“The smell of the barbecue, the tilt of the sun can spark a flash from the past—just like that.” A three-part fiction on the 2015 McKinney, Texas, pool party incident, in which a white police officer was filmed tackling and restraining a 15-year-old black girl.

Triptych: Texas Pool Party

by Namwali Serpell

Digital Project Published on January 19, 2017


Easy does it, do it easy. It’s summertime. The bell rings, school’s out. The weather’s fine. The summer's a natural afrodisiac. The guys are out hunting, the ladies are wearing less, checking out the fellas, deciding who’s next. The kids are flirting, too: the boys messing round with the girls playing double dutch, girls giggling like their bodies are full of bubbles. Even old folks are dancing, reminiscing on bliss, talking about the growing-up days, the first one they kissed. The smell of the barbecue, the tilt of the sun can spark a flash from the past—just like that. Yeah, you already know.

Meat grilling. DJ spinning. It’s a birthday cookout at the park across from Tatyana’s spot in McKinney. Everybody rolls up looking real fine, fresh from the barbershop, fly from the beauty shop. Bright T-shirts, jeans dark and crisp, sneaks so white they squeak on your eyes. Dudes standing around, still as ice. Girls shaking all over, moving to the music, tossing their braids, talking all coy over their shoulders. I’m gonna make you tremble. I’m gonna get you shook. The heat rises up, sings against the skin. Clothes fall off, swimsuits blossoming from beneath, in colors as neon and elaborate as the sunset to come. We dance and we dance. All of this beauty, all of this rolling, dipping brown flesh, like desert dunes in the shadow or desert dunes in the sun.

When we say dime or honey, we mean silver and gold, because summer is conspiring to make everything glint like coin. Sunshine adorns our lip-glossed lips, our bare shoulders and brows. We shine. You can see tracks glisten in the thick of that weave, you can see sweat mingle with the vaseline on those edges. Flashy phones in our hands like accessories or weapons. Chains bright enough to dazzle. Belt buckles and rings. Bottles sitting in crushed ice like broken glass. Bottles and bottles. Ice on ice. You want a splash? Wanna spark up? Snip, ftz, flame, lit. Damn, I’d hit that. (I want to kiss you on your collarbone.) Yeah, he kinda cute. (I want you inside of me.)

The bass line deepens. Hips drop and pop and circle. The different kinds of smoke twine their patterns in the slanting light—barbecue and weed and cigarettes and vape. A feeling swarms in: no homework for the foreseeable future. Boys start saying shit just to get in trouble: pussy tight as OJ’s glove, spillin bubbly like Mike Brown’s blood. We trample the grass, we lose our pretty things, we yell across the street to each other. We step up, step off. We step, step. Girls relent in waves. This one backs it up on that one sleepy-eyed nigga, and her girls follow suit, their little dance circle expanding then breaking up like ripples in the water.

Speaking of water—y’all gonna swim? Yeah, let’s go in. Where Tatyana at? Where’s KC? Y’all seen Aryana? Oh, nah, who the hell is this dude? Mallcop security guard. What you mean we can’t be here? Yes we can be here—we’re with Tatyana Rhodes. She lives here. In this apartment complex. We just wanna get inside to the pool area. She invited us. You can’t just kick us out, man. Nah, that’s some bullshit. We live here we live here we live here. This ain’t alcohol, man, it’s just Coke. But then this one girl trips kinda sloppy and we laugh out loud with kindness in our hearts. Yo that kid jumped the gate! For real? Boost me up, boost me up. Security guard’s losing his shit, making up rules just to keep us out. But Tatyana’s up in here with us now, and she lives here, so we cool.

Our bodies in and out of the pool, hanging on the edge, dangling over. The chlorine air, the blue sky above almost shamed by the blue of the pool. There’s this scrawny dog running around, barking at us. Fucking racist dog. We laugh and we laugh. There’s a lot of us in the water cause it’s hot as hell, and the pool’s as cool as silver on the eye. Somebody looks down at their feet and says Whoa what the fuck is that? All eyes drop and somebody says Yo is that blood? Boys jump back like OH SHIT! Girls scream a little and check their crotches on the sly. It’s all over the place—a splatter of red droplets on the concrete, darker than the splashes of pool water—and there’s a chaos of wonder and denial until someone realizes it’s that goddamn racist dog. Bit his own tongue.

