Rita Omokha

This story is part of ELLE’s America Redefined series. To read the full series, click here.

There were all types of ashes on the ground that afternoon: black, grey, caramel. Some coarse, others fine and fluffy. Lit on fire during one of the many nights of peaceful-protesting-turned-riots in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, the Car Source lot—a family-owned business that sold used cars—had been completely scorched. Rows of cars, which just a few weeks ago were shined up and ready to sell, were now burnt-out hulking shells, destroyed during consecutive nights of protests. The glass at the entrance shattered. Signs above ask for funds, and others read: “WHAT DID OUR COMMUNITY DID TO DESERVE THIS??” and “WHERE IS OUR JUSTICE??”

The shop had been all over the news mainly because of the $2.5 million in damages the owners said their insurance wouldn’t pay because the wreckage was a result of rioting, and it was nothing like what I expected. Maybe a car here and there, I thought. To see that many cars demolished put me in a startled daze. I remained still, taking in the ruins. I slowly made my way between the seared bits of rubber, glass, and steel, crackling under my feet, when I saw four cars on the side that had BLACK LIVES MATTER, and a heart symbol separately scrawled on each one in green ink. I wondered how many cars were razed during those two nights by arsonists. I checked the dealership’s GoFundMe page, as one of the signs above the shop instructed: 137 cars.

rita omokha, kenosha

Clockwise: Navy Memorial Park on Lake Michigan; A car dealership burnt in the aftermath of the August 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake

Rita Omokha

As I stood staring, a long, a white car pulled up. It had burgundy and gold trims, a red front license plate that said “Merry,” top down, and maroon leather seats, from which emerged an older white couple, smiling. They walked directly to me. They looked nice. I remained frozen.

“It’s so sad,” the woman said to me. “So sad.”

Beverly and Harry were living their best retired lives. They were delightful, right off. Chill. Driving down from Milwaukee and making a stop in Kenosha. They heard about Jacob Blake and all the protests and riots. “We haven’t been down this way lately,” Bev continued. (I could call her Bev.) “So sad.”

I learned the car was a 1975 Oldsmobile they bought in 1978. In 264,000 miles it had never needed an engine replacement or repair—nothing. An impressive classic car, I gathered.

Harry, pleasant as he was, was on the fence about Jacob Blake. He was hesitant to draw any conclusions: “We don’t know the full story.” He added that no one deserves to be shot seven times in the back; the officers could have easily shot him in the knee.

“Why do you think this keeps happening, disproportionately to Black men?” I asked Harry.

“I don’t believe that to be true,” he said, before I could finish the question.

I quoted statistics from the running database of police shootings compiled from public records daily by the Washington Post, which I follow religiously. He was not convinced.

We stood in a semicircle with me in the middle. Harry, basketball-center-tall and looking like he collected cigars and wine, was to my right. Bev, with her sweet smile, was to my left. They both wore bright tropical shirts, Bev with her shades on, Harry in a ball cap. They didn’t wear masks.

The breeze hit us from all directions as we continued to rip Band-Aid after Band-Aid. Harry didn’t believe systemic racism to be a thing either: “Black on Black crime is more common than police shootings,” he said, “especially in poor areas like South Side Chicago.”

“A lot of the children are growing up in broken homes without fathers,” Bev added. “It continues to create this divide and implicit bias that people don’t mean to have, but it’s there anyway.” Take me, for example, Harry said—“We saw you [and] knew she means business.”

Why?

“By the way you’re dressed,” Harry said.

“Different people dress, that you either want to be near them, or you don’t, regardless of your skin,” Bev added.

rita omokha, kenosha

Harry and Bev pose in front of their 1975 Oldsmobile.

Rita Omokha

“It’s like bikers. You see, bikers with the long beards and the scraggly hair and stuff like that,” Harry said. “We have a car that we’ve had for almost fifty years. But I know if I ever have a problem, those guys will be the first guys to stop and help out. By looking at the bikers, they don’t fit my category of what a person should look like, but down deep, they’re good people. And that’s true of anybody. You can’t look at their outward appearance, whether they have scraggly beard, or they have Black skin, you know—it doesn’t make a difference.”

Growing up, Harry lived in a white, suburban area. When he was still a boy, developers built a housing project a half-mile from where he lived. His mother was livid over the fact that “these people, low-income people, Black and white, were going to be there. Because this is the suburbs.”

Still, he grew up with them, went to school with them, played basketball with them. “I’ll tell you this: I’m six-four, and some of the African-American guys were maybe five-eight or something like that, and they could jump higher than me,” he said.

“Oh, you know that movie, White Men Can’t Jump!” Bev said without missing a beat. This owned Bev and me, and we laughed hard. Harry stood with his hands crossed over his body, matter-of-fact and more straight-faced than Bev’s expressive gestures—the corners of her eyes crinkled, her cheeks rose often, her body would lean into mine, and she’d lightly touch my forearm from time to time. I came to appreciate Harry’s slow, deliberate tone. Even when we disagreed—which was like every other sentence—it always felt sincere, with more than a dash of warmth.

