Featured Nonfiction: Lis Anna-Langston

Lis Anna-Langston  Author Photo

The Day You Find Out Your Uncle Was Gunned Down By Police

Lis Anna-Langston

The day you find out your uncle was gunned down by police is a normal day. Normal as it gets.   Thursday. Perhaps the day before you were thinking about throwback Thursday photos. Planning what to post. This one. That one. You were definitely thinking about the dream where people kept telling you someone from the dead was trying to make contact. You were definitely thinking about that dream. Which is why you look your uncle up on the internet. With a cup of coffee in hand, no almond milk because you are lactose intolerant and too lazy to drive to Trader Joe’s on Wednesday night. Remember, it is Thursday. The day you find out your uncle was gunned down by police.

It wasn’t recent. The gunning down. That sucks. In the time passed you moved across the country. From the South to the North. To old battlefields and old wars. Old buildings with bullet holes still lodged in the brick. You picked up coffee in the mornings and drove across the battlefields to the first place that felt like home as an adult. You left a way of life that dominated every breath for years. You left. You walked toward a future. You moved. You married. You moved again.

When you hadn’t heard from your uncle in a while you sent emails. He loved emoticons and cute little chain emails. There was no response. That worried you enough to send a simple email. One question. Are you okay? No reply.

When you finally have a moment from unpacking and turning in projects and moving and marrying and new schools and jobs and cities, you log in and realize you haven’t heard from him in a while. A long while. He has children he loves. He doesn’t need you to hover over his life micromanaging what he refers to as his senior moments.

But you are Southern and expect the worst so your internet search goes straight for the obituary. And there it is. His full name printed in the local paper where he lived. Lived. Past tense. In a single internet search his tense has changed. He’s dead. There was a memorial. A funeral. A body. Suddenly you go from being a person to being a body.

He was older. Almost seventy. It could have been of natural causes. Must have been natural causes.   Which sucks. But {shrug} it happens. You do another search to find your cousin’s address. You have three of them. You will send one a card. Your families have never been particularly close but you liked them a lot.

When you were little, around nine, your uncle moved to California. You saw him years later when he returned for a visit bringing an AT&T phone system that had a built-in answering machine, a speaker phone, and a hold button that played canned Muzak. It was the coolest fucking thing you’d ever seen.

Except he was rude. He believed you should obey regardless of the request. You threw some rocks at your mailbox and he told you to stop. Except they weren’t his rocks or his mailbox and you resented him telling you what to do. So you wait until everyone is gone and fill the sink basin with his shaving cream. A huge, carefully formed mound of splendid, squishy foam. Then you wash it down the drain, as if to say, that is how fast I can get rid of you, answering machine or not.

You don’t see him again until five years later. When your grandmother dies. It’s a mess. You are the only one who knew she was going to die because you’d been sneaking over to see her even though you were forbidden by your mother who was too high to actually enforce rules. So you weren’t exactly in the habit of taking her bad advice. You’d seen your grandmother two weeks earlier and she couldn’t get out of bed. You knew she was going to die. Knew she was going to do it on her own terms. And she did. No one ordered an autopsy. No one knows what killed her. No one ever will.

Your uncle arrived from California. Of the three uncles you started out with, you have two left. One disappeared years earlier. Went out to buy malt liquor and cheap cigarettes in an old flannel shirt and never came back. His truck was found on a Texas road, doors open, key in the ignition, engine idling, abandoned. Never seen again.

So now you have two.

You watch the adult family members fight over money. Your uncle is having sex with your mom’s best friend. Which normally wouldn’t generate much drama except she’s married. The absurdity of family makes you pray for it to all be settled and over. Your uncle has a long history of not being able to deal with family and goes back to California.

You understand.

Even applaud him for his unwillingness to suffer through endless days of stupid.

Like stoopid.

The kind of stupid that is stoopid.

You don’t know it then but when he boards that plane for California, that’s the last time you will ever see him again in person. With your own eyes. The year will be 1988.

But let’s get back to Thursday. There’s a stack of work to do on your desk.

And your uncle’s obituary. Survived by children. Grandchildren. And you try to find your cousin’s address. What you find instead is a lawsuit filed by your three cousins against the city and the police department and having too many lawyers as friends you immediately know there is a summary and you scroll

and scroll

and scroll

to page six.

And read until your eyes and brain don’t believe a word of what is typed on the page. For the first time all day you look away from the screen to a gray Pittsburgh morning unfolding outside the window. It is 10:34 AM. Your uncle is dead. He was killed by police serving a search warrant. You stand up. Get a cup of coffee. Drink some water. Stand in the kitchen. This is hard.

Realize that’s why he never returned the emails. Realize there will never be any more emoticons. Realize you have no uncles left because the other one died in 2006 and your mother pretended he was still alive until 2009 so she could keep living in the house for free. Yeah, you’re that kinda family.

