* * *
Sometimes when listening to the echoes of history, breezes from the past are fully felt in the present. Such winds of consistency weave together stories of people much like stitches gather the assorted patches of the calico quilt. Shawn was standing firm to his position, refusing to speak or to move. The first officer, much bigger than Shawn, choked Shawn around the arm, jerked him violently out of place, and forced him to the ground. At last, the final vestige of the once standing, now fallen cypha was extinguished.
As the brittle ground touched his face, Shawn attempted to bounce up from the cold cement. In the process, he heaved his arms into the air, hoping to free them from the officer’s stingy grip. The other officer, reacting to Shawn as if Shawn’s waving arms were machetes, threw his nightstick at the side of the young man’s head. Shawn fell to his knees, broken defiantly like the Dying Gaul. He would not remember much of what happened next.
Shawn lay there quiet, drowning in a pool of blood. The blood stained the side of his face. He heard nothing and could not speak. Silenced, he laid there reclined on asphalt sheeted by his own blood. The two officers, seeing him face down, continued to beat him with heavy sticks, grabbed him, and inverted his arms backward. One officer then forced the dazed and beaten young man even closer to the ground with a hungry knee that ate into his lower back. Shawn still lay there, smoldering in the crucible of his blood, which continued to spill freely from his face.
Shouts arose from the scene. Crying mothers. Upset babies. Rumors and rumors of rumors crowded the streets. The screams of more sirens approached, followed by more officers, followed by a new circle of observers who seemed already acquainted with what was happening. As one young man observed, “Police always beatin’ niggas asses around here.”
As the crowd around him grew, a new sort of cypher emerged—with Shawn occupying its center. This cypher was nothing like the cypha that he and his friends formed. Rather, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the lynching circles that formed around the dangling carcasses of Black men fettered to trees in a time when America was “reconstructing” in the days after the country’s only civil war. The first officer, the one with vice-grip commands, tugged Shawn upward. Shawn struggled to his feet before a wall of listening faces. The officer instructed, “You have the right to remain silent . . .”
The irony in the officers announcement was evident. Shawn had long stopped talking. His right to speak disappeared when his cypha rended, when the officers and their sirens disrupted his voice, when they threw him to the ground without charge—before they lifted him up and read him his Miranda rights. He did not have the right to remain silent; simply, he did not have the right to speak. Silence for him, unlike the “freedom” of speech, was not optional; it was mandated—a privilege unearned. The decree of silence was enforced in his life as part of a much larger politics of contested voices in which Shawn and his friends found themselves marginal to an unspoken law of the land.
In the chaos, in the frenzied noise that followed Shawn’s beating, Shawn hobbled to his feet, stood still, and remained quiet. Stories of what had happened that day emerged like fertile blades of grass draping the countryside. Everyone who approached the scene, save Shawn and his friends, had a version of the story. Others voiced scorn, stories of just another Black male thug “up to something no good.” Whether lie or edict, the stories propped up a master narrative so thoroughly reproduced in Americana—think the Scottsboro Boys . . .
. . . and so on— that it would have been difficult to find fault in people’s interpreting Shawn as just another Black male troublemaker, goon, or degenerate who got what he deserved.
But the stories were not true. Shawn was far from a troublemaker or a goon or a degenerate. He didn’t deserve the beating he received. He was a young man having fun with friends, finding life in their company, living in their words. But none of the storytellers who recalled the events of that day asked Shawn to describe what happened. No one asked him to tell his version of the story. So it seemed, no one wanted to hear him speak, not even his grandmother, who quite literally shushed Shawn after he tried to tell her his “side of the story” when she picked him up from the police station.
Still, stories were being told. The officers submitted a report as sensational as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. A news reporter wrote a column as inaccurate as discredited New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s account of Jessica Lynch. And Shawn’s school recorded the event as “an incident in which a student attacked a police officer behind the school.” The school later suspended Shawn for “trespassing on school grounds.”
Shawn was being talked about, but not being heard or even given a chance to speak. No one talked to him to get his side of the story. The silences were imposing—the silence of truth untold and the silence of voices unheard. No one talked to Shawn’s friends who had escaped the scene, but were part of the events leading to Shawn’s beating. Their stories remained shrouded in silence, collected in the enduring echoes of Black men socialized to shut up and of a society shaped not to hear them.