I was talking to my younger brother this morning, the one who’d done two tours in Afghanistan as a marine and had two daughters. We were talking about the protest and the riots that followed in the name of George Floyd.
“Looting is not the solution,” he told me.
I agreed with him but added, “It’s not a solution, it’s a reaction whenever people are oppressed and feel they have nothing to lose because the system doesn’t care about them or their lives. It’s something humans have done since the beginning of society. Because WE are society. It doesn’t just pop up from nowhere, brother.”
“Oppressed?” he asked incredulously.
It hurt me to have to explain these realities, the plight of the minority in America, the black race, to my brother, who was my blood, who had brown skin just like me. Even as it was in the news every day, on every platform of social media. Nothing about this was new. But, and here’s the shocker, there are so many people in this country who are living a completely different life than I am. Than you are. And they’ve come to their own conclusions on how things work. I’d grown up in a military family, and they believed very much in order. They believed in hard work. They didn’t believe in excuses. They all could use therapists but they felt like that meant you were gonna kill yourself or you had a drug problem. They didn’t go to a masseuse if their back hurt. They just toughed it out. Pain was a part of life. Better to get used to it. They also believed in very specific acts of violence and war. It’s funny to think about. My family has always been attracted to positions of authority. Military, police, positions of leadership. And yet in some shape or form, we always bucked against the system too. We justified certain ways we’d break the law, we enjoyed sticking it to the man in our own personal ways, and we all loved to fight. Even just on a recreational level. We liked to participate in it, we liked to talk about it, we liked to watch it, we liked to study it. We were students of it. Wrapped up in it at the same time was some kind of honor code that seemed to give us some moral high ground. It’s like we’d been plucked from some feudal time. Because on a political level, my family liked to maintain they were model citizens of the country, with a respect of the flag and the things they believed it stood for. I wasn’t like that. We disagreed often, and sometimes it even got ugly. But as I got older, I realized I wasn’t as far away from them as I thought. Still, what my brother said next really bummed me out.
“What’s happening is dead wrong. Idiots are using this as an excuse to show their true colors. Lazy f__ks who want nothing but handouts, who feel like they’re owed something. The death of the guy is tragic, and it was murder. Protest peacefully. Looting and rioting solves nothing.”
He started to get into that, and ended with a statement I couldn’t make heads or tails of.
“Racism is wrong, but you get out of life what you make it.”
I didn’t understand that and deep down I knew it was something I should’ve gotten angry about. But I knew I had a long day ahead of me and I didn’t want to fight with my brother. I was trying to guide us into a stage in life where every conversation didn’t have to be a fight. I found a way out of the conversation, told him I had to go, and that I loved him, got off my phone and into the shower.
One of the many protests for George Floyd began at noon in Los Angeles, Saturday the 30th of May 2020. We were basically in Hollywood, an odd scene for the protest to take place I remembered thinking. I parked a good distance away, about a twenty-minute walk, from where it would be held to avoid my car getting caught in any kind of mess. This wasn’t my first rodeo. It was very warm that day, the early summer of the coronavirus, and there were leagues of masked people walking towards our destination. I could already see two helicopters, circling ominously in the air, watching the event begin like metal vultures.
The protest started how they normally do. A diverse array of people standing around, signs at half mast, everyone a bit uncertain, occasionally looking around trying to figure out what we all had in common beyond the movement. A speaker emerged, a 17 year old brown gay boy, orating with passion but clearly having trouble trying to remember the sequence of issues he wanted to address everyone with. And after a half an hour, we began to march with weak conviction. Then we’d stop somewhere else and someone new would talk on the megaphone. Resume marching. Somewhere in there, we began to chant, and the chants became more confident as we went. Marching in the street, in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, our signs rising higher and higher, our voices finding power in unison and rhythm, the feeling we were all after was finally spreading among us, slowly lifting us, and I could feel the goosebumps prickle my skin. Here it was. I could hear a woman chanting next to me, her voice breaking from the surge of emotion. We swarmed the massive streets. People stuck in their cars, caught in the sudden wave of bodies, had no choice but to behold us, and etched on most of their faces was an unmistakable admiration and awe. Perhaps they understood that what they were witnessing was the purity of humanity when it finally comes together. And for the ones who looked at us with anything else, f__k right the f__k off.
