TODAY'S PAPER
47° Good Morning
47° Good Morning
OpinionCommentary

'I thought I was going to be killed by white supremacists'

Ciarán Short as a student at Reed College's

Ciarán Short as a student at Reed College's Renn Fayre in Portland, Oregon. Credit: Reed College

I’ve been feeling restless lately.

Any moment diverted from protesting, organizing, or researching feels selfish. It’s been more than a month and friends often ask, “Why do you keep protesting?”

As a 22-year-old Black man in America, I’ve had traumatic experiences with racism that drive me to fight against prejudice in all forms, but one particular interaction stands out. I was 20 feet from the heart of the most liberal college in America and I thought I was going to be killed by white supremacists.

It was another dark rainy night in Portland when I was a 19-year-old freshman at Reed College. I had gotten out of basketball practice, and rushed to catch the last bus downtown. I missed the 10 o’clock bus and had to wait for the last bus of the night scheduled for 11:30 p.m. 

Rain pattered on the steel roof of the bus shelter. I had my ear buds playing at full volume to drown out the spooky sounds of Woodstock Boulevard. The stop sign at the bus shelter forced all passing cars to pause in front of me. I learned to keep my eyes glued to my sneakers as headlights emerged to avoid making eye contact. 

A black pick-up truck emerged from the darkness and was creeping forward. It got to the stop sign, came to a smooth halt and waited. I could feel eyes drilling through the top of my skull as I resorted to my shoe-gazing defense mechanism. A white guy in the passenger seat had his arm hanging out the window with a bottle of  Bud Light. He was saying something. I slipped my hand in my pocket to turn off my music and listened.

“Listen to me when I talk to you, boy. Why don’t you want to talk to us? What? Scared? Think you’re better than us, boy? Huh? Say something! Monkey! C’mon speak! Does monkey want a drink? Come get a drink [racial epithet] you know you can’t resist a beer. Come get it.”

He outstretched his arm, I didn’t move. I’ve found not engaging in these situations is the best way to deescalate. This time, I was wrong.

He pulled back his arm and it was silent for a moment. I glanced up to assess the situation, and he flung the bottle toward my head. I ducked and it smashed on the back of the bus shelter, sending glass shards and beer everywhere. They sped off and I stepped into the street.

I should have known there would be trouble after I saw his Confederate flag bumper sticker. It was always a comfort finding supporters of the Southern Confederacy in the Pacific Northwest. This one had a burning skull wrapped in barbed wire in the center of the flag for extra oomph. Despite the ominous symbol of danger, I was too prideful to let it go and swore after them.

As the pickup truck disappeared down the block, I returned to the bus shelter in defeat. Moments later, the truck came barreling down the street. They had looped back around the block. As the truck came further into view, I recognized a long skinny black barrel poking out from the passenger window and my heart stopped.

Other than a shallow sprinkling of trees, there was nowhere to hide, as the campus' large open lawn stood behind me. I could have tried to make a run for the nearest building, but I would have been exposed. Instead, I dove behind the bus shelter, hoping the flimsy glass structure would protect me. With my knees firmly pulled into my chest and hands shielding the back of my head, I took cover. 

The shelter shook violently as a series of unidentified projectiles smashed into the glass shield with thunderous booms. I heard laughter and the car drove off. My entire body was wet from rolling around on the perpetually rain-soaked Portland concrete. As I rose, I noticed the bus shelter was covered in red splotches and bursts, some still dripping. It was just paint.

That night I was powerless. The men in the truck wanted to scare me, and they succeeded, but I often wonder what would have happened if they had a real gun.

Similar run-ins I’ve had have felt shameful, as if I should keep them a secret, afraid my fear in these situations would be perceived as weakness. I’ve been taught not to burden others with my problems and feelings, so I didn’t. Rather than calling friends or family, I got on the last bus of the night, returned to my small downtown studio apartment and never spoke about it. Until now.

For the first time in my lifetime, Black people are being encouraged to be vulnerable and share their experiences. The nation's newfound interest in fighting racism may eventually dissipate, but as long as we tell our stories, we extend the conversation and hopefully make a difference. Fighting racism is not just a series of select horror stories that rotate in the news cycle — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor — but a daily nightmare for many people. 

Ciarán Short is a student in The New School's Media Studies program and lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Columns