In 1968, seven-year old Lonnie Bell rode a bike around his “urban renewed” gentrifying Chicago community. Riding down the street, he was having fun in the afternoon. Suddenly, a police car came upon him. Two police officers approached. They accused Lonnie of stealing the bicycle. He was promptly put in the backseat of their squad car and the bike in the trunk. One of the witnesses to Lonnie’s arrest was a 17 year old neighbor who had actually lent him her bike. She and other children intervened to prevent the arrest. She told the cops that the bike was hers and that she had lent it to Lonnie. Their attempts to secure the release of their friend failed. The police ignored them and drove away with Lonnie in the backseat. The 17-year old neighbor rushed over to Lonnie’s house to alert his parents of his capture.
Mr. Bell, Lonnie’s father, accompanied by two neighbors, Mrs. Myers and her husband Michael, made their way to the 18th police district. It was around 6:15 pm when they arrived. Mr. Myers, an attorney, asked the desk Sargeant if Lonnie was in custody. The cop said that the child was not at the station. So they waited for an hour with no news of Lonnie. At 7:30 pm, the desk Sargeant announced that Lonnie had been returned home.
What happened between 5:30 pm when Lonnie was picked up by police and 7:30 pm when he was purportedly returned home? Mr. Bell rushed to find out. The police told neighbors that as they were driving to the station, a report came over the radio saying that an armed man was on the loose. With 7 year old Lonnie in the car, the cops drove to where the armed man was spotted. They patrolled the area in their car. Finding no one, they locked Lonnie in the squad car and set off on foot to apprehend the armed man. They didn’t find him so they drove Lonnie to the rear of the station. Once there, they decided not to take him inside and drove him home instead. It’s unclear what prompted them to change their minds.
I read about this incident in a Chicago publication called “Second City Magazine.” The article contended that such incidents made it important for communities to police the police. As I read about Lonnie’s ordeal though, I could only focus on one thing: ‘fear.’ I imagined a terrified Black child falsely accused of being a thief at 7 years old. I could picture his scared face as he was locked in a squad car while the police searched for an armed suspect who could very well have harmed him while he waited alone. Then I thought of his father’s terror at not finding his son at the station. I put myself in his place waiting for over an hour for any news of my son’s whereabouts. And though she wasn’t mentioned in the article, I saw Lonnie’s mother frantically pacing at home praying for her son’s safe return.
I drew a straight line from Lonnie in 1968 to the racist backlash experienced by Black students at Mizzou yesterday. On Twitter last night, I felt fear produced by racist death threats and unsubstantiated reports of KKK presence on the University of Missouri (Columbia) campus. I worried for the safety of the Black students who might be targeted. I prayed that no harm would come to them.
I thought too that my fear, Lonnie’s fear, Black Mizzou students’ fear are illegible to most people who don’t consider us human. I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about being Black and afraid. Not afraid for myself but rather fearful for those who look like me. Who besides other Black people understand or care? Speaking the words gives more ammunition to our terrorizers and tormentors, no? But the fear is real and ever-present. I reject the cancerous tough love gospel which insists that Black people must ‘buck up’ and be preternaturally brave because to live Black is to live in and with unending danger and terror.
I don’t know if I am using the right words. I don’t know if fear adequately describes what I mean. What do you call a thing that robs you of peace and rest and time? Maybe there are no words. Maybe it’s only emotion. I don’t know. Whatever it is, I wish I could live free from and of it.