The sun beams down from a cloudy blue sky in the lush-green Ecuadorian mountains. You’re in an outdoor market with simple wooden carts lined along either side of the road. It seems with every step another small, elderly woman greets you with a gentle, “Buenos días ,” and a sun-kissed smile. Under the canopy of some of the carts, football jerseys dangle from shirt hangers and flow in the cool mountain breeze. Under others, a rainbow of fresh vegetables beckons your attention.
“Buenos días ,” a short, gray stubble-chinned man says, appearing unexpectedly in front of you.
“Oh! Hola,” you respond, still unsure of your Spanish. “Cómo estás?”
The man responds excitedly and quickly, but speaking too fast for you to keep up.
“…. el beisbol,” he continues, gesturing to your T-shirt.
“Beisbol! He means baseball,” you think to yourself.
“Si, si, estoy…,” You stumble, trying to jumble the sentence together like a hastily decorated cake. “Juego el beisbol.”
The man, excited by the attempted response, puts his hand on the center of your chest. You hold your breath as adrenaline begins pumping through your veins. His hand feels the neck-pouch under your shirt, the one holding your money and identification papers. You glance around, not seeing anyone you came with in the passing market crowd.
The man pauses, suddenly disinterested, drops his hand wistfully aside and melts back into the flow of the crowd.
“What was that about?” you wonder.
“Did he know that’s where your wallet was?”
“Why did he leave so quickly and disappointingly?”
“Was he trying to pick-pocket me?”
* * *
A whistle sounds sharply over the sound of screaming and laughing children.
“All right, all right,” you sigh, shuffling to a stop.
The children wrapped devotedly around your shins were still giggling as they slipped off your legs and ran off.
“And…3…2…1…Blast off!” You lift a child like a rocket from your shoulders, setting her down lightly on the pavement.
As she runs to join the others you stretch longingly to the South African sky, your back and shoulders aching from hours of piggy-back rides.
One of the daycare teachers calls all the children together, at least 40-50 strong. After a few closing comments, the kids are let loose for the day. Some dash barefoot down the dirt road, diving down alleys of aluminum shack lean-tos. Others step into large vans that will take them back home, wherever that may be in the poverty-stricken Township of Capricorn. Looking up, Table Mountain rises flatly and proudly in the distance, yet with the vague impression that its attention is paid elsewhere.
You dust off the cap of a dirt-stained water bottle and take a drink, the first one you’ve taken all day. The water, warmed by the sun, melts across your dry lips. You stand outside Sunrise Academy Daycare, with poorly-painted characters of Winnie the Pooh and Big Bird painted on its short, concrete walls. In front of you pulls up a white van driven by a large South African man, notorious for arriving on “African Time,” but always with the expectation that you better be ready when he does arrive.
He’s on-time today, though, so you’re thinking you might have time to explore Muizenberg or even Cape Town before the end of the day. You pile into the back seat and let out a tired sigh, placing your head on the window. The window pane vibrates with the bass, shaking the car from the Beyoncé music video playing on the van’s drop-down TV screen above the center console.
The door slams shut, the kind of slam that makes you wince at the sound, before the van rumbles off down the dusty dirt road. The driver pulls a hard left and quickly accelerates with the flow of traffic. The aluminum shacks and lean-tos of the township slip past the window in an omni-colored blur. But then the van slows suddenly, rolling to a stop as it prepares to make a right turn across traffic.
As the van waits to turn, movement at a street corner cart catches your eye. An older man purposefully wields a long wooden pole through the air when a pair of kicking feet suddenly appear, protruding violently from the opening of what looked like an ice box. With a crash the man’s pole smacks the feet back into the box.
The van begins turning as you instinctively place your hands on the window, a feeble attempt to slow the van’s turn. You flip around and look over your shoulder out of the back window. The man slams the box door shut and casually walks away.
As the cart fades into the passing traffic, you look around to see if anyone else in the van noticed.
No one did.
“Did I really just see that?”
“Did that man force that kid into that box?”
“What was that box, and why was the boy in there?”
“Should I have stopped the bus to find out?”
* * *
“Three Caribs, please!” you call out to the bartender over the thundering, fast-paced soca music.
It’s a dark, clear, star-speckled Caribbean night filled with music and dancing. You’re at the community park where you’ve been drinking with your local friends and watching the International Soca Monarch Competition from Trinidad on the big screen. Large rum and beer-filled coolers and barbecue chicken grills are lined up under tents at the edge of the football field.
