Memoir

Going to Washington, DC

'ARE YOU GOING? If he wins, are we going?' It was October 2008, a month before the presidential election, yet many of my friends and family had begun asking this question. 'Are you going to the inauguration in Washington?' The question became more important even than 'Are you voting for Barack?'

My answer was 'yes' with an exclamation mark. I transformed into a beacon, cheerleader, resource and more for all things that would lead, help and motivate my Californian friends to take this historic journey.

'Girl, this will be something to tell my grandkids, in twenty years,' I laugh to my friends. 'And Cameron better not make me a grandmother before then! This will be like going to the March on Washington, with Martin Luther King Jr delivering his "I Have A Dream" speech!'

Every day the number of women in my circle of friends heading to Washington, DC grew. A short time after the election, a large list of women hoping and planning to attend was formed. We covered all the details anyone could think of for attending the fifty-sixth presidential inauguration.

I worked to persuade a dear friend to join the fun. 'We could do a minimal food budget, especially if we rent a house. You have all the clothes and jewellery that you need. How much is Amtrak from Sacramento to DC? I would consider going that route with you.'

'Melody, money is funny around our house. Hubby talking about walking away from the home since the value is lower than we paid for it...taxes is due – it's always something.'

'Joycey, you have to sacrifice and not buy anything new so you could buy a train ticket and have a tiny bit of spending money. Would you be interested in taking the train...it is cheaper and, since you have time off from work, the time to take the train from California to DC would not be a factor.' I didn't give her time to respond. 'This is a worthwhile sacrifice... We could share cabs and the limos that my friends will have... Put together a bare-bones budget. Try!'

I was relentless, because Joyce and I have a great time together. I wanted her with me in Washington. So, knowing how much she shops, I added, 'Oh, you have to institute a self-imposed spending freeze for November and cut Christmas spending by three-quarters...make this your Christmas present. We don't have to do big-time all the time.'

'I hear you, Melody! Pray for a miracle about the home finances and for the inauguration. Unless something miraculously happens within the next few weeks, I am going to have to pass...damn it!' Joyce paused, and added, 'I will definitely keep this in mind. I'm going through all my purchases from the last few months, some items are still in bags, and I will be taking everything back for credit.' I could hear her mental wheels turning to try and make this trip happen. She went further, moving toward a 'yes' for the trip. 'I will save on gas since I won't be driving because of my knee surgery...save on food since I won't be eating out as much. Don't count me out!'

Joyce took back her purchases, tightened her belt and quickly got on board as we ironed out the tiny details for our Inaugural Journey. Many other women were going but Joyce and I had decided to be roommates, and we traded no fewer than twenty emails and three telephone calls a day for the next six weeks. We decided to fly, not hop on the train, to Washington, DC.

 

IT WAS 8 JANUARY 2009 when I realised I had been crying on and off for the past eight days. While I was co-ordinating my inauguration wardrobe, outfits, hair, makeup, accessories, and figuring out how I would stay warm for my ten days in DC without a fur, I cried. I did not cry for me, or for any joy about Barack Obama becoming America's first black President. I cried deep, long, painful tears of grief for Oscar Grant III.

At the time of his murder, on 1 January 2009, he was twenty-two. He was the same age as my beautiful black son. The smile that I stared at, in the family photo of Oscar Grant, covered the front, back and inside of our newspaper. His face replaced the other black man's face, President-Elect Barack Obama, whose face covered other newspapers around the country. Oscar Grant's smile reminded me of the smiles of my son and his friends. Oscar Grant was like the other young black men in my community, in my city, Oakland, California. He was executed, shot in the back, by a rail cop, a transit police officer, while he lay, face down, on the cold, dirty, grimy grey concrete slab of the transit platform on New Year's Eve.

As I matched up and packed my colourful bras, underpants, stockings, jewellery and scarves, I cried. As I organised my assorted folders holding the priceless tickets I had purchased for the Illinois State Society Presidential Ball and Gala, the Presidential Inaugural Cruise and Dinner around the Potomac River, the California State Society Presidential Inaugural Luncheon and Fashion Show, and the American Music Inaugural Ball, I cried for Oscar Grant. I had tickets to the California Bash, 'Fly Me to the Moon', being held by the California Democratic Party at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I cried for Oscar Grant. As I double-checked the times and dates for the private inaugural reception hosted by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, I cried for Oscar Grant. My undergraduate college, Mills College, was hosting a Presidential Inauguration Reception and I would be attending the Jack and Jill of America, Inc. Southeast Region Inaugural Reception. I cried for Oscar Grant. I confirmed my fine-dining reservations for an assortment of Georgetown restaurants that I would be visiting over the ten days. I cried for Oscar Grant. The Presidential Inaugural Summit Prayer Breakfast, the Fredrick Douglas Event at the National Archives, tickets for Bill Cosby at the Kennedy Center, the secured Capitol Tour with Senate and House Passes: these did not dry my tears for Oscar Grant or heal the wound in my heart for this murdered son.

