Lessons in Race From a 14-Year-Old: Part One
Trayvon Martin is dead, and George Zimmerman is free. No matter how many times I see that phrase, I’ll never be able to take comfort in in its implications. But, as a lifelong resident of the American South, I can’t say I’m not in the least bit surprised. In the story that follows, it will become abundantly clear why
In the summer of 1988 I was managing a movie theater in a small town about 30 miles outside the city of Atlanta. The theater — the sole movie house within a 20-mile radius — was situated in the center of a lengthy strip mall shopping center, a place that, on the weekends, served a the central social hub for the towns teenagers and twenty-somethings. Weekend nights saw a steady stream of youth walking or cruising the parking lot for hours on end, showing off their cars and clothing, shouting greetings to friends, enemies, or wannabe acquaintances, and, scoring the occasional romantic hookup.
One weekend in particular, the theater was running a double-bill of “Coming to America” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and, due to the popularity of both films, we were doing a pretty respectable business. Both of the 7:00 o’clock shows were quickly sold out, and a large number of people who had pre-bought tickets for the later show spent their free time walking the sidewalks of the strip, joining in with the hormonal hordes in typical Friday night fun. Thanks to the drawing power of both movies, the usual Friday night crowd was a little more multi-cultural than usual, and this, apparently, did not sit well with a certain segment of the cruising population.
Once the movie began, and the lobby and concessions had been restored to something resembling a functional order, I decided to take a short cigarette break and made my way onto the sidewalk out front. There were quite a few people standing around — a decent demographic snapshot of the entirety of small town life — and even more passing by in a seemingly never-ending stream of cars and trucks filled with the faces of those wishing to be seen out on the town. An off-duty (but still uniformed) police captain, who moonlighted as security for the center on weekends, motioned me over with a wave and we both lit up and were chatting about the events of the week. Standing a few feet away was a group of four young black males, ranging in age from sixteen to eighteen, who were also talking and laughing amongst themselves.
Suddenly, an empty beer can sailed into the crowd, striking one of the black men in the shoulder, and a young voice shouted, “Go home, nigger!” Everybody, and I mean everybody, turned towards the sound of that voice, and suddenly the night got very, very quiet.
The captain and I spotted the source of the attack immediately. It was a small white kid, riding in the back of a battered Ford pickup with a group of about six other kids similar in age and appearance. The captain stepped into the lane and brought the truck to a stop, gesturing for everybody to get out of the back and line up against the theater’s exterior wall. As he was doing this, I made my way over to the group of black men and asked the man struck by the can if he’d been hurt. While there were no injuries, there was quite a bit of understandable anger, and I offered to bring the men into the theater lobby for a chance to calm down and get some free refreshments while the captain and I dealt with the attackers outside. After lining the boys up in a neat little row, we started asking for the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of what were soon to be highly irritated pairs of parents.
While all of the boys were raising as much hell as possible in protest of their being corralled for punishment, one boy in particular proved to be more difficult to handle than the others. As the captain worked the far end of the line, this boy, whom we’ll call “B”, tried to bolt. I caught him by the arm as he tried to get by, and flung him rather firmly back against the wall and advised that he remain still.
“Let me go!” he shouted.
“Unh-uh,” I responded. “You’re sitting here ’til we get your mom and dad to come get you.”
“You do that, you nigger-loving piece of shit! My daddy’s gonna beat your ass!”
I leaned a little harder into his chest. “What did you just say to me?”
“I said fuck you! I’ll call my daddy and he’ll come beat your nigger-loving ass, you motherfucker.”
The captain turned an irritated eye and reminded “B” that his daddy could either come pick him up here, tonight, or tomorrow morning at the police station, and that he’d be wise to shut his mouth before he said anything stupid enough to make the decision for everyone else in the line as well.
This had the desired effect of immediately turning his companions against him, and they began pleading with “B” to shut up before he got the rest of them in trouble as well. “B” calmed down a little bit, but continued mumbling a stream of racist commentary under his breath. When the captain had finished taking the names of all the other boys, he turned to “B” to ask what brought about the attack.
“You want to tell me what’s going on here?” he asked, “Why’d you go after those guys like that?”
“They ain’t got no business being here,” said “B”, jerking his chin in the direction of the black men.
“Well, I hate to break it to you, ‘B’, but seeing as how they paid for tickets, they do, in fact, have all kinds of business being here.”
“They should just go home,” he insisted, “Don’t nobody want ‘em here. They don’t like us, and we don’t like them.”
“What’s this ‘we’ shit? You’re the only one that seems to have a problem. I like ‘em fine. What I don’t like is some redneck dumbass trying to start a fucking riot in front of my business. You mess with my customers, you mess with me. You understand?”
He muttered something under his breath that I couldn’t quite catch. “What’d you say?” I asked.
“They hate us ’cause we used to own ‘em,” he said.
To be continued…