“I’m boutta get my ass beat,” I thought to myself.
The wooden shield was heavy.
My forearm fit awkwardly in the straps.
Looking ahead of me, a line of riot cops stood stone faced and ready,
each gripping their baton in both their hands.
“Don’t feel obligated to hold the front if you are not comfortable,”
said an older comrade next to me.
I was steeped in self-doubt.
But that didn’t matter now.
Or it couldn’t matter.
I had a job to do.
Anything could pop off at a moment’s notice.
K Street was a chasm.
Faction lines had been drawn.
Do I have the courage to die for what I believe in?
Normandy’s beaches are cloudy come autumn.
The gray horizon is commonplace in northwestern Europe.
The beach they call “Omaha” stays clouded now, just as it was then.
This “then” I mention means many things all at once
means many times.
Like when a young King Henry V sought blood in Agincourt
Battling for his supposed birthright
Or when Roman legionnaires stormed the shores of what they called Britannia,
eager to satisfy the fantasies of conquest glistening in Caesar’s fever dreams;
Or before that, when the Celtic tribes migrated out of the Rhineland
and found themselves crossing the English Channel.
Bound together across space-time and sediment,
a great mass of bones and ghosts litter the sand.
The Proud Boys had gathered on the far side of the block, in front of the Capitol Hilton.
They were adorned in their trademark black-gold clothes and tactical gear.
We were on the opposite side of the street in front of the St. Regis.
Some folks had gathered within the hotel,
watching us or recording us on their phones.
Shouts of “FUCK ANTIFA!” were heard from across the street.
The cops in front me looked something silly.
Straight out of “Metal Gear Solid”
or some other video game.
But I am scared.
I am sweating.
I keep fogging up my fucking goggles.
Again, I think to myself, “I’m boutta to get my ass beat.”
Showered in lamp-light
The shadows of soldiers flooded the District streets.
Herschel Szerman had grown up studying his entire life to become a rabbi. This was expected of him, after all. Jews were forbidden by the Russian monarchy from attending public schools. Yet while his studies had functioned to train his attention solely upon a strict regimen of Torah and Talmud, Herschel became greatly infatuated with the writings of Karl Marx. He recognized himself as one of Marx’s proletariat, struggling to self-actualize against the brutish oppression imposed by the imperial czars. The ruling class had branded him and his kind second-class citizens, subjecting them and their shtetls to horrific accounts of pillaging, murder and rape.
Herschel abandoned his religious ambitions when he joined the Jewish Labor Bund, fighting alongside the Red Army and working to ring in a revolution against the czars. The Bundists and their Bolshevik allies would lose the fight in 1905, however, leaving Herschel captured and sentenced to a summary execution.
Do I have the courage to die for what I believe in?
It was the only question burning across my psyche now.
I recall how it lingered in my skull as I walked home one night earlier that summer.
It was a lonely walk, maybe the loneliest walk of my life.
Whatever delusions of grandeur my former classmates and I held post-graduation, nothing we were taught could ultimately prepare us for the collapse of our American Dreams, tarnished by the arrival of COVID-19 upon the global stage.
Then came those 8 minutes and 46 seconds of fame.
Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyds neck.
A man killed over a counterfeit $20 bill at the hands of police
The putrid stain of it was left for us to see and smell,
steaming, smoking, as the summer heat intensified.
Stuck inside, squirming, we all had to watch.
Soon enough the world would explode with righteous flames.
Earlier that day all I could think about was returning to my childhood home in Washington – to see my mother’s face, to indulge in her Midwestern magic; her love enchanting the house with backup vocals by Luther Vandross bumping on the iHome.
And I desperately missed my sister – the one who could always make me laugh, who I could crack up with a single goofy stare, whom I hadn’t seen in 5 months as she studied to be a journalist in the age of fake news; commander in chief of Go with The Flow, CEO of Don’t Fuck With Me… our peace would likely last about 45 minutes until she’d grow annoyed by the sound of my breathing and we’d proceed to engage in mortal combat.
My dad was the one who drove me home from North Carolina. I had just graduated – sorta. The Coronavirus Pandemic flat-lined our senior year. Dad helped me clean up the house and pack up the Subaru Crosstrek. We had a good while to catch up, straddling the beam between long conversations and the simple sound of silence, taking in the final moments of peace and quiet as we dwelled in my rented home amidst my last foreseeable stretch of Southern living. Soon enough we’d speed off up Martin Luther King Drive.
The Sick Joke of that Road. I bet the men building that highway had a good laugh at the groundbreaking, something hearty maybe, chuckling at how clever they thought they were segregating the city the way did between East and West, Black and White. And they are probably still laughing from the grave at the wave of immigrants from Latin America, who were settling in from a long journey only to be alienated.
