Only Light Can Drive out Darkness
New York, Rome, Geneva
No Justice No Peace. Silence is Violence. Hands up, Don’t Shoot. Defund the Police. Say His Name. Say Her Name. Black Lives Matter.
I heard them before I saw them. In the two weeks since the death of George Floyd the streets of New York had been resounding with the voices of protesters marching, their slogans filling the air, fists raised; they marched along the avenues, across streets, on highways, bridges, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and back to Manhattan, and now here they were coming from the Upper East Side, moving along First Avenue.
The protests had been largely peaceful; looters had taken advantage at nightfall. One afternoon, Fabio and I ventured out from the East Esplanade to 34th St, a main thoroughfare usually teeming with tourists, either side of which are fashion stores - its focal points being The Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue and Macys, ‘the world’s largest department store’ on Sixth. We were startled to find the storefronts boarded up as though we were in a war zone. Some of the boards were spray painted with graffiti.
It was an eery feeling. People who had fled New York wrote to the Times from their places of refuge in the suburbs describing Manhattan as though it were under siege and running riot with mayhem, a city burning to the ground, lost to the forces of anarchy.
On this particular day in June, hearing and then seeing the protesters, I felt a surge of energy propel me, ‘Let’s go,’ I said to Fabio. ‘Come on, let’s go.’ So, down we hurried and joined the group, the stragglers, right behind us several lines of cops on motorbikes and cars. The police made me nervous but I was buoyed by the crowd, by its purpose.
This was not our country but this was our fight too. Ours sons were black boys. Boys with privilege, but in the eyes of any encounter with law enforcement that privilege could vanish in an instant.
I now feared the police for my sons. I feared ICE even more. In Trump’s rabid anti immigration America, if they had forgotten their passports or school ID, they could be picked up, put in a truck, van, end up in a detention centre - it could take hours, days before we could locate them. The thought terrified me. But this was New York not Texas, ICE wasn’t being given full reign here, maybe I was just being paranoid, overly dramatic?
My ‘paranoia’ was fueled by an incident at JFK airport when we had arrived in the summer of 2017 to take my eldest son for soccer trials in various universities, before our relocation to the US from Switzerland. Immigration had been swift and friendly and we were now waiting at the baggage hall. Fabio was looking for a cart and the boys were at the carousel. I was standing some feet away from them, scrolling on my phone. I suddenly heard a gruff voice. I looked up. In my memory now this encounter has the cinematic quality of a close-camera shot with the din of the airport dulled as if it were heard and received from under water. I can’t remember exactly what his first words were. But when I looked up I saw a heavily armed official, bulky with muscle and attire, head to toe in black. He was very threatening and I don’t know how but I remained composed, almost nonchalant, which is very odd. Perhaps that was my protective mechanism, to view this as some kind of otherworldly experience. Later, in the Arrivals Hall, I collapsed and cried and told Fabio I didn’t want to live in the States if this is what it was going to be like.
The agent asked me several questions. Was this my first time in America (No). What was I doing here (on a tourist visit…). Had I ever worked here? (No). I wondered at the questions - surely these were Immigration questions and I had just passed through immigration with no problem at all. He seemed irritated by my answers, and probably by my demeanor. He finally asked to see my passport. He took a cursory look at it and then slammed it back in my hand and walked off.
There are some signs on pillars (I hadn’t see them then) that you should not use your mobile phone, but people do. So, perhaps it was that? But, he never asked for my phone, or asked me why I was using it, and, as far as I could tell, I was the only one singled out for this interrogation. This was a flight from Geneva, and I was the only black person that I had seen - this was not unusual for me. It occurs to me now that the agent, seeing me in a sea of white faces, may have immediately jumped to the conclusion that I must be there as a… maid?
I am not fully certain that that was an ICE agent - but they were all over the news that summer. LOCK ’EM UP, Trumps rallying cry was in my head.
So, even in my haste to join the march, I had managed to grab my passport; stopped by ICE they would have proof that I was here legally, taking part in a peaceful demonstration, a right guaranteed to all, even foreign residents, by the United States Constitution.
