Part II: Reflections After Fruitvale Station

Part II: Were We Profiled…If so Why?

That’s a loaded question that I’m interested in you, the reader answering.

What I can say is with no amount of uncertainty that night developed in me a wariness for the police. I am sure they have a wariness of people that look like me. Hence a line was drawn. But why? Because of my skin color? Or is there something more?

I am a big proponent for therapy, counseling and open dialogue. Yet, twenty years later, my friend and I have never discussed that night. The one where police pulled us over for a U-Turn? Pulled us from the car, searched it and never issued a ticket?

As teenagers and college students during the 80’s and 90’s, we heard the news stories about racial profiling and black on black crime. You couldn’t turn on the news and not hear a story about a homicide in the city. Young men had fat wads of cash in their pockets that they could spend on themselves and their girlfriends. Girls had the big ear rings with their names written inside. Guys wore thick gold chains, Timberland boots, fresh new jeans and sneakers. They were fly and hip. The hip hop culture was born and growing fast. All of this despite Reagananomics and a terrible recession, similar to the one we just got out of.

So were we profiled? We were dressed up! My friend may have had on a gold chain, but nothing flashy. I wasn’t wearing one. His seat wasn’t leaning into the back seat like many young men did at the time. I didn’t like mine back that far.

Now, the music may have been loud. We liked to listen to go-go tapes like many other young people. Some of you might say, we were simply profiled for being young African American men. But how does that fit into profiling, when the police officers were African American in a predominantly African American city? Why would they profile their own?

Two years ago, a conversation in the Howard University Student Association offices with students made me think about that night. It set me on a course to even understand officers thinking and their actions had to do with their lack of training.

At the time, my company, The Madyun Group (TMG) was sponsoring and planning a Party Politics forum with HUSA. The discussion that day deviated and we began discussing eras in African American history. We talked about the 60’s and integration. An African American male student said something I found profound and true, “Atiba, we were making a lot of progress until the crack epidemic.” The room went silent as he illustrated and explained his point.

I left, my thoughts racing. This profound statement helped me reconcile some of the pain from that night twenty years ago. Events from my youth from that era began to make sense and I did my own research. After watching Fruitvale Station this weekend, I did even more.

Fruitvale Station moved me to finally write this essay, I want you to read. The essay has been brewing in my head for a long time. The movie pushed me to write it. When Trayvon Martin was killed and George Zimmerman was acquitted I wrote on my FB wall that the conversation needed to be had, transcends race. After the movie, I believe it even more.

After the Zimmerman trial ended. Civil rights leaders and so called scholars paraded on television to fan the flames of hate and race. They pointed fingers at everyone but themselves.

My posted comments touched some people. They responded with emails, texts and post responses. Some were so kind from friends here and abroad. They shared stories of their friends experiences as African Americans. They didn’t want to post on my page because they aren’t African American. Not because they didn’t feel outrage at the verdict.

And I got responses from African American mothers. I found some of their comments as insensitive because I didn’t agree with civil rights leaders. They said I didn’t understand because I am not a parent of an African American male. They neglected this. I am an African American man and they can never understand, what it is like to be one.

What they and so called leaders neglect to do is, accept their role in why our young men are unfairly targeted. Where is their outcry this year for more than 200 dead in Chicago? Or for young men killed by police officers in Oklahoma and Florida? Where are they, when nineteen young children are killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school? Or when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others are shot in Arizona? When innocent people are killed in a movie theater? Or when gun control legislation is voted down?

So, I write to tell the part of the story we neglect to remember. The one that leads back to policy and transcends race at the same time acknowledging the obvious.

The young man at Howard University helped me remember and acknowledge that I too am to blame. This essay is broken into parts. They are not just thoughts. They are thoughts supported by articles and links. I give them to you, to draw your conclusions. But to make this a whole discussion.

This is a way to address the apathy, complacency and acceptance for mediocrity that we allowed that slowed progress. It is an alternative to pointing the finger at others. An opportunity to right the past, by remembering it. Race and profiling occur far to often, but why? Too often we ignore public policy because we don’t understand it. We ignore politics because it sickens us. And we forget that money is always a part of the problem because we like it so much.

