Let It Not Be in Vain (A White Boy’s Yom Kippur Poem)



Let it not be in vain

it’s new years day in Oakland
sirens blasting like shofar
year 5771 by my people’s count

God knows how we made it this far

the first time I was pulled over
by the cops, I was 19.
home in DC on summer break,
a humid night, the sweat swimming
down my neck like a slow-moving river

driving my friend Terry home
in the same Maryland suburbs
I’d grown up avoiding like lacrosse games
and Matchbox 20 concerts

made a standard left turn, blinkers and everything,
then suddenly saw sirens in my rearview
an ice-cold policeman telling me:    Stop.

I could see him approaching my door.
he looked like the liquid robot cop from Terminator 2
slicked back crew cut, machine-gray eyes like the steel in his holster

I was a teenage rebel
and a white boy, so I wanted to blast
NWA’s Fuck the Police and speed off
in my grandma’s ’95 Honda Accord

but I was a teenage rebel and a white boy
so I also wanted to piss my blue jeans yellow

the cop looked at my license, then shined the light
into my face like I wasn’t what he was expected to find.
he looked me up but mostly down, then let me go,
the sweat now an ocean up to my shoulders, thank God
I hadn’t drowned

back on the road, Terry looked over at me and said,
“Josh, I think you just got racially profiled.”

What? Me?

but wait – Terminator cop probably saw
my license plate, DC,
the still semi-Chocolate City.
and at the time, I had that huge Jewfro
I’m talking bigger than
Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan combined.
but he looked at me and saw
Bob Dylan, not Jimi Hendrix,
so he let me go

I guess the cops see white boy
before they see rebel
and there’s no such thing in America
as driving while Jewish

* * * * *

it’s new years day in Oakland
sirens blasting like shofar
year 5771 by my people’s count
God only knows how we made it this far

my star points six directions
I’m at the intersection of 14th and Broadway
remembering the riot that never was

the day of the verdict,
I was here. With my people
the many colors of this diaspora town
all turned to the streets because
there was red on a man’s hands

but the jury found him white
meaning an innocent mistake
involuntary manslaughter for the Terminator
who shot a young black man
in the back on New Year’s Day

and what do you feel, Oscar,
when we call your name in the streets?

do you smile to hear your life survive on our lips?
or do we martyr you again every time,
another bullet to ring in the back of your skull?

over the last year,
I have spoken the name Oscar Grant
more than the name of God
I pray I said neither in vain

hope not to violate Ten Commandments
or Ten Point Plan

no justice on stolen land
no holiness in an occupied city

the day of the verdict
Oakland held more screams
than the Western Wall

I was there
wailing at both sides
sirens and soapbox
as they got ready to make
the media cameras proud


but they didn’t


but I couldn’t


breaking windows
breaking wrists

this game is broken
predictable, not reciprocal
I am searching for people
who know how to fix it

Oscar, tell me,
where do I look?

* * * * *

it’s new years day in Oakland
sirens blasting like shofar

this is the holiest of days
the day of no bagels or burritos
the day even atheists come to shul
I come
looking for repentance

yesterday I was back downtown
with my students planning
a town hall on police brutality

we came to see the mural
on 17th and Broadway
painted on boarded-up windows
just before the verdict
Oscar’s face, huge and beautiful
wearing a black beanie like a yarmulke

but it was gone
his face so quickly thrown
into the liberal waters of the bay
I guess folks only honor you
when they’re afraid
what we’ll do in your name

we say Never Forget
but I am here on the Day of Atonement
and I can’t remember the words
to this prayer

I hit my chest
to get my heart beating again
bleeding again
there is red on my hands
and I can’t seem to wash them clean

I am hungry
I am hungry for justice
after such a long fast, Oscar,
this should have been our feast