on bullets: rubber and real

 I’m worried about my friends.

It’s just a couple hours past midnight and I am back home getting a few hours of much needed sleep. The simple pleasures of a heated home, hot shower and bed leave me with a new sense of gratitude, but I still sleep restlessly, tossing and moaning aloud.

When we left the precinct a little after midnight, all had seemed calm. Compared to previous nights that had been dominated by angry protesting, a large circle of people sang spirituals for much of the evening. With the warm food, drinks and bonfires, it felt more like a block party than a protest. But a sizeable lump of terror had lodged itself somewhere deep inside and I couldn’t shake off the fear that something might happen while I was gone.

After extracting myself from my mess of blankets, I check my phone and promptly feel my stomach knot as I see a voicemail from my friend Josie. “We need bodies down here. The police are going to try and clear us out with bulldozers and fire trucks.” Peter and I hurriedly grab our long underwear, wool socks and sweaters and, when we get downstairs, we find that a couple of our other housemates are already ready to go. Their presence gives me a surge of joy. It’s 5:30am and pitch dark out. I can say for certain that I have never before seen any of them awake before eight on a Saturday morning.

When we get to the precinct everything seems remarkably peaceful. From talking to some people we learn that, in the middle of the night, riot cops had set up a new barricade wall. Josie and fellow protestors had linked arms and stood their ground, but the interaction had not been pleasant and more rubber bullets had been shot. I shiver, imagining it only too clearly.

Standing in peace, standing as one.

Just the day before, I had been, making a big pot of chai tea over the fire when I heard the deeply terrifying sound of gunshots. Looking up, I saw three cops, standing on a cherry picker behind the police station’s barricade wall just a few feet away, long pellet guns that looked awfully like the guns snipers carried pointed directly at me.

As rubber bullets started to hit bodies around me, my first instinct was to get far away as fast as I could. But I remembered being told not to run and I tentatively joined the crowd of folks who were marching bravely toward the police with their arms raised above their head.

“Hands up, don’t shoot,” we called, in reference to Michael’s Brown.

“Stand in peace, stand as one.”

As we continued to say the second chant, I felt the crowd grow calm and I started to feel more secure. How could a cop possibly shoot into an unarmed crowd calling for peace? Finally, the sniper-looking cops retreated but then, half-an-hour later, they were back. One of them kept raising his head up and down behind the wall. Some of my fellow protesters laughed as it was something akin to a video game. But I didn’t find it all that funny.

If they hit once, you’ll hit back.

Later, I found out that the cops had shot the rubber bullets in response to some graffiti artists who were tagging their precinct wall. At first I was annoyed with the graffiti artists for putting us in jeopardy but, the more I thought about it, the more I was upset with the cops.

A friend Henry explained it as a they hit, you hit situation. He thought that the graffiti artists would have never tagged the precinct wall if cops had not maced and pepper sprayed protestors the night before. And the cops would never have hit us with rubber bullets if they didn’t feel that their property was being violated.

And yet it was rather incredible to me that the response to graffiti was something akin to warfare. Cops must deal with graffiti all the time. A fellow protester said that she once had several gangs going back and forth tagging her garage, and even after repeated calls, the cops didn’t come to look at it for a week. And yet, here, someone writes “Justice4Jamar” on a wall and the immediate response and the pull out their guns. For some reason, rubber bullets scared me much more than mace or pepper spray. It was some deep fear of getting shot.

It’s funny how quickly things change.

Seemingly overnight, I had developed this new sick feeling whenever I saw a cop, a feeling I felt even when far away from North Minneapolis. And then, all of a sudden, rubber bullets were the least of my concerns. Real bullets were.

It was another night of restless sleep. A 6am phone call from a friend Bonnie. A teary voice: “Five people were shot last night by white supremacists.”

Again, we dressed quickly, our words harsher than they normally would be. I wondered if going over there was stupid. But how could we not?

Again, the atmosphere at the precinct was not how I imagined it. I imagined that there would be dozens of cops surrounding the area, a crime scene taped off, perhaps even some spots where the street was stained with blood. But, when we got there, there was not a cop in sight, no crime scene, no blood. Things felt largely calm, though some protestors expressed considerable anger. They told us that, when the shooting had occurred the night before, the cops at the precinct had waited several minutes before responding and some of them even maced protesters. There were even suspicions among people at the precinct that the white supremacists were somehow linked to the police department.

As I busied myself making hot chocolate and serving breakfast, I was surprised to find myself in a fairly good mood. I had wondered if people we be scared to come to the precinct, but soon found that the opposite was true. As the morning wore on, more and more people kept coming by with food, blankets, hats and hand warmers. By 2pm, over a thousand people had gathered to march to the capital. I stood on a ledge to get a better view of the crowd shouting “Black.Lives.Matter,” with renewed vigor. If nothing else, the night before had shown a harsh light on a very real reality: racism in even the most extreme forms was alive and well in this country.

And suddenly the whole world is (briefly) watching.

To my sadness and frustration, the night of the sniper cops and the night of the barricade wall received virtually no mention in the media. This only added to my disappointment in how little attention the actual experience of the protestors has received in the news.

But, after the shootings by white supremacists, we were headlining around the country. I received messages from friends and family: “Are you ok?” “Yes, I told them, “I wasn’t even there.” It didn’t sound right in a text message but I wanted to add, “Even if I had been there, the shooters only shot at black people.”

And yet even that news soon faded. Today we are nowhere near the front page of the Star Tribune.

It’s not something I would have imagined getting used to.

The police have made arrests, but that does not mean the white supremacists are no longer a threat. Just the night after the shootings, protestors heard shots being fired again, though thankfully no one was hurt. We now have to be extra careful about serving homemade food because there had been threats of rat poison.

And yet, somehow, the threat of white supremacists, like the threat of rubber bullets and chemical weapons, has simply become a new reality.

I don’t know where this is all going, but I know it’s going somewhere.

If you visit the precinct any given day just before sunrise, you’ll see groups of people all different races huddled around fires, sharing sleepy conversation, sometimes vocalizing deep hurt and frustrations. A homeless person might be asleep next to them, appreciative of the warmth and welcoming atmosphere. Before not too long, folks will stop by with fresh coffee and donuts, even if the precinct is nowhere on their way to work. A father might come to pick up some milk for their child. A child might stop by to grab a snack on the way to school. Volunteers will help pick up trash and serve food.

It’s a community where everyone belongs unless you’re a racist. It’s a community that has prevailed and even grown stronger despite rubber bullets and real bullets too. It’s a community that, in pushing past fear, has grown powerful.