My mother's parting words were about tear gas. "If you're hit by some and can't breathe and your eyes begin to burn, cover your face with this cloth," she said.
It was 1968 and my family was living in Washington, D.C., where I was born. Our townhouse was in Tiber Island -- a new, middle-class community in the Southwest portion of the city. We had moved there the year before from nearby River Park. From the perspective of an eight-year-old, it was ideal: there were places to play, a neighborhood pool, and lots of kids. I had no idea of the angst the adults were going through, or that it was considered an "experiment" blending a poor, mostly black community with a middle-class one made up of both blacks and whites.
My best friend at the time was black (I am white and Jewish), and we spent a good deal of time at each other's homes. The day after Martin Luther King was shot, I was at her apartment when her grandparents told me I had to leave and go home -- it wasn't safe for me there. "Safe from what?" I asked. "From angry people," they said. "Black people who are angry at white people." I left their apartment in tears, thinking they didn't like me anymore.
The next day, to protect ourselves from the black people who were angry with us, my family and another piled into a single car and drove to a second-rate motel in West Virginia. We only stayed a couple of nights, spending most of our time gathered around the television to watch the looting, the riots, and the torching of streets where my family once walked and shopped.
When we returned home, there was a curfew. National Guardsmen seemed to be everywhere, rifles at the ready, including on my route to school. That's when my mother handed me my lunchbox, along with a wet wash cloth. "Keep it in your hands until you get to school," she said, in her no-nonsense way.
Even before then, things were not idyllic in this neighborhood experiment. My mother, a first-generation American had insisted on moving our family to the city from Maryland. She and my father had wanted to raise their children in D.C., wanted us to be part of what she called the "wider world." For her part in that world, she volunteered in community groups, including the Urban Service Corps, which essentially helped underfunded schools and teachers in the classroom, and the controversial Tri-School Program, which had two main goals: to improve and equalize the quality of education for all children in our underserved Southwest D.C. schools, and to promote integration. It worked in some ways, most of which went over my head -- to me it was just school. Outside the classroom, things were more complicated -- particularly on the playgrounds, and while walking home. There were fights with fists, with knives, with words, even with pencils used to stab each other in the back. My older brother was robbed going to the store for my mother. I was robbed bringing a record album to school for show and tell. When the principal made me walk from classroom to classroom with him to identify the perpetrator, I pretended I didn't recognize him.
Things deteriorated rapidly after Martin Luther King's assassination. It didn't take long for the middle class to move out -- and by middle class I mean both black and white middle class, though my mother still calls it "white flight." My folks decided we had to move too. After a decade of trying to change things, they were burnt out. We stayed in the city, but we moved to the Northwest portion, where there was less crime, though the schools and race relations were only marginally better. Busing had created a whole new set of issues.
My mother still talks about the move with great sadness. When I asked her recently about whether she harbors any bad feelings about the experience, she said, "You have to work to get past the bad feelings and focus instead on bringing about change. It's the only way to bring people together and create respect and understanding."
As I watch the news about the riots and looting in Ferguson, the thought is unavoidable: The more things change, the more they remain the same.
I miss my childhood friend. We lost touch decades ago, and though I've tried to find her, I have not been able to. Her grandparents were trying to protect me -- I understand that now. It's too late to tell them, but I'll never forget.