The news comes differently to me now. Before I receive breaking news notifications on my cell phone, before I log into Twitter, before the video rolls down my Facebook newsfeed, and long , long before I watch the news, it is a text message; it’s a social media direct message: “Stay safe out there, bruh.”
Then another: “Be careful. You’re a big man. They’re gunning for you.”
Then another: “I worry about you.”
Maybe a simple question next: “Are you ok?”
And they continue to roll in, five, six, ten, a dozen, sometimes from close friends I haven’t spoken to in a while, other times from people I barely know. Slowly, ignorantly at this point, I realize what has happened in the world as I try to push through my life: another one of us has been killed, likely recorded, likely unarmed, definitely undeserving. Probably someone remarkably similar to me: big, black, and threatening.
Finally, I log into social media to confirm what I already know to be true and to gather the details. I’m sure to deactivate my video auto-play settings so I’m not surprised by the trauma of watching someone unjustly killed. Who was he? What was he doing? How innocuous was the offense that led the cops to gun him down?
And I reflect on my own life and the sorrow and protectiveness that has been pouring into my various inboxes. I wonder what to tell them. They surely care for me, but these messages aren’t about me. They’re about trying to be proactive, trying to avoid the next death, and the exhaustion of public grieving by doing what they can. And in many cases, telling your big black friend to be careful in the streets may seem all you can do to prevent another extrajudicial death. In the way that a mother keeps her children inside when she cannot change the world outside, it’s a last resort. I’m a symbol of that last resort, a vessel people want to fill with the many manifestations of powerlessness they feel as they stare at their screens again. The regrets—I hope someone told him they loved him; the questions—I wonder if he had just…; the insincere hope—if we can juuuust keep him safe… And I want to help. I want to say the right things, to assure them, to soothe them, to appreciate the care. But I don’t know how. So I just say often “Thank you.” It’s dry. I’m dry. I don’t know how they take it. I’ve failed as a symbol.
The truth is that I don’t need a reminder to stay safe, to be careful, to keep my head down. I’ve lived in this body for a long time. I grew a foot between fifth grade and seventh grade and my voice changed during the same time. So by the time I was 12 years old, I was 6’3” with the voice of a grown ass man. And since then I’ve been harassed by police officers an uncomfortable number of times. Hounded by four SUVs as a teenager because my mom’s car had an expired license plate. Forced to get out of the car in college, threatened if I didn’t let him search it because he claimed he smelled marijuana. Threatened with arrest again in Alabama during a traffic stop because my girlfriend had the gall to ask why we were pulled over. Accused of stealing my own car in North Carolina because my Mississippi driver’s license didn’t match my “Washington” license plate (it is Washington County, Mississippi). And many more. Each time, without fail, before asking me how was my day, before speaking, or even telling me what the hell I’ve done wrong the officers always say, “You have any drugs or weapons in the car?” I was halfway done with my PhD before I learned officers don’t greet everyone this way. But any one of these encounters could have taken a sharper turn, could have made me a hashtag, a meme, another unused social media account ravaged by media searching for evidence of my past indiscretions. I have plenty of experience being careful, and I’m certain that nothing more than luck has saved me from a grislier fate.
I am a poor symbol. I don’t know how to be more careful. Terance Crutcher couldn’t have been more careful. I don’t know how to sooth your worry. Keith Lamont Scott’s reading was apparently not soothing enough. I do not know how to give you hope. I do not know how to empower you. But I can grieve with you. We can mourn together and share our helplessness…until the protests end and we attempt to reclaim a contrived normality. But we know, inevitably, the new comes again. The news comes differently to me now, but it always comes and I am always a symbol.