There was a convivial atmosphere. Water bottles were cheerfully handed out by the young organizers with a ‘thanks for coming’ and ‘keep hydrated.’ Everyone was masked, the realities of demonstrating in a pandemic. We chatted for a while with an elderly white woman who had joined the protest from the Upper East Side. It was nothing like my student demonstrations at the University of Zimbabwe in the 1980s when we marched against government corruption. The atmosphere then was always highly charged- you marched in spite of the fear, of the very certain fact that you would be chased within an inch of your life and, if caught, mercilessly beaten; tear gas was thrown by the riot police with such abandon that you marched with a wet towel over your shoulders, ready to press it against your eyes to protect against the fumes.
It was a beautiful, balmy day in New York. Fabio and I were just about the only grey heads amongst the young, racially diverse crowd. With us were groups of the LGBTQ+ community who held placards that read Black Trans Lives Matter,
Some of the placards were laced with humor like the one that referenced a popular video that had gone viral of a woman admonishing a security officer.
At the rest stops people either knelt on the tarmac or sat on the sidewalk and exchanged stories. Whenever we came head to head with the police we raised our hands in unison, and chanted, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, a wave of fear every time coursing through me.
The march took us into the East Village, Soho, Greenwich Village where people, sitting or standing on the fire escape stairs of their walk-ups, either banged pots in support or clapped or yelled with us ‘Black Lives Matter’, their fists raised - I was most affected by the children - how much of all of this did they understand - and finally ended at Washington Square Park, surprising and alarming picnickers.
Several speakers took turns, and then it was done, groups breaking off, the long walk home.
One day in July, Fabio and I came upon a street in the Lower East Side where, on the boardings covering the shopfronts, there was art inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
I stood for the longest time looking at the length of one : It was a field of white crosses against a sea of black crosses…on the white crosses were the names of the fallen…George Floyd (46), Eric Garner (43), Oscar Grant 111 (22) Emmett Till (14), Philando Castile (32), Elijah McClain (23), Sandra Bland (29), Tamir Rice(12), Freddie Gray(25), Michael Brown (28), Riah Milton (25), Breonna Taylor (26), Trayvon Martin (17) -May Their Memory Be a Blessing.
The three years that my sons had been in America, had shown them clearly that they were black - not mixed race, not black and white as they had once ticked in those boxes, not one hundred percent black and one hundred percent white as I had told them when they had come home from kindergarten in Geneva with the news that someone said they were half and half, the ‘whole’ being somehow ‘less than’, the implication that, in fact, they were neither/or; you are all of me and all of dad, I had said. I cringe now at my words, the awareness that I was speaking from neverland, from a utopia where race was inconsequential. They are black men with all the weight of what that means in the world today.
Almost a year after the march, I was dining curbside at a tavern in Park Avenue when I looked up at the giant TV screen that they had set up outside. Usually it was on a sports channel - basketball or football. But today, the screen was fixed on a courtroom. The Derek Chauvin verdict was about to be read out. I held my breath. I let out a ‘yes!’when the judge read the three guilty verdicts. Someone behind me whooped. It was sickening that there had been the very real possibility, judging by previous verdicts, that Chauvin might leave the court as a free man, that the city of Minneapolis had braced itself for that possible outcome- thousands of Minnesota National Guard troops deployed in the streets.
I have not watched the full video of George Floyd’s murder, the still image of that knee on his neck, enough. I think of all the young people who marched, day after day, night after night, who defied orders to stand down. I really do believe that they effected change and that their actions continue to reverberate, continue to be heard, continue to educate.
In the summer of 2016 our family took a road trip around the Northeast, driving through New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Syracuse, visiting colleges where G was taking part in soccer camps and trials; he hoped to get into a university team. On our way to Syracuse, we were pulled aside by a state trooper. I remember my panic when, looking back, I saw the car with its red and blue lights flashing behind us, a moment of disbelief, dread, this was happening to us. The state trooper was a woman, small in stature, alone. She stood by my side and talked through my window to Fabio who was the driver. She asked for his licence, told him he had been speeding, and after some chatter between them, let him off with a warning. The whole interaction lasted perhaps ten minutes. My sons, two black teenagers, had slept through the whole encounter. As we drove away I thought of these interactions happening every day all over America, traffic stops, and how some of them turn deadly, how often those that do involve people of color, the biases that come into play when an officer sees that he or she is interacting with a black man - the difference it might have made if one of my sons had been driving instead of their white father - how any movement, any answer, any perception of tone might have resulted in an escalation; my relief that they had been asleep. I think too of the trooper - what must go through her head at every traffic stop - the awareness that it could turn violent in this nation that has the Right to Bear Arms enshrined in its constitution.
