Short Fiction | Sitting There On Vine Street
We were all so exhausted.
I don’t think a lot of people necessarily cared to notice that we were so exhausted, though. Possibly no one but me, everyone else stuck in their own worlds of marching, chanting, screaming, hands clenched onto cardstock with signs of all types. But that was all I could think of.
It was a mockingly bright Autumn day, the sun shone on the earth, blades of feathery grass waving under crimson and golden leaves at the blue sky as if an instigator of change on the horizon. It wasn't the brightest, for the day prior had just recently led to a fatal heat wave, yet it wasn't the dreariest, either, because the town of Old World had been known for rainy and stormy weather for quite some time now. Neither was there the smell of petrichor. So this day wasn’t one that had gone unplanned. The group we were marching against knew to pick this day and had it planned for days now. They knew to pick a day in which they could walk boastfully along Vine Street without rain, without clouds, without umbrellas, but instead with guns, semiautomatic rifles and torches.
“Fuck these people,” Kathleen said next to me, carrying a “Trump Must Go” sign in her ring-filled fingers and wearing the jean jacket I had let her borrow due to the crisp air. “I can’t believe we’re out here in 2017 still dealing with Nazis and white supremacists, and I can’t believe the police isn’t doing anything to stop them.”
I remained silent. She was a coworker at the legal office I worked at, a friend, and a newly fellow protestor.
“This is amazing, that we’re all joining together like this, Irene” Kathleen said to me again. I saw her mesmerized eyes move back towards the hundreds of people behind us.
“That’s what we need,” I said over the loud chants.
The hundreds of us were marching back from Torleta, the black housing development where I grew up that some of the KKK members had threatened to burn down and that we had swarmed to protect. As we got into the richer parts of the neighborhood, I watched people watch us silently from French and Italian outside dining and coffeeshop windows. Hate wasn’t enough to unite all of us.
It was probably the biggest protest in Old World since the shooting of Jamil Walker by a police officer past Spring, mostly because people of all groups had come together. I saw signs for Black Lives Matter. Antifa. Anti-Racist Action. Workers World Party. The National Council of Churches. Signs from a variety of peoples with different intentions, all with the common disdain for blatant white supremacy. Multiple issues wrapped in a gift of solidarity. Nuance gone for the general rule of loving our neighbor. A crowd of people, differing on many ideas yet succumbing to the power of hate to bring one another together. Just a crowd. I was more concerned, though, about the countless people who noiselessly watched as we marched from the sidewalks and in parked cars. More concerned at the people marching with us now who had not marched for the trans people of color being killed in the county, or for the Chinese immigrant Chris Lee who had recently been killed after a police officer mistook a pen in his hand for a gun at the local high school. Who had not marched when my best friend’s cousin Jeff Clemens had gotten strangled by a security officer at Walmart for selling cigarettes outside the store, the officer acquitted. Instead, the rising lyrics of overt xenophobia and violence had catapulted people into feeling, had catapulted them out of a privilege of not knowing, a privilege of erasing.
The town meeting with members of the NAACP just a few weeks earlier had made the decision to take down Robert E. Lee’s statue from the front of the courthouse, a decision that came after its existence being debated in the town since the Civil Rights Movement. This decision incited anger in those who now were chanting “You will not replace us” down a few blocks over. Neo-Nazis, KKK, and numerous white nationalists were gathered around the statue now, united in their “Take America Back” march, torches flickering in the Autumn air, Confederate flags waving in the air. Many of them weren’t from the town, having shirts boasting different organizations and movements. Hate had united them.
“No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA” the crowd I now marched with chanted together, taking strides down the pavement towards them.
We marched steadily towards Vine, chanting through the deafening choruses of silence from those watching, and through the boisterous chanting of the white supremacists. Cars drove slowly as we moved past them. An organizer pulled a man out of the crowd who had a toddler on his shoulders and asked him to take her home, as it was dangerous.
We were walking past the police station when I noticed a former colleague have a gun pointed towards him by a police officer on the corner of the street, outside a restaurant. A black man recorded the exchange wordlessly.
“Oh my fucking God!” I screamed, running out of the march. “Lawrence!”
He was standing on the pavement, hands shaking in the air as the police officer stared at him with his gun.
“His hands are up,” I snapped once I got to the corner. “Now are you going to do something productive? Like stopping white supremacists?”
“Shhhh…” the man recording came closer to me and put his hand on my back. “You’ll make it worse.” That comment reminded me of something my mom would say. I know she was proud of me protesting, but wouldn’t approve of me actively putting myself in contact with the police. Follow the law and mind your business, she’d say. In America you can’t expect too much from people.
I looked at the man’s phone. 8:04 the video time said. I could not believe it had been that long of an incident. The bliss of ignorance had filled my soul for too long.
“What did he do?” I asked the man as he pointed his phone towards the officer guiding Lawrence, my college friend, to a police car.
“I don’t know sis, I think he—” He stopped talking as I heard a crash. “Holy shit!”
I followed his gaze to a blue car reversing backwards after having crashed into the march. Suddenly, the man was filming the car instead. “What is going on?!”
“Do something!” a woman screamed at the police officers standing around the scene. “Someone call an ambulance!”
I saw multiple people on the ground, injured. I screamed out in horror.
“This woman isn’t moving!” I heard someone scream. It was a pale, small woman, with a badly mangled face. I didn’t recognize her at first, until I saw her clothes, wearing the denim jacket I had let her borrow.
