“The police officer stopped me” he said, still in the place between sleep and wakefulness. Though sound asleep minutes before, Najari sat up abruptly like a man drowning who’d finally escaped the water. With eyes bulging wide open, red from many sleepless nights, he jolted awake in terror, wrapped his arms around me and lay down. I immediately knew that this was it – the nightmares he’d told me about.

Najari Smith

Arrest

I learned about Najari’s arrest on August 22, 2018. I had gone by his bike shop in Richmond earlier that day. I was totally unaware of what had happened to him just weeks before partially because I’d been off Facebook for months and partially because I’d lost contact with him when I moved to North Carolina for a year to work on myself and Theater for Humanity, a program I developed to build relationships between formerly incarcerated persons and police. Nevertheless, I always knew where I could find him. When I walked into Rich City Rides that Wednesday afternoon, rather than Najari, I saw my cousin Isaiah – who towers over most as he’s well over six feet tall – standing behind the counter, shoulders back, looking proud as if he owned the place.

“Isaiah? You work here?” I asked, in joyful disbelief.

“Yes, I’ve been working here all summer,” he said, beaming with pride.

I was proud as well, especially given that Isaiah has overcome much adversity to become self-sufficient having lived all his life with autism. But, rather than show my pride, I did what most black women do with our emotions – I hid them behind a veil of duty and a veneer of emotionlessness. I immediately began texting my Aunt Denise to share my surprise and joy to find her youngest child working in a friend’s shop. My mind shifted back to Najari and how his service to Richmond was now touching my own family. Another drop in the bucket of respect, admiration and compassion.

As I watched Isaiah help a customer, my mind went back to the last time that I had stood in the shop, September 8, 2016. On that warm day, I made an impromptu visit to see Najari. He was pleasantly surprised – even shocked – to see me enter the door. The energy between us has always been mutual respect, friendship and admiration. I told him that we should discuss producing a performance in downtown Richmond. He stopped everything that he was doing, got a notebook, and took me to the side of his building where there was a secret hidden garden. We sat in the sun together. My focus that day was on Theater for Humanity. My goal then was much as it is now: to produce plays with Richmond performers, at sites across the city with a focus on violence and community-police relations. I told Najari how I wanted to bring theater to people who needed healing.  I instantly felt comfortable with him. I shared my aspirations and desires with ease. Najari represented what I understood a man to be: hardworking, stable, and gentle like the earth. We talked until the sun went down.

I said goodbye to Isaiah and left the shop. Later that evening found me surrounded by family at my Grandmother’s 92nd birthday party at the Richmond home where she had raised 10 children. When my Aunt Denise arrived, she asked if I knew the people working in the shop. I told her that Najari was a friend and that I’d gone by to see him. Learning this, my witty aunt quipped:

“Oh, is he out of jail?”

I couldn’t quite process the thought.

“What?” I replied.

My well-informed cousin chimed in and began to explain that Najari had been arrested in Oakland at the end of a ride to honor Nia Wilson who had been murdered on a BART train this summer.

I immediately went to my phone to Google the matter. Sure enough, I found an article that detailed Najari’s arrest.

My first and only instinct was to find him and protect him.

Search

After my Grandmother’s party ended, I went in search of Najari. I entered the shop for a second time that day. Najari wasn’t there, but I was told that I could find him across the street at the weekly music festival in downtown Richmond. Crossing MacDonald Avenue, I spotted him cleaning up trash leftover. I expected to find him working.

Watching him as I walked towards him, I was drawn to his strength. I begin to think of how watching him repairing bikes reminded me of my grandfather, Morris Marshall, who owned a car repair business in Richmond after migrating to California from Louisiana. Grandpa would always have a neighborhood filled with cars that he was in the process of fixing. Growing up, I recall that a visit to Grandma’s house meant finding Grandpa, tools in hand, dirty, underneath one of the cars.

Walking closer to him now, Najari finally spots me as and his eyes light up the way they always do when he sees me.

“Hey” he breathed with a smile. I was relieved to have found him.

We embraced. I didn’t let go. And then he began to tell me how it happened, what he thought of it, and what he thought he’d do now.  I listened to him talk about how he was stopped at the end of a ride in Oakland. How he was put in a police car and detained. How he was later in a jail cell and how he thought he was going to die. He told me how he thought of Sandra Bland and how she died in a cell alone with no witnesses. How he felt more comfortable when there were others in the cell with him. Then, he recalled how no one believed him when he tried to tell them who he was and how he spent the weekend in Santa Rita Jail.