In February, 2018, I went to a screening of the documentary, The Central Park Five at The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, organized by the Afrikan Poetry Theatre as part of their Black History Month program. The screening was preceded by a few words from Yusef Salaam who was one of the Central Park Five, five teenage black and latino boys (14 to 16 years of age) who had been railroaded by the police and prosecution to confess to a brutal crime committed on April 19, 1989; all five were exonerated in 2002 after the real culprit confessed. Just moments after listening to the grown Yusef, there he was now, the 15 year old boy who had gone to the police station to clear up what he thought was a simple misunderstanding, only to be jailed. I had to leave the theatre for a while to collect myself. On its own, the documentary was harrowing enough but its effect was heightened for me by the immense grace and fortitude of the man I had watched and listened to from a mere foot or so away. And there was this too: the thought of my son hanging out with his friends that evening, a black teenager in New York, walking down its streets with his hoodie and friends, too happy, too quiet, too loud, too them.
In 2019, I went to the Shubert Theatre to watch Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird; I had hinted to Fabio that it would be a great birthday present after a white friend of mine had said how much she had loved it. I had heard that the play had reworked aspects of the book (controversially so) and, not looking further into it, I somehow had the impression that the young black man, Tom Robinson, who was accused of the crime of raping a white woman would have a real voice, and that Atticus Finch, his white lawyer, would be what Tom Robinson is often described as, a secondary character. In this theatre in Broadway, as I took my seat, I could find no other black faces around me. Once the novelty of actually seeing Jeff Daniels in the flesh wore off I grew increasingly uneasy and restless. It was true that Calpurnia, the Finch’s housekeeper, now voiced her discomfort with Atticus Finch’s ‘both sides’ argument but still, the whole thing felt to me somehow off; I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a play for a white audience, to assuage white guilt, and that, in the end, Tom Robinson, with perhaps more of a voice on this stage than in the book, would still end up dead. Intermission came. Fabio and I did not come back for the second act. My two years in America had hardened me, taken away my belief in Atticus, the white savior, that I had had when I had first read the book so many years ago. I understood now that to confront racism in the police, in the courts, was not a single good person act but that it required systematic will and action.
Racial profiling is not just an American affliction. I learnt this personally in Rome, how you can so easily become a victim of it, how casually you could end up arrested, in jail.
During our relocation from Zimbabwe to Switzerland, I and my sons (baby and toddler) stayed with their grandmother, Nonna, in Rome while Fabio made arrangements in Geneva. The plan was to stay over the summer and then Fabio would come, spend a couple of weeks in Rome, and the four of us would then go on to Geneva, to start our new life there.
