The following is a short story that I penned shortly after the unrest in the nation began. If you enjoy it, feel free to share it with others.
Jamal Carter, 20, checked his phone for the dozenth time as he waited in his car on tenth street. The protest would start shortly. The cops had killed another black man, George Floyd, in cold blood. The video of his death was all over the internet. What started as a protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota had quickly led to a riot that left the town in ruins. Now protests were springing up all over the United States. Even Ellicot City, Jamal’s hometown in Maryland, had one scheduled.
Jamal pulled up his messages. Ronnie was here. It was time to get out and meet him. They’d walk over to the courthouse together.
Just as Jamal locked his car, a tall white man walked across the street, heading in his direction. Jamal stiffened, keeping firm hold of his keys and phone as he studied the stranger. It was a cop. A white cop heading toward him, minding his own business.
Great. Just great.
Jamal calmly put his keys in his pocket, kept hold of his phone, and started walking toward the courthouse. You haven’t done anything wrong. Stay calm.
The cop paused after he crossed the street, looking over the intersection. Jamal tried to ignore him. No such luck. “Good evening, young man.”
Jamal nodded. “Officer.”
“Where are you headed today?”
He stopped, facing the cop. His face seemed somewhat familiar. The man’s gaze was not troubled. This cop wasn’t mad…yet. “Protest at the courthouse.”
The man nodded. “Nasty business going on…Peaceful protest, right?”
Jamal held the cop’s gaze. Just about everyone he knew was angry enough to do something violent. Ronnie was sure the protest would not stay peaceful. But this cop didn’t know any of that. “Yes, sir.”
“Good to hear. Stay safe, son. I’ll be looking out for you tonight.”
Jamal nodded and turned away from the cop. Whatever happened after the courthouse protest would just happen.
Keith Smith was sitting in his patrol car, staring at the empty road. He was supposed to be writing tickets. There had been little traffic, and only two people speeding. This wasn’t the best spot for tickets. Captain Williams knew that. Keith was over on the west side of the bridge tonight for the same reason that Newton and Granger had been here for the past three nights – the protests at the courthouse. There was “unrest” everywhere, according to the captain. In order to keep the streets safe, cops were not only stationed by the protesters, but others were placed close to the courthouse. In case the protests were not so peaceful, as had been the case all over the nation. Keith had been reviewing proper procedure for crowd control, non-lethal methods that were the best options, and the appropriate gear to take “just in case” for the past week.
Helen, Keith’s wife, had been worried since the protests began. Keith tried to shrug it off. His partner, Louis, understood Keith’s ambivalence toward the protests. Louis was at the hospital with his wife, Marilyn. Their long awaited baby boy was on the way.
One reason that Keith was on this road within blocks of others was because his partner was out for a few shifts. The department was stretched thin these days, so Keith was alone…for now. If something happened, squad cars would be on the way within moments.
The radio crackled to life. Keith snapped out of his reverie, focusing on the words. “…Crowd growing restless at the courthouse. Backup requested.”
Keith sighed. He was going to go in and assist, but it wasn’t something he would do lightly. As he radioed in that he was on the way, Keith muttered aloud a prayer. “Dear Lord, protect me tonight…and everyone else.”
Keith drove the short distance, parked his car just four blocks from the courthouse, and got out, radioing his position. He debated between walking quickly or normally. According to the radio, the situation wasn’t out of hand…but it might get there. Speed was probably his best option.
He popped the trunk and pulled out his bag of gear – his bulletproof vest with POLICE emblazoned on the front and back, his face shield. Should he get dressed now, out of sight of the crowd? Would that provoke anyone? Anything? The captain had been telling them for a week not to make a bad situation worse. Well, duh.
Keith kept hold of the bag, closed the trunk, and walked toward the courthouse. He rounded the corner of the old antique store. A man with olive skin was walking toward him. The man was in his thirties, and seemed to be unruffled by the sounds of unrest behind him. His shirt proclaimed a message that Keith was already tired of, “Black Lives Matter.”
“Good evening, officer.”
