Shut It Down
Old school jams are pulsing from barbershop speakers. The television screen is silently playing an old Will Smith shoot-em-up. Bad Boys I think. The buzz and percussion of electric and manual clippers blend with music and man chatter: a sound that takes me back all the way to childhood with my dad, rest in peace. Now I’m on the other side of the circle of life, waiting for my son’s turn in the chair.
Retro Pam Grier poster oversees proceedings. Caption informs us She the baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!
The talk becomes animated. “The people shut down Lake Shore Drive this morning.” My man, Stretch, the barber, is in a good-natured verbal tangle with Pastor Glover, community activist.
“Man I don’t see the point”, Stretch says. “Why shut down Lake Shore Drive? Seem like all you doing is stopping black folk from going to the beach. It’s hot as hell out there. Folk can’t get to the beach, they just gonna stay home and shoot each other.”
Rev. Glover shakes his head, drawing a frown from his barber, Ahmad. Hold still.
“We got to do something to stop the violence. Even the mayor supports us. The police chief committed to help direct traffic. We going to shut it down, and demand the city do something about the violence in our communities!”
“Something! We demand a meeting with the mayor! We demand he steps down! We demand justice! Hold still!
“Is the mayor running around shooting black folk?”
“No… but we got to hold him accountable for the violence in our communities! We demand he do something about the violence!” Hold still Rev.
“Something! And if he continues to do nothing, and if we don’t get our meeting, we gonna shut down the Dan Ryan! We gonna shut down the Stevenson! We gonna shut down the Eisenhower! We gonna shut down 294! We demand justice!” Reverend… you gonna have a plug in your head if you don’t hold still. “
Stretch shakes his bald head. “Man I don’t know about that. We the ones getting shot. We the ones mostly doing the shooting. How is shutting down traffic going to stop us from shooting each other?”
Then, unfortunately, Stretch looks my way, even though I’ve been studiously trying to avoid the conversation. “Bro. Greg…you be reading and shit. What you think about all this?”
“Dude…I don’t know. Seem like we always reacting to stuff. I don’t know what we want. I don’t know if we really know what we want.”
Pastor Glover rears up from his chair, causing Ahmad to throw up his hands in frustration. “What you some kind of Uncle Tom Negro?”
“No. I don’t have a brother and my sister is childless. I just don’t know what we want.”
“We want the violence to end! We want an end to police shootings! We want jobs! We want…”
“Brother…sorry to interrupt you but I’m old. I been in this for a long time. Just tired of hearing the same thing. Tired of always reacting like puppets on an emotional string. Always being pulled and pushed one direction or the other…never our own direction with our own destination.
So I’m now boycotting this conversation until we grapple with some harder things. What do we want for our children? How we going to educate them? How we going to keep them out the prison for profit game? How we going to invest in our own communities and culture? Where are we developing next generations of political leadership? Pilsen was named by Forbes as one of the ‘coolest’ neighborhoods in the world. Why can’t Englewood be that and more? And how can we do that without displacing its most vulnerable people? Where is our economic base? What is our plan? What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of city, country and world do we want to be a vital part of? What do we want? I don’t know man. I just don’t know.”
The ensuing silence is why I avoid these type conversations. Hard questions dampen emotional flares.
Pastor Glover lifts himself from Ahmad’s chair, as my young son heads toward Stretch to get his high natural top, faded on the sides. We shake hands, and the love is real. We both trying to work this shit out.
God is still God…so I really do believe, even in my weariness, we going to work it out. Over time. Eyes on the prize we define for ourselves. Across generations. Like the Good Book says: Pressing for the mark of the high calling.