Those dead men are probably laughing as the same children of those immigrants, as early as prekindergarten, stand in American public schools, alongside the Black children born on the East Side of Sick Joke Road with a couple of White kids, speaking the Pledge of Allegiance:
Pledging themselves to the Republic
For which it stands
Under false gods
More divided than at any other time in recent memory
With liberty and justice
For the few
I knew this because I knew those children. I’d pledge with them three mornings a week while working in my university’s Office of Community Engagement.
I’m a White boy who grew up in the nation’s capital attending public and public charter schools my entire life and not once did I ever have to pledge.
The irony of it.
Differing accounts describe how Herschel ended his stint in Russian prison. Some say he escaped and his family was held hostage by authorities until he either returned or a family member took his place. Others say he escaped his cell hiding beneath the robes of a Russian Orthodox priest, who lead him to the home of his future wife in Poland. What had most likely happened was that Herschel’s family pooled together whatever money they could as part of a bribe, and a family member was exchanged to serve a truncated sentence.
Soon after his release, Herschel would leave Russia for Dresden, Germany to learn women’s fashion and became a master of the Tailor’s Guild. Dresden at that point was superior to Paris regarding the study of all things decadent. He would later arrive in Poland to work in the shop of his future father-in-law in a town near Krakow, meeting his wife, Regina Schnall. The two would marry and have a son whom they named Ellie. They’d eventually have three more children: Louis, Selma, and Saul.
I’m sure those road barons are laughing their asses off somewhere…Brown v. Board did nothing to board up their fears… did nothing to change the minds of White parents who, by their own admission, would have rather watched their precious White children bake in an oven than send them to school with Black and Brown kids.
Most White liberals would probably like to think Winston-Salem is a strange place, or at least a racist anomaly –- although, it’s really no more bigoted than anywhere else I’ve been in this country, be it from New York City to Los Angeles, or Duluth, Georgia to Danbury, Connecticut, or from the Pocono Mountains to Death Valley. Considering the fact, however, that it was the only place I had lived other than my childhood home, Winston and I had a unique relationship. I got to know the landscape. The politics. It’s novelty and trappings gusted in through the window of the Subaru as we headed back North. The word “dissonance” comes to mind.
Sensing the coming conflicts soon to ravage the Old World, Herschel sailed to America alone in 1910. He came through Ellis Island, changed his name to Harry, and set about making a meager living in the sweatshops of New York’s Lower East Side in order to prepare a home for his new family. Regina and Ellie arrived mere days before war broke out in 1913. In spite of the violence that ensued, their extended families refused to follow them until, for many, it was too late. One World War ended for another to soon begin. The coming years would level homes and livelihoods, bringing untold devastation. Thankfully the Sherman household in Newark, New Jersey was the beacon that brought loved ones previously thought lost out of hiding in Switzerland, or out of displaced persons’ camps in Bari. The ones who perished in Auschwitz or Thereseinstadt weren’t so lucky.
The collective trauma left by the Holocaust and the transformation of Russia into the Soviet Union all crashed through Herschel. His views splintered. His life, whatever he knew of it as a young man, had burned to death thanks to Hitler. The Soviets, under Josef Stalin, maintained the second-class status of the Jews.
Winston-Salem was a temple of dissonance disguised as a supposedly sleepy Southern town. Perhaps the same could be said for the country at large; disguised as a New Jerusalem, it was a land of hoarded promise, bearing strange fruit. According to a friend, his life as a Black person in that town to could be summed up as “20 years of racist, nothing to do.” He couldn’t wait to get out. Couldn’t blame him.
Grand Southern Mansions saddled up next to vastly smaller homes. Disparity was apparent, and was hardly hidden. Picturesque suburbia: somewhat planned and necessarily dysfunctional. Once having been a tobacco & textile town, the home of Hanes underwear and Salem cigarettes, Winston-Salem had always been dependent on Black labor, free or dearly cheap, with the gentrified returns and stolen wealth marinating since Plantation Days; the plantations have since been replaced by gas stations, cafes, campus plazas, and a whole history uprooted by Wachovia Bank, itself laid with Moravian mortar and now known as Wells Fargo. The bank’s headquarters (which we jokingly called the Phallus Palace) stood as the tallest tower in the town, penetrating the horizon, assaulting co-opted Catawba land as if the shareholders had something to prove to the world about their manhood. A foundation had been thoroughly erased, rebranding the land as a place of “arts and innovation” though still preluded on desecration. New scars slapped on top of old wounds.