Frowning white ladies by the pool shaking their heads at us. Country-ass dudes with bellies hanging over their shorts, with that look in their eye. We catch snatches of words from their conversations: allowed, refusing, too many, drugs, uncomfortable. That scrawny-ass dog still tripping and barking. One lady, in a green swimsuit with a frilly skirt, looking like a snake in a tutu—well, a snake that just ate up a rack of barbecue—starts talking shit. Talkin bout You better get used to those bars on that gate you jumped cuz that’s all you're ever gonna see. The man with her, this big diabetes-ass dude with chin pubes, laughs like HA-HA-HA. Tatyana’s like, Don’t mind her, she don’t even live here. But the big dude says, I do, and she’s with me. Yeah, well. We’re with her. Splish splash, we brush off the platinum drops jeweling our skin.

But Grace ain’t having it. Grace is all That’s not cool, you can’t talk to kids like that. Well, Grace can say that cuz Grace is white, she’s one of them. They talk back but they’re talking right past Grace, talking around her, talking to us, talkin bout Little black fuckers, that’s why you live in Section 8 houses. HA-HA-HA. So now Grace straight goes off. Assholes, she says. Hateful, she says. Racists. All us boys are low-key falling back, hands to grinning lips: Oh shit, y’all hear what Grace said? And all us girls are low-key swiveling up behind Grace, hands on our hips, saying without saying: AND what? And this other white lady, fat like her friend, she tells Grace, all to the side-like, giving her some womanly advice and shit, Don’t talk to adults like that. You should do better with your life, find a nice path for yourself. But to us, to us she says, Go back to Section 8. And Tatyana, who lives here, says: Excuse me? And this woman, who doesn’t, slaps Tatyana in her face.

And then they’re entwined like lovers, fingers in each other’s hair. There is death here, don’t you know? There is death everywhere, you already know. And the knowing is glitter in your hands.

Five-oh, five-oh! But not quite yet, so we are slow in our scatter before the sirens come. We linger. We are not ready to give up our joy. Joy is not being beaten, joy is not being despised, joy is not seeing that look in their eye. Joy is saying those kicks are tight, that rope is dope. Joy is falling into a brown depth of skin the color of most people’s skin. Joy is laughing with the love of a thing that sparkles. We enjoy our loud laughter, we who are not being beaten. Not being beaten is the most perfect feeling. Not being beaten can become the secret goal of an entire life. So long as we aren’t being beaten, our animal laughter can be as rowdy as joy is rowdy. I love your chain. I love those kicks. It’s good to be here. We don’t owe you shit. We own this shit. We, once owned, whose flesh once belonged: We. Are. Our. Own. Now. And it’s good to own good to own good to own ...


The earth, against its will, has spawned a multiplicitous serpent, a terror to men, that sprawls thick and glistening across mountains and valleys and plains. It is one beast, a superpredator, but it is made up of a host of dangerous criminals. I—I and my fellow Officers of the Law—we destroy the monster continually, with one thousand, one million bullets. This gear fits my broad shoulders; my aim is sure; I fire often; my bullets slay the bloated creature that spreads its vast coils across so many acres of this great land. But it always comes back to life despite our valiant efforts. Even as I, in triumph, make my way home with my rustling gear, carrying the slain creature in my arms, drops of blood from my quarry fall to the ground. The spattered earth gives them life anew, like smooth-bodied snakes sprouting from the blood that I spill, and so this land swarms still with deadly men.

I am a former highway patrol trooper, a US Navy military police veteran, and a corporal. I have in-depth training in impact-weapon deployment and in expandable baton, firearms, electronic control devices, Positive Assertive Control Tactics–Dynamic Threat Response, handcuffing, joint locks, pressure-point compliance, and armed and unarmed self-defense. I am a master of several disciplines of martial arts, including combat and ground fighting. I have a strong working knowledge of human behavior, indicators of deception, criminal behavior, situational awareness, and experience in the use of all levels of force. I have received eight hours of cultural diversity training and have taken racial-profiling courses. Training videos spool across my YouTube channel, titles such as Man Attacks Baltimore Police Officer; and Man Sucker-Punches Cop, Gets Kicked in the Face; and Man with Gun Approaching Police Car; and Martial Arts Wrist Locks; and Traffic Stop Gone Wrong; and Two Cops Killed in Robbery Live and Caught on Tape; and Self Defense Roll and Strike Drill.

