How beautiful the righteous anger flowing out of Ferguson and New York City, the insistent cries “Black Lives Matter!” How hopeful the troubling of the waters, the rage of the protesters filling our streets, determined to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” (to borrow from poet/activist César A. Cruz). A new anti-racism movement has been birthed, and I’ve never been so heartbroken or so hopeful.
“White privilege” means never having to say you noticed — never noticed landlords who refuse to rent, banks that refuse to lend, employers who won’t employ, taxis that refuse to stop, never noticed the pain caused by racial slurs and jokes, never noticed the lack of parks or after-school programs in minority neighborhoods, never noticed store personnel following black customers, never noticed the “school-to-prison-pipeline” with black students less likely to be assigned experienced teachers and well-equipped classrooms, more likely to be suspended or expelled for misbehavior, never noticed commuters pulled over for “driving while black,” police brutality disproportionately born by African-Americans, prisons bursting at the seams with black and brown people …
In 1997, I was disheartened by apparent white apathy after the police brutalization of Abner Louima. I went to a Brooklyn rally (photo) and could count the white protesters on one pale hand. History has brought us to a new day, when people of all races, classes, beliefs are coming together in rage, despair, and hope.
“White privilege” means treating the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner as unfortunate “incidents,” denying the long history of institutional racism and the systemic targeting of people of color. It means saying, in condescending tone, “Well, really, all lives matter, don’t they?” or derailing deep conversation with the truism “But not all cops are bad,” (reminiscent of the meme “not all men” as rebuttal to outrage about rape and battery), or insisting that people of color stop what they are doing to educate white folks about our shared history.
“White privilege” means never having to connect the dots; it means dismissing the protesters’ grief and rage as “political correctness,” trivializing it, accusing those who do connect the dots of “playing the race card.”
OUR SILENCE FOSTERED VIOLENCE
Violence against black and brown peoples has been relentless from the start. It’s been “status quo” and “the way things are.” People of color silently mourned or seethed, while the white majority barely noticed. In our silence we acquiesced.
But when Mike Brown’s body lay in the street for 4 1/2 hours, something shifted in our collective psyches. It was as if we could hear Ella Baker speaking from her grave, admonishing, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” (I hear you humming a little Sweet Honey in the Rock as you read this.)
Black and brown communities rose up, again, newly energized. White anti-racists woke up, too. Ferguson was, perhaps, the long-awaited “tipping point.”
Police over-reaction in Ferguson revealed something many of us (myself included) had not known: the Defense Department has been arming local police with surplus equipment since 1997 — tanks, full battle gear, tear gas. Now, at last, we’re talking about the “militarization of America’s police.” That we’re talking about it is a good thing.
On TV, the NYC Police Commissioner told reporters, “People get tired of marching around aimlessly.” We were meant to understand that he’s the grown-up in the room. We’ve been primed to sympathize with his weary expertise through years of rooting for TV cops and detectives like Cagney & Lacey, Lennie Briscoe, Kate Beckett and her mystery writer sidekick Richard Castle, and …
The entertainment-news industry demands dramatic footage — property damage, looting, and fire — then mislabels it “violence.” It downplays nonviolent agitation and disregards daily, sustained anti-racism work.
SOLIDARITY IN THE DIGITAL AGE
But this time, nothing is stopping creative protest — not media distortion, not chilly winds, rain, snow, not even Christmas. Has the world ever seen anything quite like this?
In city after city, across the U.S. and in places around the world — England, Palestine, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Canada — people are in the streets shouting “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” using e-gadgets to connect, inform, record, inspire.
In Milwaukee, the Overpass Light Brigade created a digital sign on a pedestrian overpass bridge. Medical students held “white coat die-ins” at Yale, Tulane, Johns Hopkins, and several dozen other schools.
African-American congressional aides, several members of Congress, and Civil Rights leader John Lewis briefly walked off the job this week to pose on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with arms raised in the “Hands Up – Don’t Shoot” gesture and were led in prayer by the Senate Chaplain.
In stores and malls across America, protesters turned “Black Friday” consumerism into “Blackout Friday,” disrupting the shopping with the chant, “No justice, No profits.” In several cities they borrowed from the labor movement and sang the refrain, “Which Side Are You On?”
“Which Side Are You On?” was also sung by protesters at the St. Louis Symphony. Diverse in race, age, and gender, they bought tickets, stood up mid-concert, sang a “Requiem for Mike Brown,” and left of their own accord, as they tossed confetti hearts and unfurled banners from the balcony. Some on stage and in the audience applauded, others booed or sat open-mouthed.
Musicians and poets, preachers and artists are all busy creating expressions for this new day. The Brooklyn church where I work as the Music Director put up a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” banner on the front gate. In worship last week, we sang Mark Miller’s new hymn “How Long?” combining Advent imagery with the words “Sam [Cooke] said ‘change is gonna come’ but right now we can’t breathe.”
People of faith are holding vigils, die-ins, prayer meetings, and rallies. They’re hosting after-church racism discussions.
In the past few months, athletes on basketball courts and football fields have worn “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warm-up exercises. Five members of the St. Louis Rams made the news when they came out on the field with their arms raised in a show of solidarity with Mike Brown protesters.
Many thousands of protesters are expected to flood Washington, D.C. this weekend for the March Against Police Violence. There’s a whole new anti-racism movement on the move now, led by young people who are both informed and savvy about how to use the new technology.
“The times, they are a-changin’” and I’ve never been so hopeful!
To Go Deeper
“Police Kill Black Women All the Time, Too — We Just Don’t Hear About It” by Evette Dionne, Bustle.com, 12/9/14
“Principles of Respectful Dialogue” a helpful handout about the L.A.R.A. method for group discussions of controversial or sensitive topics, developed by Bonnie Tinker.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being White” by Courtney E. Martin
“Black Feminists Respond to Ferguson” by Miriam Zoila Pérez, in ColorLines, August 22, 2014
“12 Things White People Can Do Now Because of Ferguson” by Janee Woods” in Quartz, August 17, 2014
In the tradition of the holy fool, truth-tellers in court jester garb — sometimes it is our comedians who speak about hard things most forthrightly:
John Oliver’s August 17, 2014 riff on racism in Ferguson.
Jon Stewart on the Daily Show
Mark Miller’s Advent lament “How Long?”
“The Times They Are a-Changin’” lyrics by Bob Dylan
Feature photo “Harlem Is Ferguson” photo by Kathleen Caulderwood
Racism Takes Our Breath Away, Pittsburgh protest 12/4/14, photo by Jessica Nath
Black Lives Matter, Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff, Grand Central protest 12/7/14
Ferguson Police, Michael B. Thomas, AFP/Getty
Georgetown Hoyas, AP photo by Nick Waas
Palestinian child, Hamdi Abu Rahma
Foley Square hands up, by Jason DeCrow/AP