Keith nodded, intent on moving forward.
“I trust you will keep the peace, yes?”
That did it. Keith whirled around, still holding his bag. He gestured with his free hand. “Does that sound like peace to you, sir?”
“No…that is why you are here. To help de-escalate the situation.”
Keith let loose a pent up breath. “That’s my intention, sir. Sorry. Tensions are high right now. I’ve got friends out there.”
“I do, too.”
“Understandable…sounds like it might be a good time for you to head out, sir. There might not be peace tonight.”
The man smiled and nodded. “Do your job, Officer Smith. Keep the peace.” He turned and walked away. Keith walked toward the courthouse, praying with every step. Hopefully tonight wouldn’t worry Helen too much.
William Tulley watched the crowd of mostly black people pass by his diner. Most had signs that made him want to roll his eyes. Silence is Violence, I Can’t Breathe, and the ever popular Black Lives Matter. None of these people had visited his shop in the hours leading up to the stupid protest. Granted, his son had pointed out that his comment online regarding the riots hadn’t helped the diner. William knew he should have left computers alone and let his son and grandchildren worry with it.
William had three customers right now, and all were staring out the store front window at the crowd walking down the street. Scott, James, and Chris had been faithful customers for years. William started giving them the family discount five years before due to their loyalty. When the diner business declined in the past few days, these three had taken to coming every day, ordering periodically, and providing some company during the hours that should not have been dead.
“More of them,” Chris announced from his perch on the bench closest to the window.
“The same stupid signs. This group have kids with them! The kids have signs, too. ”
William moved with the others to get the best look of the sight that Chris had seen. A small bell rang. William turned, eager for business. He paused, taking in his newest customer. An Arab lad. Hair was too long. Beady brown eyes. The customer was at least not a teenager, but did not seem very old. His shirt read, “Red, Yellow, Black and White.”
William turned back to the window, rolled his eyes, then turned back around. He needed some business. “Yes, sir?”
“You’re still open, I take it?”
“May I sit anywhere?”
Not close to my friends. “At least one table away. Social distance blah blah blah.”
The Arab nodded. “Where is your menu, sir?”
William pointed to the upper portion of his back wall. “It’s all right there. Let me know when you’re ready.”
The man studied it for a moment. “I am ready.”
William walked over. “What can I get you, sir?”
“Roast beef sandwich, chips, and some water.”
“You got it. Be right up.”
By the time William had served the man and walked back over to his friends, the others were all hiding smiles and giving him knowing glances. “Wanna have some fun, Will?” James whispered. “It’s our word against his. No one will ever know.”
William looked back at the man quietly eating his food. He was unsettled by the Arab. He wasn’t sure why. “Knock it off, James. My boy Terry says if I want to save this place, I need to shut up on the internet and just take people’s money.”
Scott nodded, swatting James across the shoulders. “Shame on you. We need to wait until he’s leaving.”
They had been joking about what the blacks deserved for days. Now an Arab was around, which was probably “close enough” in his friends’ minds. William was uneasy. Maybe they weren’t serious. Maybe they were. He should change the subject. He nodded to the window. “This is their second lap around. Anyone gotten violent yet?”
“No, but they’re yelling all the familiar things. It won’t be long before the cops show these boys their place.”
Chris left the booth and walked out of the store, holding the door open. “Go back to where you came from, then!” He retreated inside, rushing toward the window again, the smile clear on his face. The crowd was yelling now and running, though thankfully not at them.
The action had begun.
Jamal smiled. The cops had tried to drive on the streets that the protestors had occupied. But the group just stood in the middle of the road, daring the cops to harm them. They just stopped and honked at the crowd. The protestors yelled in response.
Another patrol car was driving up beside the first.
Someone in the crowd threw something smoking toward the vehicles.
Brakes squealed. The second patrol car swerved to avoid it. CRASH! Jamal stopped to assess the damage. The car had run into the outdoor seating of Gary’s Hot Dogs, crashing into the corner pillar that supported the second story patio. The police hopped out of the car, looked at the damage, then began ordering everyone in the vicinity to get out from under the patio.