If we want to protect our next generation, we cannot keep focusing on an issue. We have to look back to see where the problem began.

Part III: The 80’s and 90’s The Crack in the Armor!

Part I: Reflections After Fruitvale Station

Part I: The Tension In That Moment

I saw Fruitvale Station and left thinking about the night a friend and I were pulled over by DC police officers on our way to a cabaret in northeast Washington.    

“Step out of the vehicle.” An officer said blue lights spinning on his patrol spun behind us. 

My friend, with a flashlight shining in his face, asked, “What did we do officer?”

“Get out of the car.” He yelled this time.

Out of the car, an officer pushed me toward the sidewalk.  A few cars slowed to see what was going on.  Two or three more patrol cars arrived on the scene as we were told to face away from the car.

Fear, frustration and anger boiled because we weren’t told why we were pulled over and we didn’t know what the officer’s intentions were.  Were they looking for something, someone or trying to set us up?

My friend asked again, “what did we do officer?”

He and I looked over our shoulders and saw the officers shining their flashlights through the car.  My friend yelled at them.  I don’t remember what he said but I remember trying to keep him calm and quiet.

“Watching Fruitvale and Michael P. Jordan’s ripping, raw portrayal of Oscar during the last hours of his life, I felt a brief connection. Jordan’s portrayal was real. I felt the tension in that moment. The diverse audience in the packed downtown DC theater did too as I felt and heard their disbelief during that subway scene.  

Did Jordan pull from his own personal experience?  I know that other African American men who have or will watch that scene and will say they could.

As I watched, I covered my eyes for a second, sighed heavily, prayed and sank into my seat as the scene progressed.  And I jumped when I heard the shot. 

My mind raced back to that night in northeast Washington.  Thinking, wow that could have been one of us.  

My frustration and anger from twenty years ago stirred again.  If but for a moment, I felt what Oscar felt that night.  I hope others did too. 

He was at a crossroad, a father who’d made mistakes but was trying to do the right thing.  I felt his mother’s pain for suggesting that he take the subway.  I thought of my mother.  How many times when I went out in high school or was home from college did she say before I went out, “be careful.”  

That night Oscar was just trying to get home to his daughter.  What is more frustrating is the officer, sworn to serve and protect the peace disturbed it and changed the lives including his own when he pulled that trigger.

Sadly, that isn’t where the injustice begins…..

Part II: Were We Profiled…If So Why?

The link below is video footage of the night Oscar Grant III was shot at Frutivale Station

Part II: One Nation Under God — Happy 237th Birthday America

Part II: Sweet Apple Pie — Happy 237th Birthday America

I am, as Maya Angelou said, “the hope and the dream of the slave.” That slave who worked the fields dreaming of freedom, of owning a business, a home and farm their own land. My great-great-great grandparents on both sides of my family shared that dream. On both, my mother and father’s side, their great-great-grandparents and great-grandparents and grandparents and parents owned hundreds of acres of land in North Carolina and Virginia. Some of that land remains in our family. The grandparents of my aunt Elberta Armstrong, who died earlier this year, two days after her 104th birthday, were former slaves who bought hundreds of acres of land in North Carolina. This is part of the American story.

I am an American and the descendant of slaves. One of them was the first African-American invited as a guest into the White House. His name was Frederick Douglass. I am also a descendant of a man who led the South’s Confederate troops during the Civil War. His name was General Robert E. Lee. I am a part of the American story.

This is why America, I embrace you as an American and not a minority. I identify with that part of me that connects to the majority. When you look on me, you are reminded that I am a descendant of slaves. I look at you with forgiveness because I am as much entitled to sweet apple pie as anyone. My ancestors built this country even when others tried to tear it apart. You see my ancestors built buildings here that are symbols of freedom that dignitaries and ordinary citizens come from near and far to visit.

The more I embrace the whole, the more I smell sweet apple pie. The more I smell, the more I want for our nation to be better, and the bigger my heart becomes. The better I see you for the sum of your parts. The wider the path becomes, and the brighter the light on the path guiding me to sweet apple pie.

