Necessary Disruption: Navigating Unbalanced Power

Chevara Orrin wearing the Freedom Collection, honoring the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. Her father, James Bevel (image on scarf) rode the first bus into Jackson, MS on May 24, 1961.

I don’t do it all the time. Only when I feel safe.

And that shit’s relative. Safety, I mean.

First time, I was at a traffic light. It was early morning. Daybreak. They were gathered on the corner, at an intersection near my neighborhood. Day laborers waiting for a chance to work. A group of 20 or so. Smoking cigarettes. Shooting the breeze. I’d see them most days on my way to catch the sunrise over the St. Johns River.

Usually, I don’t get stopped by the light and turn before they even notice me.

Not this morning.

My ritual: convertible top down, meditation music on deck, water with fresh lemon, raw, unsalted almonds and a ripe banana.

“Hey baby, I got something else to put in your mouth.”

I glance to my right. I say nothing but slowly lower the banana.

“Yea YOU, sexy bitch!”

The others laugh.

I feel violated. Womanhood interrupted by the Patriarchy. I wonder how many seconds before the light turns green. I contemplate closing my convertible top.

I glance to my left. There’s a gas station and sometimes police cars.

Not today.

A few moments later, the light changes and I drive away. I’m scared and pissed. I don’t get far.

I’ve thought about it before. Exactly what I’d say. I even practiced in the mirror.

But each time, I’d freeze. Feeling overwhelmed with the ordinariness of it all.

Not today.

I abruptly turn around in the middle of the street, burning a little rubber.

There’s an abandoned lot across the street from the day laborer spot and I pull in. I zig zag through oncoming traffic, my eyes focused on the one with the smart, dirty mouth.

They see me coming and give each other high fives.

I walk up, extend my hand.

“Hi, I’m Chevara. What’s your name?”

He looks startled and grins. Like maybe I’m about to ask for his seven digits.

He says his name is T.J. I don’t ask what it stands for. I don’t care.

“I assume that what you were trying to do was say ‘good morning’ but somehow the right words failed you.”

Before he has a chance to respond, I ask if he’s ever heard of poet, essayist, and activist, June Jordan.

His blank stare answers my question before he begins to shake his head from left to right.

They’ve crowded around us now. It feels like spectator sport. I imagine I’m in a boxing ring. Except I’m not feeling much like a champ. I feel as though I might suffocate. I feel small. I’m wearing sneakers and not my trademark stilettos. Spears of light pierce through clouds as the sky brightens and I feel a sliver of safety.

Before I lose my nerve, I tell him that June Jordan wrote a piece about Mike Tyson called “Requiem for a Champ.” I read it in college.

She writes about the horrific conditions of poverty and oppression under which Tyson learned the “rules” of interacting with a girl…of talking…to a girl. I tell him that June Jordan says “the choices available to us dehumanize.”

I’m not sure if he understands the quote or the enormity of the moment.

I ask him where he grew up, if he was raised with a momma, sisters, aunties or a grandmother. I ask if he has brothers, uncles, a dad or grandfather. I ask if he has daughters. He says his grandmother reared him. He says he grew up in the church and had a paper route. He says his little girl is three.

The other men are silent. A few have wandered away to stand on the periphery.

I tell him I live blocks away and that I shouldn’t have to detour to feel safe. Not in my neighborhood nor anywhere in this world.

I tell him I’m an incest survivor. I ask them all if they know what that is. Now, it’s really uncomfortable. A few lower their heads. One nods.

“It means that my father’s semen was on my thigh when I was 10.”

I say it slowly. I want them to hear it. I want them to feel the pain in my words.

I tell him that his morning greeting almost f***** up my day. Disrupted my spirit. That his words felt violent and hurtful and disrespectful and mostly made me sad.

Something changes. The air is lighter and heavier at the same time. He looks like he might cry.

He tells me again that his daughter is three. He calls her name.

I tell him that I don’t need him to see me as his mother or sister or daughter. I need him to see me as human.

He asks if he can give me a hug. I walk into his outstretched arms.

I leave him with June Jordan, whispering: “I can stop whatever violence starts with me.”

I don’t do it all the time. Only when I feel safe.

And that shit’s relative. Safety, I mean.

I’ve done it with construction workers at a city job site and college students in a grocery store near the frozen waffles and corporate executives in a towering office complex.

Irrespective of status or profession or age or geography.

The struggle is real. The intersection of my identity as a Black woman.

The struggle is real. Navigating toxic masculinity on a daily.

The struggle is real. Layers of unbalanced power and complicity of men in causing harm and maintaining misogynistic structures.

The struggle is real. Demanding autonomy of voice and power of agency in a world filled with men who never learned how to talk to a girl.

Today, I awakened channeling June Jordan’s spirit:

“…I am the history of battery assault and limitless armies against whatever I want to do with my mind and my body and my soul…

…and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this but I can tell you that from now on my resistance

my simple and daily and nightly self-determination may very well cost you your life.”

I don’t do it all the time. Only when I feel safe.

And that shit’s relative. Safety, I mean.

I am not the one. I believe in necessary disruptions. You will be held accountable on my watch.

**Received a few questions and comments about the scarf I’m wearing. I’ll provide context.

The scarf is from the Freedom Collection that I created in collaboration with fiber artist, Laurie Phoenix Niewidok, that honors the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. My father (whose image is on the scarf next to my white, Jewish mother) was on the first bus that arrived in Jackson, MS on May 24, 1961. The “colored only” sign is reminiscent of Jim Crow laws that mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. Facilities for Black people were consistently inferior and underfunded, compared to the facilities for white Americans; sometimes there were no Black facilities.

My father, James Bevel initiated, strategized, directed, and developed SCLC’s three major successes of the Civil Rights era: the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the 1965 Selma voting rights movement, and the 1966 Chicago open housing movement.

He is also perpetrator of my incest.

Jim Crow: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wL2gjxx9qa4

My father: https://breachofpeace.com/blog/?p=85

Incest trial: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/05/22/ST2008052202216.html?noredirect=on