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Thu Dec 31, 2015, 01:19 PM

"as long as you said you didn’t mean it."

I remember one morning when I walked up from the river after a canoeing session, the early-morning dew evaporating as the summer sun sauntered across the sky. On my way back to my cabin, I passed the shooting range. The scouts were taking their places in the partitions, each of them loading his weapon with pride and intention. There must have been a dozen of them lined up alongside one another. Guns pressed to their shoulders. Eyes narrowed with purposefulness. I watched them hold the guns between their pubescent hands, the ease with which their fingers pulled back on the triggers—there was a certainty I could not understand. The white boys spoke of rifle shooting as a pastime, a way of both reasserting and claiming their burgeoning manhood. And perhaps it was. Perhaps holding a gun and aiming it at something has always been a sort of game.

What I remember most is the laughter. The unfettered rapture that rang from their small bellies. The joy that came from firing something with no ostensible objective other than to destroy what was in front of them. It felt different than what I saw in some of the boys I knew from school, who carried guns as a way to protect themselves in places where no one else would. But I couldn’t understand who these scouts were practicing to protect themselves from. They did not have to imagine that, one day, someone might turn the barrel on them, and claim that it was because he was scared or that they looked older than they were. That was not, and has never been, my reality. I could not bring myself to fire a gun without also imagining being its target.

My father had told me that these boys—boys who were my friends, who invited me over for sleepovers, birthdays, and football games—would grow up to be police officers, lawyers, judges. He told me that no sleepover could insure that I would not be on the receiving end of their guns or one of their gavels. Because it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about them. It was not about how kind they were, for they may indeed have been kind. It was about a system that makes intention secondary, perhaps irrelevant. He did not say this to scare me. He said this because he knew what it meant to be a black boy in a country that wasn’t built for us—a country, in fact, that was built on the destruction of our bodies, whether for profit or for power. Right now they were just boys. I was just a boy. And still these guns were real and my skin was black.

As I sit on the couch this week, I keep thinking of these boys. The merit badges they would go on to receive. The way their hands gripped the guns. I think of Prosecutor Tim McGinty calling Tamir Rice’s death a “perfect storm of human error.” I think about what does or does not get called an error. I think of how, at the range, if you shot your gun too early they didn’t take the weapon away; they simply told you not to do it again, as long as you said you didn’t mean it.


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