Mr. Killa, the contestant from the town you’ve been living in, is slated to perform next and the community is buzzing with excitement. You’re trying to get the next round of drinks for your friends and get back to them before Killa comes on to perform.
The bartender nods in acknowledgment, turns around and plunges his arm deep into a cooler to fish out the three beers.
“Hey friend! One of those is for me, right?” a stranger with a red flat-brimmed cap says, appearing on your right and slapping you on the back.
“Um, actually they’re for myself and my friends,” you respond. “It’s my turn to buy the round so these are for them. I’m sorry. I’m Scott, by the way. What’s your name?”
The bartender places the three beers on the bar and you hand him cash for the beers. A puzzled scowl appears on the stranger’s face, as if you had just insulted his mother.
“I can’t tell you my name because the police are looking for me,” the stranger retorts after a quick glance over his shoulder. “What, is it because you don’t like my kind? You must be a Trump man, aren’t you?” he continues, reaching out for one of your beers the bartender set down.
“No sir, not at all,” you say calmly, quickly collecting the beers before he could, while your heart begins to pace. “And like I said, these are for my friends. I’m sorry.”
“Well buy me a beer then, eh?” he prods, stepping closer.
“I’m sorry man, that was the last of my cash for the night,” you reply, an honest confession due to your habit of only carrying a limited amount of cash whenever you’re out on the town.
“You got a problem with me, man? Is it cuz I’m black? You must be one of those racists,” he confronts.
“No sir, I don’t even know you and these are for my friends,” you respond curtly, not appreciating the unfair attack on your character. “Even if I were racist, you think I would be here? Have a good night, man.”
You go to step around him but he blocks your path. Startled, you scan the crowd for the friends you came with, but they’re still near the big screen set up at the center of the field.
Just then someone in a red shirt and sponge-twist hair steps between you and the stranger. He pulls the stranger aside and gestures aggressively for him to move on. The stranger waves dismissively and walks away, shaking his head.
As the intervening man turns around, you recognize him as the younger brother of a good friend of yours. He’s deaf and you would occasionally shoot pool at his family’s bar, communicating with him in the sign language you picked up in college.
He signs to you, explaining that the confrontational stranger is not known for being friendly and doesn’t keep good company. So with the beers in hand, you gesture a modest ‘Thank you’ to acknowledge his help and make a mental note to yourself to buy him a beer next time you visit his family’s bar.
You turn back to the field and weave through the crowd, returning to your friends and watching the rest of the soca performances for the night. Killa would go on to win the competition, with the town of Gouyave going into a Super Bowl-esque euphoria that lasted until morning.
Yet, the unprovoked confrontation with the stranger still weighed heavily on your mind.
“What would he have done had my friend not intervened?”
“Why did he assume I was a racist and a Trump supporter? Was it because I’m a young, white male?”
“What was his problem with me?”
* * *
These excerpts are derived from my own experiences abroad in Ecuador, South Africa, and Grenada, respectively. Each of these encounters left me somewhat puzzled and concerned. Truthfully, these experiences made me uncomfortable and in some circumstances, even violated.
Each instance left me pondering difficult questions I would never find the answer to before I left those countries. So when I returned home to America, I swore to myself that these were among the stories I would never tell.
I swore never to tell them because when people asked me about my experiences abroad, I wanted to focus on the positive parts of the countries I visited. I didn’t want to share these stories because I was afraid they would reflect poorly on the countries in which they took place. After all, it was simply easier for me to bury these experiences and pretend like they never happened, rather than confront and grapple with them about why they happened and what they meant.
But today, I am coming out and sharing these stories as an affirmation that every country has its scars to hide.
Recently, the world bore witness to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in America.
I do not intend to claim that Floyd was innocent of forgery, the crime of which he was accused that brought the police to him in the first place. Likewise, I do not intend to pass unfair judgement on the officers involved; I don’t intend to label them as racist or attribute their actions that led to Floyd’s fatal asphyxiation as intentional. I will, however, make the statement that the officers’ actions were made with an egregious disregard for the sanctity of a black man’s life, regardless of the facts surrounding their fatal encounter.
Throughout American history, an oppressive system of discriminatory practices have benefited people that look like me, at the expense of those who don’t. These practices permeate across American society, from criminal justice to banking, housing, and education.
Although America has made significant strides in creating equality for all, the fight for equality is far from finished.
As I got older, fatal encounters between police and unarmed black men appeared to happen more frequently. Though in reality, the only difference was that these encounters were being filmed and disseminated across the Internet like wildfire. Truthfully, in the past I often found myself taking the side of the officer, not understanding why the victim didn’t just listen and obey their commands.