“But they were my best friends,” Harry continued, ignoring our giggle session. He went through high school, being close with his teammates, and “that really made me feel for the rest of my life that they’re no different than anybody else. I don’t mind walking into a, let’s say, a bar, if it’s an all-Black bar. I wouldn’t really have a problem with that. It’s that I have to judge people individually.”

“Each generation is different,” Bev said. “Our parents were very prejudiced. It’s that generation. Our granddaughter is a transgender. That was something to accept, you know. So each generation, it gets easier for each one. And you’re taught prejudice, you’re not born with it. We understand that.”

I turn my head from left to right, right to left, between them. It felt like one of those conversations you have at family dinners with all the extended relatives. Each talking over one and other, speaking from their generation’s perspective. But it was just me, Harry and Bev. My two new BFFs who felt more like grandma and grandpa than strangers, especially when Bev would lean into me and give me one of her nudges. The vrooms and screeches of the traffic made us raise our voices now and then.

I told them about my experience in corporate America, working in advertising for CNN, NBC, and later in licensing for Viacom. About how I felt I needed to assume a different self to survive some moments. I was extremely cautious about how I carried myself, styled my hair, and made sure not to use slang. It was a daily reset and conscious effort to be my corporate self—a contortionist of sorts in those rooms where most didn’t look like me.

I walked away from that world—partly because of the exhaustion that comes with “code-switching” and developing an alternate self for the sake of fitting in—concluding that predominantly white corporations will remain… mostly white until every level of those companies gets to a place of real equity. And who knows if equity is even possible in this age of performative behaviors and covert racism. Even when I thought I had made it in those spaces, I was aware of the fact that I was rare. And as a result, I never felt truly accepted. I felt tokenized.

A checkbox, maybe.

Bev’s forehead scrunched as she nodded—I think agreeing with me, but also trying to understand what all this felt like for me. Culturally, white workplaces don’t welcome people of color, I continued. The idea that you’re taught prejudice or that some people could work harder is true but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t systems in place that have historically been prejudiced. Or neighborhoods—and, in turn, education systems—that are neglected. It’s a shame that people are quick to blame those victimized by that very system. It doesn’t make sense.

So tell me, what’s the solution to that kind of systemic racism and oppression?

Or the implicit bias that has filled society to the point where (more often than not) Blacks are guilty before they are given a chance at having their character assessed?

As I rattled off question after question, I felt like I was renewing a sense of awareness of how screwed up things have been for Black people. And this year that veil blew right off into the wind. And even worse, that people have been so quick to criminalize those who die at the hands of police.

Yeah, but he was a drug dealer.

Oh, but she had weed in her pocket.

Harry lightly shook his head; it seemed he wasn’t convinced that Blacks were criminalized unfairly. “I mean, I can look at Milwaukee,” Harry said, “and I can look at the stats. And where all of the most killings occurred. Where are the most [crimes]. Most times it’s heavily where Black people [are]. And that’s kind of the way it is.”

“If you live in poverty and you grew up in poverty,” he continued, “and there’s a lot of working families and not a lot of people with higher incomes to afford things, that’s the end result.” To me, I said, it sounds like writing off an entire population and a vicious cycle with no end or solution. “If you had said in 1960 that someday they’d be a Black president? Man, there’s nobody in the world that would believe that,” Harry said to prove that Blacks can make it if they tried. Bev jumped in, gushing over President Obama. Her face lit up. “He was one of my favorites!”

Harry nodded our way: “That was a huge step.”

Just then a black pickup truck pulls up behind the Oldsmobile. A white man in his 50s wearing a sleeveless grey UNITED STATES MARINES sweatshirt walked towards our minicircle at the entrance of the lot. His stubble and mustache matched the greys sticking out from his front-facing cap that displayed a wide-mouthed rattlesnake and DON’T TREAD ON ME in bold black letters—the Gadsden flag.

rita omokha, kenosha

Mark at the dealership.

Rita Omokha

Bev was still talking about Obama: “It’s his personality. I don’t look at his color. I like him. I just, I just like him.”

The man in the sleeveless sweatshirt, Mark, changed the geometry of our gathering. He jumped right in: “Is this some kind of tribute to the protest?” He said, a bit impatient and grumpy, looking out to the lot and then back at us. Before we could blink, let alone welcome him to our band, he began telling us all about Jacob Blake. He had the inside scoop.

“You know what’s really sickening is the fact that this Blake raped the woman inside the house,” he began, pissed from the get-go. “Now, they’re gonna demand that the cops in this town get prosecuted.” Not only that, but he heard that “[Blake] went into the house drunk, [the girlfriend] was sleeping. One of the kids was next door. He gets in the house. Put his fingers there and here, all over his girlfriend’s body. Goes into her kitchen, takes her purse, went to the gas station, took out a thousand bucks. And the day he went back over there [the day of the shooting that made headlines] he was fighting with her again. He took her car keys again. Those were her three kids in the back of her car, not his. And [the cops] were called there because she called them because obviously after raping the woman [the first time] there was an order of protection against him and judgement to stay off the property. While the cops were on their way over there, obviously the dispatcher gave them some background on who they were dealing with, [that] there was [an] active warrant for his arrest. So the cops knew he has been known to be violent with cops.”