After an afternoon’s shopping where I had bought some clothes from the boutiques lining Via del Corso, Nonna and I settled down for some refreshments at a bar on Piazza di S. Lorenzo in Lucina. Nonna was seated at a table with the pram by her side, baby sleeping; hanging from the handles of the pram were the shopping bags. I was standing some feet away watching G who was having the time of his life chasing pigeons. After Nonna had finished her drink she said her goodbyes and left to go back home to prepare dinner. I sat down at the table. G was still running about but I had a good view of him. I tried to get the waiter’s attention so that I could order a cappuccino to go with the biscotti Nonna had left behind, to no avail; he kept glancing at me and then swiftly moving away, odd I thought, but waiters could be a bit iffy in Rome. Finally, I managed to catch his attention long enough to say, cappuccino, but he gave me a sour look and moved away. Something was wrong. I looked up, and caught him gesticulating to someone across the square. A carabinieri. There was a station there. I saw the policeman start walking towards us. At that moment G, exhausted from all his pigeon chasing, ran to me and collapsed on my lap. Picking him up, the waiter suddenly materialised and asked with a note of alarm- lui è tuo? (is he yours?- a question that strangers asked me often, breathtaking in its audacity, when they saw me with my very light skinned sons, even when I was there breastfeeding R) - to which I said nothing, busy as I was with G and then, looking up, I watched as he gesticulated, no, no, and the carabinieri stopped and turned back to his station. It suddenly became clear to me. The waiter had, through various leaps in his head, concluded that I was a thief, or part of a gang: I had sat down at the table vacated by the innocent, elderly Italian signora; I was planning a heist of some kind on the pram (perhaps) laden as it was with the tantalizing shopping bags and, in the act of a vigilant citizen, he was calling the cops on me. I was breathless and trembling with the realisation. The illogical assumptions were fantastical. How did any of his reasoning make any sense? What was I planning to do, sitting at the table, trying to order a drink? What was my great plan? To have my drink, and then run off with the bags or the pram? What did he think had happened to the elderly Italian woman who had now been gone for thirty minutes or so, abandoning pram, shopping bags and baby? The only explanation for his irrational behavior was that, seeing me, a young, black woman alone, his biases had shifted to full gear - I could only be up to no good. I shakily paid the bill, and tearily navigated the pram on the cobbled streets in rush hour, whilst keeping a hold on G too, keeping myself from breaking down completly as I tried to find a taxi. I held it together until we were finally home, at Nonna’s apartment. Traumatised, I and the boys left for Geneva, weeks earlier than planned - the pictures and scenarios had kept running in my head - what if I had been arrested, handcuffed, thrown into a prison cell - what of poor G running blissfully about, chasing pigeons, what would have happened to him when he grew tired, or he fell, or just wanted to go to mummy… and, what of R asleep in his pram, waking up…? The thought of my boys alone, distressed, drove me frantic, haunted me… how long would it have taken Nonna to come out and look for us…? In those days I had no cell phone, an hour or two might have gone before… or perhaps I would have spent the night in the cell… and my boys, my boys…
Twenty years later, as Fabio and I marched in the streets of New York, Rome too was marching on the same day, thousands taking the knee in Piazza del Popolo.
Geneva was home for some years and here too stop and searches are conducted by the police. It is usually young black men being ‘stopped and searched’. As teenagers, my son and his friends used to hang out in what they called the hut, in a neighborhood park.
In the hut they would listen to music, consume pizzas, perhaps have some drinks (beer and wine consumption is legal for anyone over 16 in Switzerland and is not illegal in public places like parks), just ‘chill’. I always worried about what would happen if the police turned up. Would they just be treated like teenagers whiling away the time and boredom or as would-be delinquents or as fully formed delinquents already, criminalizing their behavior, they being together viewed as a ‘threatening’ activity? And how would individual members be treated, varied as they were in race and ethnicity? Who would be asked to produce an identity document? Who would be told to just move along without any further demands? Who would be held back as phone calls were made? Who would end up in the back seat of a police car?
One evening in June, thousands in Geneva joined the movement against racial discrimination.
What I did not worry about in Geneva was the police killing my sons. It wasn’t on the radar. The police carry guns but they are rarely used, a very much different scenario than in the States.
I was a ball of nerves as I watched my son set off to a party in Brooklyn. I gave him the talk, for the very first time. If he was stopped by a policeman he was to always keep his hands in front of him, to not make any sudden movements, to answer any questions politely. My heart was beating frantically as I spoke to him. It hurt to tell him that the police might see him as a threat and not as a simple teenager. I watched him walk off, and then waited for all the messages I had told him to send to me: when you are on the train, when you get off, when you arrive… I thought then of the worry that black parents in America carry with them for their children, when even a five year old boy can be handcuffed by police and shoved into a police vehicle.
At least, with me, the talk wasn’t to my five year old son; how heartbreaking that must be, to signal the end of your little boy’s innocence, opening his eyes to the danger there is in the world he inhabits, and that it may very well come from those who are sworn to protect and serve him; how they have to make themselves yet smaller still to just be, to live, to grow up to be their full, realized selves.