It is Friday, and Rashad is at ROTC drill practice. Rashad doesn’t enjoy ROTC but does it because his dad believes the best thing for a black American boy to do is join the army. Rashad’s father, David, used to be in the army, and then the police force, but now works an office job. Rashad’s brother, Spoony, works for UPS and lives with his girlfriend, Berry, in their own apartment. As soon as practice is over, Rashad runs to the bathroom to change out of his green uniform. There he sees English Jones, a green-eyed “pretty boy” who is spoiled by his parents. English is good at everything, beloved by everyone, and captain of the basketball team. Rashad and English have been friends since they were children; their group includes Shannon Pushcart and Carlos Greene, who are also standing in the bathroom. The boys discuss a party at Jill’s that night.
Like English, Carlos is a senior; he tries out for the basketball team every year and never makes it, but is a “pro” graffiti artist. Rashad hopes that at the party he will hook up with Tiffany Watts, who he thinks is “the baddest girl in the eleventh grade.” He heads to UPS so Spoony can lend him $20, but first takes the bus to Jerry’s, a convenience store, to buy snacks. A lot of people steal from Jerry’s, but Rashad has never stolen anything from anywhere. Rashad goes to get his wallet from his bag, and as he does so a white lady behind him (Katie Lansing) knocks into him by accident. She drops the bottle of beer she was holding, which smashes, and apologizes to Rashad. However, the clerk and cop guarding the store come over and––before Katie can say anything––accuse Rashad of trying to steal the chips. The cop (Paul) body slams Rashad and handcuffs him, accusing him of trying to resist. Rashad is in intense pain and thinks: “Please don’t kill me.”
The next chapter is narrated by Quinn, who is also getting ready to go to the party but must first drop his youngest brother, Willy, at the house of their neighbors the Cambis. Quinn’s father was killed in Afghanistan, making him an instant hero in their town. Quinn feels pressure to live up to this reputation and be the perfect “All-American boy.” His mother, Ma, works 12-hour night shifts at the Uline Warehouse. Their neighborhood, the West Side, is poor and said to be “on the decline,” but Quinn loves it. After dropping Willy, Quinn meets his friends Dwyer and Guzzo. All three boys are on the basketball team, and this will be the last Friday night they can go out before practice starts again. Quinn has a crush on Jill, who is Guzzo’s cousin.
Quinn and his friends always get alcohol at Jerry’s, paying passersby a little extra to buy it for them. They have stolen from Jerry’s a couple of times too, although they don’t do this anymore. Approaching Jerry’s, Quinn sees Guzzo’s older brother, Paul, burst out of the store and slam someone to the ground, though he doesn’t recognize that it is Rashad. Quinn hears sirens, and runs back to tell Guzzo and Dwyer that they need to run. They go to get pizza at Mother’s. Quinn is haunted by the look on Paul’s face as he beat Rashad.
Rashad is in the hospital; his nose is broken. He is charged with several misdemeanors and will have to appear in court. Rashad explains what happened to his parents, who are skeptical, although when Spoony arrives he instantly believes Rashad’s story. Dr. Barnes tells the family that Rashad has had some internal bleeding and will need to stay in the hospital for a few days in order to be monitored.
Meanwhile, Quinn, Dwyer, and Guzzo go to Jill’s party, but Quinn is distracted, doesn’t talk to Jill, and afterward sleeps badly. The next day, Ma discovers his flask, noticing that he has been taking her bourbon. She scolds him and tells him to go to Willy’s soccer game later that day, and Quinn obeys. Guzzo texts Quinn, inviting him to a barbeque at his family’s house the next day. After, Quinn takes Willy to Mother’s for pizza, where they run into Jill. The three eat together, before noticing a fight break out between four men standing in line. The police arrive, and Quinn tells Jill he will walk her home. Jill mentions the barbeque, and she and Quinn agree that there is something odd about it.