We were crossing an intersection and on the sides stood police, apprehensive, hands on their hips, just in front of their squad cars. They were masked too. One of them, tall and black, watched us, his expression beneath the mask unknowable. But as a couple passed him with their sign, he gave them a thumbs up. I thought that was nice. Unfortunately, it was just too late for that. You might think that’s not true. You’d be a damn fool.
We marched down Beverly and after a while we began to loop back. The Grove was the hub apparently. It was going on three in the afternoon. That’s when the shit hit the fan. Three hours. That’s all it took.
It’s crazy when you see a crowd of hundreds of people move like those birds in the air or a school of fish, like how they react when they want to move away from something. Move away from a predator.
It looks beautiful if you are far away. But if you are within the proximity, it is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever witnessed on this Earth. I want you to know, I am one of those people that when I see people running towards me, I instinctively start running too. No questions asked. And that’s what happened, before I could see the smoke rising into the bright diamond afternoon sky. I ran into an alley with dozens of people and though I’ve never done it myself, I felt like I was running in that event where the bulls chase after you and you’re just trying not to fall down amongst the hordes of other idiots who put themselves in this situation. I swung behind a dumpster and crouched and let the mob rush by. After they had, I crept back to the edge of the alley to see what the origin of the stampede was.
They’d lit a car on fire. A cop car.
The fire was whipping into the air like a red and black genie trying to stretch out of a lamp. This was a real fire. Not a throw your towel on it fire. My practical mind added the close proximity of the gas station on the corner. I tried to imagine if the explosion would be the loudest thing I’d ever heard in my life. The fire licked into the air and smoke bellowed up, up, up, and lunatics ran up recklessly for the chance to hold their sign high above their head and get a picture snapped, so they could tell their friends or their family or anyone who might lend their eyes and ears that here I one day stood, fighting for the liberation of black people. It was a political Gap ad. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
I looked at my side and saw an older black lady standing there, staring at the flame, shaking her head. “It’s too soon,” she said in a vaguely haunting tone. “Way too soon.”
I left her there and took some pictures on my phone at a good distance, walking backwards down the block, staying in good view of the scene. I kept wondering where the cops or the rubber bullets or the firetruck or the explosion was. That’s just how my mind worked. I was always thinking, “What’s next?”
The firetruck came first. The crowd swarmed in and as the fire was extinguished, the smoke blossomed into movie size and hundreds of people were swallowed within that all-consuming greyness, like a warlock cast a spell. And then the protestors emerged, running out again, just like before, except seemingly more, and once again, I began to run. I was running fast as hell. Hahaha. I wish I could’ve seen my face.
I stopped and looked back and everyone else slowed up as well. We all stood there, waiting to see what was next, and my eyes met an older surfer type dude and we both started laughing.
I heard a loud bang once, and when I found where the sound came from, there was a second bang followed by a spray of glass peppering the cement. I saw a young man wearing a white shirt begin to run. No one was with him. I looked at the shattered storefront. An empty f__king flower shop.
Why the hell did he do that? I thought to myself, confused and immediately angry.
I was so angry, I did something that I’m still trying to figure out what my endgame was. I chased him. I chased him with my phone out. Who the f__k was I?? The older surfer guy chased him along with me. Whatever our motive was, we shared it. Everyone looked at us like they didn’t know heads or tails of what was happening. If everyone is running, everyone runs. If it’s just a couple, those are different rules. We chased him until we caught him a block up, taking off a white shirt that read Black Lives Matter with Sharpie ink. And, of course, it was that easy for him. It immediately disgusted me. How easy it was for so many people, anybody not black, to show up to this thing that meant so much to so many, and whenever they wanted, whenever they chose, they could shed that skin like the f__king snake they were and re-integrate right back into the norm of society. Nothing to see here. I was never a threat. I was never black.