Oh, how the people who lived in those mansions would probably come to see the shows at our university, our miniature city on a hill, and serve up some mighty nice donations so that they could keep seeing their Shakespeare, and Shaw, and Ibsen absent of certain neighbors…absent of those over beyond Sick Joke Road in East Winston. Although, they were certainly cool with preying on a few folks now and then for their latest diversity photo-op.
Hell, it’s funny now that I think about it, because the biggest scholarship available was something like affirmative action for Well-Off White Kids. I would know, because I was nominated for this scholarship. I would know, because a wealthy White boy in the class above me got that scholarship only to drop out in his third year and all that money dropped out with him I guess.
Whatever the money did, its distribution would be disingenuous. You could never be sure if it was really a gift, but you could always be sure it was some sort of transaction – some sort of investment.
You could never be sure if that class dinner with the donors might bring with it the threat of unwanted sex floating off of the patriarch towards the women as he parlayed with the guests. He now has to be babysat by one of the deans should he ever seek to host another event.
Regardless of the returns, the bourgeois had to always be in season, nearly every season, so they could continue to sleep at night, safe & snoring, masked by foot-soldiers in the form of real estate developers, and city planners, and campus administrators, and perhaps us: the unwitting student storytellers, who were busy waging their war for them.
In the twilight of his life, Saul Norman Sherman, Herschel’s youngest son, took it upon himself to recount his own experiences as a soldier. Upon British shores, opposite Normandy circa 1944, Saul stood in a London bar chatting up none other than the great Joe Louis – that famed fighter whom the media had labeled “Brown Bomber.” Louis had been in England entertaining the Allied troops in exhibition matches. His fists, having flown feverously upon White German competitor Max Schmeling, painted a pathetic image of the so-called “master race” amidst the rising tides of Aryan Supremacy. Their time together in the ring could only ever be a foreshadowing of the beating Germany was to receive at the hands of the United States.
Seeing and meeting Louis sowed seeds of strength in Saul, hardly a man at the age of twenty, and a surprise visit from the celebrity happened to be the pick-me-up he needed
before embarking towards an ominous future.
I returned home to D.C. from North Carolina late in the afternoon on May 31st, a few days after Mr. Floyd’s murder. Sometime after unloading the Crosstrek, while surfing online, my news feed blasted some protests downtown. When I had arrived at Lafayette Park, crowds were shouting and the air was thick with chemicals. I’m trying to socially distance because I made a promise to my mom that I would. The Thin Blue Line, as wide as all of H Street, was eyeing everyone up: bucking at us, tempting our rage, begging for a reason to beat the shit out of anybody.
They were armed and dangerous,
wielding rifles and shields.
“No justice, no peace”
“No justice, no peace”
Cries mixed with fire.
All of it smashed together
A rhyme scheme in broken verse
Shadowed by Andrew Jackson’s statue silhouetted in the distance, plastered against the backdrop of the White House.
A war was in front of me.
And while I held my protest sign,
I recognized then that this sign was actually the diploma I never received, and this moment was the commencement I never had.
Back in the ‘40’s, Saul hoped to teach a lesson to the Nazi youths at home in Newark (who stuck his Jewish body with bruises and stole his pride) and to the Nazi behemoth abroad (who stuck yellow stars upon the bodies of his family and proceeded to steal their lives). He had enlisted in the army of the United States and was sent to train at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, before deploying to Europe as member of the Nineteenth Corps. He was soon to face onslaught, evil itself. Although, for the price of survival, he wound up shouldering the kind of weight known for hardening the hearts of idealists – turning them jaded and cruel; forever unsympathetic to tears borne by adults and children alike. When swallowed by the horror of war, tears could not only ruin a single man, but destroy an entire unit. Such weakness could cost you, and could only feed the enemy. Therefore, it could not be tolerated
About a month before the 2020 election, folks thought violence would hit us hard again.
“What are you doing election night?” Asked my dad, a couple days before.
Mark Andrew Sherman was the son of Saul and while growing up, he struggled to make sense of his father, who often came off like a coin; one face full of rage, the other spitting jokes, some lighthearted, other ones morbid. Saul was an older man when he had Mark in 1964 though he still wrestled with the trials of war from his youth. The residual pain, often unnamed, left Mark uneasy and afraid.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
But I did know.
I was gonna head downtown after work to support a mutual aid group I would volunteer with. The group was small, working as a collective with other groups bearing similar convictions. Several popped up in the wake of the racial uprisings during the summertime. They’d coordinate protests as well as distribute supplies and funds to those who had been abandoned by their government at the local and federal level.
