Thursday, July 7, 2016

His Name Was Konerak Sinthasomphone

I should be sitting here stressing over the upcoming New York City high school admissions process for my 13-year-old son. I should be obsessing about junior year and SATs and all the challenges and hurdles it will entail for my 15-year-old. I should be worried about my husband’s health.

Instead I am alone with my laptop, wishing that instead of being out at baseball practice and physical therapy, my husband and sons would be here with me—safe and protected, forever and ever. Wrapped in a bubble of love and comfort. Because I know that every time the men in my family step outside our door, they are in danger. Of course, in some way or another, everyone is. But things are more dangerous for them. They are black (or Latino, or people of color, or whatever you want to label them) men in America.

Yesterday and today I watched videos no mother should ever watch of police gunning down black men across the country. I felt the same old feelings of hopelessness and despair well up in my chest as I thought about the mothers of those men. I did not grow up expecting to ever have those feelings. I am white. I have privilege. These feelings were alien to me. And now that I’ve known them for nearly 30 years, I want to make sure they never become familiar to anyone ever again. Not to me. Not to any mother.

I am hardly important in this story, though. Hardly.

Instead I am sitting here thinking of another brown-skinned teenager. Not my son. I'm thinking of Konerak Sinthasomphone. Because he’s important. He was never a trending hashtag. He won’t join the ranks of #altonsterling and #philandocastile and all the other important names that have caused #blacklivesmatter to be a hashtag. We should repeat every one one of them, over and over, like a prayer. A prayer for a better world, a better nation. We should add Konerak Sinthasomphone to the list. He was a victim of our broken systems, too.

Konerak Sinthasomphone is someone who haunts me. I have a few ghosts who haunt me, who beg me to share some piece of them on the printed page. He is one who has come back to me from time to time over the past 25 years, broken body aching for me to scoop him up in a motherly embrace. I honestly have never known what to do with him. But he is back, and I don’t even know how to wrap my fingers around the keyboard in a way that does his story justice. I’m sorry, Konerak. I will keep trying.

#blacklivesmatter seems like an impossibly difficult concept for some people to embrace, people I know and love. I wonder about the friends and family who resist it, who struggle to understand its importance.  We all want to live in a world of peace and harmony. We all want to believe that it can be #alllivesmatter, that we can simply show each other basic human kindness and respect and that will be enough. 

Some are afraid that #blacklivesmatter is anti-police and will put themselves or their loved ones in danger on the job. Some are fearful that #blacklivesmatter is anti-white.  Of course, the hashtag is neither. It’s necessary.

One friend posted, disbelievingly, “It’s like we live in 2 different countries.” I can see some of my black family and friends shaking their heads and laughing at that statement, (not today, though) as if this is a stunning revelation. They’ve known it all of their lives.

I read so many posts and articles trying to explain all of this, and my head spins and my heart aches. I read the Reddit post about “getting your fair share at dinner.” Konerak taps my shoulder. “It’s not about that,” he whispers. “It’s about me.”

I think some people see #blacklivesmatter and think it is about a single event, a distinct set of individuals in a certain moment of time. They dig and dig to find validation for that moment. Why the officer was justified. Why it is different this time. They think the individuals set the equation in motion.

Mourning is for individuals. The mothers and fathers and children and neighbors and co-workers who have to grieve for the loss of their person.

This equation, though, was set in motion by systems, not individuals. Broken, corrupt, need-to-be-fixed-immediately systems.

#blacklivesmatter is about these systems and what the failure of those systems makes people do, on both sides of that certain moment of time. It is failing those police officers just as much as it is failing those black men. 

 Our systems have failed us.
“Repeat, 100,000 times,” Konerak says.

Our educational system has failed us.
Our justice system has failed us.
Our political system has failed us.


Konerak is whispering to me again. He is going to explain how this system failed him. He wants to help you understand why #blacklivesmatters matters. 

Konerak Sinthasomphone was 14-years-old when our failed system grabbed him and threw him into a deadly equation. His family had fled from a broken communist system in Laos, with hopes to give their children a bright hopeful future in the United States of America. He was their baby.

