After spending nearly six decades as a single woman in America, last year I became a mother when I adopted my son. He is my sister’s grandson. Sweet kid and a victim of circumstances beyond his control. For a kid who got dealt such a shitty hand in life, he is remarkably resilient. Holds no grudges against the people who did him dirty, always looks forward and has a sweet disposition. No small feat for a 13-year old boy sent off to live with his Great Auntie Em in another state. His rough start included bullying and lots of it – from an older sibling to another Not-So-Great-Aunt to the foster care system to foster parents who kept him around not to give him a safe haven, but for money – to big kids in a new school who, on a daily basis, used this boy, who suffers from a rare genetic growth disorder, as a punching bag until I had to pull him from school and begin home schooling. Turns out that whole “Bullying Zero Tolerance Policy” so many schools give lip service to, really means they have zero tolerance for parents who come in with photos of their bruised and battered children and want something done about it. We share all this, I say “we” because the boy-child, Braeden, whom I affectionately call ‘Li’l Cletus’ is essentially co-authoring this piece with me and we share this very personal struggle as context for what we’re about to say: My son is now a very angry young man. And he is angry for all the right reasons. Right now, our personal struggle is in finding a way for him to effectively channel that anger for change. You see, I do not hide things from my son. We have open and honest conversations about what is going on in the world, and on Memorial Day of all days, he watched a video on television, stormed into the dining room where I was working, and told me to pull up the news and do it now. He guided me to the video where a white Minneapolis police office had his knee on the neck of a black man, who was calling out to his dead mother, begging for his life – begging to breathe – begging not to be killed. He was laying face-down, cuffed behind his back and was in no way resisting arrest. 3 other cops in the video – 2 white and 1 Asian were just standing there doing nothing. You could hear onlookers in the background begging the police officer to get his knee off this man’s neck. You could hear them say, “YOU’RE KILLING HIM, MAN!” I watched my son turn red-faced, the anger seething. He started screaming at the computer screen, “GET OFF OF HIM! YOU SONOFABITCH! Get OFF OF HIM!” Within minutes, the black man stopped speaking, stopped moving. The white police officer remained on his neck for more than 8-1/2 agonizing minutes. The video ended and my son went on a profanity-laced rant that would have made the most hardened sailor proud, but he was positively inconsolable in that moment. “Why? WHY? What did that man do that was so bad that he was murdered? Did he kill someone? Did he punch that cop? Don’t we have courts and judges who decide the punishment? Why? Why? Why?” This went on for an hour until he wore himself out, screaming and punching at the air and storming through the house. He did not expect me to answer because the questions were not for me – they were for our country. My son is demanding answers and frankly, so am I because they are the very same questions I have been wanting answered since I learned to talk.
You see, my father (his great-grandfather to whom he bears a striking resemblance) was a man who never told his children what to think. He was a believer in teaching his children how to think. I am a child of the 60’s. The Vietnam War raged in moving pictures beamed through our television screen, clearly seen from the dining room table every night of the week with the steady tone of Walter Cronkite narrating in the background. Dad would go around the dinner table, asking each of us what we understood from the days’ news. As the baby of our huge clan, turned out being six was not an excuse for not paying attention or having an opinion. This was serious stuff to Dad. We may have been what some folks called ‘poor White trash’, but the man was not going to raise a bunch of ignorant dummies. The conversation was the same when Mr. Cronkite narrated the peace marches, the protests, the March on Washington and the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. Paying close attention was of paramount importance if you were to successfully run the gauntlet of the nightly family conversation about the events of the day while passing the potatoes and the peas. None of us looked forward to the hardest of news days. Like the night we watched peaceful marchers being beaten nearly to death when crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Like the night Walter interrupted his broadcast on April 4th, 1968 to announce the breaking news that Dr. King had been shot in the face as he was exiting the Lorraine Motel and was being rushed to St. Joseph’s hospital in Memphis where he would be pronounced dead just an hour later. I saw the excruciatingly pained look on my father’s face as he stared down at his plate, unable to speak. He finally gathered himself momentarily and excused himself from the table, not to return. I thought he was crying as he left the room and looked to my southern belle mother for silent guidance. “Eat your supper now. All of you”, she said. And not another word. Mom had always objected to such talk around the dinner table and she was not about to offer anything now. It was scarcely two months later Dad had asked me to get him a cup of coffee as he settled into his favorite old living room chair in his ritual preparation to peruse the morning paper. When I returned with his coffee, I could see the newspaper shaking violently in his hands. He was not looking at the paper. He was staring blankly in anger and disbelief. I could see the headline, “RFK DEAD”. I gently sat the steaming cup on the table next to him and slinked out of the room thinking, “Lordy I hope Mom makes something really special for supper tonight”. It was not a good night. As my son’s home-schooling continues through the pandemic, he has read and has a firm grasp of the US Constitution. We were already focusing on topics such as the slave trade, the civil war, what impact slavery had on the economy of White America, the Missouri Compromise, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement – all the way up to today. I am sure his education has been more advanced than what he would get in school. We access every source we can get our hands on – from books and documentaries to the local online library to the National Archives. My white boy is barely a teen and he is woke as hell – not