Turn Off Our Screens, Open Our Eyes

I want to write about the protests I saw yesterday, with my daughter, who is an 8-year-old string-bean, blonde and strong.

There are the protests we see on our screens—the photogenic protests, the darkness and fire, the police taking a knee, screams and smoke, rods and shields. We all see one picture, and we all feel the protests are one thing. 

But they aren’t. Even in one place, on one street, they are many things at once. 

I saw two protests yesterday, here in Michigan. 

The first was a lone Black woman—young, maybe just a girl. She stood flanked by the trees at the edge of Washtenaw Ave—four lanes of fast traffic, a commercial strip connecting this town and the next. She wore a blue surgical mask and gloves and a plaid shirt, buttoned to the wrists and neck, despite the heat. Her head was bowed over a wide cardboard sign, particolored letters:

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

The other protest was a march down Industrial Ave—which is exactly what it sounds like: an industrial strip of carpet stores and auto shops, a car wash and a bowling alley, the old rail line running along the backs of their lots. I stumbled into this protest with my daughter, after going to the hardware for lumber and locks and candles and a garden hose.

We watched them pass. They were silent. No songs, no shouting, no slogans. It was like no protest or rally I’d ever seen, not in decades of attending protests (occasionally to protest, but far more often to watch or report or chaperone teens).

This was like a funeral procession. So quiet. So steady, implacable. Not mournful; dignified.

Many ad hoc and improvised signs, scraps of cardboard, mostly BLACK LIVES MATTER riffs. One said “DO NOT AVERT YOUR EYES.” And so I did not—it was only in seeing that sign that I realized that it was my inclination to do so, even though I’d come down the street specifically to see what I could see.

Those who walked were Black and White. Young. They wore their masks and shorts and t-shirts—it was hot, and the sun fierce on the street.

Another sign, the largest, a flattened refrigerator box, read:

STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE

The sign’s bearer was extremely light skinned, a Black & White son in black shorts and t-shirt. My heart always goes out to the kids who are neither fish nor fowl. I’m with you, brothers and sisters: The world constantly demands we not be half of what we are. 

I raised a fist. Eyes turned to me, fists raised in acknowledgement, and my heart stopped.  It was like being saluted by ghosts. 

The procession had a police escort. An SUV slowly rolling to the fore to clear traffic, another slowly rolling behind, protecting the procession from the impatient cars piling up. No lights. No sirens. A couple more SUVs scurried ahead, blocking each intersection before the procession arrived. Like school crossing guards.  

What are you seeing where you are?