(title in reference to “First they came …“)
It’s the year 2014, in the United States of America, and the people whose entire livelihood is supposed to be the protection of civilians–the keeping of peace, the upholding of our freedoms, the protection of citizens–have donned military garb, weapons, tactics, and ideologies, and are advancing on American citizens with loaded weapons in broad daylight.
Peaceful protestors, legally gathered and protected by the First Amendment, and journalists, also protected by the First Amendment, have been fired on with rubber bullets and tear gas, arrested without warrant or cause, and been forcibly removed from public spaces.
All of this is happening, and my Facebook timeline remains full of babies, memes, surveys, and links to Robin Williams videos. Obama hasn’t said hardly a thing. Mainstream news is covering immigration and Robin Williams. If it weren’t for Twitter I wouldn’t even know this is going on.
This is interesting, because this wasn’t what happened with Sandy Hook. Or the Boston marathon bombing. But this is what happens with violence in Chicago.
It’s because this is what we expect. It fits our narrative of the world. Black people in urban settings fighting the police? Look at the kid they shot. His pants were sagging. He was walking in the middle of the street. Look at the interview with that guy who’s protesting–he was speaking in Ebonics. Probably didn’t even finish high school. Look! They’re looting. This is why they can’t have nice things.
So when the police don military garb, we watch it happen like we watch Israel firing on Palestine. “I wish this weren’t necessary,” we say, shaking our heads like a parent who’s telling a child “I’m not going to enjoy this” as they prepare to spank their child. But it is necessary, of course. These people.
Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing shook our worlds because they happened in our worlds. If Michael Brown, the 18-year-old whose death sparked the current protests, were a White kid in suburban Gainesville, my Facebook feed would not be empty. If the protestors being shot at by police were in the middle of Ann Arbor, the news media would not be silent. If the back yards being filled with tear gas were in Andersonville or Evanston, Barack Obama would have said more than a short paragraph. When the places we expect to be safe are made unsafe, we’re not silent for long.
But Ferguson, Missouri is a primarily Black city where 18-year-old boys sag their pants and the almost-all-White police force yell at those 18-year-old-boys to “get the fuck on the sidewalk,” and those boys respond that they’re almost home, and when we think of that home–and that sidewalk–we think of projects, dilapidated apartments, tiny browning yards with rusted clotheslines, and it’s so different than our yards, our houses. If we had read this story and pictured our manicured yards with no sidewalks, our wide and slow subdivision streets, and then we added a police officer and an 18-year-old, the cop would be slowing down to gently tell Johnny to remember to stay to the side of the road, and now that I mention it Johnny would for sure have a car and wouldn’t be walking in the road anyway.
You’ll notice that the people who are most upset about this are the people who’ve read this far and said to themselves, “Why the hell is this writer saying ‘We’ when I clearly don’t identify with what he’s saying?” The people who are most upset about the situation are not, surprisingly, anti-big-government libertarians decrying police overstepping their bounds and breaking the First Amendment. The people who are most upset about this are the people for whom Ferguson, Missouri is their world. People who grew up in Miami. In Chicago. In Atlanta. People whose ancestors were slaves. Whose parents and grandparents sat at the back of the bus. Whose experiences of police behavior have never made them feel protected and respected.
In the poem I linked at the top of this post, pastor Martin Niemöller wrote about the Holocaust and the cowardly behavior of those who knew they would be protected–at least, at first.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This is what we’re doing. We’re watching our brothers and sisters, our fellow countrymen, marched on by a militarized, First-Amendment-breaking attack force, and we’re doing nothing. Because it doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t unsettle us. It doesn’t make is imagine that happening in our neighborhood, because our neighborhood doesn’t have dark boys with sagging pants walking to decrepit apartments.
In my last post I urged White America, especially White Christian America, that this is the time to listen, not speak (in response to the Zimmerman acquittal.) I’m urging something different this time.
White America–and Asian America, and Latin (U.S.) America, and everyone else–this is the time to get upset. This is the time to find some piece of this insanity and allow yourself to see how wrong this is. Pick a piece. Government and media aren’t doing anything about it. Cops acting as military and disrespecting citizens. Intrusion of private space. Journalists locked up. Breaking the First Amendment. Racist cops. Dead innocent young boys. Whatever it is, let it get you riled up that you actually want to do something.
Get so upset that you start looking at plane tickets to Ferguson. Realize that this is a massive civil rights issue. This is absolutely absurd and both reflects and predicts a broken, evil thing.
And then find every opportunity you have to act on that. Petition. Call. Inform. Donate. Console. Whatever it is you have in your power to fight this.
In my last post I encouraged you to not be That White Person, who, in the face of Black pain, says “Well, technically…”.
This time, I’m encouraging you to be That Other White Person. The one who, in the face of White apathy towards Black pain, acts counter to your culture and stands in solidarity with people whose neighborhoods might not look like yours. Put yourself in their shoes and see how absolutely insane this situation is, and then act accordingly. Don’t let this happen unchallenged.
* Note: My first tendency when I started learning about issues of justice and racialization was to want to run away from my race. These days I want to build bridges, and you can’t build a bridge to your own people group if you refuse to identify with them. This is why I’ve used the phrase “we” so often, and why I’ve used it when describing some things that I certainly don’t believe–but I do think are a part of the general consciousness of the largest segment of the country.
* Another Note: As I was writing this post, several mainstream media sources have started covering aspects of the situation on their web sites/blogs. That’s a good start.
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