When called to duty, you must be crafty and tactical, especially in a place like McKinney, Texas. Around here, everyone says hello and stops to chat. It is a truly hometown feeling. A cul-de-sac, a labyrinth of small roads. Here summer arrives with sunlight, calm breeze, and bounty, children and their guardians feasting and festivaling, amusing themselves by the pool. But if a dark storm swoops in and makes this peaceful hamlet witness to an orgy of dissipation, if a noisy mob crowds in, then this nice neighborhood is transformed to tumult, like a quiet sea that the winds in fury rouse to raging waves. The dispatch call comes in around sunset. Disorderly conduct. Underage drug and alcohol use. Altercation between black female and middle-aged white female.

Through solitudes, remote and trackless, over smooth roads in fine neighborhoods, I reach the land where the dread beast has erupted. I leap from my keening chariot, with its wheeling lights the colors of our flag. I see them everywhere—in the grass, by the road—all the moving shapes, a criminal chaos, a disorder of conduct. I give chase, my men beside me. Light flashes from me, reflecting off the bright shield pinned to my breast. I spring from the ground and soar! But on unfamiliar terrain, I am more flat-footed than fleet. I stumble on the devious ground—a pebble or a root—and fly forward. But I know my training! I tuck and roll like a great boulder and I am up and at chase once more.

My men are scattered to the winds. I am besieged. On all sides suspects swarm to assail me, to wage against me an unequal war, to rob me of all I have won by honor, training, and just deserts. Lambs flee from wolves and hinds from lions, and the fluttering doves from eagles; every creature flees its foes. But I do not turn heel! Love—of man, of country, of blind and righteous justice—love spurs me to reverse the pursuit. I dart one way, then the other, corralling them. You, there, you run too fast! Check your swift flight! I am no thug, I am no pig. I am no unkempt hick or prick. I am Lord of the Law, a son of this great nation. This is the Police, I order you to stop. To go. Stop. Now go. I alone am your traffic light. By me are future, past, and present decided. Sure are my bullets, and all men call me healer. You don’t take off running when the cops get here. Get on the fucking ground.

One struts before me, blaring as if her lips are pressed to a horn. Flipping her hair and running her mouth, she is the blatant embodiment of all that refuses me. She is bare as a nymph in her swimsuit, but there be demons in her. The monster rises up in her, her limbs become coils, her tongue bulges forth and forks. Just as an eagle spies in an empty field a snake sunning itself and strikes from the rear, securing with eager claws the writhing scaly neck lest the snake turn with its deadly fangs—thus do I, swooping headlong through the void, attack her from behind. As she shrieks, I sink my grip deep into her shoulder. Wounded sorely, she rears upright, high in the air, bucking in her frenzy, then dives down. I duck and weave, eluding her snapping mouth, and I strike at the parts exposed, my crescent grip binding her limbs. Holding them. Down. On the ground. I put her on her knees.

The other suspects surround me now, baying at me, their mouths open. Thick and fast as hail, their insults and backtalk fly at me, no matter that I give them orders to stay, go, stay! I push them back. I feel two of them closing upon me and I reckon that my valor cannot vie with the weight of their numbers, so I brandish my gun like a Gorgon’s head, a weapon to make them freeze. But they do not halt. They shout and bolt. My loyal men stay me by the elbows and encourage me to holster my weapon. Truly, I do not need it! I will use my bare hands to finish this business!

The girl is calling, like a child, for her mother, and scarce has she made her plea when through her limbs a dragging languor spreads and she sits, as if in a tantrum, and sets her fist into her hand. She is still wailing, still resisting! Me! I who am here to keep the peace! Soaked with sweat, my gear so heavy I can barely lift myself, I seek a flat surface—there, some grass—and swiftly, once more, I plant her. Her snakes of hair, braided like whips, fling in my face. I trap them, a web beneath my palm. Her tender torso is wrapped in thin smooth cloth the color of raw sun, her slender arms are mere vines. I root her face. Down. Into the ground. I am on my knees now. I am kneeling on her.

The kings of this hallowed land come to my aid, surveilling and standing guard, silently approving. But the beast is too manifold. The beast rearranges its many coils around us, its many eyes glinting, its many mouths opening and closing. And I see the slabs of gold and silver in its several hands, like currency to bargain with or tools to reckon with. And embedded in those shining slabs, I see tiny flashes, eyes emitting light, receiving it. Yes, I say, look upon my glory! Look all you want with your freezing eyes—the rolling ones in your monstrous heads and the metal ones in your monstrous hands. Look upon me! They exclaim with accusation, they call out my weapon, not comprehending that it is not my gun that has wrought this. It is my hands! I accuse them right back, I tell them to back off, I glare at the many-eyed Argus, many-headed Medusa, this mass monster.

