I fear for our country.
Last week, days after a group of angry young people vandalized Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb’s home following the failure of a police defunding resolution, I spoke to Frank Brim, a 63-year-old West Side baseball coach and retired firefighter.
Brim said that he thinks the country is headed for a new civil war and not in the metaphorical sense. Brim, by the way, is no radical. Time and circumstances, however, change people. He says that recent events and his retirement have freed him to say things that, in the past, he may have kept to himself.
“In my baseball program, I’ve never talked about race with my kids, ever, until the last couple years,” said Brim. “We’re having those conversations. This is what you should do when the police stop you.”
Like the young protesters who gathered at the mayor’s home, Brim was once himself young and angry. His anger started simmering in 1975, when he learned of a terrible family tragedy.
“In 1945, my grandmother and grandfather were hung in Mississippi and I didn’t find out until my freshman or sophomore year of high school,” he said. “The Klan hung my grandmother and grandfather and they blamed it on my grandfather, saying he hung his wife and then he hung himself. With his hands tied behind his back, he hung himself.
“When I learned that, I wanted nothing to do with white people. I didn’t want any white teachers, I rebelled against the system. I said, ‘Look, if the white man is teaching it, I don’t want anything to do with that.’ I was really, really, really angry. It affected me academically. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to be in the same room with white people.”
The knowledge, Brim said, “destroyed my father. It destroyed him and his brothers and sister. They moved up here to get away from that South and when my father got here, he was so paranoid.
“If we were going on a vacation or something, or going back down to Mississippi, he would put tape across the door to make sure nobody came into the house,” Brim recalled. “He would tell us, ‘You looking at that television. That television is looking at you.’ So, I started thinking my daddy was crazy, but no, he was responding to the issues of his past.”
Brim said his father eventually joined the Nation of Islam and became part of the security team for its leader, Elijah Muhammad, who taught his followers that white people are an “aggressive race of rulers” who descended from an “island-based tribe of white-skinned albinos,” according to an article in the Nation’s newspaper, The Final Call. The whites, Muhammad taught, would eventually get their comeuppance, though, and be destroyed.
The Nation, Brim said, gave his father “a sense of power” and a community — despite its anti-Semitism and racial conspiracy mongering. I guess the Nation decided that, if it cannot bring itself to believe in the American Dream (after all, Blacks were not welcome to the slumber party) it might as well create its own myth of progress. And white people have demanded that the Nation, now headed by Louis Farrakhan, account for the transgression ever since.
During last week’s protest outside of Mayor Abu-Taleb’s home, I sat down on the sidewalk and craned my neck to snap a photo of 16-year-old Makayla Pye, a member of the Revolutionary Oak Park Youth League — the group of young activists who organized the protest that turned into vandalism.
While Makayla, hovering above me, spoke into a bullhorn on my right side, on my left side, someone’s cell phone, which was hooked up to the loudspeaker, played the village board’s proceedings on the police reform resolution that ROYAL supports and that was up for a vote at that night’s board meeting.
The effect was disorienting. I heard simultaneously two different planes of understanding; two frames of reference; two nations under God, divisible.
“We are a nation on the edge of an increasingly hot civil war, one in which white supremacists are invading American cities, fomenting violence, and the overtly racist president they support sees the violence as benefiting him politically,” David Atkins wrote in the Washington Monthly last week.
At last week’s protest in Oak Park, one of the youth organizers referenced the shooting of Jacob Blake and, perhaps having hastily interpreted his social media feeds, mistakenly announced that Blake had been murdered (he’s still alive).
In a recent New Yorker article, Robin Wright quoted Keith Mines, a career diplomat who has studied civil wars in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Mines told Wright that civil wars don’t have to involve “pitched battles from trenches along neat geographic front lines;” rather, Mines defines a civil war as “large-scale violence in constantly moving locales.”
Mines predicts that there’s a 65 percent chance of civil war in the U.S. within the next 10 to 15 years. He makes that prediction based on five conditions: “entrenched national polarization, with no obvious meeting place for resolution; increasingly divisive press coverage and information flows; weakened institutions, notably Congress and the judiciary; a sellout or abandonment of responsibility by political leadership; and the legitimization of violence as the ‘in’ way to either conduct discourse or solve disputes.”
At last week’s board meeting, which took place while the protestors gathered outside the mayor’s home, one trustee said, “It’s not fair to take national issues and bring them to Oak Park as if they’re universally applicable.”
I think she’s wrong. The civil unrest happening across the country has landed in Oak Park, whether we want to acknowledge this or not. James Baldwin’s fire next time is now. But we don’t have to just sit on our hands and let the flames overtake us.
Which brings me back to Frank Brim. He said the intense anger he exhibited toward whites as a young man gradually subsided as he matured.
“Since 1975, what happens is, I had white teammates who became my brothers,” he said. “And it became, ‘Well, not all white people are bad. This dude is a ride-or-die friend.’ And then when I got in the fire department, I had some people who clearly didn’t want me there, but there were some white guys who were like family to me. We became real friends. And so, the idea that I don’t want to have anything to do with white people kind of diminished and it became, people are people.”
Frank dealt with his anger by building relationships with whites based on mutual respect and basic fairness — relationships that opened the door to mutual understanding and healthy interdependence. He never became a Black Muslim. And I suspect this may have been, at least partly, because civil society opened its doors to him and, however reluctantly, let him in.
No, the kids shouldn’t damage property. Full stop. Yes, they have every right to be angry. Full stop. With that said, Oak Park, they’re knocking at the door.
Let them in.