On Sunday, Rashad wakes up alone in his hospital room. His nurse, Clarissa, asks him to blow into an incentive spirometer to check his lungs. After, his parents arrive along with their pastor, Jerome Johnson. The pastor tells Rashad that God is always with him and that everything happens for a reason. The family prays, after which Spoony arrives and Pastor Johnson departs. Spoony turns on the TV to reveal a news item showing smartphone footage of Rashad’s arrest, with the newscaster pointing out that the footage suggests that Paul used unnecessary force. David is furious and leaves the room. Spoony reveals that he sent the network information about Rashad. Rashad charges his phone for the first time since the incident and, seeing a string of frantic texts from his friends, replies to tell them he is all right. David returns and a football game comes on; for a brief moment, the family relax and watch together. However, after the game the same news item about Rashad’s arrest is played again.
Quinn arrives at the Galluzos’ family barbeque and feels awkward. He talks to Jill, who reveals that the boy Paul injured was Rashad. Quinn admits that he witnessed the incident, but is hesitant to reveal the extent of what he saw. Paul serves up burgers, and the partygoers all watch the football game together. Quinn wanders away from the TV to find Jill and her mom having an argument. Suddenly, the news item about Paul and Rashad comes on the TV, and someone quickly switches it off. Paul tells everyone that he will need their support in the coming weeks; he then invites Quinn, Guzzo, and Dwyer to play two-on-two basketball in the yard. However, Quinn quickly becomes frustrated and leaves the party.
At school on Monday everyone is talking about Rashad and the video clip shown on the news. Quinn refuses to watch it, wishing he could erase the entire incident from his mind. He notices that English is avoiding him, but is pleased to see that Jill is waiting for him by his locker. They have lunch together, and while discussing Rashad, Quinn suddenly remembers that he’s seen Paul beat a boy before, Marc Blair. That time, Paul “kicked the shit out of” Marc for having bullied Quinn. Quinn feels guilty and begins thinking about how racism can take the form of an irrational fear of black people. In class, his teacher, Ms. Webber, picks on another black student, EJ. EJ and a white student, Molly, begin repeating Rashad’s name until Ms. Webber sends them out. After school, Quinn goes to basketball practice and tries to forget about Rashad and Paul.
Rashad, who has been into art since childhood, thinks about the work of the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas. Lying in his hospital bed, he begins drawing the scene at Jerry’s. Clarissa enters and compliments the drawing. After talking with her, Rashad goes down to the hospital gift shop, where he strikes up a conversation with an elderly black lady named Shirley Fitzgerald, who volunteers there. Later that afternoon, Carlos, English, and Shannon visit the hospital. At first the boys joke around, but then English explains that Paul is Guzzo’s older brother. Rashad explains exactly what happened, and Carlos promises to “do something,” though Rashad and the others encourage him not to. After they leave, Rashad unplugs the TV in a sudden fit of rage.
On Tuesday morning, students arrive at Springfield High to see “RASHAD IS ABSENT AGAIN TODAY” spray-painted on the sidewalk in front of the school. At lunch, only white students are sitting inside the cafeteria; Jill and Quinn consider sitting outside, but ultimately sit with Guzzo and Dwyer. Guzzo is angry, yelling at Quinn for leaving the barbeque early and at Jill for bringing up Rashad. Dwyer urges Quinn not to mention Rashad and Paul, reminding Quinn that Coach Carney told them to put it out of their minds. At practice, Quinn gets into an argument with English, followed by another one with Guzzo. At home that evening, Quinn reflects on his own racial privilege, and decides to watch the video. He calls Jill and they discuss racism. After hanging up, Quinn resolves not to “walk away” from the problem anymore.
Rashad, meanwhile, wakes up, plugs the TV back in, and listens to different Springfield residents discuss their opinions about his case. Some are sympathetic, while others are not. Rashad’s mother, Jessica, comes to visit. When Rashad shows her his drawing she gets tearful, then angry. Spoony and Berry arrive, and show Rashad a picture of the graffiti outside Springfield High. Spoony explains that the slogan #RashadIsAbsentAgainToday has become a hashtag, and that there is going to be a protest. Rashad’s friends arrive, and the group discuss instances when they’ve been subject to police racism. Rashad vows to “stand with” those protesting, as he feels that this is now a movement bigger than him.
