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On Friday after school, Rashad, a Black student at Springfield Central High School, changes from his ROTC uniform that he wore for drill team that morning into jeans and a T-shirt in the school bathroom. Rashad’s friends, English, Shannon, and Carlos, come into the bathroom, and they all joke around and talk about a party they plan on going to that night. Rashad leaves school and stops at Jerry’s Corner Mart to buy some chips and gum. While browsing the chips, Rashad remembers that his phone is in his bag and kneels down on the ground to take it out so he can text his brother, Spoony.
While Rashad is kneeling, a woman who was standing behind him backs up and trips over Rashad, causing them both to fall over and Rashad’s chips to slide up the aisle. The woman apologizes, and a police officer monitoring the store comes over to see what happened. The police officer asks the woman if Rashad did something to her while the store clerk says Rashad was trying to steal the chips. Rashad tries to defend himself, but the police officer drags him outside, slams Rashad onto the ground, handcuffs him, and beats him while accusing him of resisting arrest.
Quinn, a white student at Springfield Central High School, returns home from school on Friday looking forward to going to a party with his friends, Guzzo and Dwyer. First, he walks younger brother, Willy, to their neighbors’ house where Willy will spend the night. The neighbor praises Quinn for being responsible and invites him to stay for dinner. Quinn declines, and thinks how he resents the expectations people have had of him since his father died in Afghanistan years earlier. Quinn heads to meet Guzzo and Dwyer in an alley near Jerry’s Corner Mart, where they hope to get an adult to buy beer for them that they could take to the party. The friends discuss how this will be their last party before basketball season, which they need to focus on in order to impress college scouts.
Once it’s dark, Quinn waits outside Jerry’s and is about to ask a man who has bought them beer before to do it again. But then, he sees a police officer drag a Black teenager out of Jerry’s and throw him to the ground before beating him. Quinn realizes that the police officer is Guzzo’s older brother, Paul, who Quinn has viewed as a father figure ever since his own father died. Quinn runs back to Guzzo and Dwyer. The three of them run and then Quinn tells his friends what he saw. They decide to try to forget about it and enjoy the party.
Rashad wakes up in the hospital on Saturday morning and remembers being brought to the hospital the night before in handcuffs. His nose and ribs are broken, and he had to give his fingerprints as he had been accused of stealing. Rashad’s parents ask him to tell them what happened, and he tells them the whole story. Rashad’s mother and father argue about whether what happened had anything to do with the way Rashad presented himself or the clothes he wore. Rashad’s father asks why Rashad resisted arrest, and Rashad insists that he didn’t.
When Spoony shows up, he becomes outraged at what the police officer did to Rashad. The doctor arrives and says that Rashad can’t go home yet as he has internal bleeding, and will need to be monitored and may even need surgery. Spoony tells his girlfriend Berry, who is also English’s sister, about what happened, and he and Berry begin to spread awareness of what the police officer did to Rashad.
When Rashad changes out of his ROTC uniform and into casual street clothes, this is a physical manifestation of his mental preparations for the weekend ahead. Rashad changes his outward appearance to transition from school time, where he follows everyone else’s rules, to social time, where he can make up his own rules. At Jerry’s Corner Mart, however, it becomes immediately and painfully clear to Rashad that he is not privy to the rules of law enforcement as a Black boy. In the world at large, the white police officer calls the shots. The fact that the police officer questions the white woman about Rashad rather than asking either of them if they are injured suggests that he was keeping an eye on Rashad even before the incident occurred. This is the first of many instances in which people judge Rashad before getting to know him.
The clerk at Jerry’s Corner Mart registers his suspicions about Rashad before registering any concerns about the wellbeing of either of his customers. Since Rashad has done nothing wrong, the reader must assume that both the clerk and the police officer judge Rashad solely on his appearance. Rashad changed into jeans and a T-shirt, a seemingly basic uniform for high school students everywhere, but the color of his skin is what leads people to make judgments about his social class and conclude that he is a criminal. The reader must wonder if either character would have judged Rashad differently if he were wearing his ROTC uniform, a superficial indicator of respectability.
Unlike Rashad, Quinn benefits when others rush to judge him, such as when his neighbor praises Quinn for executing the simple task of dropping off his brother. In Quinn’s narration of the events of the same Friday night, he and his friends are excited about the evening, which also begins with a trip to Jerry’s Corner Mart. By dovetailing their trip with Rashad’s, the authors not only place Quinn at the scene of the beating, but they also juxtapose the way that both boys and their friends move through the world. The clerk accuses Rashad, who is there on a benign errand, of illegal activity; however, Quinn and his friends, all of whom are white, are actively planning an illegal activity. Their comfort with this endeavor suggests that they are not worried about getting caught because as white students they have never worried about the police. When Quinn recognizes Paul, he sees for perhaps the first time a very different side of the police force and of someone he has known for a long time.
At the hospital on Saturday morning, Rashad’s father rushes to judge him, just as the clerk and the police officer did at the store. His concerns about Rashad’s clothes lead the reader to again wonder what might have occurred differently if Rashad had remained in his ROTC uniform, and to consider how perception can be misleading. Rashad’s father does not ask him if he resisted arrest, but rather asks him why he resisted. His perception of the police does not allow him to believe that they would act violently without a justifiable reason. His reaction stands in stark contrast to Spoony’s, who focuses on what the police officer did to Rashad and not on what Rashad may have done to deserve it. When Rashad’s doctor delivers a diagnosis of internal bleeding, it further highlights that appearances are not always what they seem. Rashad’s physical well-being may be even worse than his outward appearance suggests.