I was completing a lengthy, humorous email to all of the women in our group travelling to the Presidential Inauguration on the day that Oscar Grant was buried. I was trying to dry my tears for Oscar Grant. I really was. Instead of celebrating the journey of a lifetime, I was trapped in a murder of unexplainable proportions. My husband called to me from the living room.

'Melody, you need to come in here quickly...'

I don't remember much else of what I saw on the television, except footage boldly titled 'breaking news'. The tears, hurt, pain and grief for Oscar Grant had spilled into our streets. Oakland was burning. I was on fire too.

'I have to go downtown,' I told my husband as I grabbed my purple Converse, extra-large hoodie and a tear-soaked, crumpled wad of tissue. I knew he would not accompany me into our micro-warzone. 'Bye,' I called as I slammed the door to our lovely home and headed downtown.

I sent the following email instead of continuing the evening update about my flight, the Super Shuttle, my bed and breakfast inn reservation, and the great house that Joyce and I had finally scored not too far from the Capital. (When we paid out, in advance, astronomical amounts of money, we squealed like high school girls, 'We can walk to Inauguration!') Instead, on 9 January 2009, I wrote to my DC-bound friends:

Well, when I signed off last night, on email, I really did go into downtown Oakland, to see why and if my town was still burning...it was. Some of you know that I resigned my mayoral-appointed position of serving on the Citizen's Police Review Board for Oakland and most of you know my love for Oakland and my love for the young urban folks in my town. What I saw during my two-plus hours, on the scene...in the mix, broke my heart. My heart was broken for my mayor, my former boss, who was soundly booed by the youth and elders as he tried to call for peace from the steps of City Hall. My heartbreak is around and runs on down to the rampant racism that is alive and well within the Oakland Police Department. Our police force is 80 per cent non-urban and they do not like us. Period. (As a side note, the transit patrol is not the city police.) I observed the pain, anger, grief and rage. When I got to City Hall, I tried to connect with the staff and so-called community leaders, yet the face of fear was the only connection I obtained. I tried to do what I do, which is observe, get information, evaluate plans and see if I can help in any way.

While things were burning and breaking all around me I was, as I am, not scared at all. I only got scared when an officer picked me out of obscurity (I was on the opposite side of the street from a volatile exchange between some of the protestors and the police.) He quickly and angrily pulled out his billy club, held it over my head and threatened me, telling me to get my 'blank' across the street when I was not even in the crowd, in the way, interfering or inciting – nothing. I was standing by myself observing everything. I tried to speak to him in my 'downtown' voice and he continued to press toward me with his Hitler-style knee-high boots, while pulling and then raising his tax-dollar-supplied billy club higher over my face.

...I was mortified, shocked and seriously scared. I was trying to tell him of my disbelief of him even engaging and bullying me...all the while I was moving backwards, towards City Hall where the officials had sealed themselves inside. I moved very slowly, away from his evil ass.

One of our media-maligned urban youth injected himself between the angry officer and my now frightened self. He did what urban youth do...take their lives and freedom in their own hands. The youth pushed me away from the officer in a protective-son sort of way and faced off with the officer on my behalf. Other urban youth ran over and were pulling and carefully pushing me out of harm's way while this young man and his posse cursed and confronted the officer on my behalf.

A band of suburban youth, white, angry and skilled in the tactics of civil disobedience and protest...there were hundreds of them running all around downtown Oakland, who the television neglected to show America, interjected themselves between the dreadlocked and afro-hairstyled black urban youth and the now-enraged police officer and his 'colleagues' who swarmed our space like locusts. It was only when the suburban 'kids' taunted, cursed and challenged the police that the enraged police officer lowered his billy club and ignored their taunts, me, and the young black protestors. While grateful, I found this unbelievable. In the heat of chaos, race matters. It was chaos, it was violent, it was a very sad night in Oakland, but it was not because of the young 'mob' that the media named, but because of the 'mob' ways of the police.