because I pushed this on him – but because he watches the news and has a hunger for the truth. I confess to feeling pride when he is seen raiding my library to read James Baldwin and then to seek out videos of him speaking. All of this has been accomplished in the privacy of our home. All the materials are accessible to every American with an internet connection or a smart phone. We know these things because we want to know these things. We know these things because we both believe it makes us better citizens of our community, our country, and ultimately, the world. When that police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery was still raw for Braeden – he had seen that video too and objected to a man being murdered for Jogging While Black. I had not realized he had gone digging for background information on Mr. Arbery and he was taken by the testimonials from people who knew him to be nothing but a good and decent and well-loved member of his family and his community. Upon realizing he had done his own research, I ask him, “Would you have felt the same if he had a criminal background?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “I wouldn’t have given a good goddamn – jogging is not a crime and those racist sonsabitches are not the police – not that THAT would’ve been much of an improvement.” (Keep in mind – he is a sawed-off little white boy who has never personally experienced the sting of racism and even the most casual observer can feel his anger building.) He does not know the name of his Congressman or either Senator. He does not know the name of our Mayor. He does not know the name of our Alderman. What he does know is the name George Floyd. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Tamir Rice. And Michael Brown. And Philando Castile. And Eric Garner. And Trayvon Martin. And Breonna Taylor. He knows their names and he says their names. He is angry because he is too young to get himself to the protests taking place in Kansas City and he wants to be there to march with them, fist raised. And he is deeply frustrated with me because I will not take him. Six years ago, I was a single, unfettered white woman with no obligations to anyone or anything when Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri and I felt an ever-increasing distrust of the official version of events coming from the police and the local authorities. I took a Sharpie (to write my name, social security number and date of birth on my forearm), an overnight bag, bail money and a notepad, climbed in my car and drove the 3-1/2 hours to Ferguson to see for myself. I just wanted to write about it and share my observations and did so in a two-part piece that can be read here and here. I arrived as a journalist and left as an activist. It was the first time in my life I had been tear gassed and was saved by two black teenagers that night. But things are different now. I am a mother in the midst of a global pandemic. I am a mother with a child who has a serious heart condition. I have been tear gassed as have the protesters in Kansas City. My fear is that we could both catch a virus from which we would not survive or that tear gas could trigger a traumatic event with his heart. But I am so proud of him for being so young and knowing the difference between right and wrong. I am so proud of him for having a moral center not possessed by our small ‘p’ president or our elected officials. I am just so damned proud. Chinless Mitch McConnell calls racism in America and police brutality a ‘residual’ problem. Based on the meaning of the word ‘residual’, Turtle Man thinks this is merely but a tiny leftover from when this country was really racist. Either he is willfully ignorant and does not know the meaning of the word or he is just plain stupid. I vote for stupid. He said it was a ‘vexing’ problem and if we had a solution, we would have resolved it years ago. Well, now he’s just lying. We know what the solution is. Jail cops as criminals who abuse their power and kill people. Defang the police federations, demilitarize police departments across the country, fire most of the existing cops who think their job is as a paramilitary unit designed to treat every citizen as an enemy combatant and completely restructure law enforcement nation-wide to the true meaning of community policing. That is a good place to start. Vexing – a mere annoyance. I cannot believe he used that word. We are a country in crisis. When we start labeling racists for what they are, when we completely restructure police departments, when we take away their military toys and force them to treat all citizens as human beings, we have a chance. This is not a residual problem nor is it vexing. We have a deep bench of racists in this country and a political party that has encouraged it and used it to maintain white power – and I am in touch enough with my White Privilege to know it. So is my son. The day of reckoning is today. Today. There can be no further withdraws on people of color without the necessary deposits. Our bill for black and brown and red and yellow America has come due. Without white America making the necessary deposits, we can no longer sit back and wonder why ‘they’ are coming to take what rightfully belongs to them – in whatever manner they feel necessary. But we have a choice – either we can own up to what we have done and taken at their expense, or we have no right to complain when they come marching down your streets and block your interstates and bridges and close down your cities. We do not have the right to bitch that they are burning and looting when we have allowed their communities and their education and health system to be demolished by neglect. We have long looted the funds their communities have deserved for decades. We cannot continue to demand that communities of color tolerate police beatings and murders of citizens and peaceful protestors when nearly every human being has a cell phone that records video, regardless of the lies told by Park Police, local authorities, mayors and governors. We have eyes. We have seen this with our own eyes and denial will not change the facts.
I sit here with a deeply angry 13-year old boy who only understands the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, decency and indecency – and today I must deal with both his anger and my profound pride in him. I must train myself to stop referring to him as a boy, for today is a bigger man than the white men who control this country will ever be. On this day of reckoning – today – his great-grandfather would be so proud of him. – Carol Baker, ‘The Opinionated Bitch’ Co-Authored by Braeden Baker in his journalistic debut,