Underneath he wore a black hoodie. He was a kid, couldn’t have been more than in his early twenties. He could barely grow facial hair. He turned around and saw me. I took a picture of him. He turned back around and kept moving up the block.
I kept following him. I yelled, “Why did you do that?”
I keep wondering why I did that. Why did I chase him and why did I ask? Why did I care? What would I even do about it? I didn’t wonder this at the time but I wondered it later and I’m wondering now.
He crossed the street and when he got there he joined a big group of people and I didn’t know if they knew him or not so I stalled a bit out of caution and he turned around and pointed at me and he said, “He’s a cop! Undercover cop!”
Real sh_t, I was shook. Everyone, and I mean everyone, turned and look at me. All these eyes with masks right under them. Black, brown, white, yellow. Undercover cop, I thought. My life is in danger, I thought. I was stunned. Why did it hit me so bad? Because, in fact, I wasn’t a cop? Because of the idea of people thinking I was an undercover cop, at an anti-cop protest? Just that I could be linked to the identity of a cop, that alone was horrifying. I couldn’t be called that. It was wrong on every fabric of who I was. So why was I chasing this kid?
I was reacting all out of instinct and I continued to do so. I pointed my finger back at him. I didn’t address the crowd. I barely acknowledged them. I wasn’t here for them. I reclaimed my righteousness and held on tight, knuckles white. They couldn’t see the fear in my eyes. I was wearing sunglasses.
“Why did you break that window? What the f__k did you break that window for? That’s not what we’re here for, man. You’re not one of us. You’re not here for this cause. None of us are here for that. That’s not what this is about. What the f__k are you here for?” I yelled. I was scared, but I’d been scared many many times in my life. I had an unmistakable affirmation in my voice. My voice did not waver, my body did not tremble. Even behind my mask and a pair of sunglasses, there was no doubt in my accusation.
So maybe that’s what saved me and the surfer dude. The crowd assessed both parties and began to scrutinize the young man who had lost his mask, observing his ferret eyes fishing back and forth, his conviction waning rapidly. He started to flee once more, only slightly subdued.
I didn’t let up. I kept walking after him. He looked over his shoulder, leering at me. The look stays with me as I write this. I’ve seen it before, a few times. Not a lot of times but enough for me to recognize it. I’m going to tell you what it is and I don’t really give a damn what your spin on it is, if you think it’s all in my head, if you think I’m judging falsely or I was emotional. It was the look of a person who enjoys chaos. It was the look of a person who can readily exclude themselves from empathy, from the suffering of others. It was the look of an opportunist, a person who only exists for themselves. Slightly or very or accessibly sadistic, selfish, and wholly malicious when focused. These kinds of people have always and will forever be my mortal enemies. I’m talking to you like this is a comic book. But I talk like this in real life, and if you know me, you already know that, and you know there’s no bullsh_t in me. Because you can see that in my eyes. You can see it in my heart.
He said this thing to me as we cut through the crowds of hundreds, as he continued to flee the scene: “The f__k you chasing me for, man? I’m fighting for YOUR rights.”
That family gene spiked in me so hard and I wasn’t a stranger to its arrival. I wanted to grab him by the throat. I wanted to feel his last breath rasp out his mouth. I felt such an incredible wave of fury, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stopped because I knew I couldn’t do anything. What was I gonna do? Fight a young man here in the middle of the street, in the middle of a protest that was against violence? I would’ve killed him. I know I would’ve. I wouldn’t have stopped until I did. So I stopped all together, and watched him disappear forever.
The old surfer dude was still next to me, silent, also watching the young man fade away. He had sunglasses on and his white hair stood up on his head and he had a skateboard under his arm. He was my best friend in that moment. Lorenza or Huff or Jack. Goddamn, I miss you, Jack.