Suddenly aware that we were focusing on him, he began to inquire about me and what I had been doing. I shared some details of my work. I revealed that there was a grant that I had been applying for though doubted I would receive. and he sweetly replied,

“I’m rooting for you.” I hide the fact that I’m crushing hard. He does not.

It’s rare to find someone who supports and believes in you unequivocally. As an entrepreneur, I often have to encourage myself. Najari is different in that way. He has a vision, he takes responsibility for the community. He’s someone you would instantly trust. He’s someone I instantly trusted.

His weakness after the arrest caused a shift in my perception. Work is meaningless when someone’s life is at stake. Suddenly, all I cared about was his humanity. In that moment, to know that my hero was vulnerable and susceptible to the very cause I had been fighting for made it very personal. My affection shifted as well. I realized that more than an advocate for change in community-police relations, I needed to give and to be love. I was compelled to value compassion and words of encouragement. Planning, advocacy and all the rest of it could wait, but life does not wait.

We talked until the sun went down.

That night I wrote him a letter:

“… if you want to talk about what happened or talk though solutions or not talk about it at all and just talk about something totally unrelated, I am here. I just think to myself: what if it had escalated? What if something worse had happened? And, when I think about that, I get really upset and it makes me want to cry.”

He responded:

“Thank you dearly. If ever there was an email I needed, this was it.”

Then, he closed his email with a revelation about how the event had impacted him:

“I’ve had nightmares of that night escalating in a bad way. I still have nightmares from previous stops by the police. I don’t think the nightmares will stop. Furthermore, it occurred to me that I have some serious trauma around these encounters. I welcome the opportunity to talk to you more in the future.”

Instinctively driven to protect, I assured him:

“I’m sure we can find a way to make the nightmares stop, together.”

Healing

As dinners, movies, hand holding, and kissing in public turned to talks of love, I realized that more than protest, advocacy, hashtags, social media campaigns, filing complaints, we need to love. I needed his love and he needed mine – or, at least, he seemed to. I thought he needed it. He said he needed it.

One night I asked if he was falling in love with me. He replied, “I fell in love with you the first time I spoke with you.” He was referring back to our meeting in the garden two years prior. We were on the same page.

In this place of love, I felt devoted and committed to his healing. I encouraged him to see a psychiatrist. Later, I found him a list of several and he made the appointment. I said I would drive him, and we planned to go together so that I could support him. I was shifting my life to demonstrate my love. Suddenly, supporting this man, one man, the man I was in love with, was more important than anything. Because if we could all support one person, the people in our lives, if we could care for them and cherish them the way that people deserve to be cherished, then it would significantly diminish the hate in our world.  I encouraged therapy, meditation, healing from past trauma, and we shared affection, kisses, hugs, hand-holding.

I researched ways to stop the nightmares – I read Dreams, an online British publication, that said, “Nightmares are actually stressful dreams, which can disrupt your sleep pattern. In simple terms they are the work of our unconscious minds releasing fears and tensions whilst we are resting.” This thought disturbed me. The thought that there would be no peace or rest for the man I love. I want to fix it. I read online that essential oils are a good way to alleviate traumatic nightmares so I bought a humidifier for his bedroom. Opening the box, he beamed with joy like a boy on Christmas Day. It was the least I could do – I wanted to do more.

There was, between us, a deep level of caretaking. I felt that I could spend the rest of my life in that space with him. As we held hands walking along the Richmond Marina, he asked me about my definitions of marriage. Back home he looked in my eyes and said, “You are everything I want in a woman. You’re perfect.”

I cried. Acceptance – at last.

The term black love brings to mind images of afros leaping through a meadow, fists in the air, but that is not the type of black love I’m thinking of; that is, Najari redefined what is truly needed in black love. At least, for me. Najari taught me that justice is intimate, justice is personal, justice as a practice comes down to how we treat each other and not just the people who do not look like us. Najari taught me that achieving justice is to achieve love.

One night in early September, Najari and I sat in Koryo Sushi in Oakland. He reached his hands across the table and looked at me long. “I want you to be my wife.”

I listened to the words – he had said them before but I knew he meant them this time. They sank into my soul. I accepted his proposal in my heart before I even said yes.

