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On Black Lives Matter, 1990s Los Angeles, and the Weight of History


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In the time I spent writing A Past that Breathes, I went from the frustrations of the private criminal law practice that inspired the novel to a public service desk job with the State of California. I had begun to question whether certain passages in the book were unduly harsh, insensitive, and unnecessary.

But watching Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, as an African who came to America at seventeen, I reflected on how it could have easily been me Officer Chauvin was kneeling on. A passage in my novel describes a visit to the Los Angeles County Central jail house by the defense counsel, Kenneth Brown, an African American, and his co-counsel, Cassandra Rayburn, a white law school professor. Upon entering the jailhouse for the first time, both lawyers show their Bar Association membership cards to the sheriff’s deputies manning the entrance, but the treatment they receive is markedly different. On leaving the jail house that day, Kenneth notices how the sheriff’s deputies look at him then look away with indifference, like big cats looked at zoo visitors, and observes that “their world was different from his for a reason, and the bars separating the two worlds stood like due process, without which the treatment he received from them could have been much worse.” [p.151]

I have been in situations like this many times. The description above is true in how it captures both the indignity and vulnerability I have felt under those circumstances, coupled with the very palpable sense that no one should have the right to make me feel that way in a civilized society. Add to that this fact: cats kill by holding their prey by the neck until the prey suffocates.

I have not practiced criminal law for over a decade now; I live in a predominantly white and conservative enclave of the Northern California Bay area, and have close family friends in law enforcement, one in particular, Rick—white, Republican, policeman—whom I cannot imagine equating with a wild animal in a zoo. But this is not about him, or anyone else. It is fiction. Thus, it is not even about me, though I find a bit of myself in it so that others may find themselves too. Such is the nature of the art. I was not about to change the words, but I was bracing myself for how this piece and other sensitive racial issues in the book might affect my relationships—with both blacks and whites—and to respond to all who would take offense at a work of fiction.

Then George Floyd happened. Well, Tamir Rice (14) happened, then Eric Garner (43) happened, and Philando Castille (32) happened, and Alton Sterling (37) happened, and Stephon Clark (22) happened, and Botham Jean (26) happened, and Atatiana Jefferson (28) happened, and Rayshard Brooks happened (23), then Breona Taylor (26) happened, just to name a few, all at the hands of law enforcement. The frustrations of my days visiting Los Angeles jail houses to give voice to those the system presumes “deadly” even if “innocent” came rushing back to me. I was overwhelmed by a mixture of emotions that the English language does not seem to have the appropriate adjectives to describe, leaving so many of us to default to the word “anger”—only to be stereotyped as “angry black men”. 

My novel was born out of an attempt to process those emotions at another time and place, in 1990s Los Angeles. Back then, Latasha Harlins had happened, and Rodney King had happened, and both their verdicts happened, and then O.J. “did it” or did he?

I sought to escape from the confounded speechlessness of my reality, to a space where I could imagine a justice that transcends both the racial and ideological divide of our current polemics. I wanted to find a way to tell those who do not look like me to at least accept that I experience what happened, such as to George Floyd, in a way they may never be able to fully relate to or appreciate. I felt that if they can accept this, then these emotions, one component of which agitates for protests, may be calmed by the civility their acceptance shows of our society. I do not expect them, who are unlike me, to experience these events just as palpably as I do, but I expect we all agree as human beings that what happened was truly, irrefutably, wrong. 

In those days in Los Angeles, I recall appearing early in courts for motions before trial and status conferences. I would sit through hearings where the deputy district attorney and the public defender marched young African American and Hispanic men through the arraignment calendars on offenses, some of which were no worse than perceived insubordination, and wondered how I escaped this fate. Having come to the United States at seventeen, perhaps my accent saved me then. Still, I always thought that those young men could have been me, and for that reason, every time I got their cases, it was too personal. I fought for them like I was fighting for myself. 

Some have pointed to George Floyd’s criminal record to argue that the Black Lives Matter movement had chosen the wrong African American to make a martyr. But if anyone made George Floyd a martyr, it was Derek Chauvin. The movement did not choose the moment; America did. Recently, Pasquotauk County District Attorney, Andrew Womble, ruled that sheriff’s deputies were justified in the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown, Jr. largely because he was a suspected drug dealer. But Mr. Brown was driving away from armed deputies approaching his car, knowing fully well the history of African American encounters with the police.  Mr. Womble, at least, promised to retrain the officers.

The notion that criminal records make the police killing of African Americans justifiable infers that the police should fear to do their jobs when they encounter African Americans. That in our shadows they find themselves in the “shadow of death.” I can’t help being reminded that the writer of Psalm 23 who coined this phrase also had a criminal record, including murder, trespass and possibly larceny; like him, African Americans are the ones who should fear to walk in the shadow of law enforcement on our streets, not they, who are sworn and paid by our taxes to protect us.

I see in this movement a prayer of sorts. As I walk through the streets of America, or should I find myself in the valley of the shadow of death, I should fear no evil, for Black Lives Matter to my Shepherd too.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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