Ed. note: Over the next few days I’ll be posting responses to the murder of Michael Brown and non-indictment of Darren Wilson. Prose, poems, essays, collages, music, photos from vigils/rallies and film for inclusion can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m going home. I am lucky to be going home. That’s what I’m telling myself, right now, saying the words aloud. On my computer, I’m watching a livestream from Ferguson. A crowd of people, armed with winter clothes and unbroken spirits, stand in opposition to the police. The police occupy their military vehicles. Safe behind the wheel, they push buttons or pull triggers, and canisters of tear gas explode from a gun fitted onto the vehicle. They rocket off beyond the frame established by the cell phone camera of a citizen journalist. “That’s a residential neighborhood,” he says. Someone else, watching the tear gas fly, says that the gas might set a house on fire. I feel lucky to be going home though I also feel like my house is on fire.
Right now, my world is blanketed by violence. It’s the first day of Thanksgiving break, and I am up early to watch a house for some friends while they’re at work. They were on vacation in the Pacific Northwest, one night away from home, and someone smashed their front window with a rock. I saw it a night later and felt violated though it wasn’t my house. The window was still open, curtains spilling out into a hedge. The house alarm has gone of twice since the robbery, so my friends are paranoid. They can’t miss work, though, so I’m there because they need me. To feel safe. Nothing happens. My phone rings. It’s my sister, so I answer it. Happily.
“Mr. Paul shot and killed Wendy,” she says, her voice breaking up. “He murdered her, then he killed himself.”
Wendy Schirrick is the mother of my sister’s best friend. In a way, that makes her one of my sister’s many mothers, one of my mothers, someone who nurtured and cared for us though we were not her own. I remember her driving her son and me across southeastern Michigan from flea market to flea market because her son was obsessed with baseball cards and I with professional wrestling, and the two often intersected at memorabilia shows. How she spoke for me because I didn’t know what to say to Chyna while she signed my book, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan while he signed a piece of lumber, Buff Bagwell while he signed an 8×10. How, once, when I’d been chased home from school and our house was surrounded by kids who wanted to beat the shit out of me, my sister called Wendy, crying, and she drove across town in her red P.T. Cruiser and sent everybody home. I remember that car. I remember her dog. I remember her laugh. Jesus, her laugh.
I have the Detroit Free Press article about the shooting up on my computer right now. It’s first sentence reads “A man fatally shot his estranged wife this morning then turned the gun on himself inside a gymnastics complex located in the Southgate Shopping Center, Southgate police said.” There will be an obituary, but right now the only thing anybody knows about Wendy Schirrick is that she was “his estranged wife.” That she was a victim. That he was a jilted lover. Above the headline, a link reads “Watch live: Reaction to grand jury decision in Ferguson shooting.” I’m already watching the reaction to the grand jury trial. Now the police are firing tear gas into the crowd. The cameraman is running, but he can’t escape the gas. “Aww fuck,” he says, ducking behind a car in a parking lot, “my eyes.” A woman helps him flush his eyes out. All around him, you can hear people screaming. People crying. People calling for help. People trying to hold off the urge to vomit. You can see the lights of police cars flashing, see the police, shielded and wearing gas masks, advancing on the crowds. I hear an explosion that doesn’t sound like tear gas. It sounds like rubber bullets. When did I learn what rubber bullets sound like when fired into a crowd, I wonder. I already know, though. I know from watching Ferguson.
I am thinking of these things on the same day, at the same time, because that’s how it happened to me. Ferguson, Athens, and Dearborn are linked for me by circumstances that don’t exist for anybody else. And maybe it’s selfish of me to think of it that way. But I see Wendy Schirrick described as “his estranged wife.” I see Mike Brown offered up by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch as a learning opportunity, his death as an event the city of Ferguson can profit from. That is the word Robert McCulloch, a white man, chooses when speaking of the death of a young black man, “profit.” Wendy and Mike Brown were both murdered with impunity by white men with guns. In the media, Wendy is “his wife.” In the media, Mike Brown is whatever serves the headline: a thief, a thug, a criminal. She is never a woman. He is never a child.
My mind is trying to tie these two unconnected events together somehow, to make neat what is jumbled. My fingers, on the keyboard, are about to type this: My friend’s mother and Mike Brown are both victims of a violent, white patriarchy, of a system that works to devalue and dehumanize women and persons of color, a system which seeks to subjugate them to the whims of white men from cradle to grave. I don’t think Wendy would agree with me, though. She is a victim, but she would never make herself out to be a Victim, never wanted that to be the mindset of her children, or my sister, or me. She was strong and powerful and beautiful. But these are qualities the patriarchy fears. These are qualities that get you killed if you are not a white man.
I am going home to be with my family. To hug my sister and mother and Wendy’s daughter. To cry and remember. I am incredibly privileged to be able to do this, and to do it without restraint. I am tired and I am angry and I am sad, but my wounds will heal, and I am lucky to be going home. In Ferguson, tonight’s rounds of tear gas are beginning to dissipate, but the city will find itself besieged tomorrow and forever, in spirit and memory. I am wondering how much violence a person can bear before it breaks him. I am wondering the same of our cities. I am realizing that this is a stress and torture practiced exclusively by those of my race and sex, visited exclusively upon those who are not. A journalist at the grand jury trial shouts a question at Bob McCulloch as he calls the press conference to an end. He asks if McCulloch will rest easily tonight.
How can we not? We are white men. It is our luxury to sleep peacefully in our homes.
– Paul Arrand Rodgers