My affiliate had anticipated a threat on the eve of that election. The District certainly felt like it was on edge – nothing particularly new these days. Regardless, there was to be a “Fuck the President” March held that night, aimed in protest of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden – conducted under the premise that there are no good presidents in a racist system. The stress of the election would undoubtedly elevate tensions.
In the late 1980’s, while attending law school at the University of Miami, Mark helped author the defense of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. For years, Noriega was supported by the US government in violently suppressing left-wing political movements in Central America. Officials in the Reagan Administration looked the other way as cocaine was imported stateside on Noriega’s orders while he was in partnership with Colombian drug traffickers. They hoped the profits generated would go towards fighting the communists in Nicaragua. When Noriega’s American allies discovered his double dealing with rival intelligence agencies, however, the government indicted him and sought to extradite him so he could be prosecuted in Florida. Mark argued against this while writing the defense, insisting the American government had no legal right to infringe on the sovereignty of other nations by trying their leaders in American courts, acting like a global police force.
My dad is sitting in his office at the computer desk. A serious look scrawls across his face. Dad starts,
“You’re an adult and I can’t control what you do. But you are my son. I don’t mean to guilt trip you, but I’d like you to know what it would do to your mom and me if something happened to you. We have trauma in our family. You know that, but I saw what it was like for my mother to lose a child.”
My Aunt Hildy died of lupus in 1998. Her husband Michael died not long afterwards and her two children, my cousins, were left to be raised by my grandmother, Elaine.
“It wrecked my mom,” My dad continued. “Completely wrecked her. And I don’t need to tell you about your Nana.”
My maternal grandfather, Bill, died in a horrific car accident involving 4 other teenagers on July 4th, 1966. My mother was two years old and would never know her father. My nana Beverly never remarried and struggled with severe depression ever since.
“It destroyed your mother’s family.”
Jesus. Talk about a guilt trip; but it came from somewhere real, of trauma worn like a chip on one’s shoulder.
Mark’s work on the Noriega defense earned the attention of a Texan journalist who invited him to Bogota, the capital of Colombia. The two would collaborate in researching the legal relationship between Colombia and the United States during the apex of the War on Drugs. Embroiled in conflict, much of the country was caught in the crossfire between the Cali and Medellin Cartels along with paramilitary groups of various right-wing and left-wing ideologies; echoes of Escobar clashed with the specter of American Empire. Mark’s aim was to investigate the legality of attempts by the United States government to bring Colombian nationals up for prosecution in American courts, similarly to what happened with Noriega, be it through extradition or “irregular rendition,” otherwise known as kidnapping. With Colombia determined to be one of the primary sources of cocaine imports into the United States, officials in the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Council deemed the capture of cartel agents essential to covering-up their own complicity in enabling drug trafficking. Upon arriving in Bogota, Mark and his colleague were interrogated at the airport by the country’s officials. Released, they went about their work, albeit under surveillance from both Colombia and the United States.
“But Dad, this is the time to do something,” I yelled.
“Look at that fucking map!” He yells back.
I turned around. Next to my parents’ office desk was a map above the printer. The map detailed the all of the battles fought by the Nineteenth Corps in WWII, each engagement marked with a red dot – all of the skirmishes my grandfather fought in.
“Look at all that…it’s a miracle your grandfather lived. Shit, it was lucky. That’s all it was – luck. I thought I’d risk my life in some grand way too – make a man outta myself cause my ol’ man did, that’s why I went to South America – but it ended up meaning little. And I’ve been able to do that, to make change happen for people, from the comfort of my home in Washington with my family.”
A mentor of his, Michael Abell, had been former director of the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs and responsible for writing the book on matters of extradition. Michael would depart public office to take on cases against the Justice Department via his own private firm. He was very successful and consistent in winning cases. It was decided something needed to be done about Michael and a message needed to be sent to people like Mark. Michael’s younger partner would flip on him in a sting operation undertaken by the U.S. government. He was then wrongly accused of money laundering for the Cartel. Ten years in prison and a thorough shunning from the legal community was what Michael had waiting amidst the Clinton years.
Mark couldn’t help but fear for his own life. If he continued down this path, there may not be any way out. He had to be done for his own sake and the sake of his family. My dad said to me, if he learned anything during that time in his life, it was this:
“Don’t fuck with the United States. They will ruin you.”
His association with Abell would block him from a possible career at the Justice Department. Payback leaves stains. So, I guess his coping method was, ‘if you can’t beat ‘em – join ‘em.’
Dad continued, “Sammy…I can see you being a transformational person one day, but you won’t change shit if you’re dead.”
He relaxed slightly, having made his point.
