I was getting comfortable in my home office when the yelling started. It sounded like it was right outside my door, but everything sounds loud in our community, a popular walking neighborhood. The sounds of the neighborhood are typically ones of carefree carousing. Couples laughing. Dogs barking. Bicycle bells ringing. All often punctuated with the sound of a woodpecker or more commonly the coo of a dove. This staccato interruption was an exception, but I was busy and chalked it up as an anomaly and carried on.
A few minutes later and just as I was about to start recording a podcast, I heard yelling again. This simply wouldn’t do for a recording. Now I had to investigate. I went to the front window to find a white hatchback screeching away as a woman yelled, “people are dying.” That was curious, but there is a mental hospital not too far away and every now and again a patient breaches their walls, usually without keys to a car, but I was on a deadline and didn’t have time to give it any more attention.
Allow me to rewind for a second before continuing this story. Back in July 2016 there was an ambush that killed five police officers and wounded nine others in Dallas. On that day, my husband, a law enforcement officer (LEO) himself, bought a blue line flag to honor the fallen. We have had it hung outside our house, next to our American flag, since then. At this time, under President Obama, the flag was innocuous. A symbol of support as well as respect for fallen LEOs.
As a new administration came into office, this symbolism shifted.
Almost overnight, the original symbolism was hijacked—by those on both sides of our political spectrum. The extreme right saw it as a symbol of Trump support and the extreme left fashioned it as a beacon of the new “stars and bars” (i.e., Confederate flag) and a symbol of racism. It was a tense four years for our flag. She was stolen (and replaced). She was dumped in our fishpond. She was slashed down her middle. But she remained.
What started as a symbol of respect and mourning for five police in Dallas, became political even in our own home. Not that her meaning changed for my husband, but as the public square turned its anger towards the police, my husband became hardened. Here was a man, who for half of his 28 years of service and counting, protected the streets and the people of a large and violent southern metropolis, and mostly those who had more melanin than himself. He was stabbed, shot at, and run over, and he continues to serve. I will never forget the evening that this man, who is not well-versed in emotion, a drink or two working its way through his stocky frame, with watery eyes saying he couldn’t understand how the people he once protected now likened him to the vile Ku Klux Klan.
It was like the world turned around and dumped on his lifetime of service in a poorly maintained public restroom where the scat of humanity clogs the drain. He didn’t know how to not make it personal. And so, like the rest of the world, he increasingly became angry. The angrier he got the more the symbol of the flag morphed into one of defiance.
We don’t agree on a lot, including the flag. Often our own discussions reflect the heated moment of our current national discourse. But like the flag, we remain. I even had to take a breather after the George Floyd murder when I suggested that perhaps the flag could use a rest from decorating our porch. The perceived betrayal that I saw reflected in his eyes was too much. It was like his one safe harbor was just bulldozed, and I had joined the demolition team.
Fast-forward a few years, but still not to our current cacophony. Our house was chosen for our historic neighborhood’s annual home tour. We agreed, but with the caveat that we wouldn’t take down our flags. The Trump administration sat in office and the flag had become politicized, but it still hadn’t reached the level of stigma that it holds today. The home tour curators shrugged their shoulders, not seeing an issue.
The day of the tour came. Although volunteers dotted our house to show visitors around, I chose to hang out. I only left for a short time to visit some of the other homes, but my timing was off. While away, she came. Accosting the unsuspecting volunteers, she condemned them for spreading fear in our “hood”. “I live here too”, she proclaimed. And living in a community with an LEO was frightening.
Apparently, it was so frightening to this young, affluent pale-skinned woman that she decided to lodge a complaint with our neighborhood association, asking for an apology for putting our home on the tour.
And now I bring you back to the screaming banshee. As professed, I chalked her up as an escaped mental patient. The next morning, as I headed across my lawn for the first time in twenty-four hours for a highly anticipated brunch, I noticed a collection of trash within the fence. Trash pick-up was just the day before and sometimes this happens as the winds blow debris into our corner lot. It was a bit more than normal, so instead of ignoring it until later, I decided to address it immediately. It has been quite dreary lately, so I blamed the weather for the unusual collection.
In addition to a collection of cups, an empty wrapper lay under the flag. Picking it up I noticed it was a pork rinds bag. I normally wouldn’t think anything of this either, but aren’t pork and police synonymous in some circles?
After our various flag trespasses, we had installed security cameras for our own safety (never mind that we sleep with a fire extinguisher next to our bed or my husband has to vary his routes home so those canvassing his office don’t follow him to find his personal abode). After a little investigation we identified the litterer. Now the pieces started to fall into place. Our suspect, as caught on camera, was also the screamer. As I sat inside interviewing the Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, our own rights were being violated.
Let me get real here for a second. I get it. As a firm proponent of liberalism, I promote free speech and protest. You can yell at me and my house all day long. You do you. If I was outside, I would’ve invited this woman into conversation, much like I invited the anonymous home tour protestor into conversation through the association. But I can’t help but wonder, if I were sitting here on the porch as I am now, would this woman have the courage to scream profanities at my house? Was this a safe space for expressing her daily angst, screaming at what seemed to be an unoccupied home? Is this how we dialogue these days?
From the camera footage, we could clearly tell that she recorded her rant. I use that word deliberately—when you throw trash and scream falsities into the air that qualifies as a rant. Although to be honest, people are indeed dying, but as much or more so as a result of this insanity and profanity as racist tropes. In 2019 police killed 11 unarmed black men and one female. In the same year, 48 police were killed as the result of felonious acts. We won’t even go into the rising crime rates in 2020. And yet, this young woman’s virtuous social media post will likely hold more weight than the carefully curated numbers of authors like Wilfred Reilly, who has an unnatural passion for crunching data.
All the while, somewhere, someone who is vulnerable is calling my husband for help. But LEO numbers are dwindling, as the dominant narrative increasingly makes the profession a liability. Will they make it there in time?
Calling out abuses in any organization with authority is necessary. Foundational to our democracy even. We must persist in this pursuit. But how we do it matters if we are to keep our social contract intact.
Demonizing and hijacking symbols doesn’t bring us closer to this ideal. The littering of empty pork rind bags doesn’t build empathy. Yelling into the void for your own audience doesn’t build bridges.
And so the flag, with all her knife wounds, remains. Not as a symbol of hate, but instead, for me, as an invitation for conversation. In defense of freedom of speech, both of unhinged rants and uncomfortable truths that must be addressed, if we are to walk forward into the future as neighbors.
Jennifer Richmond is the founder of Truth in Between and the host of the Hold my Drink podcast. Her forthcoming book of letters on race with W.F. Twyman, Jr. will be published later in 2021. She is in constant search for context and connection through correspondence and conversation.