FEAR

Meanwhile, I felt utterly powerless. Making the drive back to Richmond from Oakland, I was aware that I was driving in the city where my now-future husband had been arrested. As a cop car drove by, I felt guarded. I imagined scenarios in which I would have to defend or protect him. As he sat there discussing the future, I listened as my mind wandered back to my past encounters with police and the trauma of feeling helpless along with the pain of seeing someone that you love deal with something that you have no control over.

My mind returned to a traumatic memory of being harassed by police officers in Manhattan. On that summer night in 2010, I entered a subway station with my then-current steady – a graduate student at NYU – when the police began harassing him by detaining him for 10 minutes in a dark subway station for being a black man with locks. Then, I thought back to 2011, when I was on a date while studying abroad in Florence, Italy. Walking with a sweet gentleman from Ghana who had been studying engineering there, we – or rather he – was harassed by police for being black. And, then there was my experience traveling with my then-boyfriend in Casablanca, Morocco in 2008. He stood there recounting to me all the things he loved about me when – abruptly interrupting our romantic moment were two police harassing him with racial slurs because they did not realize that he was Moroccan and spoke Arabic until he responded with one word in Arabic much to their chagrin. Driving home, I wondered what encounters we would have in the years to come.

I came out of my thoughts and asked Najari,

“Did you make the appointment with Dr. Mattox?” I had searched diligently for a black male psychiatrist at Kaiser because I wanted to be sure that Najari would talk to someone who could intimately understand the things that he’d experienced. There were maybe three in the Bay Area. Thankfully, I found one located in Richmond.

He tells me that he will call and make the appointment. He insists that he has been wanting to do it for years but has never gotten around to it. He thanks me genuinely for taking the time to find him a doctor. Days later when he did finally call to make the appointment I was proud. Proud that he was doing something most black men in his situation would not do.

“I’m proud of you for doing this. I don’t want you to normalize this experience.”

I didn’t tell him that I knew how normal this was. Not that he needs me to tell him.

I thought about how traveling has always been a source of harassment. Movement is dangerous when you are black. I thought about Brooklyn and the police who would lurk behind the corners waiting for people to jump the turnstile. Their crime was not having $2.25. Their poverty was what the NYPD had chosen to police. I thought about how I could write a whole mini-series about my many encounters being with black men and being harassed while traveling. Harassment of black men traveling is a global phenomenon. From the train station in Florence, Italy where I and my date – black African man – were harassed by that group of white Italian officers, to the time where I stood on a street having a romantic moment with a Moroccan boyfriend who was harassed by a group of Arab officers who didn’t realize that he was Moroccan because he appears to look like Barack Obama, to being in a subway station in lower Manhattan with a man after going on a date and being harassed by a white male and Hispanic female officer – I thought about how being harassed is a global injustice faced by back people all over the world.

As we merged onto Hwy 580, I looked over at Najari and reiterated that I did not want him to normalize the experience. I hoped and believed that if we did not accept it as normal, we could make a world where it wasn’t normal. I refuse to accept defeat. For myself, for Najari and for our future children.

Sleep

Later that night, Najari fell asleep and I pulled out my laptop to write. I was working on implementing Theater for Humanity in Sacramento.  Najari slept as I wrote about how police-community relations had impacted my life so intimately. Looking over at his sweet, sleeping face. I think about his acceptance, his love, his kindness and I am inspired to work – to do whatever it takes to solve this problem.

As I lay there typing away on my laptop, Najari begins to shake his head back and forth. Another nightmare. He’s sweating profusely. I research more methods to stop the nightmares and I read that it’s best to let someone having a nightmare wake up naturally. I don’t try to wake him up this time. When he stops thrashing, I hug him. He holds me as if he has nothing else to hold on to. When his heart stops beating rapidly, I go back to my laptop. He’s being policed even in his sleep.

As I adjust to a more comfortable position, he adjusts to stay as close as possible. As I move across the bed, he slowly angles towards me – always near me, always close. Perhaps he simply needs to know that someone is there. Later into the night, abruptly coming to, “Michele?” he calls to me in his sleep.

I say, “I’m here, honey. Don’t worry.”

And, I am here. Forever. This is my protest. Simply falling in love with and supporting a black man facing the trauma of police brutality. The humidifier blows essential oils into the air and I pray that one day they will reach the hidden depths of his memory and erase the pain, trauma and fear of arrest. He wraps his arms around me, more insistent this time. I put my laptop away and we fall asleep.

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