I did not get the number of replies that I had received to my emails that I had sent to these ladies since October 2008. I did have a strong group of women who were glad for my safety, applauded my 'foolish' bravery and some who questioned why I would go out into the 'mess' of the night just a few days away from the event of a lifetime.

Oscar Grant's murderer was arrested on 14 January 2009. I left Oakland for Washington, DC that night, at 10.30 pm, on a very full flight, while my city was again burning for Oscar Grant. We, in our tragedy, were a long way from the joys of Barack Obama, the fun and festivities of inauguration – some four thousand kilometres away from the patriotic waving of red, white and blue. While waiting to board my red-eye flight, I fielded jovial questions about the red and blue political party ribbons decorating my carry-on bag. Yes, I wanted to support Barack Obama's plea for, invitation to and belief in bipartisan politics. We do not have bipartisan politics, nor do we have a history of inviting the red and the blue folks – the Republican Party and the Democratic Party – in our country to come together. We do not have a history of believing this could happen. Maybe Obama would get credit for changing the way we think, work and play in politics in America.

At the Oakland Airport I also realised that people did not want to talk about downtown Oakland burning five minutes away from us. We were going to DC. People had spent a lot of money and were using their vacation or sick days to travel from one side of the United States to the other to witness the swearing-in of our first black President.

'We really don't know what happened up there on that rapid transit platform on New Year's Eve with that officer and Oscar Grant...' These cautious comments made my jaw stiffen and my eyes water. Hmm, Oscar Grant is dead. Do you know about that?

I do not care what happened before Oscar Grant was murdered. People saw what happened. I saw the videos taken. I saw the television play the execution over and over and over again. I saw it. Yet my eyes, heart and head cannot accept that a young man, like so many I know, was executed while unarmed, with a knee pressed to his neck, his beautiful face forced into the pavement, while he pleaded for the officer not to take his life. I do not need to know anything else. Burn, Oakland, burn...

As I found my row and seat on the airplane, I imagined Oscar's family was probably not planning to witness the inauguration. I imagined Oscar Grant III, like so many others, wanted to go but reasoned that the crowds, cost, weather and so on would make doing so impossible. I imagined... With every minute moving me further from my beloved city, I could not leave Oakland, with all her hurt, tears, pain and injustice, behind.

The five-hour flight was a mix of restlessness, tears and excitement. Waking from a nap, I wiped my eyes. 'Allergies,' I said off-handedly to the person next to me. She wanted me to focus on the good things, the positive things. In other words, please shut up about Oscar Grant.

'Leave Oakland behind for a few days,' she counselled as she shared her party plans and excitement at going to see the Obamas. She made the Obamas sound like old friends. I forced pleasant smiles as she created a moat between me and my grief, filling it with descriptions of forthcoming swanky cocktail parties, breakfast celebrations and her wardrobe details.

The plane now rested at the arrival gate at Dulles Airport. Who was I kidding? Trying to leave Oakland behind was an absurd suggestion. It was right up there with 'We don't really know what happened on that transit platform...' I could never leave Oakland behind. Oakland is the city that stirs my soul, brings me pain and brings me joy. Oakland is the city where I learned about the Halls of Congress, the powers of the Senate, and where I learned that I would see a black man become President. Oakland is where I was born. It is where grew up, went to school and got my first job out of college. I worked at City Hall, in the city manager's office. Oakland is where my son, now twenty-two, was born. Oakland is where the son of another mother died a few days ago, aged twenty-two, and caused my city to come alive.

Retrieving my bag with the large red and blue decorative ribbons from the overhead bin, I focused on the gratitude I had for being in Washington, DC, which is another home of sorts for me. When I was working on my master's degree in public administration I lived in Georgetown. I was a congressional intern on the hill and I also worked in the lobbyist office for the City of Los Angeles. I remember how upset I was when I learned that Oakland had not allocated resources to secure a federal lobbyist like Los Angeles. What I did not know was that Oakland's Congressman, Ronald V Dellums, who I interned for, was such a deeply respected and effective force that any lobbyist or team would pale in comparison. Oakland did not need a lobbyist in Washington, DC back in 1983: it had Dellums.

When the shuttle dropped me at my inn I tried to forget about Oscar Grant and committed to keeping my thoughts on Barack Obama. I called home to let my family know I had arrived safely. My husband was happy to hear from me and asked a battery of questions about how exciting Washington, DC must be. I gave him one-word inaccurate answers: 'Yes,' 'Sure,' and 'Ahh...' Then I asked the burning questions I wanted answers to: 'What happened? What happened last night after I left?'

