xene

Few things will make one feel more self-conscious than being a Black man in a black t-shirt bearing the words “Not Your Respectable Negro.”

The feeling intensifies when you’re wearing said shirt in a shopping district whose primary consumers and residents are mostly white. As I navigated between cars in the parking lot, plenty of passersby glanced first at my shirt, and then at my face. I didn’t want to meet their eyes for fear that I wouldn’t say the right thing, or that I’d even say anything at all. When I reached the Starbucks at the corner and met up with the crowd that had gathered there, however, I knew where I was supposed to be.

On December 6, organizers with Ferguson Action put together a mass demonstration, “Lay Down for Michael Brown,” in Houston’s Galleria area. Commencing at noon, peaceful protesters chanted and rallied on the four corners at the intersection of South Post Oak and Westheimer before eventually entering the Galleria mall itself and continuing the protest within.

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All this ascended from Ferguson, MO. Mere weeks ago, the nation watched the protesters and family of Mike Brown gathered and were delivered the heartwrenching news that a grand jury had opted not to indict Darren Wilson (the police officer who killed Brown) on charges of homicide. Protesters had filled out the streets for nearly two months prior to, demanding answers from a local police force that had offered them nothing but violence and riot gear. Across the nation (across the globe, even), others replicated what was being done in Ferguson, organizing efforts of peaceful civil unrest and social media keeping the movement alive as well. Livestreams of what was happening every night could be found on Twitter, along with live tweets of the goings on.

I couldn’t get out to Ferguson, but I waited for the opportunity to do something, anything, to feel like I was doing more than just tweeting “#BlackLivesMatter” every other hour.

Now, here in my own hometown, that “opportunity” had presented itself. I stood amongst protesters, mostly Black but there were allies there with us, too. I’d opted not to bring a sign but there were plenty more present to get the message across. Some of the protest leaders, bearing bullhorns and mics, started up a number of call and response chants, ranging from the known ones like “Black Lives… Matter!” and “Hands Up (Don’t Shoot!)” to more creative ones “Hey-Ho, Hey-Ho! These racist cops have got to go!”

I saw someone else wearing a “Not Your Respectable Negro” shirt (itself the brainchild of Cherrell Brown aka @Awkward_Duck, a community organizer and one of the people on the ground during the initial Ferguson protests). As the lights changed at the intersection, the protesters marched and rotated at the four corners, gradually forming small crowds at each. Houston PD was on the scene; thankfully, their presence was more mediating than it was agitating. They simply warned protesters not to block the intersection when the lights turned green, and even redirected traffic to prevent right turns where the protesters were crossing the most.

At about 12:50 PM, we laid on the ground for five minutes, in commemoration of the five minutes Michael Brown’s dead body lay in the street in Ferguson without being covered up. Five minutes is a very long time. Mike wasn’t alive to experience it for himself, unfortunately; but when you are lying there and counting off the seconds for yourself, time goes by very slowly.

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When we rose up off the ground, I processed the crowd for the first time. There were young kids, and even babies, amongst us. A little girl who looked no older than eleven or twelve held up a cardboard sign that bore the word “Why” in glittery pink lettering. And in my head, while I was proud that some parents had brought their children along to experience activism and speaking out for what’s right… I wondered if, on the other hand, this was giving them a glimpse into the world they might inherit. Preparing these Black and Brown children for what they might face in years, or even days, if Tamir Rice was any indication.

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That’s when I heard the call that we were going to “enter the Galleria.” I followed the crowd I was with along the intersection and up through the Galleria’s entrance next to the Westin. We were encouraged to stay close and, although the group would split up at times, to never break away from your given group or fall behind.

They’re storming the Galleria, I remember thinking. But I was a part of this, too. WE’RE storming the Galleria.

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And so we did. We marched, shouting out our frustration loudly for anyone who cared to hear and, especially, for anyone who didn’t WANT to hear. No one was attacked. No one was shoved or incited. We marched, we chanted “No Justice… No Profit!” Shoppers gave way to our incoming crowd; and some shoppers joined our ranks and began marching and chanting along with us.

Some stores closed up shop while we were there, sometimes even locking their customers inside with them (hi, Apple Store and Michael Kors). They shut their doors and lowered their gates, the workers staring out as us from the other side of the glass and steel as we passed by, some bearing looks of anger, others of contempt, and still others, of fear. Some establishments remained open but management or employees posted up in the doorway, as though to prevent our entry.

The fear was liberating. Not because I had violent tendencies, not because people were scared of me, of us… but because I felt empowered. This was not #BlackOutBlackFriday, bigger than #NotOneDime. We weren’t just not shopping. We were directly disrupting a flow of revenue, in a completely lawful, completely peaceable assembly (as our First Amendment would describe it). We collapsed in a heap to honor Mike’s fallen body at least three more times within the mall. We traversed the two upper floors of the Galleria (not the food court/skating rink level). And we entered two stores, JCPenney’s lower level and Nordstrom’s first-and-second floors, marching and chanting “We Won’t Take It Any Longer! (Justice, for Eric Garner!)” and “Shut It Down (for Michael Brown!),” moving between the racks of clothing and riding the escalator both ways.

In the crowd, I saw a small Black child. She was a baby girl, certainly not even a year old. She was there with her mother in the thick of the crowd bouncing on her mama’s shoulders, her wide eyes scanning the room and all these people around her chanting and holding her hands up. And suddenly, she, too, had lifted her hands up in the air. She imitated us. I was proud… and a little heartbroken, as well.

As we were leaving, the group I was with began clapping and chanting call and responses yet again, and we’d stumbled upon a group of middle school students that was visiting the Galleria. They observed us from a distance and suddenly, they too raised their hands up and began to chant “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” with us. Their (white male) chaperones told them to pipe down, ordered them to put their hands down. We continued to chant and clap, even as we made way for the students and their chaperones to pass by us. They had been silenced, but I could tell as they walked past looking at us, that they at least had gotten the message.

Once we’d emerged outside, many of the protesters joined the ranks of others posted up at the four corners of the intersection once more. Still others carried on the march into the shopping center and parking lot across the street.

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This is the tale of two cities: Ferguson, Missouri, where the frustrations of a community reached a head and consciousness flourished in its stead; and Houston, Texas, where the community’s own strained relationship with local law enforcement made this movement so critical because we knew Mike Brown, or Trayvon Martin, or Eric Garner, or Akai Gurley, or Aiyana Jones could hit home at any time. Those are just the ones that made it into the national spotlight. But we have our own local demons to deal with, as well.

And with the recent string of grand juries failing to bring charges against the officers involved, I’m bracing for the next reminder that this season of “How to Get Away with the Murder of Black Lives” is over yet. We wait, still, for news of whether or not the police involved in the killings of Gurley, 17-year-old Vonderrit Myers, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, will at least be held accountable.

All I know is… we’re tired of waiting.