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When a Walk Is No Longer Just a Walk

After Ahmaud Arbery’s death, even stepping out the front door for a walk provokes a protracted mental checklist of how to stay safe in my own neighborhood.

The evening I found out Ahmaud Arbery was killed, I fried whiting fish in the air fryer, and I can’t lie, it was damn good. So good that I had to have two Hawaiian sweet dinner rolls to complement the meal along with the broccoli and cauliflower. Afterwards, I felt I might have overdone it a bit so I decided I’d take a walk. By this time, it’s 9 p.m.

I walked to my front door, and told my fiancée that I’d be back soon. She said OK, with a tinge of trepidation — just enough to snap me back into reality. I was reminded that I live in America, in a nice neighborhood, and that I am a large negro. My mind flooded with scenarios of everything that could go wrong on my walk, based on everything that had gone wrong for others like me. Others whose nights I imagine began as innocently as my own.

Just when I thought that I had become desensitized to racial violence, the death of Arbery had struck me to my core. Arbery, 25, was shot twice while out for a jog by Travis McMichael, who with father Gregory, chased Arbery in a pickup truck. Gregory told the police that he thought he looked like a man suspected in neighborhood break-ins. There was no way for me to rationalize in the slightest why he was murdered. Arbery’s killing, which happened while he was doing something so seemingly routine — jogging — had me unwittingly fearful of exercising one of the most basic of human rights, the right to simply exist.

While I absolutely have routines that I run through as a black man —  i.e. my “police protocol,” my “workforce protocol,” etc.  — prior to what happened with Arbery, I did not run through a checklist for something as benign as taking a walk in my neighborhood.

Still, on this particular evening, I grabbed my photo ID and my credit card, just in case. But my ID still had my permanent address in Richmond, Virginia, and I’m in Fredericksburg. That wouldn’t help me. I grabbed the water bill to prove that I live in this neighborhood. I headed back towards the door, only to catch a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror. I probably didn’t look like I lived in this neighborhood. Back upstairs I went. Almost by muscle memory, I threw on a University of Virginia hoodie and a U.Va. hat. Even racists love U.Va., or its home of Charlottesville at least. I contemplated throwing on my U.Va. Law hoodie but feared it may have been too much. Would someone feel intimidated and use that as provocation? My anger began rising.

“It’s just a walk!” I told myself as I left the closet clad in orange and blue. But it wasn’t. For the first time, I had to admit to myself that I may have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-like symptoms related to the unfettered onslaught of violence against African Americans in America.

I released a deep breath and walked toward the front door, which felt like a precipice. I walked through, now properly garbed, music blaring into my headphones. I paused on the front step. What if someone is yelling for me to stop and I don’t hear them? I left one earbud dangling. It’s safer anyway.  It’s now 9:15 p.m.

Confronting the cool air outside, I reached up to pull on my hoodie, then thought better of it. As I walked, I mentally rehearsed the script of what I would say if I was stopped by a police officer or an overzealous neighborhood watchman questioning my whereabouts.

When I arrived back home, I found solace in the fact that of the 200 calories that I had spent on those two rolls, I’d burned 194, and I smiled. But it only papered over the sadness I felt thinking about the world my children will inherit. While I have exposed them to the reality of how the world will treat them as African American children, it is always under the guise that we are trending toward a better and brighter tomorrow.

But as the deaths mount, it has become increasingly hard to shield them from the trauma that accompanies. I fear that they too will one day struggle with the PTSD that I am just now admitting I suffer.  

As the son of an Army man who served in the 82nd Airborne during Vietnam, I don’t use the term PTSD term lightly. I’ve heard the stories and seen the look in my father’s eyes and I know what trauma looks like, which is why I can recognize its effects on my actions.

Those with PTSD, according to the American Psychiatric Association, continue to have “intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings” related to their experience of witnessing a trauma well after the event has ended. They can also feel sadness, fear, or anger; they may feel “detached or estranged from other people,” and may be easily startled or have strong negative reactions to loud noise or an accidental touch.

Many African Americans live in a constant state of trauma, brought on by the high levels of generational violence in their communities, the seemingly endless stream of controversial encounters between law enforcement and unarmed African Americans citizens, the subtle and overt racism experienced daily, and now the rise in what can only be considered vigilantism veiled in loosely interpreted laws.  

Through this trauma, African Americans have developed a list of unspoken rules on how to simply exist, learned by verdicts meted out by a legal system that continually fails at what most would consider justice and evidenced by a myriad of hashtags forged in fear. We’ve learned that:

We can’t relax in the comfort of our own homes (#BothemJean and #AtatianaJefferson). We can't ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride). We can’t sell CD's (#AltonSterling). We can’t sleep (#AiyanaJones). We can’t go to church (#Charleston9). We can’t get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland). We can’t lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile). We can’t shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford). We can’t ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans). We can’t cash our check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood). We can’t run (#WalterScott). We can’t breathe (#EricGarner). We can’t live (#FreddieGray). We can’t exist.

No wrongful death can be condoned, but for many, a vigilante killing like Arbery’s without the cloak of authority provided to law enforcement has inched us perilously close to a tipping point. Many are still reeling from the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Police initially declined to arrest his killer George Zimmerman under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. Now, eight years later, Arbery was shot and killed by a white man in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23 — three days before the anniversary of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. The shooter and his father were arrested only after several months of protests and the release of a video depicting the shooting.

And now, we can’t go jogging (#AhmaudArbery).

While many have taken to the Childish Gambino view of America, myself included, one never knows what will trigger someone exposed to consistent trauma. I am far more affected than I could have imagined. What if that were me? Have I lived a life such that even without video evidence, my character will have shone through if I am gunned down? If a 43-year-old black man educated at an elite law school carries such a mental load when he exercises the most basic of his freedoms, then what kind of trauma must those who are less socially and financially secure experience? We suffer from trauma and Ahmaud Arbery has reminded us that still, we wear the mask.

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