“A coupla years ago, my homeboy was beat by police. I wanted to go down with him and protest with him. Honestly, my mom wasn’t on my mind…the police were just on my mind.”
Those are words that 16-year-old Michael Singleton offered to WMAR the ABC affiliate of Baltimore in the days following what amounted to violent protests after the funeral of Freddie Gray. The name Freddie Gray joins a list of those who have been shot unarmed by the police and are a person of color. That list seems to grow every few weeks. While the 24 hour cable news cycle did due diligence in trying to ascertain what caused the violent protests, epitomized by a torched CVS near a busy city intersection in the Mondawmin mall area, the bottom line still remains that people protested because Freddie Gray was killed while in police custody. Speculations about the age of those throwing rocks at police or those who participated in the destruction of cars and other businesses were held up as vile examples against the non-violent ones. I hesitate to describe them as peaceful protesters because much of the conversation last week began to question the ways in which the country has chosen to narrate the last few months in the post-Ferguson era, and rightly so. To use peaceful with protesters alludes to the notion there there is a right way and a wrong way to protest. The complex and emerging narrative from last week tells us that the ways in which oppressed people choose to voice their protest is not relegated to a right or wrong way. In other words, it shouldn’t be forced into a category of respectability.
The conversation around respectability lumbered to the fore like an ogre stepping from the shadows into the light revealing its ugly and demented glory. The face of that conversation was that of Toya Graham, a single parent who was caught on camera wearing a bright yellow top physically hitting a hooded and masked male, slightly taller than her. To anyone watching it was clear that through the expletives, this was probably a mother, an aunt or even an older sister, admonishing a younger son, nephew or brother to get out of the street away from the violence of the protest. The young man, in all the male bravado that embarrassment could muster, showed defiance through his body language behind a black face mask covering all of his facial emotions.
The quote from the opening was the first time I saw this hooded young man speak. A friend of mine who lives in Baltimore County held his camera phone up to the TV and recorded this interview on Wednesday, two days after the initial uprisings, and I saw a typical young black teen with all the angst and confusion that typifies 16 year olds across the country. As his mother, Toya, began to make interview rounds she quoted from the playbook that many black mothers have given their black sons; the country heard the pain in the pleading that she didn’t want her son to be the next Freddie Gray, unarmed and shot by police without a reason. She knows the statistics. We all do. And so does her son.
The joys of social media and the mainstream media had no problem bestowing Toya Graham with the dubious title “Mom of the Year” and by Friday, she had been the center for think-pieces across the political and social spectrum as people even brought up the subject of corporal punishment. Even suggesting that if this had been under a different context, people would have been accusing her of child abuse. As the week went by and the two found themselves on ABC’s “The View” it was clear that the court of public opinion had deemed Toya a hero in her own parental regards and Michael took on the role of a bashful teenager who loved his mom and was contrite. Any and all people were speaking up for what it meant to parent in this day in age and navel-gazing into the black community’s canon of child-rearing was opened and read from publicly yet again. And every thing was from the perspective of Toya Graham, a single black mother raising six kids with a job that she recently lost. Whether she was the darling of the cable news networks and the black female blogosphere or the point of derision by the conservatives claiming whatever it is they like to claim, almost all the focus was on the mother. But who speaks for Michael Singleton?
I shifted in my seat uncomfortably as I watched Michael give what had to have been among the first of what was soon to be a dozen interviews. The opening quote was the answer to the follow-up question “what were you thinking about?” because he said he wasn’t thinking about his mother when he was out there. The answer he offered wasn’t one rehearsed by a cheering crowd under the studio lights of a soundstage, nor was it one birthed out of having it asked more than once. His answer summed up the frustration of what it meant to encounter the police as a young black teenager, and what it meant to partner with another black male who had suffered not just the mental anguish of an apartheid-esque police state, but also had been punished physically for it.
