- written in summer 2016. I published it here last fall but took it down because I thought it was presumptuous and just not very good. I’m putting it up again because I think its general message is one that the country needs right now. Obviously ideologies like Nazism and White Supremacy are non-negotiable, but the rest of us need to make an attempt to understand each other.
The boy sat down on the bench and caught his breath.
The melee raged in front of him. Upon closer examination, it wasn’t so much a melee as it was a bunch of culturally spoiled, agitated individuals spitting insults at each other while awkwardly wrestling and occasionally throwing clumsy shoves and punches. This was a fight where the participants had never done much real fighting in their lives.
The woman sitting next to him on the bench was red-faced and breathing heavily, dabbing her sweaty forehead with a Subway napkin.
In one hand, she held a torn Trump sign. It had something written on the back of it in Sharpie.
The boy had seen the Trump girl tear the woman’s sign in half as she’d run through the phalanx of protesters, grabbing their handmade poster signs and ripping them with a cheeky smile on her face. The girl was a brunette, tanned and attractive, had probably never heard a real “no” in her life. “Marry Me Donald,” was written in blue marker on her exposed belly.
The boy had no idea why the girl would’ve ripped up a sign belonging to a supporter of her own candidate.
“You’re bleedin’, son,” said the woman.
She offered the boy a napkin.
“Your forehead,” said the woman, pointing.
The boy put a finger to his temple and it came away wet and sticky and red.
“Just a little knick,” said the woman. “God bless America, huh?”
She had a rich country accent. She looked like a substitute teacher.
The boy accepted the napkin and put it to his forehead. He didn’t think the guy’s elbow had caught him that bad. It was just a quick clip to the noggin. The guy hadn’t even been aiming for the boy. He’d been going to punch one of the yelling white guys and the boy just happened to be in the path of the man’s cocked elbow.
The boy was part of a crowd of protesters that had converged on the convention center floor. They had swarmed the area in front of the podium, waving signs and chanting, and the Trump supporters waved their own signs and tried to shout the protestors down. Then, just before the rally had been scheduled to start, an announcement had come over the PA that the rally was being canceled, “in light of everyone’s safety.”
Though the boy had been thrown to the floor and out of harm’s way, the fight that had broken out frightened him in its ferocity. He’d scrambled away as quick as he could and found the bench. He was dazed but unhurt.
He saw people rush towards the fracas; photographers with still cameras, video cameras and people with their phones held aloft, all looking to capture the moment.
Something about the whole thing, seeing grown adults lose their cool and turn into screaming children, was perverted and sad. The scuffle lasted only a few moments before security charged in to break it up.
Now there were people milling about the floor and eyeing each other and snapping things like, “We don’t want you here,” and “Get back on the boat,” and “Fuck your racism!” and “Fuck Trump!” The air was taut. Security looked uneasy. Both sides of the crowd fumed at each other, two tribes in petty battle.
When the announcement had come that the rally was canceled, the tension went up a notch. Now the protesters weren’t just inconveniences to be shuttled off by security once they’d made a scene. They had succeeded in screwing up the very reason the Trump supporters were here in the first place. Not two minutes after the announcement was over, the arguments and mini-brawls began.
“They’re assholes,” said the woman, nodding at the group of protestors, who were now chanting “Black Lives Matter!”.
“But the people on my side are idiots. The assholes come here looking for their headlines and instead of ignoring them, the idiots on my side give it to them. ‘Black Hillary supporter punched by white Trump supporter’. That’s what they want the headline to say. And these rednecks give it to them. They give them their headlines.”
“We need headlines,” snapped the boy. “You won’t ever understand what it’s like. I’m legitimately afraid of what will happen if Trump becomes president.”
The woman stopped wiping at her forehead.
“Well, what if I said I’m afraid Hillary becomes president?”
“Hillary isn’t going to arrest you for no reason or kill you for no reason,” said the boy.
“I’d sure hope not, but she’s gonna raise taxes out the wazoo. I’m on a fixed income. What happens to me if all of a sudden I can’t afford to eat? Or if I can’t get my insulin cause I lose my health insurance cause I can’t afford it anymore?”
“She’s gonna institute universal health insurance,” snapped the boy. “You won’t have to worry about it.”
The woman shook her head.
“That ain’t never gonna happen, son. The people with all the money are NEVER gonna let that happen. That happens, they lose control over us.”
The boy lost his patience. He was already on edge from getting elbowed in the head, and he’d lost all patience with ignorant people.
