Some of my early memories are of riding on my parents’ shoulders at the annual Martin Luther King Day march. Seattle’s annual rally on King’s birthday is often one of the largest marches of the year in our city, bringing thousands of people into the streets around the most pressing social-justice issues of the day. Organized by dozens of grassroots community and labor organizations, the event traditionally begins with a rally in the gym at legendary Garfield High School, my alma mater and where I now teach history.
That’s why, when I was invited to speak at the thirty-third annual Martin Luther King Day celebration, I was deeply honored. At the beginning of the ceremony, I was asked to award recognition plaques to students who had taken action in pursuit of justice for Michael Brown. After the indoor ceremony, some 10,000 people began marching towards downtown. My wife and two boys marched a few miles with me before they peeled off to return to my mom’s house, where our two-year-old son’s birthday party was scheduled later in the day. The march streamed through downtown Seattle and ended at the federal courthouse, where I delivered the final speech of the program.
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I took the opportunity to defend Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy from the false praise of those who tolerate injustice. I reminded people of the King who demanded fundamental change. The King who invited people not only to dream on that twenty-eighth day in August of 1963, but also cautioned, “there are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” I told the crowd we would not let anyone imprison the true message of Dr. King—a man who, was he alive today, would have delivered that message from the streets of Ferguson, and with Black Lives Matter protesters demanding justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others. I ended by crediting the new young activists who, fed up with the school-to-prison-pipeline, are creating a school-to-freedom pipeline.
As I stepped away from the microphone, the roar of the crowd affirmed the day I had so eagerly anticipated. There was only one thing left to make the day complete: My son’s second birthday party. He was born on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and we decided to hold the big family celebration on MLK day at the conclusion of the march.
What happened next turned what should have been one of the most joyous days of my life into one of the most painful. While on the sidewalk, a few blocks away from where I had delivered my speech, a Seattle police officer pepper-sprayed me in the face.
I was on the phone with my mom to arrange my pick-up when a searing pain shot through my ears, nostril and eyes, and spread across my face.
My mom soon arrived and took me back to the house. I tried to be calm when I entered so as not to scare my children, but the sight of me with a rag over my swollen eyes upset the party. I spent much of the occasion at the bathtub, with my sister pouring milk on my eyes, ears, nose and face to quell the burning. My heart began to pound, and I could feel a rising panic when my older son asked me what happened and why I was pouring milk on myself. I didn’t want him to have to know, at the age of 6, to be afraid of the police on our own city’s streets. I still don’t know how to talk to my kids about what happened.
What do I have to do so that when my sons have grown up and recall the sixty-third annual MLK Day celebration, it is about remembering past trials of injustice rather than endlessly reliving them?