Before our failed system got to him, though, Konerak was grabbed and held hostage by a cannibalistic serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Grabbed and held and beaten and a hole drilled into his head and filled with muriatic acid by a man who had a few years earlier been charged with molesting Konerak’s older brother. A man who was released because he wrote a letter saying, “Sorry.” A white man. A brown boy. Case dismissed.

And then, remarkably, incredibly, somehow, Konerak was able to escape from Dahmer’s grasp. ESCAPE! It was a miracle. He was watched over and protected by two black teen girls.  Protected as Dahmer tried to drag him back home.

But then our failed system grabbed Konerak and walked him to his death.

Konerak Sinthasomphone. 14 years old. Naked. Beaten, bruised, and bleeding.

Returned, by the police, to Jeffrey Dahmer. Returned as the police ignored the protests of the black girls and listened to the lies of a white criminal.



Dahmer himself could hardly believe that the police did not smell the decomposing bodies as they accompanied Konerak into his apartment. The officers laughed about the supposed “lover’s spat” as Dahmer explained the situation to them. They did not even question Dahmer.

The girl's aunt called police 10 minutes later to check on the state of the boy. She repeatedly told the officer that she was worried that he was indeed a child, not an adult, as they were claiming. Her fears were dismissed.

Konerak Sinthasomphone was later strangled and dismembered by Dahmer.

Konerak Sinthasomphone liked drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and playing football and swimming, just like my boys.
He was a child.
He was a victim of our failed systems.

Mothers, all of us, want to believe that our children's lives will be valued, protected, considered, in the same way that any other child's life will be. Some mothers—Konerak's mother, Tamir Rice's mother—know that this is not true for their children. Know. Not suspect, not worry, they know. We all need to chew hard on that bitter pill for a long, long while.

If you still cannot understand #blacklivesmatter, then I need you to picture this scene right now.

A white 14-year-old boy, lies on the ground, screaming, naked, and bruised, protected by two white teen girls. Imagine the police’s response then. Then imagine that somehow, unbelievingly, they still bring the boy to 924 North 245th Street, Apartment 213. But the man who answers the door is black, or Laotian, or Muslim. And imagine that he has a criminal record.

Is there any stretch of the imagination that can make you believe that those same police officers would have left that white boy to die in there? If you say yes, I won’t believe that you are telling the truth. Because those officers, they are victims of the broken system, too. I am sure Konerak haunts them even more than he haunts me.

Someday, if we work hard enough, we can get to the place where the outcome of any of these equations is not a failure every damn time. But we will never get there until every last one of us agrees that our systems are broken.

DO YOU UNDERSTAND NOW? If we—every damn one of us—don’t agree that our systems are broken, don’t understand the disparity, don’t realize the nightmare it brings to people on both sides of the line; we will all fail together. If we don’t realize that it is now or never to fix these systems, together, we will just continue down this horrific path time after time after time.

I do not have the answers tonight. I am willing to listen to anyone who believes they do, and to do whatever part I can to make things right.

But I do know that Konerak Sinthasomphone deserves better than what we’ve given him.



Since my sincere mission is to be inclusive and not divisive, to inform and not accuse, I am sad that this piece is offending some. I'm going to try to say this another way.

If you read #blacklivesmatter to mean #onlyblacklivesmatter or #blacklivesmattermore, than you are misunderstanding the slogan.

From my perspective, it is really means…

"Every black (and can be extended to 'every non-straight, white, Christian, male') life should matter just as much as any white (SWCM) life, but historically, and presently, this is not true in many places and many systems of the United States of America, including, but not exclusive to, our justice system. We all need to recognize this and talk about it and work together to untangle the many strands of this tangled web, with unity and understanding of many different perspectives, so that we can heal our nation and take it to a place where all lives will be valued equally one day in a way that they never have been before. However, that is not where we are at today."

But you know, slogans, they're supposed to be short and to the point, so…