My brother Todd was a stage magician. He and our best friend Zack Percell were putting on magic shows throughout the Midwest even while they were still in middle school, high school, and college. Like many magicians, when they put on shows, they were well-dressed. In their younger, mid-90s high school days, they had matching purple sports jackets and crazy ties. They looked great, in a sort of Spencer’s Gifts meets GQ magazine kind of way.
As they got older, their magic shows had to be squeezed in between other jobs. They still dressed up for performances, but the uniform became more mainstream mens’ formalwear. They never went full tuxedo, but they did wear the dark jacket, shirt, and tie combo that was popular in the early aughts. They looked great! They seemed equally ready to both make someone disappear on stage or to open a loan for you at the bank.
One day, Todd and Zack had a magic show at a housing project in our hometown. The residents of this housing project were overwhelmingly Black. I wasn’t with Todd and Zack at that show that day, but Todd told me about something that happened there, and I’ve never forgotten it.
He said that while he and Zack were unloading magic show props from the van, a small boy — think lower elementary age — stopped on the sidewalk to watch them. Todd wasn’t wearing his jacket, but he was in his dress shirt and tie. This kid looked at Todd as he walked by and said to him, “You ain’t gonna get me, cop. “
I’d like you to notice two things.
First, when that young boy saw a well-dressed white man in his neighborhood, he immediately assumed he was a police officer. It didn’t matter that the man was college-aged. It didn’t matter that the man was unloading stage magic props out of the back of a beat-up van. If he was white and well-dressed in that neighborhood, he had to be a cop.
Second, this kid — an elementary school kid — assumed that if a white cop was in his neighborhood, that white cop was there to get him. Not to talk to him. Certainly not to help him. To get him. The kid hadn’t even done anything wrong, but that’s the tragedy. His innocence didn’t matter.
That young boy’s reaction was and remains unfathomable to me and fills me with sadness. And that was just a simple misunderstanding between two people on a sidewalk. How much more unacceptable is it that since that encounter, far too many Black persons like George Floyd have been mistreated, beaten, and killed? One such death is too many. The sheer number our country has seen is an indictment of our culture of covert — and often overt — racism and oppression.
I know a lot of change is needed, change at so many levels of our society, and I’ll be honest — I don’t have a lot of answers. But there’s one thing I can and will do immediately, and it’s something everyone can do. We can all be more like this elderly white woman:
All lives matter, and everyone needs to hear that. But right now, our Black brothers and sisters especially need to hear that Black Lives Matter. Spread this message far and wide. But like the adage often attributed to St. Francis says: use words… if necessary. Don’t just say it. Show it with your actions. Live it with your whole life.
If we all do this, then we change the world, and we don’t have to wait on any government, any police department, or any other person or organization. As John Boyega said, “I ain’t waiting.” None of us should.