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Cheryl Klein


What Would Finn Do?

Before schools closed in March, I had never seen a Star Wars movie all the way through. My partner, C.C., flew her toy Millennium Falcon around her childhood living room and, as a forty-something adult, has been known to read Star Wars fan fiction online when she needs to unwind.

Our son Dash’s entry point into the franchise was The Force Awakens. He was fascinated with the Stormtroopers, Kylo Ren, and Finn. Played by actor and recent protest hero John Boyega, Finn is an ex-Stormtrooper stolen from his family and raised as FN-2187. When he refuses to kill for the First Order, he defects and eventually joins the Resistance. It’s not the subtlest metaphor, but at this moment in history, I am especially grateful for how much Dash, at age five-and-a-half, adores him.

Dash often puts a trick-or-treat bucket on his head, wields an umbrella as a “blaster,” and extends his palm toward me in an attempt to control me with the Force. We have never given him a toy gun, and we’ve talked about what to do if he ever encounters a gun, even if he thinks it might be a toy: Don’t touch it, tell a grownup, real guns kill people.

I fear firearm accidents, but I also fear that the police will see my Brown kid—when he’s taller and older, or looks older—playing with a toy gun and shoot him.

He went through a cop phase this fall. I talked to him about how police officers need to follow rules too, and how people who go to jail are not “bad,” but have broken big rules or may have made bad choices. But how to describe the prison-industrial complex to a kid who hasn’t started kindergarten? How to explain that being labeled guilty or innocent has very little to do with being guilty or innocent?

Now that his attention has turned to Star Wars, I’m observing his obsession with two men torn between good and evil—Finn, the Black man raised to believe he was a bad guy, who chooses good when he has nothing to lose, and Kylo Ren, the white man born to heroic but imperfect parents (Leia and Han Solo), whose power and privilege mix with his daddy/grandpa wounds to form a perfect storm of evil (basically our president, if he were smarter and broodingly handsome).

Dash loves stomping around and talking in a deep voice. He talks about how “some Stormtroopers are nice. Finn didn’t want to kill people.”

Yet if Finn had stayed a Stormtrooper, killing people would have been all in a day’s work.

When I’m not worrying about my son and other mothers’ children getting shot by police, I worry about losing the nice life I have. America has been largely good to me, an educated, white, middle-class, somewhat-able-bodied person. I have a job. I have a lawn.

When I saw images of overturned cop cars ablaze in Los Angeles during the last week of May, my stomach was a knot of fear I couldn’t quite untangle. Was I scared that a real revolution was coming? Or was I scared of what the cops and the National Guard might do to the revolutionaries? Both? Was it possible to crave order and understand the need for periodic chaos?

When Finn escapes the First Order and crash lands on the desert planet of Jakku, Rey mistakes him for a Resistance fighter.

Finn gets a look on his face like he’s bullshitting in a job interview: “Obviously. Yes, I am. I'm with the Resistance, yeah…. This is what we look like.”

I’m not usually a fuck-the-police type. Can I be a legit Resistance fighter? The imposter syndrome is strong in this one. I’m a rule follower by nature, but one of my least favorite feelings is being trapped in an unwinnable game, and that’s what policing has created for communities of color: an unwinnable game.

When C.C. was in grad school, she left class in West LA one day at dusk, and sat in her car eating a bag of almonds before beginning the long drive back to the Eastside. A cop knocked on her window. What was she doing? Where was she going? C.C. has cinnamon-brown skin and indigenous features.

“You had your hood pulled up and you took it off when you saw me,” he said.

“No I didn’t,” she said, because she didn’t.

“Yes you did.”

He was letting her know the rules. He was letting her know who would be telling this story. Never mind that a hoodie on a person of color is considered a weapon in America.

An unwinnable game.

The other day, Dash was running around as C.C. and I were doing what he calls “arguing,” meaning any debate conducted in a mildly serious tone of voice—figuring out our work schedules, reacting to the shit-show news feed.

He grabbed a dish rag and thrust it at us like a weapon. “You don’t know the power of the dark side!” he roared.

We do, though. And we don’t. And sometimes it feels like we’re armed with a dishrag.

We stopped our serious talk and broke into laughter.

There’s a scene in the 1995 movie Jeffrey in which the titular gay man, played by Steven Weber, gets mugged. “Whaddya got?” growls one of the homophobic perps.

Jeffrey looks up from the ground. “Irony?”

Queers, communities of color, kids, and artists have learned to use whatever we have at hand to survive, wielding laughter and play. As a middle-class white lady and as a parent, it’s easy to leap to keep the lid on the status quo. But I’m glad I can still be knocked off my guard, diffused and disarmed.

If part of the work of anti-racism is sitting in our own discomfort, that means acknowledging not just American history, not just my own biases, but my deep-rooted fear that I might be a bad guy, simply by benefitting from what other bad guys have done. So who am I to shout fuck-the-police from the rooftops?

It sometimes feels like biting the hand that has fed me, but it’s not feeding my son and other people I love. It might start as a whisper. I might only have a dishrag and irony and the spare time to call one council member to ask him to defund the police.

In the words Finn repeats to himself, breathlessly, as he’s making his escape: “I can do this. I can do this.”

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All images other than author photos and artist artwork ©Matthew Batt 2020