She is still mewling beneath me, but I will not cast my eyes down upon her, I will not open my ears to this girl. I will fill myself up with wax until all my openings are closed to her. The situation is under control. All men call me healer. I can still feel the tendons of her neck rippling under the bone of my knee. I can still feel, under my other knee, the bolts of vertebrae along her spine, which is like a chain that runs down her body and branches at her young pelvis. Oh, fragile bones! Fragile, quaking bones! Bones, nerves, veins: all these splitted lines inside her body, linking her yet open mouth to the rounded heels of her yet naked feet. She seems small, but I know that she is legion.

As I kneel there upon her, a strange serenity descends. The burn of my bravery swirls in my veins, an intoxicating drowse. The beast approaches and recedes in a blur. Time slows. Ticking minutes dilate to vastest centuries. Like the chill condensation that slithers from the roof of a cave, gathering at the very tip of a stalactite that hovers above a pool of water as still as glass—thus does time draw at once into a point and a swell. Thus does this moment brim still over a stillness. A breath of wind and the drop will drop, dispel the spell, and send out the circles of consequence.

In the end, there will be no award pinned to my breast or hung from my neck, no ceremonious recounting of this tale at banquet or bar. My deeds will be sanctioned but I will be suspended. And during my suspension, I will sit at home alone, in front of a screen, trapped as Prometheus on his rock, Sisyphus on his hill. Gut churning, I will watch the YouTube of this story over and over, watch myself roll like a boulder over a girl (fifteen years old, fifteen years old), watch myself pinion her. I will hear her voice calling mother. And one day, as I sit there clicking refresh, I will realize, sudden as a bolt, that the condition of this story is an invisible eye. A white kid standing behind me, holding his phone up, tracking me, his little screen framing this fray.

What Was Said

I told you to stay. Get your asses down on the ground. Get the fuck over there. In the grass. You, get your asses out of here. Sir we just came for a birthday party please. We’ll figure that out in a minute. Officer officer I can’t find my bag. I don’t care. Sit down. Yo Richard, what color was it. It’s navy blue. I know where it is. You took off. That’s the thing. So right now you’re staying. Don’t make me fucking run around here with thirty pounds of goddamn gear on in the sun because you want to screw around out here. Y’all keep standing there running your mouths gonna get it too. Get outta here, I already told you. I don’t care. You’re leaving now. You’re leaving now. I don’t have to. You’ll leave. That way. Get your ass gone. Keep running your mouth. You. Yo Jumper what the fuck is going on. He hit me for no reason. Call my mama. Oh god call my mama. Excuse me sir. There’s no reason. Get your ass on the ground. Down. Stay down. On your face.

What is wrong. You’re hurting her. Why you holding her down for. Can you not. Why are you dragging her. What is she doing. What is she doing. What the fuck is she doing. On your face. On the ground. I’m on the ground. Get off my hair. What the fuck is he doing. I literally have. I have freedom of speech. I have freedom of speech. You wanna watch it. Watch it. Film it. I’m doing a job OK. I am filming it. I have thirty seconds right now. I’m filming it. I’ll send it OK. And then he also hit me too though. He hit me too in the face. OK. Because that’s abuse OK. Freedom of speech. Y’all film it. Y’all film it. OK. But you chill out and back off. Shit he’s fucking abusing her. He pulled out his gun on her. No I didn’t. Get your butts out of here. That’s my cousin. He pulled out his gun at her. Get outta here or you’re going too. Hey don’t come over here. Get back. He asked you to leave three times. And I was walking away then. I was walking away. He’s a cop. Yeah but you’re not gonna be a cop much longer though. My back is hurting. Then stop fighting. Lay still and you will be fine. Stop. Lay down. Like I told you.

Stop talking. You’re going to jail if you don’t knock it off. There are three of us out here, and [inaudible] of you. You OK. I’m not OK please. You’re hurting me. Adrian. Adrian you good bro. I’m gonna tell you one more time. Get your ass out of here. Y’all get. Across the street. Adrian. Adrian. Across the street or you’re going too. That’s my cousin man. Those are my cousins though. Come on. They didn’t do shit. Sir we just got here. We just came here. Let me explain something to y’all again. I personally told you to get on the ground and stay didn’t I. What did you do when I walked away. I’m sorry. So you just did what everybody else did. And what everybody else did was illegal. You did it and you got caught. They didn’t. Now you’re sitting here paying for it. I don’t have a problem. That’s not my problem. I asked y’all to sit. You became a part of the mob. You could’ve been the guys that were doing right and now you’re sitting here in trouble. You’re gonna sit here until we get this figured out.

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