“What do we do?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he told me honestly.
“I got pictures.”
“But we can’t go to the cops at an anti-cop rally.”
“No. We can’t.”
“So it’s all for sh_t. And this whole deal is about to get real ugly.”
We stood there, watching the crowd flow, and way way back, the mountains of Hollywood, and behind us, the rage of the LAPD beginning to swell like a plague of hungry locusts. I looked around in despair. There were so many good people here. None of that mattered anymore.
“Be safe,” I told him.
I begin to bob and weave my way through the neighborhoods. I’d had enough. I wanted to get out of there. I already knew what was next. I’d heard the song enough times. I was thinking to myself, why did I chase that boy? Why, when I was on the internet earlier telling people riots were necessary for change? When we should care more about people’s lives than material things that could be replaced? I was so confused and disheartened and sick and mad. The violence charging through my veins was taking forever to dissipate. Everyone else just watched and shrugged. Why should I care? This was the consequence after all, right? But it wasn’t all right. None of it was all right.
I was getting closer to my car. The crowds were beginning to thin. A young father was on the sidewalk with his blond haired kid. Maybe like second or third grade. He was trying to explain why we were all here. Why some kids were always gonna be different from him. He spoke very patiently and considerately. It should’ve been a hopeful scene to witness. But I didn’t give a goddamn.
I got to my car and I drove out of there. I listened to reports all night. It was the first night curfews began to be instated. Tear gas, rubber bullets, tanks. Thousand dollar tickets if you were caught. The destruction continued in other parts of town. The destruction that night was unbelievable. Whoever had planned the protest to be in that part of town had done it on purpose. The highest end of shops were pillaged ruthlessly. Imagine running rampant in a Dolce and Gabbana store, the Flight Club store, thousand dollar pair of sneakers, the pharmacies, you name it. The vagrants were merciless and thorough and so were the cops. We’d finally given them what they’d been waiting all day for, and once they began, the true terror surfaced, but at this point, who did it surprise? From the videos it looked like they really loved their jobs. It looked fun for them. It looked like the brutal punishment they dished out gave them sincere joy. It was what they’d been training their whole life for. Standing in elementary school, telling teacher, “I want to be a cop one day. I want to punish the bad guys. Just remember to point them out to me.” I watched what my friends were reporting, how the violence descended upon them, how they became trapped in the streets the police had walled off, how there was no mercy. True chaos.
No more basking in the sun. The camera on your phone doesn’t work as well in the dark. Now the horror show really began. I stopped listening to the news and got off social media. I laid in the dark, serenaded by the soundtrack of sirens and helicopters.
I texted my little brother and said, “I want you to know I think you’re right in a lot of ways about what you said this morning. There are a lot of pieces of sh_t in this world.”
He called me. We talked a long time. He seemed surprised by how honest I was with him, how confused I was, how shook up I was. It seemed to make him more tender. He spoke softly to me. I realized how scared I was and how mad I was and how much I didn’t know. How much of all this was unknown to all of us. How ugly both sides could get, how dangerous power was, and how inevitable the outcome would always be. What was the future? For any of us with this color skin? I don’t think I’d ever had a conversation like that with him in our adult lives. My little brother. A man who’d seen things I never ever would in my life, nor did I have any desire to. He seemed to want to connect with me, in earnest.
“I think you should write this down. All the things you are feeling,” he told me.
“Yeah, I think I will.”
We finally got off the phone and I started listening to the helicopters again. A funny lullaby. Funny, how you are walking in the streets and you hear the wings beating and it adds this deadly electric anxiety to the soundtrack of your life. All the possibilities of what could go wrong bloom in your mind and you try to figure out which one you are the most ready for.
My phone blinked in the dark. There was an address. I got up and put my clothes back on.
(All photos by me. All words by me. This sh_t isn’t a joke.)