I was chatting with Deputy Managing Editor Yesha Callahan on Monday about suffering through a terrible tragedy this weekend in which I cracked my iPhone screen. While telling her about my experience trekking through the holiday shopping crowd to the Apple Store, she assaulted me with a demeaning joke.
“There’s an Apple Store in Alabama?” (Seriously, I thought about calling human resources. I think that’s a form of harassment. #MeAlso)
[I still don’t believe there’s one there. You’re good with telling fables. —Yesha]
I explained to her that Birmingham, Ala., is an actual city, I’ve never seen a cow here and the city has an Apple Store that I have to sneak into because I’m barred from going there. It’s not in a barn or an abandoned plantation house and that ...
“Wait ... what? You’re banned from the Apple Store?” Yesha rudely interrupted. (I put that in the HR report, too.)
[I’m rude. Have we met? —Yesha]
“Well, technically, it’s the entire shopping center,” I explained. “Besides, it’s not all Apple Stores. But the one here is only minutes from my house, and one of only two Apple Stores in the entire state. Plus, it was a few years ago, and no one wants to be the person who snitched on the Black Lives Matter guy, so ... ”
Again she attacked my delicate sensibilities by interrupting me and forced me to tell her the entire story. I showed her a short YouTube video I made about the incident for my podcast and she informed me that I had to write about it.
[Delicate sensibilities ... you don’t say? —Yesha]
The story happened almost three years ago from today’s date, on Dec. 19, 2014. It involved a protest, police departments from two cities and a then-little-known movement called Black Lives Matter.
By the end of 2014, I had already grown tired of witnessing police brutality and the deaths of black men. George Zimmerman had already been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. That summer I had traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to cover the death of Michael Brown Jr. On the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, I was driving home from Ferguson again. I had been covering the protests after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for his role in the death of Brown.
As I drove back to Birmingham, my trunk was filled with groceries to make Thanksgiving dinner for my family. While walking down the aisle shopping for those groceries at Schnucks, a supermarket within walking distance of Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown was killed, I saw a man wearing a black hoodie that said “Black Lives Matter.” I had heard it chanted in the streets of Ferguson during the protests and had seen the hashtag but figured that a local person had made the shirt. I didn’t even stop to ask.
I loaded the groceries in my car and drove home. As night fell, snow began to fall so hard that I could barely differentiate the road from the Indiana cornfields. I skidded a few times. I was barely awake. I couldn’t stop to wait for the snow to pass because I still had to make it back to Birmingham in time to greet my visiting relatives and make dinner. I was frustrated because another cop had walked away from a bullet-riddled black body. I was just tired.
I figured I wouldn’t have to deal with this again for a while. It was the end of the year and I figured I could decompress from the seemingly endless injustices I had seen. At least the holidays would give me some time to recharge, I figured.
I was wrong.
A week later, a New York grand jury decided that Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo would not be charged for the death of Eric Garner. Protests erupted around the country again. A few friends in Birmingham informed me that a group called “Black Lives Matter Birmingham” would stage two protests on Dec. 19, 2014.
The idea of the protests was to impose an economic sanction to raise awareness of the Movement for Black Lives. According to reports and rumors circulating around the city, the group would stage a “die-in” at the Galleria Mall, the biggest in the city, and stop traffic at the Summit, a large, high-end shopping center. Stopping traffic at the Summit, located on the busiest highway, right off the interstate, could shut down the entire city. It was an ingenious plan.
As weary as I was of protests that didn’t result in direct action, I decided to go observe the protests. I arrived at the Summit at noon, which was when I was told they would begin. I drove around the entire area and—seeing no protesters—drove my car to the top of the parking garage, which offered a bird’s-eye view of the area. I still didn’t see anyone, but while waiting, I spotted a cop looking over the area and talking on his police radio.
“These assholes aren’t coming here to do anything,” the white officer said. He couldn’t see me sitting in the car a few feet away. “Even if they come, what are they gonna do?”
