State of (our) Union


Malik stared at the clock, 3:30 couldn’t come fast enough. This, in and of itself, was not anything new. Malik, like most junior high kids, looked forward to the end of the school day so he could get on with the business of being a teenager.

The bell finally rang and the classrooms spilled into the hallway.

“Don’t forget to read tonight.” Mr. Watson yelled as the students scrambled to get out of the classroom.

Malik quickly tried to order what seemed like a billion sheets of paper on his desk. Malik appreciated that Mr. Watson assigned novels he just wished the school gave him the budget to actually buy the books. But, they went to school in the inner-city and the city council and school board agreed that “the safety of the students had to be paramount.” So Mr. Watson stayed after school to photocopy the novels and print out enough copies for the students in his American Lit class. Malik asked him straight up one day why they couldn’t get actual books but the school had money for metal detectors and police officers? Mr. Watson just shook his head and told him “there is work to do.” Malik finally got the stack of papers in order and filed them into the right side pocket of his folder.

James was already at Malik’s locker when he got there.

“Bruh, you going to ask Lisa to that party this weekend?” Malik looked around to make sure nobody heard James.

“Shut up man!” Malik hit him in the shoulder.

“So what we on now fam?” James asked.

Typically they would hang around for a while talk to a female or two, or just bullshit with their boys. Today, though, Malik was trying to get home. Tonight Barack Obama was giving the State of the Union address and he was actually interested in what he was going to say. The last book Mr. Watson had assigned was Native Son by Richard Wright and it really stuck with Malik, it connected. More than that though, it made Malik curious about how much had, or had not changed.

He remembered the 2008 election and he knew that Obama was the first black president and how important that was. He remembered his mom talking about how Obama was going to make things better for poor people now because he knew what it was like. Malik’s mom would always defend Obama when Malik’s older sister, Angela, said he wasn’t doing what he should. Angela would used words that Malik didn’t understand, words like imperialism, colonialism, capitalism and prison-industrial-complex. Malik didn’t understand exactly what Angela was saying but she said it with such passion it always drew him in and he couldn’t help but feel like it was the same type of passion Richard Wright had when he wrote Native Son.

Malik grabbed his coat and backpack said peace to his people and headed home. His parents only had one car so he had to walk or take the city bus back to his house. He didn’t mind except that the price had gone up almost a dollar in the last year. Today he didn’t have to worry about that though, it was nice out so he decided to hold on to the little cash he had –he could use that for lunch tomorrow since the food they gave them at school hardly qualified as food– and walk home.

Malik decided to cut through the park. He loved this park. During the summer they used to spend all day and even some nights here. Sometimes they would hoop other times just kick it and tell stories. No matter what they did the park was one of Malik’s favorite spots. Last summer he kissed Lisa for the first time on the swings by the basketball court. Some of his best memories were made at this park. He didn’t much care that there were no nets on the hoops and that the building never seemed to be open anymore. This was his. Now, as he walked through the park it seemed like a ghost town. The team practices that filled up the park with community when he was growing up had to come to an end when the park building shut down due to budget cuts. The only people in the park now was the occasional person willing to use it as a shortcut or someone looking for trouble.

Malik was pulled from his memories by the sound of a police siren and flashing blue and red lights. Malik was used to the police in his neighborhood, especially since they started building all the condos down by the river. It seemed every resident of a condo had their own personal officer and they were all tasked to keep the “trouble” as far away from them as possible. As he kept walking through the park he could see the officer approaching the driver side of the car. He wasn’t sure why he stopped but Malik did, something told him to stick around and pay attention. Before he could even turn around Malik heard the driver:

“Aye, fuck off me!”

The officer was pulling him from the car and his partner was coming around the front from the passenger side with his gun pulled.

“On your stomach! Now!” both officers were screaming at the man.

“For what? I didn’t do shit!” the man was now standing next to his car pleading with the officers.

“What did I do?”

“Get on your stomach!” shouted the bigger officer but he wasn’t really interested in letting the driver comply; before he even finished asking the question the driver was shaking on the ground as the officer continuously tased him.

“Where is the weed?!” the partner just kept screaming at the man.

“You got guns? Where the fuck are the guns?! All of you guys have weapons and drugs!” Malik knew what they meant when they said “all of you guys.”

Malik had his phone out and was recording the incident. The police searched the car as the driver moaned on street, but they must not have found anything, or they just kept it for themselves, because they left without arresting the driver or towing the car.

As Malik posted the video to his Facebook page he remembered watching the murder of Oscar Grant on YouTube and he could feel the anger just under his skin so close to the surface.

The rest of the walk Malik daydreamed about what he would have done in that situation. When he got to his house he could hear the voices inside.

“It’s not right! The Johnson’s have been there for decades!” Angela was irate. Angela and Malik’s parents were all sitting around the kitchen table.

“I guess they just couldn’t swing it after Paul got laid off.” Malik’s mom tried to make sense of the situation.

“What a shitty system we live in. Paul could only find some part-time minimum wage jobs after the plant closed. Nobody can survive on minimum wage, but these mafuckas out here making millions.” Malik recognized in his father’s voice the same anger he had just felt.

“The Johnson’s are moving?” Malik asked quietly. He was close with Luke Johnson and didn’t want them to move.

“I don’t know what they are going to do. Paul said something about not going down without a fight. Damn I hate banks!” Malik’s father seemed distant.

“Malik do you got homework?” his mother was cooking dinner and Malik usually did his homework at the table while she cooked. She hated talking too much about things like this. It just seemed easier to move on with your day. It never worked though. No matter how well his mom, or even he, tried to pretend like things could be normal they never were. Each time something changed. Resolve got hardened and you could feel something was boiling up, something was coming.

“I just got to read a little bit. Mr. Watson gave us a new book. Dad you will like this, it’s about Bobby Sands.”

“Awesome! Bout time they started telling the truth in schools!” he was still somewhere else.

Malik’s father had told him stories about Bobby Sands, the Irish freedom fighter who died on a hunger strike. Malik had been taught to be proud of his heritage, both his African-American and European, specifically Irish. Malik couldn’t understand everything his parents and their friends discussed but they had taught him to be proud of who he was and they taught him about his heritage. The dedication of Bobby Sands reminded Malik of Richard Wright and he wondered if they would have gotten along.

“I also want to watch the State of the Union. I asked Ms. Jensen if I could get extra credit and she said she would think about it.”

“I don’t know why you want to watch that bullshit. He ain’t going to acknowledge our world.” Angela was always talking about two Americas. Malik wondered if Angela was right. He thought about Oscar Grant and the driver who was tased in broad daylight. He thought about Mr. Watson making copies of novels that the school refused to allocate money for. He thought about the abandoned park building and the Johnsons facing foreclosure.

“Hush Angela!” Malik’s mother scolded her, “he is better than any Republican!”

“That’s not saying much. And it sure ain’t going to help the Johnsons!” it felt like even Angela didn’t want to accept the truth of the statement.

After dinner they sat down to watch President Obama. Malik just stared at the big bright words splashed across the screen. The State of the Union.

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