Christmas Lights and Machine Guns

“Silent night,” the old hymn goes. “Holy night.” In a gray dawn after a weary, early-morning New Jersey Transit ride to Midtown, I climb off the bus to find the Port Authority Bus Terminal decorated for Christmas. I could say the holidays, since the dangling LED lights are white and non-suggestive of anything too Christian. There are, however, wreaths with red bows adorning the pillars. Beneath them walk men in fatigues with machine guns. I think I’m getting mixed messages here. Later today they’ll announce that there will be no indictment in the homicide of Eric Garner, just a few days after a similar decision concerning Michael Brown’s shooting. There will be protests here in New York, and there will be armed militia when I rush by this evening for an even longer ride home. It’s Christmas time in the City.

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Staten Island may be a long way from Ferguson, Missouri, but both are far, too far from liberty and justice for all. Fear of the other is deep in the human psyche, but for generations we’ve been trying to educate our young that prejudging a person by their race is wrong. We don’t live what we say. Although my hometown was largely white, I had African-American friends growing up. Nothing suggested to me that they were more likely to break the law than any of the other kids I knew. In fact, the bullies I encountered were all white. To our small town, in my young eyes, race didn’t seem to mean too much. We were generally working-class people trying to get by. Prejudice was a word I never heard. Of course, I don’t know the full life of my African-American friends. Perhaps they too received threats and taunts. I hope not, but it seems there’s been more rain than snow this Christmas season.

We live in a constant state of threat. If it’s not racial unrest at home, it’s distrust of the Arab abroad. Always our response is the same—attack and subdue. Show superior force. Some of my fellow commuters look pretty frazzled to me. That night a fight nearly broke out on the bus with a couple of passengers arguing about the territoriality of the narrow seats. I’m looking at the nice Christmas lights brightening the prematurely dark sky as we trundle through the various neighborhoods where the bus makes its stops. This is a racially mixed neighborhood if the people regularly getting off here are any indication of the demographics. It seems so peaceful. The machine guns enforcing civility are far behind. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.

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