It had been a great time, leaving New York for a quiet, suburban, Ohio town—about an hour from where I grew up in Cincinnati—for a family member’s surprise party before his deployment overseas. Of course we all want him to come home safely, but the mood was festive, with positive energy flowing until the moment we packed up and left the venue we’d rented.
The younger adults weren’t ready to call it in yet, so about a dozen of us—cousins and family friends, most of us black, and including the guest of honor—went to a few bars. After midnight, most places in the town were shutting down, and we decided to get some fast food to keep the night going, and then call it quits.
We were packed into two cars, and I was in the first one in the Taco Bell drive-thru when we ordered, and then rolled to the window to pay and pick up our food. One of the employees opened the drive-thru window and leaned outside.
“They’re fighting back there,” he said. “We have to call the police.”
I didn’t think much about it until I turned around and saw two apparently white men fighting one of my male cousins. Shocked, I got out of the car and ran back towards him only to see an entire brawl happening in the drive-thru. Several people I didn’t recognize were on top of one of my other male friends. There were women involved and fighting some of my female friends. Another male friend of mine, who was originally in the car with me, tried to walk over and be a peacemaker and calm everyone down. But that didn’t work either. Another white man grabbed him, and pulled him into the fight.
Someone yelled that the police were on the way, and the men who’d been attacking us scattered, except for a man and woman who stood by their car, continuing to hurl profanities and threats at us.
As I walked back to the side of my car to wait for the police, I saw pools of blood in the drive-thru, all over the pavement and smeared across the side of my friend’s white jeep. Someone from the other group had hit a guy from our party in the head; we couldn’t figure out what he had used that could cause so much bleeding.
As police and paramedics arrived, the members of my group recounted what had happened. Apparently, someone got upset with my friend who ended up with the bleeding head wound for taking too long to order. They began yelling and cursing, and then approached the vehicle. Two of the men in my group got out as they approached, and words were exchanged, and then punches. At that point, everyone else in their car got out and ended up in the middle of the altercation as they tried to stop it.
While we stayed in the Taco Bell parking lot, police officers tracked down the people who fled and had us identify them while they were in the back of the police cruisers. Bright lights shone in their faces from the officers’ flashlights as we walked by each window and said whether or not we recognized them. I looked in each of their eyes and saw hate and disgust—as if I had done them a disservice. I felt abused for what they had done to my friends, and violated for them watching me report them to authorities.
As the police continued to look for other perpetrators, we gave our witness statements. One of my male friends decided not to submit a report or even press charges, though I had witnessed multiple people jumping him. Why he decided to not press charges was beyond me. But whatever, I thought. The rest of us were still in this.
We gave the authorities our reports one by one. We waited for what seemed like forever, but in actuality it rounded out to about two hours.
My friend with the head wound—his blood all over the ground—was the only victim who, it was clear, had been physically harmed. As the minutes ticked away, some members of our group told him to drop the charges, that it wasn’t worth it. That he would have to head back to Ohio from his home in Kentucky—about two hours each way—to go to court.
As more police officers arrived and we overheard bits of their conversations, we found out that the other group was in town for a bikers event. We saw that they had an out-of-state license plate, and that some of them had been wearing matching T-shirts. My friends tried to throw that in as another reason not press charges, that if they were bikers, they were likely to do something else as revenge.
The police revealed that they found a gun—not registered—on one of the guys who’d attacked us. We concluded that it must’ve been what was used to hit my friend in the head. Again, the others pressed him to let the situation go.
Finally, he agreed. The police maintained the man with the unregistered gun, but I watched as they released the attackers we’d identified and as our assailants ran across the street and away from the scene.
I was furious to see the people who’d assaulted us getting away, and I demanded to know why my friend didn’t press charges.
“Because the police talked me out of it,” he said.
“Some of us have kids at home and we don’t want to take this back to them,” a number of others added on, practically in unison.
“Do y’all not see the bigger picture?” I exclaimed. “This has nothing to do with a simple altercation. This shit happens to black people because they know they can get away with it! And you let them!”
It was after 3 in the morning when we finally left the Taco Bell parking lot. We decided to take the long way to our hotel, in case the bikers—who’d run in the same direction—decided to follow us. So we drove down back roads through residential areas, hiding between buildings, stopping in parking lots with our lights off to talk about hiding the cars in garages so the bikers wouldn’t see them in town.
No one had said one of “those” slurs, but I felt like I was in the Jim Crow South and we were running from a truck with a rebel flag.
As my emotions gathered, I felt angry. About being attacked. About taking a ridiculous route home to avoid enemies who already had our license plate numbers, and who’d already seen our faces clearly when we looked into the police cars to identify them. For all we knew, our enemies were staying at the same hotel as us, and here we were, hiding.
The next day, I had to drive by the Taco Bell on my way home and went into a complete panic. Starting to hyperventilate, I cried. I could hardly breathe.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of being attacked. It was that I’d started doubting myself, asking if maybe I was taking things out of context. Maybe I was race-baiting. Was I perpetuating a problem that didn’t really exist? Why was I the only one who saw the complexity of the situation? Maybe I was overreacting.
Sometimes racial incidents happen so loosely and become so common-nature that we don’t even realize what’s happened, or might have just happened, until after it’s happened, if then.
When a group of black friends is attacked and, if no one yells the N-word, it’s easier to write off as just one of those things.
As a person who battles depression and anxiety, I started to fear life again in the days that followed. What was the point in fighting for change when the people you’re fighting for don’t even want to notice what’s happening to them, even while bleeding from the head?
What had been a celebration of a life milestone felt like a mirror for how people of color see themselves. And it made me realize how a black person could be more afraid of reporting a potential racial crime than they are of deployment to a potential war zone. For a few days I could hardly do anything but sleep. We can say that black lives matter, but what happens when we’re attacked?
My family member was on his way to serve our country when we he was attacked, with the rest of us, and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t because of race. It’s harder to know that we’ll never know but just have to wonder, with no chance for any sort of resolution.
When we have the option to try and change the narrative, are we willing to make the sacrifice for future generations? Some of us have kids at home young enough that they don’t know yet what it feels like to ask if they’re being attacked for their race. But as their leaders, their mentors, their icons, their parents, what lesson do we want to teach them about their own respect and dignity?