What If?

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Rebecca at a protest in Wolfeboro. Remember Breonna Taylor.

This past Wednesday my wife Rebecca and I were driving to Maine from New Hampshire. We needed gas, so we stopped in a small town, 15 minutes out of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. As Rebecca pumped the gas, I went into the convenience store to grab an energy-building snack of a Coke Zero and a pack of share-size M&Ms. There was a lengthy line of about six people, six feet apart, and most of us had on our masks; it was the new normal. I finally got to the register and the cashier scanned my items, smiled with her eyes, and said “$4.38.” I looked in my wallet and had an immediate and deep moment of panic: I had been to the ATM earlier in the week, and all I had were five crisp $20 dollar bills. I froze. I knew (or at least hoped) that the bills weren’t counterfeit, but what if the cashier thought they were. I, with subdued trepidation, handed her the bill, she gave me my change, and I left the store. I chuckled inside because of my “irrational” feeling. But was it irrational? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is how terrorism works. You don’t have to be in actual danger, you just have to believe you are in danger because of the messages, deliberate or otherwise, that are sent to you. I was safe that day, but what if?

Two or three days earlier, I received an email with a video from my very conservative sister; a compassionate individual who is a passionate supporter of Donald Trump. We have our fiery conversations and debates, but we manage to stay connected. One of the few things we are in full agreement on is that George Floyd’s death was awful and important; his life should have mattered. The video she sent me was the last five minutes of George Floyd being publicly dehumanized. For much of the video, Mr. Floyd, a father, a son, a human being, was unresponsive. Chauvin seemed to not be thinking of George Floyd, but rather sending the message to those watching and pleading; “I am powerful, you are not. I am in charge.” I cried. I felt powerless.

I need to meander a little bit.

I don’t like to cry. Anymore. Crying, for me, has to be saved for uncontrollable pain, deep sorrow, or abject helplessness; things I rarely let myself feel. When I was young, I was considered a “mama’s boy.” I was sensitive, “bookish,” and cried at almost any signs of frustration, perceived and anticipatory pain, or simply not getting my way. I cried after fights with my brother Ishmael; he was definitely tougher than me and typically my tears weren’t from pain, but it was because I was losing. I cried when I came home from Bible camp because I missed the total joy and togetherness of the counselors and my friends. I cried. I cried, and then I didn’t. My father, my siblings, my coaches, my friends, and essentially the world implicitly and explicitly helped me “learn” that crying was weak, soft, and unbecoming of the man I was hoping to be. I learned to put myself in what author and educator Tony Porter called the “Man Box,” in his 2010 Ted Talk. Compounding things, was the fact that I have spent nearly all of my life (since I was 14 years-old) primarily living in predominantly white environments where, as I was continuing to suppress outward expressions of pain, deep sorrow, and helplessness, I was also learning how to suppress any outward expressions of frustration, deep disappointment, and anger. In the environments that I live and work and vacation to, a frustrated, deeply disappointed, and angry Dolph is a “serious threat.” But even the cool, calm and careful version of myself does not provide me my full humanity in the eyes of a Carolyn Bryant Donham (Emmitt Till), a Charles Stuart (Willie Bennett), a Susan Smith (any Black man will do), or an Amy Cooper (Christian Cooper). That is what I recognize that I was feeling in the convenience store that day. I could do everything “right,” and still be dehumanized. And even scarier than death is the fear that my death would mean nothing. It could be covered up, defended, and the system would potentially allow the perpetrators to go free. It happened with Sandra Bland. It happened with Freddy Gray. It’s happening with Breona Taylor. Why could it not happen to me? How would the Tucker Carlson’s and Candace Owens’ of the world vilify me to defend the system and maintain the status quo? Maybe they would find out that I was a thief because I was caught stealing a pair of gloves when I was 13 years old because my hands were cold? That was definitely worse than Tamir Rice’s crime.

Nonetheless, after watching the video, I felt sharp and pulsing pain, deep sorrow, and abject helplessness. And then I read what John Elder, spokesman for the Minneapolis police, released to the press on the day after Floyd’s death. Under the subject line, it read, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, Elder followed that up with, “a suspected money forger had ‘physically resisted’ arrest. And after police managed to get him into handcuffs, the officers noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”

Watch the video! Is this the law and order that is afforded to every citizen? After reading this initial response and active cover-up, I was left feeling frustration, deep disappointment, and anger. What are your emotions? As gross and inhumane as the crime was, it is the coverup that makes me angry. It’s the immediate and often predictable lack of accountability and justice. It is essentially the justified oppression, that calls for protests, and drives riots. The system is under pressure and may get this one right, but the terror still looms.

If you do anything in the next week or so, watch Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us.” It is the story of the Central Park Five. See how the system that we, all humans, are told to trust, used five brown-skinned boys as propaganda to promote the idea of black male terrorism, the idea of thugs, the idea of the super predator. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, foist that terror on all of us. When this orchestrated travesty happened, I was a 14-year-old upwardly mobile black boy and consumed it, and I believed it. I believed that I was better than them; they were giving ME a bad name. I was duped and so were most, if not all, of you. I can admit it. I can admit how it poisoned my mind. Can you? (And if you can't, will you ask yourself, “Why?”) That is how terrorism works; “these young black boys brutally raped this innocent white girl. You or your sister, or your daughter could be next .” We just don’t expect the terrorist attack to come from the people who promote law and order. I watched the series and I had all the emotions; I never watched a full episode in one sitting. I watch horror movies, but this was much harder to stomach. I had to read and research because even though I knew it was true, I didn’t want to believe; I believe. In my research I found that some of the most vicious players never even said sorry; they defended their story as a way of defending the system. And their lives went on. Those five boys, now men, had their lives changed forever. Some prominent people including the current President lobbied for their execution. What if?

We may sleep better if we believe that all of these different incidents are isolated. We may sleep better if we believe that the explanation was as simple as a “few bad apples.” Please do not hijack my words. I do not believe that all cops or even most cops are bad. I do not believe that most District Attorneys are bad. But when the system defends the bad people in power, the system is inherently broken. For me, the terror isn’t my death at the hands of a “few bad apples.” The terror is that the “good apples” stand in such close proximity to, and in ardent and open defense of, the bad ones. The terror is that the system doesn’t always see me as human, and good people, who believe that they love and care for me, trust the system completely. What if we all, regardless of race, politics, religion, and class worked towards a system that saw every human as truly deserving of inalienable rights; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What if?

With Love, and Hope for Greater Connection,


Remember Tamir Rice; killed nearly 6 years ago. He would have been allowed to vote in this election.

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