“Trump’s going to give the cops and the military free reign to shoot us,” he sputtered in anger. “You’ll never have to experience what that’s like! White supremacy and Nazis everywhere! They’re going to — ”
The woman interrupted him.
“Where did you grow up?”
“Ypsi,” said the boy.
“I’m from Milan,” said the woman. “What you got against cops?”
“My mom was murdered by a cop,” said the boy. “He never went to jail. Self-defense.”
“What did she do to get shot?”
That made the boy really angry, and he shut up the way he did when he got really angry. What business was that of hers? How dare she ask such a question? Typical white woman… fucking hillbilly.
But the woman pressed him.
“Cops don’t just shoot a mother and get away with it. What happened?”
The boy breathed deeply and told her. He’d told this story many times.
“They did a no-knock raid on our house at 1 in the morning. Out of nowhere. They busted down the door. They had the wrong house. The real house turned out to be on another block. But our dog went for them, and my mom went to grab the dog, and the cops shot her. They thought she had a weapon.”
The woman stared at him.
The contrast between the two of them sitting and talking on the bench stood out among the shouting and accusing and cussing all around them.
“I remember reading about that,” said the woman. “About two years ago, right?”
“I’m sorry that happened,” the woman said, looking him in the eye. Her sweaty napkin was wadded up in one hand. “I truly am. That officer panicked, and he shouldn’t have gotten off so easy.”
“A couple months PAID suspension,” said the boy. “That’s what my mom’s life was worth.”
He felt his throat begin to swell like it always did when he talked about this. He remembered his mother’s face as she’d hit the floor. He remembered his little sister’s screams, the cops roaring for him to lie on the ground and put his hands behind his head, the blinding lights.
The woman sat quiet for a moment.
Then she spoke again.
“I’m truly sorry,” she said again. “But our sad stories don’t make us automatically right when it comes to politics.”
“Sad stories?” the boy growled. The fuck did she mean by that?
“Yeah, that’s a sad story. And I mean that in the most literal and respectful way. You lost someone very dear to you, and you didn’t get justice for it. But I got a sad story, too. I lost my Bobby and my Bobby, Jr. They both served in the Middle East. Terrorists got ’em. They’re gone. The terrorists are still there. And don’t ever want anyone else to have to feel the way I do.”
“Well, that’s how I feel about the cops,” said the boy. “I don’t want anyone else to lose a family member to a cop who gets off without any consequences.”
“I can respect that,” said the woman, as if the boy had asked for her respect. “But what happened to your mother, that ain’t Donald Trump’s fault.”
“He’s racist,” said the boy. “Just like that cop. Anyone who supports him supports racism, even if they don’t mean to.”
The woman glared at him.
“We’re all a little racist, son.”
The boy was quiet again, staring intensely at the woman, maintaining his composure through his silence. The woman talked some more.
“My Bobby was a good man. He struggled. He never got handed anything. The world didn’t give a shit about him, even though he tried to help out. And it got him nothing. That’s why I’m here. Their lives have to mean something, even if it’s just their old lady waving a sign around in an auditorium.”
They went wordless for a moment, the clatter beginning to subside as security cleared the room. There were voices on the loudspeakers, asking for a calm and organized exit.
The woman spoke again. She was a talker.
“Yes, sir. They both joined up with the Army. Bobby was a lifer, joined when he was 18, Bobby Jr. wanted to be just like his dad. He was just like his dad. Now I’m all alone.”
“I’m alone, too,” said the boy.
“Who you living with nowadays?”
“With friends. My sister lives in Atlanta now with my aunt. I have grandparents in Detroit but I don’t talk to them.”
The woman nodded, and the boy saw a grim sympathy in her face. It was a sympathy that understood loss. It wasn’t, in the boy’s opinion, the same caliber of loss that he had experienced, but it was loss nonetheless. It was a loss that would cost a person sleep for the rest of their lives.
“I gotta go,” said the boy.
The woman gestured to the boy with her sweaty, wadded-up napkin.
“I just got one more question for you. Did your mama teach you you’re no better than anyone else?”
The boy’s mind flashed a memory.
Once, in grade school, years ago, he had told a white kid something. He’d had some sort of argument with the kid, who was poor, just like the boy, and somehow the argument had culminated in the boy saying, “White people are the worst race there is, they always have been, and they always will be.” He’d said it calmly and coolly, and he remembered the look on his classmates face. The kid had believed it. And they’d gotten into a fight, a really bad one, and the boy had beaten up the white kid until he was bloody and rubbed fistfuls of dirt in the white kid’s face, screaming at him. He’d been sent to the principal’s office.
