The protesters march out from the corner of our street, waving posters and signs. Traffic slows to a halt as they spill into the intersection, an indignant buzz placing siege on the atmosphere.
“C’mon honey,” Mommy’s at my back and I startle. She places her hand on my shoulder—a gentle attempt to steer me away from the window, from the chaos she feels I’m too young to understand.
I’m not. The boy who died was my age. Shot in the chest three times because a policeman thought the cell phone sticking out of his pocket was a gun.
He was just fifteen.
His hands were in the air, palms facing out.
The cop didn’t think he was too young to know what happened to people when they die.
I stare too hard at the street and the crowd disappears. I’m on the bleachers again, holding my breath with the rest of the school as he steps in position to kick the penalty that’d determine our team’s victory or loss in the interschool playoff. I see the ball sail toward the goalpost, the keeper’s eager look crumpling into despair as the ball catches with the net, the stadium erupting into cheers. I remember the delight on his face, coach jumping onto the field to pat him on the head as the rest of the team swallowed them from view.
He was going to be a professional soccer player one day. He was going to graduate high school, attend college, grow up…
And someone snatched it all from him.
Someone who should have protected him.
“No justice! No peace!” an amplified voice shakes me out of my daze. The protesters are heading south. I can’t see them when they enter the bend, but I think I know their destination. They’re heading towards Aster street—where it happened.
A chill runs up my spine. I’m ashamed to let mommy lead me downstairs into the living room where daddy and my twin brother are paused in the middle of a card game, fixated on the news.
Somewhere in another city, a protest has escalated into a clash between people and the police. Sirens blare on our TV screen, a hazy cloud engulfing the crowd of protesters. People scream and run in all directions. A cop car goes up in flames, store windows shattering to bits. A can of tear gas flies through the air, exploding when it hits the stampede.
“They just killed him for no reason,” my brother says, a twinge of bitterness in his voice.
I doubt if he really knew the boy, but he must have seen him in passing, too. Our neighborhood boasts of diversity and half the kids here go to the same school. Even if we don’t all speak, you can tell a face you’ve passed in the hallway a couple of times.
“Poor boy,” mommy says. “I hope he’s resting now.”
I can’t help thinking that could have been my brother. If he were black. Would mommy have said the same thing or would we be in the street with the others instead, screaming at the top of our lungs?
I’ve reposted stuff like this on social media in the past, used hashtags to immortalize the names of innocent black men shot by police… but I’d never stopped to think it could happen in my own neighborhood. Even though ours is not particularly high income, we’re not on the low side either. Here, kids are college-bound and there’s no gang violence or thuggish behavior. I always thought it happened in poor, rough parts of town.
It’s hard to stomach how wrong I was. How stupid.
It’s hard to believe this is the USA, melting pot of ethnicities, home of opportunities and big dreams. We grasp our freedom like Lady Liberty holds her torch, never letting go.
But what is freedom if black families can’t sleep without fear that tomorrow, it could be another of their sons? What’s freedom if America isn’t safe for Americans because of the color of their skin?
When I check twitter, updates have bombarded the hashtag. There’s a live stream of the protest happening on Aster. A line of police form a wall in front of the yelling crowd. One guy stands on the hood of a car, talking through a bullhorn. Cries of “Amen” and “yeahs” echo everywhere.
The crowd breaks into a chant.
It drowns the policeman’s voice over loudspeaker, instructing everyone to disperse.
Why do they want to protest to stop? There’s been no damage. Nothing’s on fire.
Why aren’t they willing to listen?
A bang erupts and something shoots towards the protesters. The video blurs, turning upside down as terrified screams rent the air.
Tears sting my eyes.
The front door slams and I look up to see my parents exchange looks before Mommy goes for the door, calling after my brother. I jump after her.
An icy wind hits me as I step on the porch. My brother opens his car door.
“What are you doing?” I yell at him.
“Going to Aster,” he replies. My chest tightens. “You saw what they did? None of that was right.”
I look at mommy, my horror mirrored in her expression. I’m proud of him for doing something I’m too scared to do, but it’s dangerous. It scares me. The anger, the unfairness… everything. My stomach twists with guilt.
“Yes, it’s not right.” Daddy’s appeared behind us. “But don’t be silly. Your going there won’t change anything.”
“No, it won’t,” My brother says, voice firm with determination. “But we can help the people hurt. There’s milk in our store. They’re gonna need that.”
It’s an awakening. We can show solidarity. Would it be enough? I don’t know, but it’s better than being silent when we have a chance to do something.
It’s the least we can do. So I say, “I’m coming with you.”
Then I walk over to the passenger side.
Second Place: Maryam Muheeb from Lagos, Nigeria, for “Aster Street.” Maryam attends Livingstone Model College and is in 12th Grade.
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