Jamal started to walk on, but his eyes were drawn to a cop that seemed to be walking against the flow of humanity on the streets. He wasn’t with the line of cops. He was walking away from where most of the protestors were heading. And no one seemed to notice him. Jamal studied the man as he got closer. It was the same white cop that had spoken to him before the protest.
Ignoring the oddity, Jamal walked away from the restaurant. He did not get far, watching as the white cop walked toward the building with the cop car at the pillar.
Creak. Jamal and the cop looked up. The patio was likely coming down.
“Look out!” The cop shouted, facing the bystanders. “Back up! Out of the way!” He urged them back with his hands.
Eeee. The patio moved of its own accord. Jamal was glued to the spot, watching the strange phenomenon.
Suddenly a white girl brushed past him, focused on her phone. “Hey!” he called, “Get back!”
Eeee. The patio lurched again.
The girl ignored him, intent on getting a good shot of the destruction.
“Back up!” The cop called, holding out his arms to the crowd, standing nearest to the pillar. But the girl did not listen. Jamal, focused on the patio, stepped forward and grabbed hold of the girl’s arm before she moved too much closer. “Watch out!”
The girl paused for just a second, giving him a disdained look of superiority, pulled her arm out of his grasp, and walked forward determinedly.
Only seconds later, patio fell. As everything toppled toward the crowd, Jamal lost sight of the cop and the girl. Jamal ran forward, certain the girl was hurt.
Keith was standing on the street a block away, focused on keeping the crowd contained. When he heard reports of the car hitting the patio, he raced toward the scene.
He rounded the corner just as the patio moved of its own accord. We have to get an uncooperative crowd back that is intent on filming it. Great.
Before he had a chance to figure out how to do that, someone raced past him. The man turned back for a moment. This looked like the protestor he had seen leaving the courthouse just as Keith had arrived. The same olive skin, the same Black Lives Matter shirt, and the same look on his face as if the surroundings were of no consequence. Keith kept running, turning his focus back on the patio.
People had left the immediate area where the car had hit, but the patio kept moving and making noise, drawing more of a crowd.
The protestor that Keith recognized took a protective stance in front of the patio. “Look out! Back up! Out of the way!”
At least the guy was helping. Most were listening…except one girl who was too intent on filming with her phone. Someone beside her tried to get her to back up, but she ignored him and walked forward Keith kept walking, hoping to stop someone from being hurt.
“Hey, get back!” the bystander called.
“Back up!” The protestor urged, backing up dangerously close to the damaged pillar.
“Watch out!” the bystander tried to stop the girl, but she ignored him and walked forward, focused on the scene.
The patio gave way, and things began falling. Keith’s view of the protestors was obscured by the debris. When the dust cleared, they were nowhere to be found. Keith ran forward with a few other bystanders, hoping this night had not proved fatal.
Jamal and Ronnie moved yet another table out of the way. Nothing. They righted it and set it to the side.
“Over here!” Jamal looked to his right. Another cop was digging through the rubble, and he had called. Jamal walked over with Ronnie. The three of them lifted a piece of flooring and set it to the side.
The girl with the phone was visible now. Ronnie pulled out his phone while the cop moved forward to rouse her. “Ma’am?”
Jamal moved more junk out of the way, listening.
The girl moved and groaned, touching her head. “Ow.”
“I need to make sure you’re okay, ma’am. Can you tell me your name?”
“Kelly. Kelly Tulley.”
The cop radioed in, “Found one survivor in the rubble. Need an EMT at the corner of 5th and Main. Gary’s Hot Dogs.” He focused on the girl. “Let’s move you out of the way of all this mess, Kelly. You think you can walk?”
She nodded, but winced. “Yeah.”
The cop led her to one of the tables that Jamal and Ronnie had righted. Jamal looked around. Ronnie had left. He’d broken more than a few windows that night, so Jamal understood. Jamal moved more debris, not willing to leave just yet. He looked at the ground, surprised. That looked familiar. He picked up a phone with a white case. The screen was cracked, but it came on at his touch, miraculously. Jamal walked over and sat at the other side of the table. “Here you go. I think this is your phone.”