The boy’s mother had found out and come to school to pick him up.
She’d been silent until they got into the car. Then, it happened.
His mother slapped him across the face.
The boy was shocked.
She’d never so much as laid a finger on him before.
He still remembered her furious expression.
“That’s down there,” she said to him, pointing at the floor. “That kind of talk, that kind of behavior, that’s down there. You’re up here.”
She pointed to his eye level.
He could only nod, his cheek stinging. He knew exactly what she was talking about.
“You stay up here,” his mom said, her finger still leveled at the boy’s eyes. “You stay up here, you understand?”
The boy remembered the sound of the cop’s guns going off, the flashes, the chaos in the dark, he remembered sobbing into the dusty carpet and the sight of his mother’s blood soaking into the carpet only inches away from him and the way the cops had stared at her body like it was a broken water main or a car accident, a tragic inconvenience to be dealt with and then forgotten. The officer who had shot his mother was crying himself, being consoled by another officer. None of the officers had moved to console the boy or his sister. Not even the black ones.
“She did,” said the boy to the woman. “She did teach me that. But I gotta stand up for myself and for people like me. If we don’t, we’re going to end up back where we were.”
“That’s a good mom,” said the woman. “That’s all that matters, that you don’t think who you are makes you better than anyone. That’s the only thing anyone needs to remember, really. Lord knows none of these yahoos understand that.”
They watched the crowd trickle off the stadium floor. The empty cement was strewn with ripped and abandoned campaign signs and protestor signs and junk and trash and confetti.
People still yelled occasional insults and taunts at each other as they went, though the tension of physical conflict had dissipated.
“Aren’t we supposed to be better than this?” said the boy, watching the two Americas drain out the exits.
“We are,” said the woman.
“But it ain’t as bad as it seems.”
“Why do you support Trump, though?”
“I told you — lost my husband and my only son. They both went to the desert and never came back.”
“But why Trump? What’s he going to do about that?”
The woman sighed, shrugged.
“Honestly, it’s cause I got no one to believe in anymore. Trump’s the only one.”
She paused, considering.
“The people with the money, the ones up top, the ones who’ve been screwing people like you and me for as long as there’s been a country… the ones who sent Bobby and Bobby Jr. over there and told them they were fighting for something other than oil and money… they don’t like Trump. In fact, they’re afraid of Trump. And I like that. I like Trump cause those people don’t. That’s the best I got.”
She wiped her forehead with the napkin again.
“Why you support Hillary?”
“I don’t. I support Bernie.”
“Well, why do you support Bernie?”
The boy thought. He and his friends had all just immediately latched onto the rumpled Senator from Vermont. He’d seemed the most authentic, the most sincere.
“I want things to be better for everyone,” said the boy. “That’s about as simple as I can put it. I just want things to be better. And I think he’ll do that. Or at least he’ll try.”
The woman nodded.
“I want things to be better, too,” she said. “So we agree on that.”
They sat quiet for a moment. The tension in the room had softened. Now there was only the chatter of voices as people trickled out the exits.
“You’re a strong young man,” the woman said to the boy. “I can tell. Losing your mother like that. Lotta people would give up if that happened to them. And yet here you are, involved. You’re not just sitting somewhere, complaining and blaming everyone else. You’re trying. Yessir, I respect that. Very much.”
The boy appreciated the thought, but he hadn’t asked for and didn’t need this woman’s respect. He didn’t say that, though. He knew the woman was just trying to be nice.
“What’s written on the other side of your sign,” he asked, pointing to the pieces in her hands.
The woman held the pieces together so he could see.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” she recited. “That little Trump bitch probably thought I was with you guys for some reason. Eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
She shook her head for what seemed like the tenth time.
The boy nodded.
“What’s that from?”
“Song called Me and Bobby McGee,” said the woman. “Janis Joplin. We danced to it at our wedding.”
The woman looked at her torn sign.
“Hell,” she mumbled, and threw the pieces in a nearby trash can. They landed face up. One piece said TR and the other said UMP.
The cops and ushers were beginning to push the last of the stragglers out of the convo center. The flow of people crushed into the doorways.
“I gotta go,” said the boy.
“Yeah, I guess we all gotta go,” said the woman.
The boy got up to leave. So did the woman.
They threw their napkins in the trash can together, sweat on hers and blood on his. He touched a finger to his forehead and it came away dry.
“Good luck, son,” the woman said, offering her hand for him to shake.
“You, too,” said the boy, shaking it.
They parted, disappearing into the crowd.