Because I was a transfer student to UMBC, my first days of orientation were spent doing different activities than the freshmen, and I ended up at different mixers with other older students. One of those mixers would fundamentally change my undergraduate experience and probably the trajectory of my life. I was one of two Black students in the room, and when I revealed that I had transferred from an HBCU, the other Black student in the room smiled and did his best to make eye contact with me. Introvert that I am, I did my absolute best not to look at him and, as soon as the ice breaker activity called for us to pair off, I wanted to run away as fast as possible. But the young man, red haired with freckled skin, but clearly Black and quite beautiful, crossed the room in no time, extending his hand to make my acquaintance. That’s how I came to know a boy from rural North Carolina, and that was the start of one of the longer, more intense friendships of my life.
We were quickly known as the Will & Grace among our peer group. Never sharing a single class as we pursued different majors, we shared friends and a schedule close enough that we could spend a lot of non-study time together. Whenever separated, friends always asked where our counterpart was. When we both became RAs, we had different halls in different buildings, but we were still a pair. Truth be told, he was a much better RA than I was. He was a better college student than I was. Extroverted, larger than life, joyful and attractive, he was the perfect counterpart to my introverted, shrinking, sullen, very plain self. Academically, we were encouraging and competitive. I came to know his family, see his hometown, know his hopes and dreams, disapprove of his boyfriends while he disapproved of mine… We were confidants. Partners.
While I have a little sister, my friend had an older brother, Christopher, who was gentle and open, quick to a laugh and warm. We spent a good bit of time together, often in my friend’s dorm room or apartment, sometimes taking quick trips here or there. Christopher was always kind to me. I knew that his bond with my friend was akin to my relationship with my sister: stronger than any material on Earth. Unshakable or breakable. Incomprehensible to someone outside of us. And so, the wisest and easiest thing I could ever do was to love Christopher in the way I loved my friend. I gave deference to him, sought to ever be on his good side, which wasn’t hard, really. Christopher knew things I didn’t know. Couldn’t know. Will probably never know. His was an old soul. Christopher, in his life, had come to know things. In his presence, I was green and childish, a sheltered suburban girl who knew nothing. He never made me feel that way. I just knew because I listened and I watched. I came to respect him a lot.
Time, distance and life choices made my relationship with my friend fall away a little after Major was born. Sorta happened in a whisper. Sorta with a bang. Either way, we were not speaking. But because of Facebook, devil that it is, I encountered a post last week from my friend that he had written about his brother. Christopher was executed by an off-duty Baltimore County police officer mere miles away from UMBC last week. In the wee hours of a summer morning, Christopher had a fateful encounter with the officer, and that officer seems to have valued a bottle of laundry detergent more than the life of my friend. He died in his car from multiple gunshot wounds.
Because he was a Black man and because his death is by the hands of an officer, facts are dubious, stories are varied, and evidence is only believable depending on the eyes of the beholder. I do not know and will never know the timeline the led up to Christopher’s death. I simply know that he was alive, then he crossed paths with an officer, and he is now dead. Christopher was not a violent man. He was not a bad man. He was not a “thug” or whatever new word we are using to replace “nigger” with. He was not a danger to himself or to society. There is nothing so trivial on sale in a grocery store that could have more value than his one precious life. There is nothing in this world more valuable than that. Maryland is not a death penalty state and it’s my understanding that officers of the law have never been given charge to be judge, jury and also executioner. Of all of the things written or said, one fact is more true than any other: Christopher should still be alive today. Christopher should not have died in a grocery store parking lot.
Life has value. The lives of our friends and our neighbors matter. Black lives matter. The lives of Black men matter. Christopher’s life mattered. Christopher’s life was valuable and precious.
And just as that handshake on an August night on a little campus in the Baltimore suburbs changed my undergraduate experience and probably the trajectory of my life, so too does a fateful encounter between a friend and a county cop change it now. The tragedies of so many other police-involved executions have been a part of a national conversation and posts on this very blog. But they have been abstractions. Distant things. Traumas by proxy. But this is closer to home than ever. Indeed, it is home. My behavior will change. The way I see the aggressive roving black and white Explorers in the communities where I live will be further darkened with fear, anxiety and anger. The way that I talk to my two precious boys about their relationship with the police will be different, more urgent.
Speak up and speak out, Dear Reader. Challenge the harmful and unnecessary bullshit behind cowardly slogans like “All Lives Matter” or even “Blue Lives Matter” when with friends and family. Pay attention to your surroundings and bear witness to the actions of the officers in your community. Call out bias, defend against violence. Be the shield and even the sword when you can. Say Christopher Clapp’s name and remember him, not because of the way he died but because of the extraordinarily precious value of the life he was given to live. A life as precious as your own.