We were driving down Woodward to check on the water ice shop, my nephew and me, two white men in the front of an old SUV. This was late Friday night, around 10:30. The air was warm and humid, and there were a few people still walking the big avenue.
Suddenly, there were A LOT of people. They crossed at the light directly in front of us, and as the light changed they kept crossing. Protesters, many in black T-shirts. Some carried signs. Most were chanting, “No justice, no peace!”
We waited. The light changed again. Still more people. Many young. Mostly African-American.
“No justice, no peace!”
The light changed again. The chanting went on. Traffic was frozen, and as we were in the front vehicle, if we didn’t move, no one moved behind us. On a green light, when there was a small break in the flow, my nephew inched the car forward, but suddenly a man on a bicycle rode in front of us and stopped. It was clear he wasn’t going to let traffic pass. He sat on his bicycle, looking at his hands.
The march continued, in small streams of people. I watched a police car, its lights silently flashing, follow along slowly. And like any American in this week of ugly confrontations between citizens and those sworn to protect them, I wondered how the night would end.
Moment of sweet humanity
Eventually, we got to the shop, The Detroit Water Ice Factory, where we sell frozen desserts for charity. We were experimenting with staying open late, until 11 p.m., and when we entered, there were clusters of customers.
I got behind the counter to help scoop. My nephew as well. I’ve done this many times since the shop opened. This was the first time I took any note of the racial balance inside. A week like last week — in which two African-American men were shot dead by police and five police officers were killed by, police say, an African-American sniper — will make you uncomfortably aware of such dynamics.
But as the protesters marched along Woodward, just outside our shop, their chants mixing with the beats of our upbeat music, I witnessed something small but remarkable.
Here were customers, black and white and Asian and Latino, being served by an African-American manager, by an African-American employee (a high school student and member of the Mosaic Youth Theatre), by my nephew, who grew up in Europe, and by me.
We handed over multicolored water ice in cups, some with soft serve ice cream on top (yes, vanilla and chocolate, as if the symbolism wasn’t obvious). Some protesters came in for bottled water. A woman with a sign took a Strawberry Lemonade water ice with her.
And literally within yards of a march against senseless violence, in a city with a history of such events turning horribly wrong, customers of all races were smiling and eating, enjoying sweet relief from the summer heat.
Pick the side against hate
Why do I bring this up? Because it proves that you can live in the media universe, or the real world. The media — TV and Internet — would make you believe that every racial encounter in America was a tinderbox. That tension burned through every black-white interaction. That mayhem was around every corner.
But that’s not true. Real life doesn’t support it. The facts don’t support it. There were 990 people shot and killed by on-duty police officers last year in America, according to the Washington Post, and 41 police officers killed by gunfire — in a nation of over 300 million people. Both of those numbers are, of course, way too high. But I’ll bet many are surprised they are that low.
That’s because we are made to feel, by the relentless drone of news outlets, Internet videos and hateful streams of comments, that innocent victims are being shot left and right and police are being mowed down regularly.
This in no way should belittle the very serious problem of relations between Americans and the police who protect them. But you can’t just keep hammering one side of a story.
Nobody came with a news camera to the little shop on Woodward on Friday night. Nobody chronicled the laughter, the way white and black customers, side by side, gently rocked their shoulders to the beat of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis music, as they ate desserts served by a multiracial, multigenerational staff.
But that moment was as real as the protest yards away, as real as any moment, good or bad, that goes on between all of us. It depends on where you want to put your focus. All I know is this: In a week where Americans felt like choosing a side was necessary, maybe the best side to choose is the one against hate.