Two years ago, after a sweet birthday dinner, I couldn’t return to my apartment because policemen blocked the street I lived on. I could see flashing lights in front of my building and a body in the street. I waited for hours, with many of my neighbors, before police lead us back to our apartments. When I got to my door the body was gone but the street was still wet with his blood.
The following day I found out that the victim was our neighbor Amilcar Perez-Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant. He’d been killed by two cops who said he attacked them with a knife, even though autopsies showed he’d been shot in the back while running away. He was unarmed and didn’t speak English; they didn’t speak Spanish and weren’t wearing uniforms. We created an altar for him on the street and attended an infuriating and insulting Town Hall meeting about his murder a few days later. I was eventually questioned about what I saw and heard and now, two years later, the investigation into his death is still pending.
Over and over through the course of my life, I’ve see how the most victimized of our citizens are often turned into the attacker and the institutions that oppress them become the victim. I don’t always know what to do in these circumstances, but I’m grateful to still be alive and to add my voice to the on-going calls for justice.
The AIDS epidemic was much worse than anything Trump will do, the Vietnam War was the most terrible experience I ever lived through, Nixon did more harm than Reagan, Trump will be more disastrous then either of them, the prison industrial complex is damaging our society more than current immigration laws, climate change and global warming are the most important issues of our time. My grandmother was born in 1900, my dad in 1915, my mom in 1925. I can remember grandma describing the horrors of the Great Depression and my father raising his voice: “World War II was much much worse than the Depression!” Grandma yelled back at him, saying he’d never known hunger the way she did and he’d slam his hand down on the table and say she was ignorant to say such things. My mom would take my sister and I into the bedroom and close the door. We’d ask her what she thought was worse and she said it was the two big bombs that our country dropped on the Japanese people.
My grandfather loved taking us for long rides through the countryside on Sunday afternoons. We didn’t want to go, it was boring, nothing to see but cows, but our mother said it made him happy. My brother and I would get in the front seat as my sisters reluctantly crawled into the back. I remember one of those beautiful afternoons, grandpa driving slowly down a country road, impossibly white clouds floating above, cows raising their heads in the warm air, when our youngest sister started crying. Grandpa looked into the rearview mirror, but kept driving as her cries turned into deep mournful sobs. No one knew what to say or do as the car moved through that perfect landscape. When her crying slowed I turned and looked at her. “What is it?” I asked. “Oh,” she said, wiping her face with her hands and looking at all of us. “Just everything.”
Six years ago the massive earthquake and resulting tsunamis occurred in Japan. Thousands were lost, coastal communities destroyed. There were so many cell phones, helicopter videos and security cameras in operation that day you can watch the entire calamity unfold. The monstrous waves appear on the horizon and then quickly flood into the streets, destroying everything in their path. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, anxious about what’s happening in our country today, I get up and watch those videos again. If you look closely, you can see people running to get each other up hillsides, lead each other to stairways, pull each other from stalled cars, help each other out of harm’s way. And the moment the waves recede, citizens rush into the streets, looking to do more for each other. It helps me to remember that though the tsunami was a terrible event, the story that’s most important is about people helping each other through Terrible Times.
As the assault on our democracy (and all the resistance to that assault) continues, it's important to note those who are leaving the good fight. One of those today is Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize-winning writer. This poem of his has gotten myself and many others through some very tough times. Take a moment to read when you can.
LOVE AFTER LOVE
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
- Derek Walcott
All photos from the internet except the top one, of my poor neighbor, which was taken by another neighbor