THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY

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by Dominic Inouye

   There are so many blanks to fill in.

That's why people are marching, you know?

 

 How do ___ get on the right side of history? 

 

If ___ am the system, then how do ___ do the right thing?  

 

Which pronoun to use?

 

If I use “I”

(How do I get on the right side of history?),

then I am a Japanese/Italian American

who checks “Other” instead of

the essentializing “White” or “Pacific Islander.”

 

If I use “You”

(How do you get on the right side of history?),

then you could rightly accuse me of being

accusatory, but without accusation,

then there is no right side of history.

 

If I use "He" or "She"

(How does he or she get on the right side of history?),

do I mean this police chief or that police officer

or this Black woman or that Black man

shot with his hands up at point blank range?

 

If I use “They"

(How do they get on the right side of history?),

do I mean all police officers

or all white people or

all Black people?

 

If I use “We,”

Does that mean “We” the white people

Or “We” the Black people

Or “We” the People?

 

Or does “We” implicitly and neatly group us

all together so that no one can be accused,

suggesting we’re all just one big dysfunctional family,

that people just make mistakes?

 

Do I need to get on the right side of history?  

Am I the system?

 

Do You need to get on the right side of history?  

Are You the system?

 

Does He or She need to get on the right side of history?

Is He or She the system?

 

Do They need to get on the right side of history?  

Are They the system?

 

Do We need to get on the right side of history?  

Are We the system?

 

I tried to make sense of the blank spaces

As I marched with a thousand other pronouns

Through the streets of Milwaukee.

 

We marched first to remember the latest victims

Philando Castile

Alton Sterling

Jay Anderson

and over 700 others killed by police officers

this year alone.

 

But we were also called by a man with a microphone

to peck away at the system.

I imagined us

pecking away at the residues

of the Jim Crow system like vultures

peck the carcass of a dead crow, 

ripping shreds off the desiccating

flesh of a failed system.

 

Would this pecking

get us on the right side of history?

Were we doing the right thing?

 

Another man with a microphone

on the steps of the police station

insisted that if a man’s mind

has been taught that there are

“appropriate” times

when there is no law--

If he has been taught this

by the lawless actions of unnatural

puppeteers posing as prophets,

then what he called "natural law" will emerge.

 

We all learned about these "appropriate" times in school:

 

The slave ships plucked people

From their homes like grapes

in a silver bowl, then squeezed them

into the goblets of masters.

 

The president signed an executive

order to force the indigenous

into paternalistic reservations.

 

The government barbed wired

its own rising sun citizens,

 

and the culture built on these lawful injustices

decided that not everyone could piss

into the same pot, feared the lips

of a dark man would contaminate

the entire water table.

 

If this is what a man has been taught

in school and in his neighborhood,

that sometimes the law doesn’t apply to some people,

then natural law will emerge.

 

Deep instincts will arise

out of the oppression,

repression,

suppression,

depression--

and rear their heads:

A thousand heads marching up Water Street,

blocking traffic on Wisconsin Avenue,

disrupting the freeway system,

the concrete divider that ripped through

Bronzeville and made Milwaukee

the most segregated city in the country.

 

It is not surprising

that a man would arm himself

against officers in Dallas and

. . . . .

Though this too needs to be pecked away.

A system in which anyone who is Black

is treated with suspicion and paranoia

and anyone who has chosen the blue life

is treated with distrust and fear--

this needs to be pecked away.

 

If some of us--another pronoun--

are above the law,

then does the law truly exist?

Does it cease to matter?

Is it revealed as a sham,

to be dismantled by natural law

and rebuilt?

 

We had recently celebrated

with fireworks and picnics

the natural law that emerged

when the European colonists,

who saw in their king a lawless justice,

pecked away at the system

with cannons and bayonets.

The natural laws of life, liberty,

and the pursuit of happiness

stained the red coats even redder.

 

So who are the next vultures to dismantle the system?

It has been a century and a half since

the slaves were emancipated in a paper proclamation.