He explained that if we watched the full video carefully, we’d see that Blake “pinned to the ground his girlfriend who called [the cops], so he jumps up and instead of just responding to the cops—because you know you’re done, you know they got a warrant for your arrest, there’s no surprise why they’re there—so, he decides to resist, breaks away from the cops. They hit him with a taser. That didn’t seem to work. He’s running around to the side of the car. I don’t know. Let me do that to you and see how you respond. You don’t know. You’ve tried to stop me and I’m getting away, now I’m going to my car…”

kenosha, wisconson, jacob blake

Demonstrators protest the shooting of Jacob Blake at a peaceful rally in August and September, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Andrew Lichtenstein + Scott Olson+ Brandon Bell

There was no stopping this guy. I looked to Harry and Bev. Harry met my eyes, his brows sharply arched, his hands still crossed over his swaying body. Bev’s lips were pressed, her nose rising—she turned my way and appeared to look past me. I was comforted, realizing I wasn’t the only one with a sinking feeling in my stomach.

“…He goes into the car. Yes, there was a knife on the floorboard. And the cop shot him. Should he have shot him seven times? I don’t know. I’ve been in the military. Put yourself in a tense situation, you’ll be surprised what you’ll do. You’ll empty that gun. All you want to know is, he’s gonna stop. So far nothing seemed to work, there’s three of you. So the old ‘Oh, just a poor guy going down the street, oh geez,’ and the cops just victimized him. No!”

Harry, Bev, and I looked over at each other when Mark finally took a breath. We were too stunned to move our lips. Harry gently motioned to Bev and me: “Come on guys. Let’s look around.” Bev went left, Harry went right. I was left face to face with Mark, who just kept going. “They all parade around like he’s some martyr. What about the woman he raped?”

I didn’t hear that, I told him.

“That’s third-degree sexual assault. He’s still going to court for it.”

I didn’t hear that part either.

He went on to defend Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 18-year-old Illinois teen who drove to Kenosha during one of the nights of protests against the Blake shooting and shot two demonstrators to death: “There he was being attacked by a convicted child molester. They were trying to take his gun away from him.” And, Mark went on, there was one guy that tried to shoot Kyle who was “a drug dealer [and] convicted felon. [He] wasn’t supposed to even have a gun,” he said. “Why wasn’t he charged?”

kenosha, wisconsin   september 1 editor's note image processed using a digital filter a small memorial decorates a lamp post near where joseph rosenbaum and anthony huber, two supporters of the black lives matter movement, were shot and killed by a 17 year old militia member during a night of rioting, as seen on  september 1, 2020, in  kenosha, wisconsin  president trump came to tour sections of the town burned down from rioting over a police officer's shooting of local resident jacob blake, and to thank the police photo by andrew lichtensteincorbis via getty images

A small memorial decorates a lamp post near where Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, two supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, were shot and killed by a 17 year old militia member during a night of rioting, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Andrew Lichtenstein

He turned around and looked to the lot, where Harry and Bev walked among the burned-out shells, talking quietly. I could see a sadness in Mark’s eyes. “This is wild,” he said. “These are people up here. All these people, right, are lifelong businesses.”

It was sad, I agreed. His gaze remained on the lot for a moment longer. Then it came back to me, and he twisted up his face, vexed, and said, “I want to protest against cops so I come burn your house down?” He shook his head, continued: “And most of these things happen in neighborhoods that aren’t very wealthy. They don’t have a lot of money. So wait a minute, you’re crying oppression, but yet, you’re oppressing the people that you claim are oppressed. When they stop killing each other, you’ll find out the numbers start to drop because when you look at Black on Black crime and death and police. The cops are very minimal.”

And what about Black Lives Matter? I asked him, curious. “They’re a self-proclaimed Marxist group,” he said—he told me to look it up on my phone.

I didn’t.

“It’s right there! ‘We’re a Marxist group.’ They want to tear everything down and rebuild it with some—they’re calling for the United States to be an all-Black state. Look at the West Side of Chicago or South Side Chicago. Ninety-eight percent Black. There’s an example of a Black state for ya. Now, what? You really want that?”

Thought after thought—he dished them out like a purge until he got to what started the rise in protesting this year: George Floyd. “The man was a stone thug criminal,” he said, with the same sure-shot authority as when he told the Blake tale. “Does that mean he deserved to die? Nobody’s saying that. But let’s put things in the right perspective. If you start comparing Dr. King to him, Dr. King has no business in the same conversation. Because Dr. King was absolutely nothing like that, at all. At all! He was a man of peace. A man of love. A man of giving. He never broke the law.”

I broke from the trio and headed to Memorial Park to take a beat. The breeze blew heavy as I roamed quiet streets. Though I disagreed with Mark (and Harry, but in a different way), I understood better how some white people saw the Black plight. Some chose to understand it with reservations, like Harry, while others saw Blacks as monoliths, like Mark.

And some are trying, in their way, to understand it on a deeper level, maybe nudged by some tangential experience that reshapes their thinking, like Bev wrestling in her mind with her granddaughter, coming out as trans.

You’re taught prejudice, you’re not born with it. We understand that.



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