Simone Bell opened her remarks with, “Yall. They were babies.” She let the silence echo for a minute. Because we, as a community, take care of our babies. Perhaps because we see our 18, 20, 23 year old selves reflected in their hairy armpits or their eyeliner, perhaps because we see both their boldness and their insecurity, we show up. But mostly, because someone showed up for us. So this morning, as I sit on the deck in the life that I love and that is mine I am thinking of the ones to whom those 49 are babies. The ones whose couches they slept on when home eluded them, the ones who cooked them vegetables when they didn’t have the money or the time, the ones who haven’t been much for the bar scene in a while but looked forward to hearing their stories of a night at the club. The ones who lived honestly, and in so doing, made it all seem possible. And so I grieve the nightmare that took these babies, and as I go on living with all my heart, it is with gratitude to the ones who showed up for me, when I was a baby.
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I went to a vigil thinking it would make it more real, but what I found was dissonance. As the crowd overflowed the sidewalk and spilled into the street, a cop appeared. “Step into the road, we’ve stopped traffic” he said. “That’s a first,” I mumbled. A young African-American woman turned and met my eyes. “Have you met the Liaison?” She pointed down 10th Street towards a group of three uniformed officers. “Oh. No.” They started that after the Eagle; I am unable to hide my skepticism. Earlier that day I’d read an article that described the 2009 incident at The Eagle as a “botched raid,” as if there is an acceptable way for police to “raid” anywhere, but specifically a not-exactly-mainstream gay bar. When I moved back to Atlanta nine months later, I found a queer community still raw with mistrust, still angry. “You should meet her,” the woman in front of me said as the crowd gently pulled us in opposite directions. The idea that police protect us hung with a question mark in the air between “back then” and “now,” between me white and her Black, between the snipers on the rooftop and the speakers at the podium, between what I believe about the basic goodness of individuals and the terrible realities of institutions and power. I can’t shake the feeling that the legitimacy that stopped traffic was handed to us as a Supreme Court ruling, announced in a windowless courtroom and celebrated nationwide while President Obama eulogized, and while the family buried, Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney. It seems as if the whole world is strung together by bullets.