I’m not black but there’s a whole lots of times I wish I could say I’m not white.
-Frank Zappa, “Trouble Every Day”
Lindberg Sanders sat on an orange-beige couch, in his south Memphis home on Shannon Street. It was January 11, 1983. He drank some wine, straight from the bottle. Rolled a joint. Took in a lungful of smoke. The front door was covered in wrought-iron bars. For security.
It seems so ironic now.
The police were called; Lindberg Sanders was black, one thing led to another.
It never ends well: one thing led to another. Black man killed by white police, it's all too familiar these days.
Lindberg Sanders died in his home. This wasn't eight minutes and forty-six seconds, and Sanders wasn't alone that night.
Seven men were sitting there with him.
Sanders led an unnamed cult. They called him “Black Jesus”, and he regularly held meetings in his south Memphis home. “Bible studies”, where he preached Armageddon and railed against white people. White police, in particular; he called them “the devil”. Lindberg Sanders hated police.
The world will end, he told his disciples, on the tenth of January, 1983; irrational, delusional, violent at times, Sanders had a history of severe mental illness. But pride is also a powerful thing. The tenth of January came and went, and Lindberg Sanders had to save face.
The following night, in response to an alleged purse-snatching incident, two police officers—two white police officers—Raymond Schwill and Robert Hester—came to the house on Shannon Street. Inside, the disciples and Black Jesus were waiting and one thing, tragically, led to another.
In the course of events, Sanders became increasingly agitated. A confrontation ensued, and Officer Hester was taken hostage. He died at the scene about twelve hours later. What happened to Robert Hester that night is the stuff of nightmares and terrible legends.
After a more than 30-hour siege that was carried live on local TV, a SWAT team killed Sanders and the seven men who were in the house with him. Some officers said that through their radios they could hear Bobby Hester beg for his life.
It came to be known as the Shannon Street Massacre, and something about it puts me in mind of a show from 2001 called “The Pilgrim”.
Disillusioned by his country’s response to 9/11, a young American man joins an Al-Queda-like group. Ethan and his brothers-in-arms are planning to set off a bomb at a veteran’s parade in downtown Manhattan.
Ethan’s a seeker. He’s seeking a purpose. With these men and this mission, he's certain he’s found it. But these aren’t philosophers, or armchair warriors. These men come from places that we’ve left in ruins. They hate America, like Lindberg Sanders hated police.
Once the bomb plot is thwarted and Ethan's arrested, he sits in a room at the Major Crimes unit. As he’s being interrogated, a detective says to him, you don’t have centuries of injustice, and colonial oppression, to harden your resolve. This really isn’t your fight.
When he penned the lyrics of “Trouble Every Day”, Frank Zappa was watching the riots in Watts on TV. Like I was watching the mob descend on the Capitol, on January 6th of this year. Some of those people, it turns out, bought plane tickets. They flew, to be there that day. Their resolve was hardened. Not by oppression. Not by injustice. By centuries of privilege they felt slipping away.
No one was surprised when Sanders was killed by police. No one who’s black. And no one was sorry, who’s white. There are white people in Memphis who say one thing led to another that night. But they say it with freedom.
It isn’t their fight.
One nation, under God, indivisible. We spoke the words with our hands on our hearts. Pilgrims, descendants of seekers, and we learned that all men are created equal.
But one thing always leads to another, and the truth is the story never ends well; all men don’t want to be equal.
The truth is all men are afraid that they are.