Go back to your desk. Listen to the 911 call he made as the police entered his house. Go ahead. Lose yourself in that irony a moment. Calling the police to come save you from the police. Listen to his last words. It’s not every day that a person’s last words are preserved this way. The final minutes of his life play out. Realize that a TACT team came to his house to execute a search warrant. Go ahead. Luxuriate in that irony. Execute.

Your uncle was accused of having too many animals. All well fed and taken care of. The news report says so. But the neighbors didn’t like it. And they didn’t like him. The 911 dispatcher was the final call he made. Not an I love you. Or…I’ll be home soon. A desperate plea for help to a complete and total stranger.

Listen to him yell, “I ain’t committed a crime. Get the fuck out of here! What are you bursting in my house for?”

All true. He hadn’t committed a crime. Because technically having cats that are taken care of isn’t a crime.

Unless you live in a white, affluent community that objects to you having your back door open so the cats can go outside. Say that again out loud. Leaving the back door open. No, the other part. White affluent community. Fancy way of saying your neighbors can get you killed without getting blood on their hands.

An officer yells for him to come out with his hands up. 27 seconds later they kill him. A TACT team to issue a search warrant? Shake your head. Your hands are shaking. This tactical unit is trained to respond to barricade situations, hostage rescues, counter-terrorism, and high risk felony apprehensions and old white guys with too many cats. This is the exact thing your uncle railed about. People who give power to the police because they don’t want to protect themselves.

You listen to him arguing with the police through a door. He sounds confused, almost childlike.

“Why are you breaking into my house?” he pleads.

You already know the answer. Supreme authority rules. And your rich, white neighbors want you dead because you are a nuisance.

You stop to think about why a TACT team waits until night to kick in the door of a 69 year old man who was never officially charged with a crime. You see your cousin crying on the news. He looks so confused, so hurt. His daddy is dead. His daddy is dead. He loved his dad.

The internet is full of news reports. Pages of hits. Scroll. Scroll. It’s so overwhelming. Who do you tell? How do you tell them?

Instant Message your husband. It’s the only sane thing to do. After shock and a few minutes, a message flashes on the screen: The guy who killed him ran Homeland Security.

“What?” you say, absolutely incredulous.

Then you search the cop who killed him and the first hit is a LinkedIn profile. There he is, smiling big for the world to see. The man who murdered your uncle. We act like it’s not murder if the cops do it.

But it is. Taking a life. A life taken.

A grandfather. A father. An uncle. A brother.

He wasn’t a saint. You grapple with this fact. But he loved those animals. And he was proud of you. So proud of you.

Go back to the profile. Investigator at the police department. Homeland Security/Counter-terrorism. He specializes in high-risk entry. That’s a fancy way of saying he’ll throw a flash bang into a room and shoot you three times with an M4 rifle.

At close range. High Risk Entry. Mutha fucka.

The high risk suspect begged 911 to send help. Who were they going to send? That part is kind of a joke, don’t you think? No one was coming to help. Help was already there. Close your eyes and repeat that sentence until you believe it.

Your husband Instant Messages and says he just found out his stepfather was arrested for helping drug dealers launder money because he utlilizes the same method for dealing with his family that you use. Total avoidance.

He learns his step father served six months prison time, then six months house arrest. He’s a former jailbird turned snitch. Served on the County Board of Commissioners. He had to wear a wire. Government officials and career criminals are cut from the same cloth.

Then the riots break out in Baltimore.

Really. Because you cannot make this shit up.

You sit stunned into heightened awareness, watching anger on display. The media calls it, “unrest.” You snort and lean in close to the monitor like that hack reporter can hear you and whisper, “Burn that mutha fucka down. Burn it down.”

It’s a mantra. Repeated over the course of days. Burn it down. Not because you wish for people to lose their communities. Not because you don’t think life is precious. You chant because the system is broken. Broken so far down the dirt is splintered. Bring that broken system to its knees. Bring it down. Bring it down to its broken, splintered parts and then crush them with your boot.

There’s a guy in Baltimore dead. Your uncle is dead. Your husband’s stepfather took a plea deal.

You write all of this down in a journal that you bought at the Louisa May Alcott house outside of Boston six months ago. You remember looking out at the ocean from the Boston shore. You think about when your uncle went back to Mississippi and found out his soon to be ex-wife wasn’t taking care of the Arabian horses. Divorce was such a nasty word back then. God help us. Her name was Norma Jean.

You remember Boston. Remember the haunted inn where you had dinner. A quaint, charming New England town with squares and roundabouts. Think about how Mexico City is your favorite city in all the world. You’re all ADD at this second. Someone has died. Someone is in the ground. You want to call your cousin. The one who told you that your grandmother never got a tombstone because your mom is an ex junkie liar. Liar liar, pants on fire.


