“Complaining is easy. Protests are easy. Solutions are hard.”
I read this post on Yik Yak the morning after the Black Leadership Coalition-organized protest in response to the Ferguson verdict on November 24, 2014. And although I was enraged by this comment, a small part of me was not surprised. I knew exactly why someone would say such a thing: why a person would cynically dismiss other peoples’ attempts to fight institutional racism as ineffective. Before the protest that night, I was that cynic. I stood idly by and did nothing but criticize as my brothers and sisters fought for change. This was especially shameful because, like every other black man in this country, I am Mike Brown. My skin color has always denied me the benefit of the doubt. This was never more apparent than the day I got my first ticket.
“Cut through here. It is much faster.” I was driving too slowly and my uncle wanted to get home.
“Through that neighborhood?” I anxiously replied.
“Yes, it should be fine.”
The houses in this neighborhood were beautiful, with ornate pillars and lush gardens. Each house had a Mercedes or BMW parked out front. As I rounded a turn, two cars cut in front of me. I doubted that they knew the speed limit, because it looked like nothing short of a street race, both cars revving their engines, duking it out for a better position. I nervously turned on the cruise control to 25, looked to my uncle and laughed.
“No way they don’t get pulled over.”
And just as I said it, a police car appeared from behind a tree, its lights blaring, and sped into action. With the police car behind me and the racers in front of me, I slowed to a stop to let the officer pass by. But as I slowed, the police car slowed, too. The racers sped away out of sight. I was baffled.
“Is he really after me?!”
I pulled to a stop and my uncle tried to calm me down.
“Relax,” he said.
I struggled to remember what to do. Where is my license? It’s in my wallet. Where is my wallet? Is it in my soccer bag? How will I get it out of the trunk? Where is my registration card? Where would Dad put it? Remember what Dad said. Hands on the wheel. No sudden movements. Sound as unintimidating as possible. Be polite. Smile. But what if my license is in the trunk? I’m screwed! It’s in my pocket. It has to be in my pocket. I gripped my steering wheel for dear life and stared straight ahead. I’m sure it’s nothing. Maybe my brake light is out.
The officer exited his car and walked over.
“License and registration”
I moved my shaking arms slowly from the wheel, reached into the pocket of my soccer shorts, and pulled out my wallet. As I began to pull out my license, I noticed the police officer was not standing by my window. He was standing by the window of the back seat. He stood, one hand gripping my window, another by his side. Veiny fingers revealed he was clutching something tensely: his gun. The cop was holding his gun.
I dropped my license.
I quickly reached to pick it up from the crack between my seat and the door. The cop recoiled from my window. No sudden movements. I grabbed my license and looked away as I held it out my window, hoping to God that he would see that it was not a weapon. The cop hesitated for a moment and then took the license from my hands. I resumed the position, hands firmly grasping the wheel and eyes straight ahead. I tried to smile—I couldn’t.
My uncle placed it on the dashboard near my shaking palms and I handed it to the officer. The officer grabbed it and retreated back to his car. After a few minutes he returned.
“You were goin real fast back there.” This was a lie. I was on cruise control. Be polite. Fine. I kept quiet.
“This your dad?” the cop asked.
“It’s…it’s my uncle.”
“Well you gotta tell your son to slow down.” Then the cop shifted his gaze to me. “Lucky for you, I’m just giving you a warning. I put you in the system, so if any other officer catches you speeding, they’ll know about this. But I will give you a ticket for that air freshener obstructing your view of the road. It’s $50 and I’m sure your dad can help you take care of that.” My air freshener was a crime?
“Now remember we’ve got our eyes on you.” The cop handed me my license and registration along with my first ticket. Be polite, I tried to remember.
“Drive safe.” The officer walked back to his car and drove away at a speed I could only guess must have been at least 30 mph. As I drove the rest of the way home, I kept my cruise control at 5mph below the speed limit.
The real tragedy was not that I was going the speed limit, or that my white friends had blazed through this neighborhood countless times before at speeds double what I was going. Nor was the tragedy the fact that only one of my white friends had ever been caught speeding, and that his punishment for going 45 mph in a 25 mph residential area was to write a one-page essay about why he was sorry. It was not even the fact that an officer had his gun out to face a 16 year-old boy in a turquoise Toyota Camry.
The real tragedy was that no one seemed to care. When I told my parents, they were not surprised. In fact, no black person I told was surprised. On that day, I learned that this is normal. I learned that this is not just acceptable but expected and more importantly that there was nothing I could do about it. I could try to fight it—I could work hard, gain entrance to an Ivy League school, get a well-paying job and raise a family—but at the end of the day I would always be just a black man. A “demon” to men like Darren Wilson. So rather than take action in response, I accepted a cynical outlook and did nothing. Like many others who felt utterly hopeless in the face of institutional racism, I developed an apathetic complacency to cope with the pain. After all, it was too easy to complain, and “solutions are hard.” Too hard, if not impossible.
Since I’ve been at Princeton—though I have seen the Black Students Union, the Black Men’s Awareness Group, and other organizations engage in discussions and raise awareness of the struggle—until that protest on November 24th, I had never seen anyone do anything that I felt could instill any meaningful change. Like Lovia Gyarkye ’16 said in her article “Notes on Engaging with Black Thought”, at the end of the day, other things were always more important: the next problem set, an essay, an internship application.
Then I saw the protest march on the night of the verdict. Hundreds of Princeton students trudging through the campus in peaceful protest of our society’s inherent devaluation of black lives. It was awe-inspiring. Never at Princeton had I seen so many people united for one cause.
And it opened people’s eyes. The discussion blew up on social media, in the halls of dorm rooms, and in the dining halls. For once, the next problem set wasn’t more important. For once, people cared enough to take action and sustain it. Though the Princeton University protest of November 24th was nothing compared to the one in Ferguson, Missouri or to the dozens of others that happened in major cities around the country, for me it had the same, if not a larger impact.
It showed that as a community, we do care enough to stand up for something and take action even though we are overwhelmed with work and things that seem “more important.” It showed me that other people were hurting too. The diversity of the protest group showed that our community was capable of empathy and that with the help of these allies, one day things will change.
However, this isn’t to say that the protest was the end. I hope that it is just the beginning. As a community, we have finally woken up from Princeton’s “violent inactivity,” as a number of students wrote in the Daily Princetonian, and the absolute worst thing we could do is fall back into silence. We can do more, and I now have faith that we will.
The protest showed that cynical 16-year old boy in his turquoise Camry that although the police “have their eyes on him,” one day this won’t be because he is a “demon,” but because his life matters enough to be protected.