Terri Barnes
Terri Barnes

This black life matters

Michael Brown was killed a year ago. They used to say, “It’s been a long, hot summer” but it’s been another long, hot, horror-filled year in the US; every single day another Michael Brown.

This is someone I know.

In high school, Kadeem was a force in the middle of the field. He owned his space. If you came at him with the ball, you would lose it, and he would streak away from you with it. Medium height, fast feet, big smile, a fierce light of concentration in his eyes.

Kadeem was determined to play after graduation. That’s all he wanted. His family of musicians, teachers, activists, sighed. Kadeem just wanted to play. Anywhere, for anybody; maybe one day in Europe where the feet are faster and the balls bounce higher. He tried out for the biggest local professional club, in Chicago, and was put on their development team – a feat in itself. That didn’t quite work out and the next thing we heard, he was playing at a junior college in Boston.

Then we heard he was back in town.

Kadeem had a friend whose family had moved here from Egypt, that he’d grown up with. They went to mosque together. The friend graduated from our local university, and got a good job in Chicago. He rented a car to drive up to the city to look at apartments in parts of town where the rents wouldn’t be quite so high. Since he was about to get a good job with a good salary, he rented a nice sporty car. He asked Kadeem to come with him, so they could have a summer’s drive, a fun day in the city, looking at a promising future.

The road to Chicago from here is a straight shot north. The road bends neither east nor west, running straight through mile after mile of cornfields and soybean fields, and through little towns where people talk about corn and soybeans. Then you finally get to Chicago, passing its big skyline off to the right, on the way to Waukegan, now a lakeside suburb that used to be an industrial town. In the long hot summer of 1966, the anger in its African-American community boiled over, as it did in Watts, Cleveland, Omaha, Dayton, Benton Harbor, Milwaukee, Brooklyn. In 1966, the mayor of Waukegan had declared that rioting folks were “scum, hoodlums, bums and animals.” Forty-nine years later, Kadeem and his friend stopped to fill up the sporty car’s tank. Kadeem was at the wheel. A white man wearing a police uniform and a gun, driving an ordinary truck, came over to them. He showed no ID.

He said Kadeem had put on his indicators on too slowly when he changed lanes. He looked at Kadeem, fast feet, big smile, concentration in his eyes and said, “You look like a drug dealer to me.”

“No,” said Kadeem, “I’m not.”

“You look like a drug dealer. Where did you get this car? If I look in the car, will I find cocaine?”

“No,” said Kadeem, “You won’t find anything.”

“But you sure look like a drug dealer.”

The guy frisked Kadeem. Then he rummaged through the car. He didn’t find any drugs – of course, since there weren’t any. Kadeem had been taught, drilled over and over by the musicians, the teachers and the activists: stay cool, don’t challenge them, don’t even think about losing your temper, don’t talk back to them.

And finally the guy let Kadeem and his friend go on their way. The Egyptian friend had never quite believed the stories that African-Americans get stopped for “driving while black.” But he believes them now. All the joy went out of their day. Kadeem said, “He made me feel like nothing.”

Kadeem has had eight or nine traffic stops in our town. He’s got a big smile, fast feet, and a fierce light of concentration in his eyes. He’s found a coach in Canada who believes in him. Canada, light of the north star. Kadeem’s life matters. After 350 years, after this long hot mortally wounded year, we have to wonder: for how much longer?

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