Publishers Note: Raised in Brookline, Malcolm Cawthorne has been a transcendent teacher at Brookline High School for approximately 20 years. He is presently the BHS Coordinator for METCO and the 2017 recipient of the Roger Grande Social Justice Award. Mr. Cawthorne will be a panelist on the “Facing Civil Rights” Discussion Panel hosted by the Brookline Rotary on January 28 at approximately 6:10.
By, J. Malcolm Cawthorne
These first three weeks of 2021 have been a whirlwind. I am feeling fearful from the confusion within me. The events of January 6 have forced me into a metaphysical quandary; what does it mean to fear in this country and my town?
I watched people force their way into the U.S. Capitol Building and the rotunda I visited in the summer of 2018. I know that this shocked many people regardless of their political affiliation. My urgent question is: “Where was the fear?” Where was the fear in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017? Where was the fear as armed militias forced their way in the Michigan state capitol at the end of 2020? Why wasn’t there fear despite some people being heavily armed during the protest at our nation’s Capitol? Where was the military show of force, weaponry, and protection?
Why weren’t people fearful of the protestors on that day?
On December 29, 2020, a court ruled not to prosecute the police officer who shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. On January 4, 2021, a court ruled not to prosecute the police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times. These recent rulings each said there was a reasonable fear, which justified the use of force. Is the fear of Black men, Black Women, and Black children greater than what we saw on January 6? I think about national events and wonder where our nation’s fears lie and what I am expected to fear and what I am told I never have to fear. I was attending Grambling State University, a Historically Black College in Louisiana, when David Duke became a state representative, ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat and governor of the state. I know racism when I see it. Brookline is not exempt.
My fear began in my childhood. My father’s activism brought death threats through postal and hand-delivered envelopes. There were hostile environments in town and on my street. Sometimes my father was stopped and questioned by the Brookline Police while walking our family dog in our own neighborhood. I was told I was lighting firecrackers on an icy field when I played football with friends and one year younger than Tamir Rice. Then, I was asked for identification before my white friends started asking questions and the officer left. I was told I “fit the description” in my yellow raincoat while walking behind my elementary school on the way to a friend’s house who was four years younger than Trayvon Martin. Similar stops occurred after that, but my last BPD stop was at 28 years old, at 5:45 am when I was told I looked suspicious because I was wearing a trench coat in twenty-degree weather in December while walking to get my car from our off-street parking space before my daughters and wife woke up to start their day. After revealing the many police officers I knew and lived in the neighborhood since 1977, I was then told I should be happy that the police were watching my neighborhood for suspicious people.
Today, I listen to my Black students, our Black students, Black Brookline High School students complain similarly to my experience. Today, I wonder why there was so much fear during Brookline’s protest on June 3, 2020, that the Brookline Police called the Norfolk County Deputies Office for support in unmarked riot gear. Today, I wonder why there is so much anger that I really equate with fear about Dr. Raul Fernandez’s comments toward the Brookline Police after the events on January 6. Should I be afraid of people who continue to endorse someone who called the people in Charlottesville “fine people”? Should I be afraid of people who continue to endorse someone who told the insurrectionists on January 6 that he “loved them”? Should I be afraid that perhaps some of those who still endorse someone like that carry a badge and gun in the town that I live in, the town where Cawthornes have lived well and suffered racism throughout those years, the town where my father’s coaching Brookline Police Officer’s children probably saved him from more racist interactions, the town where my going to school and playing sports with Brookline police officers have definitely saved me from more racist interactions, and the town where I teach and was the BHS Varsity Football and Women’s Basketball coach has definitely saved me from more racist interactions.
When I am influenced to fear groups and individuals and trust that there are only a small number of police officers I should fear, I wonder where those influences come from when they don’t match my hometown experience. I don’t live in perpetual fear in Brookline, but I know that I haven’t always been protected or safe either. Am I expected to forget what I have seen? Am I expected to forget what I know? Do I wait for the Brookline police officer who doesn’t know me to be fearful? Am I to be afraid because I sit on Town Commissions and Task Forces that challenge the normalcy of racism in our Town? Am I to be afraid now that I have written this? Am I to fear that retribution may come at the expense of my wife or my daughters?
I wish my answers to these and my first question were simple. The answers I do have is that I am not going anywhere, that I stand with Dr. Raul Fernandez, and that my fears are real!