In my six decades on earth, I have encountered a lot of sadness, tragedies, outrages, and injustices, and the pace of these events has decidedly accelerated since January 20, 2017. Sometimes it feels as if life is but a tug-of-war, with hope and happiness on one side fighting against darkness and despair on the other. Which side will prevail? Last month when I listened to the recording of sweet, gentle Elijah McClain pleading for his life, something snapped inside me. I don’t think I can ever get it back. It has become increasingly apparent to me that the darkness has won.
As 140-pound, unarmed Elijah struggled for his life, on the ground, handcuffed, with three cops on top of him, putting him in the carotid hold that ended his life, he lacked the strength and the weaponry to challenge his attackers. Bewildered by the inhumane murderous treatment–when he was entirely innocent–he was left only with words. He tried valiantly to use words to let them know what a non-threatening, gentle soul he was. He told them he loved them for God’s sake! He told them he was a vegetarian and would never hurt anyone, which of course, contributed to his astonishment about why he was being slowly and intentionally murdered by the policemen. (After several minutes elapsed of the cops watching him struggle to live and continuing to deprive him of oxygen, this went well beyond an “accidental death.”) Elijah also tried, tragically, to explain, “I’m just different.”
I was “different” in high school also: I did not play nor follow sports; I didn’t go hunting; I listened to ABBA instead of Led Zepplin. I was the proverbial last one to be picked for the team in gym class. (Why the hell did we ever do that?!) I suspect Elijah might have been as well. In What’s Up Doc, Barbra Streisand’s character, Judy Maxwell, says “I know I’m different, but from now on I’m going to try and be the same.” Another character asks, “The same as what?” Judy answers, “The same as people who aren’t different.”
Along our way through life, we get socialized into not being “different.” We attempt to conform our quirks to the standard norm. Society eschews differences. In 1961 Baltimore, Broadway character Tracy Turnblad triumphantly reflects the optimism of JFK’s New Frontier, proclaiming “Those who are different, our time is coming!”
Tracy Turnblad, Judy Maxwell, and I ended up being allowed to be different because we are privileged and white. (Also, Tracy was wrong.) What did Elijah mean when he pleaded with the police, “I’m just different?” Would the world have eventually persuaded or forced Elijah to stop being different and be “the same?” Would his time have ever come to be embraced and celebrated for being different? We’ll never know because the police snuffed the life out of him on that horrible night. Was Elijah murdered by the police because he was different? Or because he was Black? Our deeply racist culture would not allow Elijah to be both.
As a white, middle-class male, I was given the luxury in life to remain fairly different: I’m the liberal oddball in a very conservative family and am one of the few Democrats in a very red area of western New York. Like Elijah, I’m a vegetarian. I detest the unspeakable suffering of animals in our factory farms on their way to our tables, grocery stores, and restaurants. Also like Elijah, I grieve having animals trapped in shelters. That was why he spent his spare time serenading shelter animals by playing his beloved violin to make their dreary shelter existence a little more bearable. (That, by the way, was the life force that the Aurora police force felt needed to be crushed until it ceased to exist.) He had after all, had the temerity to look “sketchy” while going to buy iced tea. My great grandfather’s name was Elijah, is that one reason I feel his short life and tragic death so keenly? Is it because I see him as a kindred spirit? Or is it because when I look at pictures of him before that awful night, I see my own children’s eyes smiling back at me?
My own precious children are what keep me going when the shattering darkness gets to be too much; I would lay down my life for any of them in a heartbeat. How can any parent of any color listen to the recording of Elijah’s final minutes and not have the same horrifying reaction of imagining our own child in his place? How I wish I had been there to try and come between Elijah and those murderous cops. I have lived a good long life: I would have sacrificed it to save his precious young one. We are ALL Elijah’s parents and we have ALL failed him miserably. And until we fix our dangerous and tragically broken system, we are failing all of God’s Black children who have not been murdered by the police yet, but who will. For the love of God, join me in working to overcome racism and demanding change. We begin by celebrating differences rather than fearing them, and by rejecting our own racism. Each of us must take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves this: “What part did I play in why sweet, gentle, different Elijah McClain is not still with us?”
#ImJustDifferent #FreeToBeYouAndMe #BlackLivesMatter #ElijahMattered #JusticeforElijah #SayHisName