By Lenn Robbins
My father was one of those men who was ahead of his time. He was studying to be a doctor when he went into the Army and came out of WWII destined to become a chiropractor and practice modalities and manipulations when it was considered voodoo medicine.
When he woke me one Wednesday morning in 1963 and said we were going on a road trip, I thought it was just dad being dad. As we made our way to Penn Station I did what most three-and-a-half years did:
“Where are we going? What king are we going to see? Why are there no white people on this trains?
I was a lot scared and a little excited.
I don’t remember the man with the voice as smooth as rolling waves speak about a dream but I remember the energy in Washington, D.C. It was like getting too close to a generator and feeling a tingling as the hair rose on the back of my neck and the top of my scalp.
My fear dissipated as strangers – most of them black but some white – smiled at me as I bobbed along on my father’s shoulders. I was handed a tiny American flag with a gold point that made it through three moves.
I think of August 28, 1963 as my first emotional memory. I was disappointed because I never got to see a king. But I heard him. I heard people cheering and saw others crying. The Reflecting Pool was as big as an ocean and a tall pointed building was a rocket ship pointed to the sky.
More than a decade later I began to piece together that wonderful gift my father gave me. The school zones in Brooklyn were reconfigured. Black students were bussed to Canarsie High School. There were riots. Parents pelted yellow school buses with rocks and slurs.
I remember after one Saturday football game, a group of white kids with bats chasing a black kid down Rockaway Parkway. One of the white kids threw his bat and it struck the black kid right in the temple.
His legs went all rubbery and I stood, frozen in time and fear, as the rioters descended on the black kid who was slumped against a car right in the middle of the four-lane street. A car stopped and a school administrator opened the door and tossed the injured kid into the back seat like a sack of potatoes. The car sped off. Only then did I realize I was not breathing.
I never learned what happened to that kid or who he was. Hopefully he was not seriously injured physically, but I can only guess at the emotional trauma he’s had to carry with him. When he enters a store and a white security guard follows him, what does he feel? Fear? Anger? Both?
When he’s walking down the street and a group of white men are walking toward him, does he cross the street? White people tend to think they’re the ones that cross when coming across a group of people of color. Is it possible we’ve both got it wrong?
I puked on the sidewalk that Saturday, so shaken by what I had seen. I don’t remember how I got home but as soon as I did I stumbled into my father’s office and slumped into one of his chairs. I told him what I had seen. It was the first time I confronted my own naivety.
My dad spoke to me, trying to explain the poison known as racism that is as much a part of this country as corn. We had many family dinners talking about inequality and injustice. Now my world was changing right before my eyes, rotating into a darkness where a foreign language was being spoken. Ugly words. Ugly emotions. An ugly society.
The rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Canarsie went on television the next day and said, paraphrasing here, “If these students were white, no one would be making a fuss.” He was fired the next day. The priest at St. Jude’s across the street supported the rabbi but he was smart enough not to say it on TV.
I began to notice things: The name of the group on Avenue L was Concerned Citizens of Canarsie. CCC. KKK. Where was I, what was I, who was I to have been oblivious to all this?
The one thing my father said that day, that still resonates – and he said it more than once – was this:
Never think that just because you believe all people are equal that you know for one second what it’s like to be a colored person in America.
How right he was.
When Eric Garner was murdered at the chokehold hands of officer Daniel Pantaleo for allegedly peddling cigarettes, there was disbelief, sadness. When the video showed Garner pleading, “I Can’t Breathe,” 11 times before he said it no more, I felt like I was standing on Rockaway Parkway, watching a young man get clubbed.
George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe multiple times before he didn’t say anything for the final two minutes and 53 seconds that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Michael Chauvin’s knee acted as a death vise on Floyd’s neck. I gagged in my bathroom when I saw the video.
I’ve wanted to add my voice and actions to what I hope will be a watershed moment in our nation’s lurching and frustrating trek to equality more than I want baseball to return. But I feel inept and unmoored and confused.
I believe the overwhelming majority of law enforcement personnel in NYC do one of the toughest jobs on Earth with professionalism and care. Recently I attended the Anniversary Banquet and Fundraiser sponsored by the 69th Precinct in Canarsie where neighborhood policing is becoming a beacon for communities across the city.
Obviously, there are the Pantaleos and Chauvins and, perhaps even more dangerous, the covert compromised cops that need to be systematically rooted out so a better system can flourish; so that good police don’t have to endure nights being pelted by bricks and bottles and Molotov cocktails.
There will never be another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but there are so many smart, strong, sensitive men and women of all colors that can step forward and lead without violence. The words of former Harvard basketball star Seth Towns, now at Ohio State, former NBA star Kareem Abdul Jabbar and former Stanford star and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker have helped me better understand the toxic gulf of racism that poisons this nation.
My father has been dead for some 12 years but I keep his words, especially now, close. I do not portend to know what it is to be a man of color in this nation. Nor do I have a clue what emotions must roil within officers that have sworn to protect and serve yet find themselves vilified.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
We need to end the violence and let the latest horrifying death of an innocent black man move us closer to fulfilling a dream that has never felt farther away.