“Kath…” I said breathlessly as I ran and crouched towards her. “Oh my God, Kath, I am so sorry. Someone get a paramedic!”
I held her hand as blood spewed from her mouth, a large bump forming on her head and several lacerations on her arms and legs. I placed my other hand in her silky chestnut-colored hair, becoming covered in her blood as I noticed her head was soft in the back. I checked her pulse, my heart pounding as her own heartbeat slowed down.
“Kath, stay with me,” I begged. A paramedic came from behind me and asked me to move, but I couldn’t. My tears fell on her face as I held her. I heard her mumbling, keeping my finger on her pulse, begging it to continue moving.
“Ma’am, step away” the paramedic said behind me again. And just like that, she was gone. I looked down at my blood-soaked hands, and then up at blue skies. I could still hear the Take America Back crowd chanting in full swing on Vine. I collapsed on the ground, waking up the next day in a hospital. The news that Kathleen died had gotten out that next morning.
“One dead, 18 injured in White Supremacist Car Crash” had headlined international news the first day after the march. The day after, it became, “Woman Dead Fighting For Peace and Love.” The day after, the headline became “Kathleen Peters: Heroine Of Old World”.
The day after it became “Kathleen Peters Believed in Racial Equality for All”. News reporters from all over the country were now in our small town. Protests against white supremacy went on every day. Four days later, Kath’s funeral was out the door of the Episcopal Church, reporters and cameras everywhere. Then, silence. No more chanting. No more marching. No more vigils. Two days after the demonstrations ended, my former colleague Lawrence was dead, my friend telling me that the police reported he killed himself in jail. The days moved even faster.
It was the day of the next townhall meeting. It felt like a different space, it felt surreal. I watched from the back as throngs of people entered the auditorium across from the courthouse as security watched.
“The City Council has decided to withhold plans to take down Robert E. Lee’s statue until after we finish investigating recent events” Mayor Galvin announced amongst other points on his deliverance.
Someone stood up.
“Really? The KKK and Neo-Nazis can come into our town and say whatever they want, and we get cast aside?”
People began to yell.
“Settle down,” the mayor said. “We must investigate this and have re-vote on the statue’s place in Old World. Anyway, let’s move on.”
Someone else stood up, this time a man in his fifties with stark white hair and glasses. “I have never seen something so disgusting happen in Old World for all the 40 years I’ve lived here,” he said. “I expect better from the people I’ve voted for to keep this town just and fair.”
I watched everyone stand up around me, cheering, chanting “We Will Not Be Silenced”. The auditorium was filled to the brim now, more people standing in the back as the space filled up.
Someone took a microphone out their purse and began to pass it around, multiple people voicing their concerns. I had been at every single meeting since one of the first phone recorded shootings of a black man by a police officer years ago, and hadn’t seen anything like it. I saw almost no one who looked like me. These had been people who prided themselves on staying “objective,” on staying silent and “rational” when issues between whites and blacks came up in the town. These people had not “condoned” the Confederacy yet had prided themselves on acknowledging value in it. Something had changed.
“You’ve become irate, and it is inappropriate” A council member said into her microphone as one woman screamed “murder”. “You will have to be removed.”
“Why did you think you could walk in here and do business as usual after what you allowed to happen” the woman screamed as the police grabbed her, going limp and being dragged across the floor. People cheered.
“We should put Kathleen Peters on the pedestal instead!” a man yelled.
Nods and cheers of agreement ran through the course of the meeting. “People are dying,” a woman who sat next to me said quietly, tears in her eyes.
“Fuck this meeting, fuck this council, and fuck white supremacists!” a man yelled.
“Kathleen Peters will not die in vain!”
People began to cheer, two people standing on top of the council’s desk with a sign that read “BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS”. Then, people began to file out of the auditorium before the meeting was over.
I watched out the window as someone with a ladder climbed up to the top of the Robert E. Lee statue in front of the courthouse and put a rope around it. Before the police could get to them, a group of others pulled the rope down. Robert E. Lee’s head cracked on the sidewalk, his body torn in half.
I walked out of the auditorium and across the street to where they stood. As they spit on the broken, shattered statue, I hoisted myself up onto the empty pedestal with both hands, knees scraping against the cement, the lime scratching my skin like sandpaper. I made eye contact with one of the demonstrators as I climbed and he quickly looked down…Lee wasn’t meant to be there and neither was I. As soon as I got situated onto the pedestal and sat they all walked away, continuing their outburst down the street. I watched in silence.
I saw a black person pass I had never seen before, Boredom by Tyler the Creator pounding through his Beats headphones as he came to a stop in front of the pedestal on which I sat. I slowly hummed to the music. He blinked at the statue. Now, beneath his feet, it looked so powerless. I’m sure he had seen it multiple times before this day, passed it more times than he could remember. He looked up at me and made eye contact before wordlessly kicking Lee’s nose with his Tims, shrugging and walking away. As the music faded out into the distance, so did my thoughts.
Beyond the courthouse, the throngs of people who didn’t look like me continued to cheer at Lee’s supposed defeat, dancing, singing as if celebrating after the Yankees had just won the 2009 World Series. A pale white man ran from a police officer, the officer following after him. Other people screamed for help as they were arrested.
I was sitting there on Vine Street. Red sirens were streaming through the air. Rain was falling. I was waiting for something new. And you, you disheveled people. You expect me to rescue you.