“Tell that to guys like Dr. King and Malcolm X,” I say back to him
Dad leans forward from his chair, eyebrows furrowed high on his forehead.
“Are you Dr. King or Malcolm X?”
I laughed at that, because it was obviously ridiculous. And I had no desire to be a martyr. There was truth in the essence of our words, each of us, the content of it laid plain ahead me like a crossroads. I told myself if my protective gear wouldn’t arrive by election night, I wouldn’t go. They wouldn’t. I was working late at the restaurant that night anyway. The results were inconclusive and by then, the tension had diffused.
Once the election was projected by corporate news to be won by Joe Biden the following Saturday, rumors surfaced of a march on D.C. involving the White nationalist group, the Proud Boys. They were Nazis by another name – neo-fascists known for clouding their intentions in the memes of modern internet culture. On November 14th, supporters of Donald Trump held a “Million MAGA March” to protest the results of the 2020 Election. Trump supporters were gathered in front of the Capitol Hilton observing a crowd of counter-protestors. The Trump supporters danced to their chants, mocking them. They lost their election and proceeded to throw money at a fancy hotel. It was as if they came from far and wide all just to talk shit from behind a wall of police officers. Some feet away, two people wearing MAGA hats were arguing with counter-protestors. Cops interjected and soon a line of police officers coalesced along K, shouting “MOVE BACK! MOVE BACK! MOVE BACK!” Someone next to me is tackled to the ground. I look behind me and an MPD Lieutenant is barking at me to keep moving. The plaza had been effectively cut off with exception to the police and the Nazis in their hotels. Proud Boys were allowed to have their run of the place, taking down community art. They could even be heard co-opting popular chants spitting “Whose streets? OUR streets!” and “Say his name: DONALD TRUMP!”
The chaos from that Saturday bled into the following month. The protest I attended on December 12th was intended to prevent what had happened in mid-November from repeating itself. The majority were thankfully kept safe – but the day was nothing less than terrifying.
It’s well known how much corporate media loves to portray anti-fascists as a singular menacing mob. That we are paid to show up by the Democratic Party or George Soros. I looked to my left and to my right. We were people. Ordinary people. Nobody wanted to be here, but we had come together to stand our ground in Black Lives Matter Plaza. A barricade two blocks behind us had become a portrait of freedom: an appropriate blackout to that White House built by those denied autonomy by the State hundreds of years before. We were neck-deep in the refuse of this legacy. We were there to say “no longer,” to protect each other from the out-of-town, roving Nazi gangs and local police department that enables them.
We were marching through the streets. Many of the high-end businesses around the plaza and McPherson Square were still boarded up from the summertime. A crowd of Proud Boys are held off from interfering with our march by cops.
A recent article in the Washington Post accused the police of enabling the Nazis, putting the entire department on edge and making them pressed to save face. This would work to our advantage, but our guards had to stay up.
I see a Proud Boy in a long-sleeve yellow shirt and body armor bucking at me from behind their line.
I could read his lips saying, “These guys are the only ones protecting you from me.”
The march continued with some starts and stops, eventually splitting into two separate groups. This wasn’t supposed to happen, I could tell that much.
I was separated from my mutual aid group and routed back to the plaza.
We’d become vulnerable.
On K Street, another crowd of Trump supporters and Proud Boys were shouting at us from in front of the Hyatt,
“You’re the real Nazis!” I heard them yell.
When confronted by antifascists, cops created a semi-circle around them. Moments later, a Proud Boy tossed a firework underneath the feet of the police barrier, just a few feet from where I stood.
“Look out!” one of the cops screamed.
I see the firework fumbling between pairs of legs.
It goes off, sparks and fumes.
Cops beat back the Hyatt crowd while riot police advance to block the rest of K street off from counter-protestors. It’s around this time I realize I don’t know anyone in my immediate surroundings. I message my group chat and see they’ve relocated to Thomas Circle temporarily.
There is no clear way out of the plaza. Police are trying to contain us. I walk past the Starbucks towards the opposite end of K from the Hyatt, then take a right turn down 17th street with a few strangers. Turning another right, we discover a pocket of Proud Boys headed our way. “It’s those Antifa BITCHES,” they yell as they bolt towards us.
I bolt back towards the plaza.
Cops have formed another barricade across K street blocking entry.
“Stay back!” One officer tells me.
“They’re chasing us! You have let to me move past.”
Just then the Nazis erupt around the corner and I move between the officers.
Behind me I hear, “Hey scared little bitch…Where you goin’?”
A few seconds later and…I don’t know what would’ve happened.
I keep moving back towards the plaza.
I don’t look back, until some comrades come our way.