I’ll be honest—that kinda rubbed me the wrong way.
I left, picked up a friend who had told me about the protest, and drove back to the site. By now we had discovered that the protest was scheduled for 3 p.m. When I arrived, there were dozens of protesters gathering around holding premade signs. Swat teams had also assembled with buses ready to arrest anyone who acted out of order. There were almost as many cops as there were protesters. When 3 o’clock came, the protesters began chanting, singing songs and waving their signs at the entrance of the shopping center. Customers passed by screaming, “White lives matter” and “Go home!” Then ...
No one did anything.
No one stopped traffic. No one even stepped off the curb. They took Facebook photos. They posted on Instagram. They yelled on a bullhorn. They wore masks on their faces like real revolutionaries. They were civil but not disobedient. They were all nonviolent, but no one was resisting. The words of the cop rang in my subconscious. He was correct. These assholes weren’t going to do anything. As I began to realize how right that cop had been, I grew angrier and angrier, so I stepped off the curb, into the street, and lay down.
I figured that the rest of the protesters were waiting for the first person to make a move, so I figured I’d do it. I knew the cops couldn’t arrest everyone. I had done this before. I’d been to Jena, La.; I went to Sanford, Fla. Shit, I had been at the first Million Man March. I had seen the tanks, machine guns and soldiers in Ferguson lined up in the parking lot of the same store where I had bought Thanksgiving groceries a few days earlier. I knew that if everyone protested, the cops couldn’t lock everyone up. It knew it was about to get real. It was on!
But no one came.
No one stepped off the curb and into the traffic. No one dared move into the fray. They watched. They stood there. One of the protesters walked up to me and asked me to get up. When I didn’t, he quickly moved back to the curb.
Then the police came. Two men in charge stood over me and asked me to get up. When I didn’t, they bent down and began whispering to me, pleading with me to stand up. I didn’t budge because all three of us knew that the rest of the protesters were building up their courage to join me. Any second, they were going to step off the curb and stage a die-in.
The cops began to explain nicely what was about to happen to me. I’d probably have to spend the weekend in jail. Maybe even Christmas. I’d be banned from the shopping center, too (I won’t lie—for a second I actually thought about complying because of my beloved Apple Store). But I wasn’t worried because I knew everyone was about to join me.
But no one came.
It seems as if I was down there for hours, but in reality, it only took me a few minutes to realize that no one was coming to join me. When I stood up, everyone cheered. However, I didn’t feel triumphant or proud. I was embarrassed.
I wasn’t even disappointed. I felt as though I was wrong. I thought I had come to someone else’s protest and acted out. They wanted to hold signs and I had brazenly tried to steal their thunder and take it to another level. I was the idiot, not them. I hung my head and went home.
Later, I read reports that the protesters marched along the roadside for a few minutes and staged a die-in in the mall. I called a friend who had met me in Ferguson after Mike Brown was killed, and he was astounded that no one dared to join the protest. “You’re in Birmingham! That’s the home of the civil rights movement! That’s how we have been brainwashed. They have led us to believe that it was a ‘nonviolent’ movement! They don’t say ‘nonviolent resistance.’ We have forgotten—they resisted like a motherfucker!”
I’m not originally from Alabama and had only been living here for a few years before this incident, so I don’t have a lot of friends and family here. Every so often I will run into someone who knows me from that day, and the reaction is always mixed. Some people resented me for it and said I was trying to “show up” the protesters. Others say they wish they had joined me.
So that’s why I have to sneak into the Apple Store. Truthfully, I’m over it. I am ambivalent about it. I am neither proud of my actions nor ashamed. It is just another thing that happened in my life. The only time I actually think about it is when I need something from the Apple Store. I am one of those Apple stans and that is my Disneyland. I’ve never encountered any resistance from the people at the Summit.
They’re used to people not resisting.
Pardon me, I have to go fill out an HR report.
[I’m friends with HR. Good luck with that. —Yesha]
Here’s a short video about the incident: