The Uncertain Ally


Lincoln Statue and Peace Warriors

Photo: Decatur Herald and Review


It’s July 11, 2016.

My husband and I stand at the bottom of the steps of the Macon County court house in Decatur, Illinois. We are attending an event put on by local pastors, supporting their efforts to prevent violence in the wake of a shooting, earlier today, of a black fellow-citizen by a white police officer.

The crowd is mostly young, mostly African-American. The other white folks we see are highly tattooed. We are not. We are conspicuous in our Whiteness and our Grayness.

The gray hair helps. We are children of the 60’s, we could say.

But we were ACTUALLY children then.  I was nine.  I did not march.  Well, ok, I did march, that summer of 1968. They cleared the beach one afternoon, because the riots were drawing too close for comfort. I marched from that beach on a lake on the outskirts of Detroit to the safety of my mother’s station wagon so she could whisk us back to our suburban refuge.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!” they chant. “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

I come from privilege. I come from good people. My parents signed the permission slip for me to go on field trips with the class from the inner-city school. I did my part. I tried with my friends to build bridges with the other nine-year-olds. But we didn’t even know the same bus songs.

I actually did make black friends on the campus of Northwestern University – which was an achievement, not due to unfriendliness on either side of the color line—geekiness is a powerful bond–but sheer lack of numbers. Even today on that campus, African-Americans are the 7.8 percent.

I married a good person. We moved downstate and did good things. He saw patients who couldn’t pay, and saw them with such dignity that word got around. I raised kids and created a database for social workers, and built online training experiences to help people not suck at their jobs.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

We cringe. We are both Leaders. We know a little bit about presentation. Not everybody who takes the microphone is competent. The imported young woman from Chicago is inarticulate. They are losing their audience, the one that is not us.

The group of young men near us, the ones who marched in earlier crying “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” with hand-lettered signs hashtagged #AllLivesMatter are hot in the 91 degree humidity, and irritated. They rightly complain, amid the preaching, that their concern is not being addressed. I wish I could ask them what their thinking was, choosing All, rather than Black. But I have been well-schooled by my daughter the poet-activist. I am not here to be taught. I am here to listen and support.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

We fear we look ridiculous.

We tried to raise good people. When I was warned that one of my darlings was becoming a little guy with a big mouth, we checked out a karate dojo. I’d read enough Margaret Mead to know that if you find a master teacher, you should just hang out and learn what you can, irrespective of the subject. That the master happened to be African-American, and attracted a multi-racial clientele, was a bonus.   My kids grew up learning lessons of respect and control and the management of power from Black men alongside black friends and brown friends and white friends.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

Along the way, I got sucked into the vortex of that dojo, unable to resist lessons about power. I learned how to punch, how to kick, how to escape from those who might do me harm. And then I turned around and taught those lessons.

The teaching got complicated, though.  Japanese tradition filtered through the Rantoul Air Force Base and the Black Church prizes unquestioning compliance with authority.  I’m cool with authority, but I brought my white middle-class mom’s tolerance of respectful questioning with me.   “Don’t Ask Her That!” came booming across the room. “You do what she says. If she’s wrong, we’ll notice, and WE will correct her.” Try as I might, I just couldn’t operate that way. My students learned that some folks in authority are ok with questioning. This complicated their parents’ efforts to keep them safe.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

There’s a statue of Lincoln on a six-foot pedestal – Macon County’s court house was on the circuit the great man rode during his lawyering days. Leaning against the pedestal is a handsome kid, maybe 16. He’s shirtless, his natural hair tied back, wearing athletic shorts and a pair of sneakers. He wears a lanyard around his neck. The lanyard proclaims “Eisenhower High School Honor Student.”   He’s with his girlfriend. She looks like she’s probably an honor student too. “Oh, Buddy,” I think. “will that lanyard talisman protect you from the thing we are all here trying to ward off?”

Everyone is thinking about the question. That black man with a BB gun shot by a white policeman in town early this morning: did he really present a threat? Will the video still under review reveal abuse of power, or legitimate use? How will our community respond to the news, when it comes? Can we keep our streets peaceful?

The Chief of Police assures us that we will know the results of the investigation when he does.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

They’ve done the research. “Diversity Training” is utterly ineffective in creating more opportunity for minorities. What is effective? Mentoring. I want to ask Mr. Honor Student, has he thought about college? Does he need help with his essays? And hey, has he had any martial arts training? But this is not the time or the place.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

When the news about the shooting broke, my husband suggested I might want to stay home today. As word got around, we heard from friends that offices downtown were emptying at noon because a prayer meeting had been called by local pastors to take place at the court house at 5:30.

I was scheduled to teach at 5. The dojo is two blocks from the court house. My husband got home from work early. He looked at me and sighed, and said “you’re going to teach, aren’t you.” “Yes,” I replied.  “I think I might take a walk over to the court house afterwards.”   “Ok. I’ll meet you there.”

I had been working with T– on his kick and his punch. He’d almost got it. He’s a beautiful boy, seven or so, with long tipped braids. He’s grown from a shy, scared kid to one who struts with new confidence. I couldn’t prevent violence from breaking out in town, but I could help T– with his kick. First though, we spend some time on punching. We make strong tight fists. We take low, stable stances. Professor Smith decided the kicks were looking good enough that he ought to try to break a board. For the first time, T– successfully broke a big-guy board with a beautifully executed front snap kick. His buddy J–, the one we’ve been trying to convince to show some effort, broke his board too. My day was made.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

After class, I walked to the court house, feeling confident that no meeting called by a number of local clergy could possibly take place in under a half-hour. I was not disappointed. My husband was not hard to find.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

They finally give a representative of the young men the microphone. He issues a plea for law enforcement to understand that most men his age, irrespective of how they dress, are not gangsters and wish no harm to anyone.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

One of the older pastors takes the mike. He is likely a child of the 60s. He changes the chant, only slightly. He asks us to raise our hands, to bring our 5 fingers together in the unity that is a fist.

My husband and I look at each other quizzically. We are standing at a race rally, raising the “black power” sign.

We likely look ridiculous.

“Somebody say Love!” “Love!”   “Somebody say Peace!”  “Peace!”  “Somebody say Unity!”  “Unity!”

I make sure my fist is strong and tight.