It was the last day of June, and the Pride Parade had caught me off guard when I arrived at 9th Street intending to meet up with my friend who was also Trinidadian, but visiting from Montréal where he lived. We were on opposite sides of the parade, and after pleading with a policeman to let me through one area, then jumping over two barricades to get to my friend’s side, I was all too ready to kick back, relax, and have a pleasant dinner. I had also invited my African-American friend to join us at the restaurant, and she arrived shortly after we ordered.
A loud commotion broke out at the door, and all eyes in the restaurant turned to the security guard, who was trying to manage a whirlwind of flailing arms. Two white guys at the table right next to us pulled out their phones to record the scene, and without warning, my friend snapped.
“This is exactly the problem! They are always recording us like this, this makes us look bad and that’s all they see. Stop recording them! Stop recording my people!”
She sprang up like a cat and was in the white guys’ faces within seconds. The commotion at the door continued, but now there was a more interesting spectacle inside the restaurant. My friend kept talking animatedly in the men’s faces, trying to explain why they shouldn’t record, but they were adamant.
“You can’t tell me what to do! Who do you think you are?” one of them was saying.
“I’m telling you not to record,” she said, swatting both their phones away now.
At that point I grabbed her, yanked her back down into the seat.
“Hey, hey, Zaria, calm down, take it easy.”
I cupped her chin in my hand and looked into her eyes.
“I understand how you feel, I agree with you. But you cannot respond like this, this is going to get you in trouble. Please calm down.”
My friend Kevin from Montréal started to apologize to the men, who were both visibly upset and still arguing. My arms wound tightly around Zaria, I leaned over her to ask them to stop engaging.
“Hi, I’m sorry this happened, I’m trying to calm her down but if you would please stop responding to her it would really help. Please sir.”
“I don’t care what color they are, you can’t tell me who to record,” they continued.
She broke away from me and kept going back and forth with them. I grabbed her in a headlock with her neck in the crook of my arm and tried to restrain her arms with my other hand.
“Zaria, listen to me, that’s it! We’re not staying in this seat, we’re moving to that table over there. We already ordered dammit and you’re gonna get us kicked out!”
“No, no, I’m fine, I’m done, we can stay here,” she said.
“Do you know how many police are outside tonight? If they call the police it’s over! You cannot talk to the police like this.”
I was conscious of all the people staring at me, the waiters hovering around, one more outburst away from kicking us out, the minds that were busily linking to stereotypes and drawing conclusions. They didn’t know that she wasn’t like this. Something had gotten into her. It was a low moment, not a marker of her character.
But the white guys had had enough.
“We’re out of here! And we’re calling the police,” they threatened as they walked out.
“Call the police then!” I yelled, “I know a bunch of lawyers and I’m a law student and we will handle it!”
But as soon as they left, I whispered, “Guys, we need to pray they don’t call the police right now. If police walk in here I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Well I ain’t scared of no pigs or no crackers!” Zaria declared.
I looked at her and in that moment I knew she was truly ready to risk it all. I also noticed that my hands were trembling.
“If the police come in here, I’ll talk to them. You’ll go to the bathroom, you understand?”
I wanted to defend my friend’s behavior and reasoning, but the truth is that I weighed multiple perspectives in my heart that night. I felt embarrassed in front of my visiting friend and the random restaurant people. Plus, if the police were called and we had to interact with them, we may have both gotten into serious trouble, over something I personally perceived as minor.
In retrospect, I also believe that it was okay for her to lose it for a moment. As a dark-skinned African American woman, she deals with a lot of racism on a daily basis, and has spent her life keeping it inside, being humble, kind, gentle, turning the other cheek. That day her shell cracked a bit, and we got to witness how sick and tired she was of white supremacy.
She couldn’t convince those white men that recording the fight was perpetuating negative stereotypes for entertainment, so she decided she would stop them by any means necessary. She knew that onlookers would be viewing her as an angry black woman, but she had a point to make and society’s opinion of her didn’t matter. She knew if the police came they would not treat her kindly, but she had watched “When They See Us,” and was utterly fed up of the whole system.
That day my friend rebelled against the pressure of having to be a composed, agreeable black person amidst all the psychological anguish of being treated less than, and who was I to tell her she was wrong? Yes, but that’s not the way, one might say. Has there ever been a right way, an effective way for us to resist oppression, that does not incur the displeasure of white society? The “innocent” bystanding white man who only wanted to record for some laughs still has more privilege than us, benefits from our degradation. Who determines when and how and against whom we should unleash our rage, because while the fight is against white supremacist systems, are these systems not perpetuated and represented by people?
I wish I could teach my friend my own sense of restraint, but I’m no saint. I’ve had my fair share of passionate rants about white coworkers and slammed doors after meetings and that one time I cussed out a white man who had a problem with our existence in his space. But I’ve suffered for a couple of my explosive retaliations, and as justified as most of them were, I’ve learned to rail against racism in more organized and strategic ways. My friend is only twenty years old, hasn’t had her first full time job yet, and still has a lot of learning to do.
Nevertheless, sometimes anger and yelling are what manifests in these situations, and we stop caring about not making a scene, and decide to confront the average white Joe over their microaggression. Bystanders, especially non-black people, can judge all they want, because they have no idea what it takes to put up with oppression all the other thousands of times we manage to maintain composure. It’s one thing for bystanders to judge, and another thing entirely for police to judge.
The prevalence of police brutality is an indicator that a black woman in a heightened state would likely be at risk during an encounter with police. If she showed blatant disdain for them, it still would not warrant the sort of violent manhandling that might ensue. Police, as an armed authority figure, should be trained to understand that an emotional person of color does not pose a threat. It was very telling that those white men claimed they would call the police, and that I was deathly terrified of that happening. Yet, my friend will continue to be her expressive, confrontational self, and grow at her own pace, amidst the danger of a society bent on keeping her polite and meek and agreeable at any cost.