The first time you were in Boston you talked to your uncle. Downtown near Chinatown. You saw a Mongol outside a noodle house. You bought a porcelain Buddha and thought about buying a tea set but how many fucking tea sets does one person need?

Suddenly, you realize that all of your childhood photos were in your uncle’s house. The ones your mother left in the garage. You realize they are gone now. Carted out with the contents of his life to the city dump. Humans bury everything. Nothing sacred. Nothing gained.

You remember throwing a pin from Paris off a bridge in North Carolina. Down into the river it went. You were afraid to bury your pain back then. Afraid if you buried it, it would grow. Had to let it go. Let it flow.

A staggering numbness claims your insides. Inside every cell. You can’t shake it off. You stare at the hysterical commentators in Baltimore. Watch how a city in crisis is reduced to sound bites.

Take away the jobs. Take away the men. Take away the balance. Gun down everyone who is angry. Your uncle was a Libertarian. He was angry. Thought the government was a dangerous joke. Turns out, he was right.

There’s his face. Right there in the newspaper. In a moment of dark tinged snark you realize, like all good Southerners, you learn about what your family is up to on the evening news.

There’s a curfew in Baltimore. Your uncle hated that marshal law crap.

You’re pretty sure he killed a woman in Arizona and fled the state. You could never prove it. But you suspect it. He wasn’t a saint.

Lay in bed with your husband and listen to the Baltimore police scanner. What a long three days.   Long and hard. Dead is supposed to be hard. Supposed to wrangle us out of ruts masquerading as comfort zones.

Look at the face of the man who gunned down your uncle. He’s right there. He kills people for a living. Hard to get around that fact. Licence to kill. Your uncle is consistently referred to as a suspect in every news report. Yet he was never charged.

Laying in bed listening to the riots in Baltimore you are suddenly grateful that in the last years of your uncle’s life you talked to him constantly for hours on the phone. Your cousin offered to take you to dinner. You got to know him more and more. He admitted that he loved junk and wasn’t particularly tidy. That he wasn’t the greatest about cleaning up but he loved his animals. He told you his neighbors hated him because he didn’t want his lawn manicured and he didn’t want to lease an Audi.

The news reports claim there were raccoons and opossums living in the horse. It must have been those opossums that made it such a high risk entry.

You wonder what ever happened to your grandmother’s house. The one that has languished into disrepair. You pull it up on Google Earth. There it is. Your childhood home. Emotion floods into your brain. You remember running up that front concrete walk a hundred million times. Maybe a hundred bazillion.

“That’s where I grew up,” you say to your husband, excited, pointing at the screen.

That was your childhood home. With your fingers you turn the view and travel that dead end street two houses down where a Chinese artist lived. You remember the time you and your best friend went down and knocked on his door and asked if you could see the inside of his house.

He looked at both of you like you were off your rocker and asked why.

“Because you’re an artist,” you said confidently because you were sure you wanted to know what the den of an artist looked like.

Because he was awesome and good natured and maybe even a little flattered he took you on a tour of his home while you ooohed and aaaahed at every tiny thing, especially the fact that his home looked lived in. He got paid for making art. Cash money. He was quite possibly the coolest dude on planet Earth. His house is still there. You have no idea what happened to him.

The National Guard rolls into Baltimore.

The last time you were in Baltimore was November, to see the Snowden documentary Citizen Four. The problems didn’t start in one night. Everyone who loves Baltimore knows that. These riots have been a long time coming.

You go downstairs. Sit quietly at your desk. Listen to the 911 call three times. The last thing your uncle said in this world, in this life is, “I don’t know if you shot my animals or not.” And his voice quivers. And the tape goes dead. And does he.

It’s true he should have lived in Montana on a huge stretch of land. So far out that he didn’t have to see anyone. He didn’t need the superficial comfort of waving to neighbors or home delivery of mail. He regarded humans as a lot not to be trusted.

That’s how he came to live with cats, chickens, dogs, raccoons, and opossums. There were no raccoons and opossums. The neighbors made it up.

Your uncle rescued cats from the pound so they wouldn’t be murdered in cold blood. He thought it was wrong. All that killing. So do you.

You could say his love of baby kitties got him killed. You could say it’s about race but there is really only one color in the human race. Your true color. The news reports said the neighbors were saddened but relieved they no longer have to live next to him. He collected junk and put it in his backyard. He was a nuisance. Like a rat. His white neighbors are so relieved. After all, they got away with murder. Those zany white neighbors.

The man who gunned down your uncle has his own website.

His company’s team is fluent in English, Spanish, and Hebrew.

He specializes in mitigating threats.

His birthday is December 28.

You can send him a request to connect.