I have the utmost respect for our law enforcement community and it pains me to see them attacked and labeled as an army of racist perpetrators. Police officers risk their lives every time they put on their badge and uniform. They command a level of authority and respect from us because of their selfless decision to enforce law and order and to serve and protect us, despite the risk their job inherently brings to their own lives.
But as I started to experience uncomfortable realities in countries across the world, I began to analyze the uncomfortable realities that existed within my own.
There is a lot of noise out on the web right now. There is a lot of hate, pain, and despair in communities all across America. Over the past weekend, the country I love was quite literally burning and my heart was breaking because of it.
However, the black community has been protesting the discrimination and unjustified deaths of their people at the hands of police for years.
They have demonstrated peacefully, such as when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during a pregame national anthem. He was immediately vilified and blackballed out of the league, ending a promising young career that had already seen one Super Bowl appearance. He was scolded as ungrateful and disrespectful to the country in which he grew up, and to the military that defends the freedoms he supposedly enjoys.
Yet his demonstration was never about the military. In fact, he began his peaceful protest by sitting on the team bench during the national anthem. But when members of the military voiced their concerns of disrespect, Kaepernick did something a majority of us have yet to do:
And after listening, Kaepernick instead chose to demonstrate his peaceful protest by taking a respectful knee during the anthem, per the recommendation of Nate Boyer, a retired Army Green Beret with whom Kaepernick discussed his message.
That was four years ago.
Now, America is faced with yet another death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police. When this happened in the past, I tended to remain silent because addressing this sad reality, like the stories shared above, made me uncomfortable. I simply didn’t want to believe that it was true.
This is America, after all, land of the free and home of the brave. We are the standard of freedom and equality, setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.
Well, we were the standard.
Devastating riots, violence, and fires have burned in nearly every American city. Mom and pop stores have been looted and gone up in flames, whole livelihoods destroyed in an instant. Innocent first-responders have been attacked and provoked by an angry public. Likewise, innocent and peaceful protesters have been violently attacked and apprehended by law enforcement.
As these tensions have escalated, while some political leaders are listening to these cries of pain, others are instead fanning the flames of division.
Amongst all the violence, the peaceful protest movement that has swept this country yet again is being drowned out by the noise. Consequently, we are already once again forgetting the reason all of this is happening in the first place.
Throughout history, police officers involved in these types of unjustified killings have not been held accountable.
So as you, like me, continue to watch and bear witness to the over-saturated and polarizing news cycle about the riots, the looting, and the senseless destruction of our cities and neighborhoods across the country, let’s not forget about the problem at hand.
Silence can no longer be tolerated. We cannot be complacent to the discriminatory practices that have historically and disproportionately affected the black community in America.
I didn’t design America to be this way, but I also have never publicly spoke out against it before, as I am now.
This past weekend, I attended my first Black Lives Matter protest. It was a largely positive and uplifting experience, a conglomeration of people, social classes, and races coming together for a just cause. Thousands attended the march in downtown Reno, which was a peaceful demonstration.
Yet in Reno, like in cities across America, as day turned to night the protests turned violent. Reno City Hall was lit on fire and the Federal Courthouse windows were smashed in. The National Guard was called in, tear gas was launched into the crowds, and violence ran rampant.
I’m here to ask you not to be distracted by the violence instigated by the few, out of the thousands. In the same way that not all cops are racists, not all protesters are looters and criminals.
I am in no way encouraging, approving, or condoning the looting of stores and destruction of buildings and property. They are shameful, counterproductive, and take away from the larger, more powerful movement.
But if you’ve been more upset by the looting, riots, and destruction of property, than you have been about the death of yet another unarmed black man in America, you’re missing the bigger picture.
Communities can be rebuilt.
Businesses can come back.
But George Floyd can’t.
It’s time we stay focused on the issue at hand and demand accountability from those who protect and serve us.
This is America’s opportunity to once again come together and become a standard of freedom and equality for the world to follow. Unfortunately, we as a country have do this without the mature leadership and integrity that is expected at the highest federal level.
But the healing process has already started gaining momentum, with new legislation already being proposed. It is crucial that these policy changes be made, so that the movement goes beyond the trendy online confessionals and black squares of solidarity on Instagram.
We can do better. We can do more.
But in order to address and resolve these discriminatory practices, we must first identify them and accept that they exist.
It’s time we work together for a better future, instead of returning to a glorified past.
It’s time we stop hiding these scars, and instead learn from the stories behind them.
It’s time we listen to the black community’s pleas.
It’s time we amplify their cries:
“Black Lives Matter.”