You see instead of relying on the government, my role is to help the government make a level playing field for everyone and that includes working so we can make bake a bigger, sweeter apple pie for the growing needs of a growing nation. Happiness in the words “pursuit of happiness” is the pursuit of that sweet apple pie. And the framers were wise to put language there saying “the pursuit of happiness” not entitled to happiness…” Too many today stay at home waiting for their entitlement, while others work hard and still find the pie too hard to get.

Recently, I visited the Lincoln Memorial with a very open heart. I was moved more than ever by President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and better recognized this one thing, the price for freedom has never come without a cost.

I could see Lincoln on the battlefield, as I read his words, days after thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers died.

“It is for us the living, rather, to dedicate here, to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

That struggle goes on every day here and around the world on battlefields near and far. We are blessed today to witness forms of peaceful demonstration like the one in Egypt where the people came together to overthrow not one president but now two. We are blessed in our lifetime to witness someone like Nelson Mandela keep a nation together and lead it to reconciliation in a way Lincoln was unable to avoid. And I believe in some way, Mandela and Lincoln are intangibly responsible for America electing President Barack Obama as our first African-American president.

So today on the Fourth of July, as you eat your sweet apple pie at your barbeques and family gatherings, envision having your share of the pie every day. Let’s today celebrate our nation’s birthday, remembering Mandela’s words after being released from prison:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Let’s let the bitterness that divides us go and become the United States of America. Whether it is race, gender, religion, cultural or political differences that divide, let’s move toward a collective spirit where we choose unity over division, love over hate, nation over race and humanity over all other things.

Let us be “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for All.”

Part I: Sweet Apple Pie — Happy 237th Birthday America

Part I: Sweet Apple Pie – Happy 237th Birthday America                       

I remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. My favorite line is, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

America, on your birthday, I remember that over two centuries ago, brave men gathered to write the Declaration of Independence. I am grateful for that document because it inspired our United States Constitution. A document used in many facets of life to right many wrongs, and some will say, to uphold some. Each time our Supreme Court releases its decision in a landmark case, I am reminded of how fragile and yet powerful a document it is.

I appreciate that document more when I see mass demonstrations for freedom, like the one in Egypt that ousted its president. As President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

So each year on your birthday, I look back on our history. And while we have come from a humble beginning, I know we have a ways to go, before we achieve our founders’ goal of being the United States of America.

But America, I can’t blame you.  I blame our citizens for holding us back. Too often, we point blame at everything and everyone, but ourselves. Yet it is us the citizen, that send representatives to elected office. The divisions over race, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, fair pay, education and health care funding are easy to repair, if we let go of our bitterness and division and sit at the table to enjoy some sweet apple pie.

Division seems to go away, when we are attacked, or a natural disaster hits our states. They go away every four years, when we cheer on our athletes of different races and religions representing America at the Olympics. But they appear so quickly when elected officials and the media use talking points to divide.  Unfortunately, it is too easy to divert our attention from the idea of getting to the table, to have some of your sweet apple pie.

Instead, we focus on what we cannot do, not what we can do. We pay too much attention on what the rich or the poor are getting. Like a child saying his piece is bigger than mine! He got more than me. We focus on what community got the bigger share of the pie. Trivial issues get our attention like George Zimmerman, the N-word, Housewives or the Kardashians. In these moments, we forget about our own problems.

We spend more time watching the television, making others wealthy, sending them our share of the pie. Too much time talking about who got what, or what someone else did with their share, instead of pursuing our own happiness, instead of getting our share of sweet apple pie. Before we realize it, someone else has taken our place at the table and eating sweet apple pie.

As a business owner, I have ups and downs. Every day is a grind, a race to get my piece of the pie. To get it, I have to run faster, get up earlier, last longer than others trying to get their piece. That’s what America is about. It is the American story.

That pie is why so many come from other countries.  From their shores they smell that sweet pie, they see it on TV and they want their share.  Can you blame them? They see us fighting one another and they see a path for themselves if they can just get here to get their share of the pie. So rather than fighting, we should all be working hard for our share.  Instead of sitting at home complaining about politicians, talking about the Kardashians or the Housewives, or pointing fingers at who and what, instead of sitting at home waiting for the government to give whatever crumbs might be left, we should strive to get our share of sweet apple pie. 

Next Part II: One Nation Under God – Happy 237th Birthday America