Divisions in my small Texas town grew into canyons following the shooting of a local African American teen by a middle aged White man in the otherwise quiet downtown. Both families remained active in community schools and churches for five years as the trial was postponed and racism festered under the surface. Rumors were that the prosecution would present surveillance video of the man arguing with a teen inside the store, exiting to retrieve a gun from his vehicle, and then shooting a different Black teen outside. The defense won the trial by claiming self-defense based on the shooter’s belief that the teen and his friends were gang members.
In the days following the trial, White families in the rural community grew fearful of violent retaliation, as seen on TV. Curfews were shifted to before dark, words were chosen carefully, and for the first time in the history of the small town, White mothers experienced the fear that mothers with children of color have always lived with, the fear that someone will harm their child motivated only by their skin color. Mothers coached White kids prior to leaving the house in safety and conflict prevention, just as our African American sisters always have.
After a week, my son was invited to go to the skating rink in another town by a neighboring Hispanic family. My 15-year-old is like Napoleon Dynamite—he’s not drawn to conflict, and his life is rated PG. Consent came with the condition of no stops between home and the skating rink. My child piled in the back of the neighbors’ crowded car and spent the evening eating nachos and watching girls. Thinking they would not see anybody, they stopped by their mom’s fast food job on the way home to offer her a ride.
While the dad went inside the closed restaurant to rush along the mom’s cleaning, the car full of teens was approached in the parking lot by our local drunk. The drunk is a fixture of the neighborhood, and cars drive around him as he swerves his bicycle through the back streets in varying degrees of sobriety. He is rumored to have hepatitis C, which in poverty is like having a chemical weapon. His audacity develops from people’s fear of infection during a fight. A week after the trial, the drunken White man was assertively offensive. While he generally avoids contact with law enforcement, on this night he was fearless. He was arrested in the fast food parking lot for threatening the teens, and he spent the night in jail.
As a single mom in poverty, I know the unspoken rules that provide my family safety, one of which is never to appear weak. Predators look for the victim who will put up the least resistance, and they note who fights back when challenged and who does not. I had no fear of the drunk, but people who deserve fear are always watching to see how he was handled after his very public arrest story circulated.
As the drunk later bicycled past my house, I came off my porch and said, “You have a problem with my son?”
He did a wobbly U-turn with his bottle in a brown paper bag. “Who?” he asked.
“You went to jail for it.”
“Oh yeah…Your kid was the big guy in the back seat, huh? Yeah, I tried to fight him. They was gangbanging.”
I stepped into the middle of the street and yelled, “No, he was not gangbanging. My kid is Napoleon Dynamite and he is not gang material. I think you saw a kid without a dad in the house and you thought nobody has his back, but I am his mother, and I will kick your drunken rear off that bicycle if you mess with any of mine. I am not afraid of hepatitis, and I am not afraid of jail.”
A few weeks later there was a domestic dispute between a man and a woman on the block that remained at a volume I could not ignore while working from home. I walked briskly down the block with a cold bottle of water and told the man to come take a walk with me. As we walked the block, I talked to him about how he can change his rage with exercise. I coached him in self-soothing with breathing exercises and had him drink the water to dilute stress hormones. As we circled the block and approached his family outside waiting to see in what mood he was returning, I put my hand on his shoulder and loudly bluffed, “Neighbor, I do not fear jail, but I sure don’t enjoy it. If your fight causes the police to be called out and I get arrested, you are going to be held responsible for that. Okay?”
His wife yelled, “Don’t cross her. Remember what she did to the drunk.”
We live in poverty, and we are safe, Napoleon Dynamite and I.