University of Baltimore MFA student Nancy Murray recounts her local experience after Ferguson.
“Is there a way to add to the conversation through our art?” she asked. Her eyes scanned the faces of the students. None of us wanted to talk about Ferguson, but we all kind of needed to.
“Yes, absolutely,” said one student.
He was wearing a hood that was detached from his jacket. It covered his head and hung down on either side of his face. He was a graffiti artist. I knew that because I’d heard, but not because I had ever talked directly to him, even though whenever he talked in class I listened. He had the kind of mind that saw things clearly and the skill with vocabulary to articulate them as he saw them. It is a gift that I admire. It made me curious about his art. I was certain it would challenge me.
“You can put it out there on the walls,” he said, “on the street where they have to see it when they pass. They have to hear you.”
“Sure,” said another student.
She was an elderly woman but her eyes shone with the interest and curiosity of a child. I wondered if being white and older meant she would have more difficulty comprehending the fury over the Supreme Court’s decision not to indict the officer who shot the kid not once but six times. She seemed to have no trouble understanding.
“Art might be the only way to talk about it so people can hear.”
That explained it. I knew that she was a visual artist before she came into the writer’s program at the University of Baltimore. Perhaps art was a great leveler after all.
“I was raised by racists,” I volunteered, “but then, I don’t remember when, I stumbled onto a novel called Native Son. I remember crying my eyes out about such an awful predicament, and I never looked at things the same again.”
“I’m not there yet,” said the woman beside me, her hands in her lap and her eyes downcast. “I’m too upset to put it down in an artful way–too raw.”
We went on to other topics regarding our assignment–a classic novel by Virginia Woolf about a white woman throwing a party but, of course, the book is so much more than it seemed on the surface. What do the characters represent? What is the symbolism? What are the central themes?
A black boy was shot by a cop in Ferguson. An 18-year-old black boy who may have been involved in a crime–who may have been all puffed up with his invincibility–all full of daring and showing off for his friends–or mouthing off like a smartass–just like every other teenage boy I have known.
But I have never known a boy to get shot by the police. It doesn’t happen often in white neighborhoods.
When I was 15 I robbed a liquor store with a friend. He had a gun. We didn’t need money. We wanted the liquor, but we were underage. We wanted adventure, but we were suburban kids. We wanted, we wanted. We sped off in his gold Ford Pinto laughing and swigging from the Jack Daniels. I didn’t like the taste but never let on.
Someone got the license plate and within a few days the police came to my house. I came home after partying with my friends and there were two officers in the living room talking with my mom.
“There she is,” my mom said. I could hear the disgust in her voice. My mind raced to recall my activities over the last few days. Sped through several offenses that might have caused them to come for me. We talked for a while, and then the officers left.
It was weeks before anyone mentioned the situation again. My parents drove me to the courthouse where we sat in a room with a long wooden conference table. There were three white men that I didn’t know sitting there when my mother and I walked in. We were offered a seat, a soda, a minute to collect ourselves.
There were questions about what happened, why I was involved, how we pulled it off. Then I went home and lived the rest of my life.
I was guilty but I wasn’t arrested. I wasn’t sent to juvenile detention. I wasn’t shot. I wasn’t black.
Our teacher let us out a few minutes early because she had to get sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner. Life goes on. We filed out of the classroom and into the night chatting about where we were all going to go for the big feast. I told them I was thankful for the opportunity to get to know them and their interesting ideas. I felt close to them.
As I drove home, my mind swirled with thoughts of our conversation. I had only gotten a few blocks away when I saw the road block. I thought it must be an accident. The police car redirected me down an unfamiliar road and I ended up getting turned around and stuck at a dead end. I could see the road where what I thought the accident was, and there were so many police lights I said a silent prayer for the anonymous person in so much trouble. That’s when I heard the voices in the distance: a rhythmic static that grew stronger with each pulse of their chants.
“Hands up – don’t shoot. Hands up – don’t shoot.”
A few months ago, I was driving in the alley behind my house. I have a parking pad there. It was dark. As I pulled up to my house and stopped the car so I could get out and open the gate, I noticed two black guys walking down the alley toward my car. My lights were shining in their faces. They were both tall. One was bulky but it was clear they were teenagers. It felt rude to keep my headlights in their faces so I turned them down to just the parking lights. When I did, I saw both of them turn whiter than I am with fear. They froze in their tracks then took a deep breath and slowly continued walking—ready for whatever fate was to come. It made me realize that is isn’t just white women in alleyways or trigger-happy cops that are afraid sometimes—big tall black boys are, too.
I got out of my car and walked to where the protesters were walking. There were at least 200 of them. Most of them were black. Some of them were white and there were few shades in between. They were carrying signs that said BLACK LIFE MATTERS and NO JUSTICE NO PEACE.
We marched up North Avenue. I managed to get to the middle of the pack. When I looked in front of me, I saw people walking on both sides of the road, flanked by police cars with their lights flashing. We passed under the beltway, and the bridge captured the acoustics of the chanting in a way that made it reverberate like the feelings of a community that has suffered yet another blow to its collective psyche.
“Look!” a woman shouted. She was wearing a black leather jacket and jeans. She spun around with excitement. “We are being heard!” she shouted as she pointed behind us. I turned around.
Never in my life had I seen so many police cars, though I’d been to many protests in the past. The closest I have witnessed to military force was when we protested the building of a new youth prison in east Baltimore. Then there was riot gear—there were barricades. Here there was a parade of police cars following us that went eight cars deep and three wide. All of their lights were flashing and it was spectacular. There were rows of flashing lights alongside us. A human fence of men in blue, most of them white, stood guard. There were flashing lights in the sky as the helicopters circled us.
“They’re going to fucking listen this time,” the woman in the leather jacket yelled.
Several of the protesters turned and raised their hands in the air.
Someone shouted “Hands Up!” and I responded as loudly as I could: “DON’T SHOOT.” I thought of how those grieving mothers must feel when they realize that their teenaged boy won’t live long enough to laugh about what a jackass he was as a kid. He’s dead. He’s dead. He had his hands up.
Nancy Murray is a playwright and storyteller who lives and works in Baltimore City. She is currently obtaining her MFA at the University of Baltimore in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts.