(Photo: Creative Commons)
United States / Racial Hate

Black is Front Lines

(The names of key individuals in this essay have been removed for the sake of anonymity.)

I survived. I felt the pain of an unsolicited knife and fought back. I gave myself credit for my resilience. Throughout hardship comes strength so I can achieve happiness and I can love and care for myself in the way that I need to. The strength within me is inherent. I hold my head up high, I will never give up; I’m here, and I’m staying.

These words were delivered on November 16 in the Westchester County Court by Osita Douboulay at the sentencing of Robert McCallion, a white supremacist who stabbed his17-year-old daughter H eight times. The attack took place on March 13, 2020, the same night Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky by police officer Myles Cosgrove. McCallion received 15 years for attempted murder and a hate crime. Unsurprisingly, the police found a small arsenal of illegal semi-automatics and white supremacist propaganda in his apartment.

On March 13, I had just returned home from school after being ejected from campus during the first wave of the pandemic. Top of mind for my family, and everyone else’s, was the virus. This was right before people began wiping down groceries with disinfectant and crossing the street when anyone approached. On that night, we were dealing with a different kind of virus, one not so easily mitigated by a vaccine; one where Black skin is and has always been the first line of defense.

My sister, Zia, called the police that night. Zia and her friend Y accompanied H to visit her father in Avalon, a complex of cushy riverside apartments with a private pool when McCallion approached them dressed in a hooded sweatshirt. H had gone upstairs to retrieve something, and while Zia and Y waited by the car, McCallion exited the apartment building and aggressively approached. He swung a punch at Y, causing her to drop a box of perfume. She dodged and the glass shattered, providing an opportunity for them to escape behind the building and into the trees. This is when Zia dialed 911. From their hiding spot up the hill, they could hear H’s screams he descended on her with unspeakable cruelty. In this neighborhood of Ossining, New York—a majority white, liberal, and upper-middle-class town in New York’s illustrious suburb, Westchester—the police showed up within minutes. When the police and the ambulance arrived, Zia and Y watched from the parking lot as H was carried on a stretcher into the emergency vehicle, her blood visible on the white walls inside. This is when Zia called our mother. We arrived shortly after.

I remember thinking that the scene could have just as easily been caused by an elderly person falling down the stairs. It seemed calm considering the circumstance. What my mind can’t seem to wrap itself around is that on this very same night, possibly in the same moment, a small army of police officers let 10 shots sail through Breonna’s front door, killing her in her own home.

For me, these two incidents, by way of cruel fortuity, are intimately linked. Breonna’s story, her murder, made the international news. H’s story had a brief run in local online publications. She managed to survive the attack, and after undergoing facial reconstructive surgery, will recover decently from the physical wounds. If McCallion were successful, would she have made it onto the New York Times? What if the hate crime was committed by a police officer? If H were a black man, would there have been more press coverage? Does an instance of hate-based violence only gain notoriety if the murderer gets off, if there’s no justice? What if McCallion had gotten 10 years instead of 15? What if he got five? What if H was a protestor enthralled in street revolution, marching in tight braids and black boots? Would people have noticed if she were defacing public property when she was stabbed?

There are several possible reasons as to why this story did not get the coverage or public outrage it deserved. For one, there were no pedestrians filming, no video of the incident to go viral. H is also a black woman and acts of racial violence against black women—committed by police or otherwise—tend to not get the same notoriety and travel the same media distance as they do for black men. Most acts of violence in this country, whether justice is served or not, sit in the dark, the victims’ stories going untold.

As I write this in November of 2021, not one week ago, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all charges for his actions in Kenosha, Wisconsin on the account of self-defense: first-degree intentional homicide, not guilty; attempted first-degree intentional homicide, not guilty; first-degree reckless homicide, not guilty; two charges of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, not guilty. Rittenhouse shot three white men, killing two of them and wounding the third, at a BLM protest responding to the actions of Kenosha police who shot and severely injured Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in 2020 with no repercussions.

Rittenhouse’s reasoning in court for being in Kenosha was to protect a car dealership from being vandalized and to provide medical aid. Viral photos of Rittenhouse from that hot night in August show a 17-year-old boy, oily-faced and pubescent, radiant with red flare lights and self-righteous rage, still several years away from ordering a drink, one year shy of being able to join the military, donning a backward baseball cap and dressed unambiguously for beer pong­—only he is carrying a semi-automatic Smith & Wesson M&P 15. Rittenhouse appeared in his first national television interview on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight soon after the Wisconsin jury acquitted him on all charges. The world is currently rattling with his story, amplifying his voice and experience through the global media echo chamber.

BLM activists argue, convincingly, that the jury’s verdict emboldens white supremacists to antagonize protestors of police violence against black Americans. It sends the message that you can show up with an assault rifle and if anyone dies, a self-defense claim will keep you out of prison. This spectacle provides the perfect stage for a repeated American drama. It’s just unintelligible enough for consumers of all sides to bite down and get riled up, for the Right to rally behind Rittenhouse as an upstanding citizen, and for the Left to point out the court ruling as another glaring example of systemic white supremacy. If we take a step back, we realize that none of this is new or surprising.

If we look at it too closely, however, and allow it to consume our view, we forget that the most frequent instances of racial hate and violence are far less media-friendly. They are quickly and silently delivered, they are dealt with, and are tucked away. We forget that there are violent racists walking through our very own backyards and that black skin and all people of color are always the first line of defense. Sometimes, three black girls in a parking lot are the first line of defense.

McCallon got 15 years (which seems low to me, but I’m no legal expert) and pleaded guilty on all charges. He has been tucked away and dealt with by our legal system. But justice, even when delivered, is not an antidote for the virus of depraved violence in this country. We have some answers for how to fix our legal systems. We have models for reimagining our prison systems away from corporate slavery. We know that the police in this country need reformation to address racial trauma in inner cities; but no one has successfully proposed how to unsew the seeds of hatred planted in every single town in this country, how to intervene before the attack.

According to the FBI, hate crimes have risen to their highest level in over a decade in the United States. In 2020, there were 7,759 hate crime incidents, 470 more than in 2019 and at an increase of six percent, steeper than previous years. The McCallion attack, assuming it made its way into FBI records, is just one of these hate crimes. Anti-Black hate crime was the most common at 2,755 out of 4,939 incidents motivated by race, ethnicity, and ancestry broadly. Hate crimes are defined by the FBI as a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity—so there’s a lot in there, and they’re not all stabbings and killings. But some of them are, and probably an increasing amount.

This past summer, my family took a vacation upstate to Lake Placid, NY in the Adirondacks. It was a much-needed respite for us after a year and a half of pandemic grind and burnout. We spent the nights watching The Great British Bakeoff, cooking to avoid eating out, and laughing around endless rounds of Bananagrams, which I have resolved to never be able to win. During the day, we walked as a family through the old Olympic village between hiking and kayaking. On the day before our return home, my sister and I snuck out into the light rain for a swim. The water was warm, the air was cool and steamy. We circled the lake three full times, shivering as we unpacked the year.

The topic of conversation was primarily family. We expressed enormous pride for what our parents went through to be able to provide us with the life we have, through all the trauma and hardship. We praised our mother, an immigrant to this country from Nigeria at 17 without a high school diploma, who, through eight years of grueling persistence and lack of pay, managed to carry her education nonprofit through the pandemic. We praised our grandparents, who built and operated schools in Calabar, Nigeria while my mother was growing up and just barely survived the violent horrors of the Biafra civil war. We praised our father, who came out of humble origins to provide financial stability for us and who had survived 9/11 by finding shelter in a bakery refrigerator in downtown Manhattan. We counted all the little moments, the near deaths, the ones who didn’t make it, that sum to create our improbable existence.

Sitting at the edge of the water, made mirror-still in the rain and empty of other tourists, Zia reflected on how the attack on H had impacted her. She expressed deep remorse for H and her family for the wrenching trauma that they experienced. Ultimately, though, she was getting through, journaling daily as a way of processing her emotions and new anxieties. I was probing because I was curious, especially since we had spoken so little about the event and its lack of news attention made it feel as though it didn’t happen. At the same time, that day in 2020 calcified into a feeling for us that events like those were somehow even more present, that the possibility for violence could approach from anywhere, that McCallion could spring forth from the placid lake at any moment. But still, we entered the water and swam until our arms and legs ached from treading.

After our swim, in silence, we sat in this feeling of dark, disheartening astonishment—and a bit of pride—that this country that has given us such a beautiful life, could at any moment deliver an unsolicited knife. As privileged as we are, we stood reminded of what it means to be American in that moment—to be Black in America.

We took our time on the way home, weaving and rewinding our way through the suburban blocks to delay our return to the Airbnb. When darkness descended, we began to notice rows of Blue Lives Matter flags on the lawns. We became more and more aware of our wet, exposed Black bodies in this empty, red-white town, and in a moment only understandable as prejudiced fear, we increased our walking pace. We quickly found our way back to the laughter and the Bananagrams and the British Baking Show.

Today is Thanksgiving. My family is mixed-race, so there will be Nigerians and Mayflower-descended Anglo-Saxons enjoying a strange combo of Obe Atta stew and Yorkshire Pudding. We will laugh until our stomachs hurt and forget that the cruel world exists. There is much to be grateful for. But when we pray together, as we usually do, Zia and I will remember H’s words and recite the mantra: Throughout hardship comes strength so I can achieve happiness and I can love and care for myself in the way that I need to. The strength within me is inherent. I hold my head up high, I will never give up; I’m here, and I’m staying.