I would have attended the first and second Beacon 4 Black Lives protests—on June second and June sixth—if I’d known about them beforehand. Word, it seemed, had spread largely via Instagram, with which I rarely interact—and lockdown had dramatically cut back on my chances of gleaning vital news from casual conversation.
The week of June eighth, however, I started googling “protest beacon ny” every day—and did manage to find out about the third march (set to start at 2:45pm, on Saturday, June thirteenth, at Polhill Park) a good thirty hours in advance. Wear masks and maintain distance, the notice said; those wishing to speak should send the organizers an email.
Saturday afternoon, shortly after 3pm, I found myself in a crowd maybe a hundred fifty strong marching down Main Street, toward Fishkill Avenue, en route to Memorial Park. As we walked, we chanted:
“No justice, no peace! No racist police!”
“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
“Whose streets? Our streets!”
“Whose city? Our city!”
“Say his name! George Floyd!”
“Say her name! Breonna Taylor!”
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
“Black lives matter!”
“I can’t breathe!”
At the park, facing a stage flanked by powerful speakers, I sat on the grass and listened.
One of the organizers recounted being thrown to the ground, in his Army ROTC uniform, by police officers who accused him, solely because of his skin color, of being a drug dealer, and called him the “N” word. This had happened, he said, in Dutchess County.
A young biracial man told this story: when he was just fourteen, and a student at Beacon High School, an eighteen-year-old white man had severely stabbed him and two friends, also of color, out of the blue. Later, at the police station, the officer he spoke to insisted that he must have provoked the attack, and refused to take a statement from him declaring otherwise; the perpetrator was never charged, much less brought to justice.
A Black mother said that when a white girl had assaulted her son—splitting his lip—at Beacon High School, he’d chosen not to defend himself, for fear he’d face outsized consequences. The girl was never disciplined; a school administrator told the mother, outright, that if the roles had been reversed her son would have been expelled.
These were just some of the stories; there were more. And, I gathered, additional tales with similar arcs had been shared at previous protests.
I hadn’t shown up seeing the police (or the school system) as benign: I’d watched the NYPD bully and intimidate protesters in Manhattan, during Occupy (and chanted, in response, “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”), and, of course, I’d read and heard about plenty of assaults and murders perpetrated by badge-wearers nationwide. Still, these first-person accounts impressed upon me, in a bodily way, the prevalence—and impact—of state-sanctioned terror.
Stories matter. They bring home truths that numbers can’t.
Another Beaconite (a white woman spearheading a movement to defund the Beacon police department) told a different kind of story—about the origins of policing on Turtle Island. Our present-day police forces, she said, began as slave patrols, in the southern states, charged with keeping enslaved Africans from rising up. Therefore, she extrapolated, we the people cannot turn our police forces into benevolent entities, through reform—we must do away with them. Period.
At least one member of the audience—a Beacon police lieutenant—disagreed. He told the crowd that he’d joined the police force because, when he was a kid, the police had rescued him and his mother from his gun-wielding father. He expressed concern that some Beaconites did not share his experience of the police as a source of protection. Yet he did not address, or apologize for, any specific violation perpetrated by any member of the Beacon Police Department.
Without specifics, stories fall flat. So do attempts at reconciliation. For apologies to land, they must include details, and agency: the apologizer must say, “I’m sorry I did this specific thing, which harmed you in this specific way,” not, “I’m sorry you got hurt,” or, “It pains me that you don’t feel safe.”
Then again, South Africa did not form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission until after Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress had taken power and dismantled apartheid. Perhaps, so long as policing exists, few, if any, of those who make their living as enforcers will risk telling the full story, or the whole truth.
Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her first (ill-starred) attempt at villaging in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018). Get in touch via email (email@example.com); read more at helenzuman.com; find her on Twitter @HelenZuman. Use either Federal Reserve Notes or Currents to buy her book!