It has been almost fifty years since civil rights

mattered in the streets, at the dinner table,

in the cafeteria, at the lunch counters.

Who will step up to dismantle the system now?

 

And what will it take?

What should it take?

Is a Facebook ally enough,

or a rally at city hall?

Is a march through the streets enough,

or a freeway blockade?
Is violence against police officers

ever the right thing?

 

I find myself here

in the winding streets of this verse

wondering whether “dismantle” is even the right word?

If a mantle is a cloak, what’s the cloak

that needs uncloaking?  

What do the vultures

need to uncloak?  

Is this uncloaking a pecking away

at the pinkish red carcass

of an oily black crow--

or is it rather an unveiling,

an apocalypse, an uncovering?

 

A revelation.

 

I heard one man at the march say

he didn’t lose justice

when he lost his son.  

He lost balance.  

So many other families are off-balance.

Balance must be restored.

 

This has the ring of revelation--

Restore the balance.

 

The marchers cried, I cried,

Power to the people!

Who got the power?  We got the power!

Ain’t no power like the power of the people, because

the power of the people don’t stop!

because they saw an imbalance of power.

 

The marchers cried

We are the change!

because they saw none from its authorities.

 

The marchers cried

Out of your seat and into the street!

Whose streets?  Our streets!

because they saw too much contentedness and security.

 

The marchers cried

I am my brother’s keeper!

because they knew that if they didn’t keep him,

then there was no guarantee

that anyone else would.

 

But it can’t be that simple, can it?

Be my brother’s and my sister’s keeper?

I’d love to think that these words I grew up with

could dismantle the system

and heal the wounds

and restore life, liberty, and happiness, but

something in me knows it’s going to take more.

 

Or maybe it is that simple.

 

On my way back

from the police station rally

I waved at a beautiful baby

with white beads in her hair

and she grabbed my finger

from inside her stroller

and wouldn’t let go

as her mother and brother

walked beside her.

Her brown face smiled up

at me and I could swear

she kept gurgling “dada.”

 

When I told her mother my name

and asked her hers,

she told me she was Jay Anderson’s fiance

and that these were their two children.

I felt ashamed I hadn’t recognized them

from the pictures in the paper

recounting how he was shot while sitting

in his car in a park in the early hours of the morning--

the baby girl had the same white beads.

For a moment, I let her hand go

so I could hug her mother.

Then her beaded head peered up again.

 

In my hand I held the fatherless

hand of a beautiful girl.

Her mother let me walk with them down the block

and across the street.

Then we parted ways.

 

For a moment

I forgot about I’s and You’s,

pronouns and protests,

vultures and crows,

pecking and dismantling,

natural law and marching.

 

I felt like I was on the right side of history,

that the girl knew instinctively how to do the right thing.

That if we (yes, she and I) could hold hands

like this for a year, a decade, a century,

then balance could be restored.

  

  

  

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I attended my first protest march on Monday, July 11th. 

The Solidarity Rally and Protest Surrounding Lost Lives 

was led by the Coalition For Justice.

It began with a peaceful 4 pm rally in Red Arrow Park,

 proceeded down Water Street to Wisconsin Avenue,

formed a circle in the street--I estimated close to a thousand strong--

in front of the Federal Building,

backtracked to Water Street and down to Clybourn Street,

then up Milwaukee Street back to Red Arrow.

From there, the marchers rallied up Kilbourn Avenue

to the police station on State Street.

 

I marched, I chanted, I met new people, I connected with old friends.

 

I wrote down everything I heard and saw.

 

Here is an imperfect poem that begins

with two questions posed to the crowd: 

How do we get on the right side of history?

We are the system, so how do we do the right thing?

 

I became wary of the pronouns I was using

after getting feedback from an old and wise

 

friend of mine, so I begin with blanks

and let my thoughts march and meander

through the verses.

 

It ends around 8 pm, 

when a baby grabs my hand

and refuses to let go.

 

I invite your feedback, critique, questions, conversation.