Proud Boys push past the cops.
A comrade falls and is beaten by Nazis.
Cops swarm yanking people on all sides of me.
I’m walking backwards, watching it all unfold when an officer pushes me forward with a baton “I said get BACK!” He screams.
My hands go up as I skirt around him.
I make it to the St. Regis and sit on the curb, breathing heavily. Just up the block, closer to Lafayette Park, a protester dances and gyrates to “This Is America” by Childish Gambino as it blasts from a loudspeaker. It’s all too on the nose. I glance at the White House. I think about Trump…and well, he’s still a piece of shit. Then I think about Biden – how he was elected precisely because he was the safe old white guy, the racist most of us were comfortable with…how in spite of all I understood, or thought I understood, I allowed an illusion of innocence shield me from this as I begrudgingly filled out my mail-in ballot. I’ll have to live with that. I knew and still I was a fool.
In his writings, Saul remarked how his father, Herschel, was a man born before his time – someone whom he described, “lived to the beat of a different drum.” Saul feared, however, that his father’s fate had come to claim him as well. He despised how his soldiering in the Second World War would seize his childhood; how his youth had been mutilated into something distorted and fragile; how he had been left with frail threads of faith in a Nation That Never Was, that finally frayed when bombs tore limbs in Birmingham, Da Nang, and in the revelation of Watergate decades later. Greatest Generation – ha! No heroes there, only survivors.
Taken from a journal entry a few months before his death in 1992, Saul wrote the following passage:
“Friends and comrades lay buried in foreign soil,
their bodies never came home,
their youth wasted on the tragedy of politics and corruption.
If I could speak to them now
I would be embarrassed to tell them that their sacrifice was wasted.
I cannot speak to them
and that may be a good thing.
It should be that way;
after all, they did not survive to see the repudiation of their goodness…
The defeated have, in actuality, become the victors;
the heroes, the conquered.”
I stood by myself the afternoon after one of the summer protests, leaning against the text of the Gettysburg Address beside the foot of Lincoln, the seat of misplaced faith, gazing several feet away at the spot Dr. King once stood, where faith could once be touched. I contemplated where fate brought me the night before. I had just seen my city in an entirely new light – enraged and ablaze. Now, we were anxiously anticipating federal occupation – Nearly 6,000 law enforcement agents would clamp their fists around the city – from the National Guard, the Army, FBI, and MPD, to the Bureau of Prisons, US Park Police, and Drug Enforcement Administration. Throughout the centuries, from the institution of Black Codes to Radical Reconstruction and beyond, the District has long acted as a lab for the political machinations of senators and representatives operating at the opposite end of the National Mall. What happens in this city has almost always been a preview to the nation of what’s to come. What I saw across those months struck like a culmination of the War on Drugs and the subsequent War on Terror, wrought upon the country’s own citizens.
On countless occasions, I’ve walked theses streets, treaded them often alongside friends and family. Now I was alone. Alone to bear the weight. Alone to dwell on how nights like these would be trivialized for years to come and the media would get it all wrong. Alone to sit in book clubs that feel utterly beside the point…too little, too late – more a reaction out of guilt than an action or commitment made out of responsibility. I recognize that there have been times, more often than not, where I had been too lazy to weed out the difference, or where I was just simply desperate for direction – though if anyone is still in need of answers they can follow the trails of blood splattered atop broken glass.
I continue to think about that first night home and the many fraught nights since. I think about my conversation with my dad on Election Night. I think about my mother, who suggested “No one should be down there. It just feeds their flame. Let them pitter out.” I think about how I wanted to be anywhere else.
Do I have the courage to die for what I believe in?
That damn question reappears at the forefront of my mind.
I didn’t want to die.
I wonder if grandpa Saul asked himself the same question in 1944.
Or if Herschel asked himself that question in 1905.
Perhaps it’s a privilege to even ask such things.
Sitting on the curb by the St. Regis that cold night in December, I hear trap music trailing in from a distance. An organizer zips past the police barrier on his longboard, portable speaker in his hand. The cavalry had come. My group had returned to the plaza. Not long afterwards, the lot of us left to fight another day. The Proud Boys would surely be back. The Nazis would return.
The morning of January 6th, I agreed to scout out downtown. Darting through blocks on my bike, I observed that law enforcement officers were few and far between. National guardsmen appeared mostly unarmed and without any kind of protective armor whatsoever. There were no military vehicles or even paddy wagons visible – only police cars both marked and unmarked. I rode across the northern end of the Mall, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol building, continuing towards Union Station. Rerouting back towards the Capitol, I witnessed Trump supporters arguing with police officers over the restricted access to the Capitol lawn, claiming they were being repressed when thousands were presently gathered just some yards away. Clearly, they were from out of town. It seems claiming to be oppressed amidst vast access is a common stance with this group. My phone dies just I hear loud banging and smashing noises from the direction of the Capitol. I make the decision to go home.