Kelly took it. “Thanks…I feel silly now. Shouldn’t have gotten that close.”
“You were lucky,” the cop said.
Two EMTs arrived. As Jamal backed away, the cop walked resolutely back to the wreckage. Jamal followed. “You looking for your friend? That cop that was warning people?”
The new cop whirled around to face him. “Cop? No…there was a protestor warning people. Wearing one of your shirts.”
Jamal shook his head. “Nope. White guy. Your uniform.”
An hour later, the wreckage was cleared. The girl was fine. Keith was relieved. But the protestor he had seen was not there. He didn’t understand it. He seemed to be the one of the only ones nearby that had seen someone else close to the wreckage, warning of the danger. A young protestor had seen the same thing…but he swore it was a cop. All the precincts on site had done a head count. Everyone was accounted for.
Kelly thanked Jamal profusely for his help as he walked her over to her grandfather’s diner. “Grandpa Will probably didn’t know I was here. But I know he’ll want to meet you. If you hadn’t grabbed me, I could have been hurt worse.”
“I didn’t do that much. I…I don’t have to meet anyone.”
Kelly smiled and took his hand. “You might have saved my life. I insist.”
The ruckus over the overblown hot dogs six blocks away had turned the protestors away from the area. Everyone was fine, the news said. One local girl had walked away with no serious injuries.
William looked back at his lone customer that was nursing his third refill of water, reading from a pocket sized book the others were sure was a Quran. Scott had joked he would start bowing toward Mecca any moment.
Before William was ready for it, the customer stood and walked toward the cash register. William hurried over and accepted the money for the meal that had taken him a long time to eat. Aware that his friends were watching, William asked politely, “Did you enjoy it?”
“I did. Thank you. It was quite filling.”
William handed over the change. “Thank you for dropping by.”
The man accepted the coins and met his gaze. “I know what you think of me, Billy. But you’re wrong. And if you turn Kelly away, your life will never be the same.”
William stared in disbelief. No one had called him Billy since grade school. “What…what did you say?”
The Arab met his gaze. “You heard every word.” With that authoritative statement, the man left the diner.
William was still absorbing his words when the bell dinged again, announcing someone else was there. Kelly, his oldest granddaughter, had arrived…holding the hand of a black young man. “Grandpa, I want you to meet Jamal. He just saved my life.”
Jamal finally made it out of the diner and walked back to his car. Ronnie and his mom had texted a dozen times. He’d responded briefly to let them know he was fine, but wanted to talk to them about Kelly in person.
He’d just made it to his car when someone approached his side. Still on alert, Jamal turned. He relaxed. The same cop he’d seen before the protest was back. He was smiling.
“Hi,” Jamal managed. “Glad you made it out okay.”
The cop nodded. “I’m glad you made it out okay, too…You made your Grandma Josie proud tonight, Jamal.”
“What…what did you say?”
The cop turned and walked away, ignoring Jamal’s questions.
Three days later, Jamal was at his grandmother’s house, regaling her of the events the night of the protest. “He…he mentioned your name, Grandma. Out of the blue. Knew my name, too. I thought we didn’t know any cops.”
Grandma Josie smiled and cocked her head to the side. “Oh, honey. I don’t think you saw a policeman that night. I was praying for you, knowing you were down there and probably itching to do something foolish. I think the Lord was keeping His hand on you in the midst of all that mess. Maybe you saw an angel. Or even Jesus.”
“Jesus isn’t a white man, Grandma.”
“No…but God invented color, Jamal. And the One who invented color can probably show up any way He likes. You may not always see Him the way you wish to. At least, that’s how I read my Bible. Jesus was stirring things up back in His day.”
“Well…he did know your name. And mine. I don’t have an answer for that.”
Grandma Josie picked up her Bible, always stationed on her end table. “Jesus did a lot of things like that. Let me read you one of my favorite passages…”
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:40