, still stuck on the savannah plain. There were shots. I was crouched behind Jamie’s car.
I called my then-girlfriend when I got home—full of piss and vinegar, still youthful, still alive, high on adrenaline—and told her what happened. There’s no record of the conversation, but I remember her being appalled. Sometimes I think I’ve dreamed the whole thing, that it couldn’t be real. How could things change so quickly? How could there have been a gun? I remember thinking I could have died and getting high on the thought. I was lucky in my first real encounter with a white man’s rage. I was on the periphery. I was not a target. Michael was.
At the bar last night, after drinks with my friend, I started refreshing my Twitter feed. I was with Sanna and Bella, two Swedish friends of mine, to whom I couldn’t quite explain how I felt later, after the non-indictment. I drank two more glasses of wine. Then there was the prosecutor’s rambling. I switched to whiskey. I flew.
I don’t know why I never told my parents about that day at the lake. I didn’t want to worry them, I guess, or maybe it was that I didn’t want them to know that I now knew they were right. That I finally saw the value of my life as others saw it: a cheap thing, so easily discarded between muzzle flash and hot asphalt.
I am a writer. I believe words have power. Or, maybe it’s this: That I must believe words have power because this is the only thing I can do, this is the only thing I have, and I need it to be enough.
Let me tell you another story. It was Nabeem’s birthday and we were headed to a club to dance and sweat with each other. I was standing beside Calah when she reached the front of the line; the bouncer looked at her ID—she’s black like me—deemed it fake, and, for some reason, rendered it unusable. He broke it in half. We called the manager and I was angry, trying and failing to explain to him why this was not okay. He told me I was too drunk—I wasn’t—and told me to take a walk to cool off. I walked to a bodega and walked back. He wouldn’t let me in. I wasn’t a writer then, or I didn’t see myself as one, though I was writing for places that people might have heard of. I finally threatened him with words. I told him I’d write about him, and that was when he became as angry as me. He finally saw me. That night we slept at Calah’s place—home, safe, black peas in a pod. I don’t need to tell you that Michael Brown is neither home nor safe.
Here’s another story. I am the only black person on the editorial floor at my place of employment. The other ones who look like me work as cleaners or in the mailroom. When we lock eyes I nod, and it is both the easiest and hardest thing in the world. I know nothing of their lives, and yet here we are the same. Today I will do this. We will share a look that encompasses last night’s indignities and acknowledges tomorrow’s. We will keep our heads down and our hearts guarded, and I will only bleed here, in words, on this page. Last night I showed Sanna and Bella that picture of Michael from his high school graduation. I looked into his eyes and I felt the heat of summer again on my skin.
“Mike Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in broad daylight on a hot Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, Missouri. Consequently, eyewitnesses were standing at virtually every angle to observe exactly what happened that day. Seven have come forward publicly. Many gave interviews in the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Canfield Drive. Below is an annotated list of every public interview and video given by each eyewitness.”
“It would have been powerful to see charges filed against Darren Wilson. At the same time, actual justice for Michael Brown—a world in which young men like Michael Brown can’t be gunned down without consequences—won’t come from the criminal justice system. Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters—they exist inside society, not outside of it—and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.”
–Jamelle Bouie, Justifying Homicide
“Perhaps it only seems contradictory that the deaths of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, John Ford and Michael Brown—all unarmed black men shot by men who faced no official sanction for their actions—came during the first black Presidency. Or perhaps the message here is that American democracy has reached the limits of its elasticity—that the symbolic empowerment of individuals, while the great many remain citizen-outsiders, is the best that we can hope for.”
–Jelani Cobb, Chronicle of a Riot Foretold
ur impression that MLK Jr encouraged black ppl to *quietly demand justice on white ppl’s terms* is fucking wrong. pic.twitter.com/bbkVYYiVEL
— Stella Boonshoft (@stellaboonshoft) November 25, 2014
“How do we talk about race? How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights? These conversations are always so tense, so painful. People are defensive. We want to believe we are good. To face the racisms and prejudices we carry forces us to recognize the ways in which we are imperfect. We have to be willing to accept our imperfections and we have to be willing to accept the imperfections of others. Is that possible on the scale required for change?”
–Roxane Gay, Only Words
“I know that one day I will tell my child, if I am blessed enough to have one, that the world is afraid of them, and that the police are not to be trusted. I know that one day, that child will tell her own child the same thing. And yet, I know that I still have enough hope to want to bring children into this world, broken as it is. That is something.”
–Ezekiel Kweku, The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a Nigger Nation
“Yet I, along with every other black person in America, live with fear every day. We are human — why does that never come to light until we’re forced to show our animal pain grieving another dead child? I’m tired; I am so, so unendurably tired.”
–Bijan Stephen, The Talk
“I shouldn’t have to train my boy to live his life to deflect the danger of other people’s warped perceptions of him. I shouldn’t have to teach him police avoidance techniques and ask him not to act out as we did as teenagers and to willingly swallow other people’s disrespect – all to keep him breathing in a world that feels so sickeningly unfair.
I will, as my black parents did before me, take on this task of training my son to both survive and thrive.
But who will take on the responsibility for training the police?”
“Being a black parent, especially of a black boy, comes with the added onus of having to protect your child from a country that is out to get him—a country that kills someone that looks like him every 28 hours, a country that will likely imprison him by his mid-thirties if he doesn’t get his high school diploma, a country that is more than twice as likely to suspend him from school than a white classmate.”
–Jazmine Hughes, What Black Parents Tell Their Sons About the Police
“But when the hands are up and the cop still shoots, reform is merely a Band-aid on a malignancy. When there is still no recognition of black humanity – when law enforcement is still so constantly projecting white fears of black criminality – then the answer is not just a happy political narratives. Because Darren Wilson still would have fired 12 times if Mike Brown had been wearing a tie on Canfield Drive.”
— Zavain Dar (@zavaindar) November 25, 2014
“Everybody want me to be calm? Do you know how them bullets hit my son? What they did to his body as they hit his body?”
–Michael Brown’s mother, Leslie McSpadden, Address to the Protests in Ferguson, November 24th
“I have a 20 year old son, I have a 12 year old son, and I am so afraid for them.”