Walking through the door, Mom sees me. “I was about to text you.” She says. The news on TV displays a riot happening live in the Capitol. Just as Congress began the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory, a crowd of White supremacists had broken into the building with minimal resistance from the building’s law enforcement. Many were even welcomed inside by officers. “This is your house now,” one of them would say to the rioters. Rioters brought handguns, long guns, and explosives into the building. Most weren’t wearing masks. The Senate would be evacuated from their chamber only a mere minute before the rioters gained access. Photos captured a Nazi waving a Confederate flag after having entered the building. Immediately in real-time, right wing politicians and media pundits worked to craft a hastily composed narrative around the event. Some tried to paint the group as disgruntled patriots experiencing economic anxiety, expressing doubt over the election results; simultaneously news threads attempted to place the blame on deep-cover communists associated with the Antifascism and Black Lives Matter movements, or the Deep State. Liberal media couldn’t even quite bring themselves at first to label the act as terrorism. I sink next to my father, who is sitting on the couch. We watch in silence.
It’s a year later and I am living in Queens. I saved up some money and made the move to New York. Weather’s started to get colder. I’m here to be an actor, an artist. The events of the past year haunt me still.
Memory glitches to me biking to work on a warm Saturday last summer. I take a moment to breathe, pausing at stop sign just ahead of me. I push myself upright from my bike seat and I notice how much my thighs ache, pained from the ride back and forth from the restaurant over the past week. At least I’m off that night. My earbuds are in, and I am hearing, seeing, smelling “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis. The jazz that Sabbath morning is very soothing. What catches my eyes is the orange glow from the sun – how it treats the leaves on a nearby tree while staying engaged in a balancing act against the shadows leaning upon a couple of churches and a Montessori school at the busy intersection of 16th and Columbia.
Mt. Pleasant was a one-time suburb that was eventually swallowed by the city. The beginning of the 20th century saw White neighborhood committees ice out Black residents, only for the neighborhood to become predominantly Black by the middle of the century as whites began their flight to Upper Northwest. American military interventions south of the U.S. border opened up Mt. Pleasant as a waypoint for weary travelers; a new home for Salvadoran sojourners escaping civil war. A number of them, the esquineros, spend the days and years since their arrival sitting atop box crates, duking it out over checkers played with bottle cap pieces. Heineken versus Bud Light or something of the sort.
In a different time, when I would leave back to college after a holiday break, my dad would lovingly say to me “This will always be your home, Sammy,” It certainly is a sweet thought. I’d like to think it to be true. But neighbors keep coming and going. New kids conquer the cracks in the pavement. The bronze idol of my innocence grows coated in green.
I’m 23 at the time, so I guess I’m grown. That’s what the laws say at least. I still don’t know what I wanna be, really. I dock my bike across the street from the Metro PCS famous for blasting homemade Go-Go CDs:
“I hope she cheats on you with a basketball player
Hope that she Kim Kardashians her way up
Don’t know the difference tween a touchdown or a lay up
Gotchu on Viagra in order for you stay up
I may sound bitter
I’m a little bitter
Just a little bitter
I’m mad thatchu with her
I’m in Salt Lake City now I’m up outta the picture
Remember how it was when I was with ya?
Sex so good
Do you remember
Now look at how it all turned out now….”
Reaction is killing this Marsha Ambrosius cover. And you know what? If my ass to is be up early on a Saturday getting ready to feed folks some bottomless mimosas amidst a global pandemic, then at least this playlist from across the street has me singing before the storm.
I live in The Land Beyond Comedy, where satire spoils like old fruit. John Stewart ran his race, and like a prophet who had finished his deliverance, he took a bow and dipped out before shit really hit the fan. Too many people tried to nab the baton for the next relay. I guess, they’re trying to make sense of a senseless world. We all are. But I must admit the trope is tired now. It would all be so funny if it wasn’t all so horrible, yet we carry on and laugh to keep from crying.
Another glitch in my imagination sends me gliding to a speech given before I was born, one I had known only in recordings. The late, great poet Maya Angelou stood upon the steps of the US Capitol on a frigid January day in 1992, during the inauguration of president Bill Clinton, speaking the words of her epic poem “On the Pulse of Morning:”
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again
Oh, how that dawn spilled from her lips! It came flowing from a place of victory. The Cold War had just ended. Apartheid was declared over in South Africa. The words seemed to usher in new age – and a glorious one at that! A new chapter…
“…Now look at how it all turned out now…”
Then the rain came
And ink bled through the whole damn book
Stuck in the present
I glitch to the past
Glitch to the future
I fade to black
Some might catch through-line of this story and see hope.