On Wednesday, while taking Willy to school, Quinn runs into Paul on the street. Quinn tries to get away, but Paul doesn’t let him. He says he knows that Quinn was at Jerry’s when he arrested Rashad, and insists that Rashad was stealing and that Paul was only trying to protect the other woman in the store. At school, kids are handing out flyers about the protest. Quinn’s English teacher, Mrs. Tracey, who has assigned Ralph Ellison’s story “Battle Royale,” starts crying during class. Without being asked, the students in the class take turns reading Ellison’s story aloud. At practice, a fight breaks out and Coach reminds the boys that they need to focus on their futures and think of themselves as a team.
Chief Killabrew has sent Rashad a card and enclosed the ROTC creed. Rashad has a nightmare about the incident at Jerry’s. In the morning, David arrives, and tells Rashad that when he was serving in the police force, he shot a young black man, Darnell Shackleford, who had been beating a white man. He explains that while he thought Darnell was reaching for a gun, he was actually reaching for his inhaler, and that the white man had been robbing him, not the other way around. Darnell wasn’t killed, but was paralyzed from the waist down. David tells Rashad that Jessica wants to press charges, and Rashad says that he wants to go to the protest, asking his father to join.
Rashad goes down to see Mrs. Fitzgerald, and arrives to find her accompanied by another woman, who introduces herself as Katie Lansing––the woman from Jerry’s. Katie apologizes and offers to testify. After Katie leaves, Mrs. Fitzgerald shares her memories of the civil rights era, admitting that she did not get involved at the time because she was scared. She tells Rashad to go to the protest.
On Thursday, Quinn wakes early, unable to sleep. After considerable reflection, he grabs a white t-shirt and on the front writes “I’M MARCHING” and on the back “ARE YOU?”. The t-shirt receives mixed reactions at school. At practice, Guzzo elbows Quinn in the face, but loudly claims it was an accident. After, Guzzo punches him in the chest and face. That night at dinner, Ma forbids Quinn from going to the march. They fight, but eventually reconcile with a hug.
On Wednesday evening Jessica had brought a lawyer, Maya Whitmeyer, to talk to Rashad at the hospital. The next morning, Dr. Barnes tells Rashad he is being discharged. English texts him that “school is intense” and “everyone’s picked a side.” Back at home, Rashad googles #RashadIsAbsentAgainToday, and finds countless pictures of himself along with debates about the case online. That evening, Jessica orders Mother’s pizza and Rashad’s friends come over, along with Spoony. Jessica says she and Pastor Johnson will come to the protest, and Spoony suggests doing a die-in.
On Friday morning, Quinn calls the police and insists on giving a statement about Rashad’s case. Later, he sees para-military units descending on Springfield High. Quinn is terrified, but after an encouraging speech from Jill, he reaffirms his commitment to the protest. After school, they march together, and when the die-in takes place, Quinn joins in. He listens to someone read out the names of black people who have been killed by the police, and thanks God that Rashad wasn’t one of them.
Rashad gets no sleep the night before the protest. In the morning, Jessica tells him that in the night, she awoke to find David out of bed and staring into Rashad’s room. Before leaving the house, Rashad removes the bandages from his nose so everyone can see what Paul did to him. At the protest, Rashad is stunned to see so many people he knows: his friends, Tiffany, Mr. Fisher, Mrs. Tracey, his ROTC comrades, Pastor Johnson, Katie Lansing, and Clarissa. Even more surprising, however, his seeing his father show up. During the die-in, while Berry shouts out a list of names of black people killed by the police, tears stream from Rashad’s eyes.
The final chapter is narrated by Quinn and Rashad, who lock eyes. Quinn wants Rashad to know that he sees him, and Rashad wants the world to know that he is “present.”