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Monday, September 26, 2016

Witness to Protest: Justice For Philando March Part I

On Sept. 6th, almost three weeks ago, I headed downtown for a protest march: “Justice For Philando.” 
I went because I received notification from AR14, which seems to me a wiser group than Black Lives Matter, and because three African-American adults whose actions I have admired were among those who went me invitations. I went despite my intense dislike of crowds, an innate wariness of herd behavior, and a learned fear of being on lists and being caught in large groups that comes from being part of a Holocaust survivor family. 

Our city is shaped like a large stone axe, surrounded on three sides by a giant bend in the Mississippi River. City Hall and the Ramsey County Courthouse are housed in a large, gorgeous Arts and Crafts building, which sits at the corner of one of the major bridges that cross the river, and directly in front from a main boulevard that fronts it. 

I was told via Facebook, that 700 people were going to attend. Nobody was outside when I got there a few minutes early. Naive, I went inside City Hall to ask the security guys manning the metal detectors if they knew where the protest was. (Protests are a part of our civil liberties, so I wasn't worried about mentioning this one.) 

They didn’t, but they did inform me that the protest couldn’t be inside, because they didn’t allow any signs in the building.

I walked around the building for a while, looking for people wearing the black they had requested.  Finally, I found some other youngish white people. We all walked to the front and waited. A few more people—black, white—dribbled into the crowd. Then, we saw a large crew walking across the bridge. They seemed cheerful, as if this were a picnic. Some of the younger ones were cavorting. That's the only word for it. A few wore shiny construction vests. 

I felt very much out of place. 

I’ve been looking for a group to join, someplace to go for Phil. I so want to be part of a community working for Philando. I was hoping this would be that place, and that community. I want to work for justice for him. I want to remember him. I want to have ways to make his life keep on living, although I know that’s not literally possible. 

Members of the crowd began to pass out signs. None of them said what I wanted to say. I should have brought my own sign--Philando was not a number--he was a good man. Or Phil cared about kids. Or His Mother Loved Him. Among the gathering crowd sat a young black man, dressed, despite the heat, in a black leather jacket. He was on the bench that edged a yard-sized planter, one arm on his knee, his head on that hand, and he was falling asleep. I knew he wasn't a part of the protest to come--no one spoke to him or even seemed to see him. He was one of the invisible, ones, the lost ones, the homeless, the mentally ill who haunt our streets, and he had to be either drunk, intoxicated, or completely exhausted to be able to fall asleep amid the crowd and the noise. As I watched, he twitched, his body slowly relaxing, muscle by muscle, leaning forward. I was afraid he was going to fall on his head on the concrete. I watched, waiting to leap for him if he started to fall. Finally, I woke him. I had to. 

He startled. I said, "Sorry, sorry. I didn't want you to fall and hit your head." 

He put his head back on his hand and started to fall asleep again. 

I said, "Where's your mother?" 

"Dead," he said. 

I asked, "Do you have somebody who can help you? Somebody who loves you?" And then wanted to kick myself. 

He said no. He was having a hard time getting his social security card, he said, and his legal i.d. He was hungry, he said. Did I have a snack. 

I usually do, but I didn't. Phil would probably have fed this guy, I thought. Philando fed people. That's what he did. The man asked if I could give him three dollars. I don't give money, but Phil was in my head. I gave him the only dollar I could find, loose in my backpack. He put his head on his hand and his eyes oozed shut. The dollar landed on the ground, next to a piece of paper. I picked them both up. It turned out to be his parole paperwork. 

Then, as the protest began to fire up, I went into the courthouse. I explained that I was worried about this guy. The guards called a Ramsey County Sheriff who said he could call St. Paul Police to do a welfare check, but, he said, they'd have to send a car and the officers would have to be in uniform and if they came out in the middle of a protest they'd have a riot. 

So, I went back out. The guy was sitting up, more alert, but still invisible to the crowd around him. The protest had spilled into the center of the street, to the narrow space between the yellow lines. The chant switched from "No Justice, No Peace," to "No Cops, No KKK." I had a huge disconnect. I had just gone to the police for help, for a black man. We need police, just not racist police who view anybody black as a terrifying monster or someone to dominate. 

I put my hand on the sleepy guy's shoulder. The paperwork had said his name was Lamont. (not his real name) I asked what I could do. 

"Can I stay with you tonight?" 

I said, "I have a special needs kid. That wouldn't work." 

He asked for twenty dollars for a room. I didn't have any money. The homeless shelter was three blocks away. And yet--I know people who've been in these shelters. They're crowded in a room with hundreds. It's noisy. They don't feel safe. They can't sleep. And this guy seemed much more alert. Maybe he was just exhausted. 

I dug into the open section of my backpack again, and out came twenty bucks that I didn't know I had. I handed it over and looked into his face. He looked back into my eyes. I said, "You matter. Your life matters. I'm not your mother but I'm a mother, and I know that you count. Just hold on. Get through this. You can make it. You can make a difference in the world." 

I might be deluding myself that he listened, who knows? It seemed to me that he heard it--heard a fellow human person, caring. He nodded, a couple of jerks of his head, and then he crossed through the protest and the crowd, and heading off, walking straight, not at all like someone drunk or on drugs. 

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