My Forrest Gump moment

Race Issues
by Andrée Seu Peterson

Posted on Monday, January 5, 2015, at 9:03 am

A woman, my granddaughter, and I recently went to see The Nutcracker in Philadelphia. On the walk to the Market-Frankfort El line we passed a shop with a T-shirt in the window that said, “I Can’t Breathe,” a statement inspired by the last words of a Staten Island man who died on July 17 as a result of a police choke hold. I groaned under my breath, “Uh-boy,” and walked on. My adult companion heard me and said with shocked displeasure, “I can’t believe you.” We walked on without speaking to each other till we reached Center City.

When emerging into the light from the dark bowels of the subway station, we found ourselves suddenly in a wide current of black faces coursing counter-clockwise around the grand Second Empire–style limestone and granite City Hall, a traffic circle that usually held cars rather than humanity. A woman with a bullhorn shouted, “Hands up!” and the crowd en masse responded “Don’t shoot!” in an antiphonal rhythm showing solidarity with Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo., this past August.

The current was moving in the direction we needed to travel to turn right onto Broad Street and the theater, so we could choose to be swept up seamlessly into it for the quarter turn till we would cut away to stage right, or to stick decisively to the sidewalk perimeter. I motioned to my granddaughter to take the sidewalk, but my adult companion said peremptorily, “No, we’re walking here,” and set her face like flint to blend in with the demonstrators.

I followed the two for a few paces, with chants of “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” in stereophonic sound around me. I felt like Forrest Gump swept up by accident into a defining event of the 21st century. But uncomfortable with the company around me, and not in synch with their evaluation of the Missouri event, I all at once broke free of the tide and waited on the curb. Soon the three of us reunited in awkward silence at the turnoff, she feeling she had taken a stand with the underdog at a juncture where her story intersected briefly with history, I having voted otherwise with my feet.

We managed to enjoy the ballet, almost in the manner of a divorced couple on a strained outing with their mutual child. She said the T-shirts and protests were about “consciousness raising.” I said they were about inciting discord. Afterward, we embraced in parting. Later, she texted me saying she was sorry, and I replied that I was searching myself to see if I had an ungodly attitude toward other races. The breach between us was closed. The breach between the races, on the other hand, still evidently needs some mending. 

Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her commentary has been compiled into three books including Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides in Philadelphia, Penn.

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