Some might catch the through-line of this story and see despair.
I clutch the through-line of this story to my breast and watch my flesh bend around it,
holding in place
a plain beyond the dissonance,
unsure if I’ll ever really dwell there,
Who can place a price tag on a life?
Who is protected?
And who is served?
How can anyone of us repair what has been broken?
How, when the shards stare at us with Breonna’s eyes and smiles at us with Tamir’s face?
How long do we let this moral debt pile up on us?
Are we actors crafting this story or simply factors in a greater narrative?
There’s all this talk about saving the “Soul of the Nation.”
Well, someone please tell me
Who is gonna buy it back from the devil first?
Cuz you can be sure it was sold to him when Spaniards slayed the Tainos,
Or when the Portuguese pushed pregnant Igbo women to stand atop auction blocks.
Or when innocent Japanese were incinerated
Or when my ancestors were left to die in camps
Or when millions more had their youth stolen from them someway or somehow,
Suffocated in all this mess of myth and legend
Who will account for them?
Forget the New Testament
With all its platitudes on forgiveness
We need some Old Book wrath up in here
Moses beat the rock and betrayed himself
I read the shit
I know how it ends
The hero is
Left on the mountaintop
Defenseless before elements
They never see what they worked so hard to achieve
Maybe that’s the burden of this Great Work
I want leaps and bounds
Yet I am so afraid
I would like for that not to be the case.
But everything in my life,
all I have experienced,
has led me here.
So, I write this
to break the silence borne
from a scratched life
torn from past lives
And I write in defense of the living
And I write to remember the dead.
And I write to make something out all the rest that don’t make sense
I can’t help but think
Noah warned of water.
James warned of fire.
God brought both.
The Cost of Courage is a short story & essay that ponders the breadth of social restoration needed to make justice real in the United States. The overarching narrative recounts my personal experiences at various antifascist protest actions In Washington, D.C. between May 31st, 2020, at the height of the George Floyd Uprisings, and January 6th, 2021, during the 2021 US Capitol attack. This story is interspersed with vignettes featuring members of my paternal lineage going back three generations across events such as the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Second World War & the Holocaust, as well as the height of the War on Drugs.
This piece has been written, edited, and revised many times over a period of a year and a half, beginning in the summer of 2020. Originally, it existed as two separate essays, before being remixed together. Writing this story served as a means for me to process the heartbreak I felt towards my country’s failure to address a plethora of compounded issues, including anti-Black racism, the COVID-19 Pandemic, the subsequent recession, as well as ongoing neighborhood gentrification. Additionally, these events all collided with the abrupt end to my senior year as an acting student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a result of the pandemic, which forced me to move back to my childhood home in Washington. As I was writing, my father was simultaneously engaging in research regarding our family history. Details from that research comprise a number of the vignettes included in this narrative.
My desire for viewers of this work is that they will become curious regarding the justice seekers buried in their own lineages, along with their own individual roles pertaining to seeking justice in the present-day. Where is the line between healthy idealism and healthy cynicism? How do we react in the face of violent oppression by the State and others? What is the value of courage under these circumstances? What is our collective role in restoring the “soul” of this country? How can justice be fully restored, when the harm stretches back centuries? These are questions I have continued to ask myself throughout the writing process. I can only hope those who read this piece ask themselves similar questions.
I am an actor, writer and director currently living in Queens, New York. I recently moved to New York from Washington in order to participate in a Kenan Fellowship with Lincoln Center Education where I look to develop my skills as a teaching artist within the New York public schools. My father is a former human rights & housing lawyer, presently working as a judicial educator. He is also an avid percussionist. He has long influenced my passion for merging my artistic endeavors with matters of social justice. He has often told me restorative justice represents the future of judicial work, and a possible window into a post-carceral justice system. I am fascinated by the concept of restorative justice and eager to see more of its implementation across different types of cases.
As an artist, I hope to assist others in their journey to transform into self-actualized beings in the legacy of educators such as Paulo Freire and bell hooks, and that of theater-makers like Augusto Boal. It is my personal belief that we are living amidst a changing epoch; a tectonic shift in our society. I know artists to be the architects of human imagination; therefore, I see it as my personal responsibility to imagine possible futures in a fashion that acknowledges how our pasts blend with our ever-changing present. Restorative justice is undoubtedly a part of this future.