He paused. I know when he pauses it is not good. 'Well,' he started. 'I went downtown after I dropped you off at the airport and things had gotten worse. The windows of many of the businesses were broken, more fires were set, people really fought with the police and the officers started blocking off many of the streets. I almost got trapped inside the zone they had set up. It was bad, Melody.'

'Okay. Dave, keep me posted and please do not throw away any newspapers. I want to read everything written about Oscar Grant and I want to know what people at home have to say about Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha.'

'Hey, have a good time. Take lots of pictures – and Melody, things will be fine in Oakland.'

'I will...and David, you make sure you take care of my city. Bye.'

 

WHEN I HUNG up I wondered how I would be able to enjoy the National Portrait Gallery in a couple of hours. I was doing everything I could to keep my commitment to having a good time.

An unofficial yet quite popular portrait of President-Elect Obama was already the centre of controversy. Seemed like some people were not happy that the gallery, where the official portrait of every President of the United States of America hangs, had placed a large portrait of the President-Elect underneath or behind a staircase.

That is also what happens to books written by African-American authors: our books are shelved underneath the escalator, on the wall facing the back of the store, or tucked on shelves close to the back door where the coffee is served. What was going on down at the National Portrait Gallery? It was time to see for myself what possible injustice was boiling over here.

The Washington newspaper said that no other presidential portrait had caused such division. A generous perspective noted that no other president-elect had a portrait displayed at the gallery, so people needed to stop looking at it as a racial incident. His portrait being removed from the National Portrait Gallery's permanent presidential exhibit was a matter of protocol, nothing more.

'What?' I cried out in my quaint inauguration-theme-decorated room, as I read the article. 'They removed his portrait already?' The article continued that the portrait being displayed with the other presidents was a big mistake and concluded that Barack Obama had yet to be sworn into office – he was not yet President, and his portrait had to be removed immediately.

Many were outraged and wrote to the newspaper that they believed America was already showing its resistance to electing a black man as President. Others wrote that it was tacky and hurtful for the author interpreting protocol to hint that Barack Obama may be assassinated before he took the oath of office. At that point I folded the newspaper and said yet another prayer for Barack Obama and for the soul of Oscar Grant III.

As I unpacked, I turned on what looked like a new television set in my room. A television in a room at a bed and breakfast inn is rare. The proprietor explained that since it was the inauguration she made sure people could see everything while they were at her inn. At the prices she was charging, that seemed fair enough. I would only stay here for four nights, before I moved into a house I would share with a friend from Sacramento. All accommodation in Washington was booked out at triple or quadruple the regular rate. I was told several times that rooms had been booked for over a year.

Mayor Adrian Fenty, of Washington, DC, is a strange fellow. He was on TV. His hat was too big and I could tell he probably doesn't play well with others. It was just a hunch. As I hung my ball gowns, stacked my evening shoes and made sure my other outfits survived the journey, I heard him talk about street closures. Washington was closing streets to celebrate. Oakland, meanwhile, had closed streets to restore order. Two black men, Oscar Grant and Barack Obama, had elected officials and municipalities scrambling and making public announcements to address or anticipate whatever either man's followers required to bring peace, a sense of calm, or a hint that someone was in charge of the surrounding chaos.

 

SUCH TELEVISED DIRECTIONS, pleas and eventually threats of arrest permeated the airwaves of both cities over the next couple of years. The time between January 2009 and now has been tough. Our country's tepid to hate-laced response to the leadership of President Barack Obama, in tandem with the various components of the highly emotional trial for the murder of Oscar Grant, have left many uneasy.

I have been accused of having it 'better', of surely leading an easier life since a black man is in the White House. My truth is far from this careless assessment. The resentment, anger and evil wishes for President Obama and for the supporters of Oscar Grant are real. Discussions about race and racism are not happening in a constructive or productive climate. My city is still one bad decision – say, the petitioned early release of the convicted officer – away from imploding.

I am puzzled that mothers of all races are not enraged about the murder of the young man, and of the many young men of colour executed every day. I am guarded, alert and engaged in discussions about the worsened conditions of the black middle class, and I am clear that these conditions are not because we have a black President.

I have to believe that things will get better for everybody, so I pray. I pray for a country that can one day eradicate the hurt, the pain, and dry the tears that fall from the face of others. I pray for the scared, the threatened, and for those who have no compassion for the other man, his fellow man, the man in the White House and the man who died on the transit platform. I pray for forgiveness and justice so we may have peace, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness.

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