To speak for Michael Singleton almost seems to invalidate his mother, Toya Graham. Perhaps that’s why no one has offered to be that one to do so. As I heard the story emerge, and I saw him speak for himself, I saw the confused frustration in the way he furrowed his brow in the same way I heard my mother tell the story about how my grandmother didn’t allow my mom to participate in local protests growing up in Chicago and admonished her for going to the March on Washington, even though she had an opportunity to travel there. Michael Singleton exemplified the perpetual struggle of youth across the span of time: young enough and full of energy to demand the change, but tied ever so much to adults and parents that simply want them alive. What’s always interesting to note that in the history of both the United States and South Africa, two country’s whose grinding oppression was well documented in the midst of the 20th century, the student movements situated within the larger framework struggle were concomitant fulcrums on which the tides turned. The creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee here in the United States, as well as the Soweto uprising were all focal moments of those movements–by the youth!
What I think got missed was that Michael was able to articulate relatively confidently that he saw his participation as a protest, and not a riot; he found a reason that might have even been worthy of his death. This wasn’t just something he fell into as a result of peer pressure or the lackadaisical musings of teenagedom that can spawn some pretty bad ideas and complete lapses in judgment. However the nobility of such a sentiment cannot dam the tears from a grieving mother’s face no more than the martyrdom of greats like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers prevented their widows from experiencing the deep pangs of grief. As Michael was swooped back into the relative safety of his mother’s protection, we are forced to ask now what? Without a question, the fact that protests occurred allowed the Baltimore citizens to hold up a mirror to the city and see the violent normalcy of what it means to live in certain zip codes. The violent intensity of the protest sent a message of urgency to municipal leaders demanding a quick and satisfying conclusion to the matter. But, the “Now what” question remains unanswered: what’s preventing Baltimore City police from roughing up Michael or his friend again? That is the uncomfortable question that cheering crowds, friendly blogs, and black respectability politics is unwilling and unable to answer, let alone mouth the words to even ask.
The “now what” is depressing. The city returns to normal, a violent normalcy of civilization. This country was taken by violence, and the violent are still overtaking it by force. The pornography of violence in our American society is part of the fuel ad mixture that feeds our sensibilities all the way from jingoist notions about our overseas wars and how we view veterans all the way to feeding our bloodlust in movies from the Fast and Furious series, “The Godfather” to “American Sniper.” How dare we as a country admonish a 16 year old for throwing rocks at a police officer when we look over to Palestinian kids doing the same thing as Israeli soldiers encroach on land forcing them out of their homes!
The “now what” results in a silenced young black male. While there may be other areas in which his voice is perfectly acknowledged, by last week’s end I saw a young man who had acquiesced to the whims of American respectability. What mattered more was that he show respect to his mother, and the proper way to do that was to not disobey her, even if the disobedience to do so was for a belief far nobler than what contemporary American sensibilities could even fathom. There needs to be room for both Toya and Michael to speak. They exist as two sides of the same coin wanting the same liberties, with vastly different societal positions and pressures: single black woman and young black man.
I’m troubled because there’s no resolve to the reason why Michael Singleton felt the need to grab a rock and knock down the Goliath of the Baltimore City police. Where was the justice in his homeboy who was beaten up by police? Who’s addressing the anger and rage that he had to have felt to be so moved to pick up the rock? Let’s be clear, you can pick up a rock and throw it off the bridge at cars for fun, albeit destructive and criminal, but to pick up a rock and throw it at the police symbolizes something much greater than your own personal fun. It speaks to the oppressed daring to do something against the personification of their oppressor.
My soul cringed as I watched him and his mother make the interview rounds and the piercing seriousness of Michael’s physiognomy that seemed appropriate in a city in the throes of violent protest, had given away to nervous laughter by the end of the week as interviewers asked the same questions from a yarn spun by white American cultural sensibilities. This was no laughing matter. But as those narratives and many more are created following the Baltimore uprising and the rhetorical strategy of this leaderless prolonged moment in a post-Ferguson era best known as Black Lives Matter, we need to be careful in the ways in which intraculturally we favor certain voices over that of others. While the mainstream media operates its own narrative, we need to be able to speak for those who may not always agree on every intricate nuance. While it may be chic or en vogue to give voice to someone who looks like and talks like and acts like Toya Graham, we still have to ask the question, who speaks for Michael Singleton.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL