I know I’m not the only one feeling it. That profound pain, disbelief, grief, outrage, horror, and shock at the depths to which our society has run off the rails. To many, it feels like powerlessness, or fear of looking the problem in it’s eye. For others, it feels like the logical continuation of a life already lived in ever-present fear. I tend to process things through music, so I’m attaching a video below that really hit close to home for me. Recorded by hip-hop artist J. Cole four days after the shooting of Michael Brown, “Be Free” was an extremely powerful piece of music that sampled a CNN interview with witness Dorian Johnson, and was a song I listened to on Soundcloud over and over again while the protests raged in Ferguson this summer.
The video pairs that haunting song with images and clips of police brutality, interlaced with statistics on racially biased police brutality, and images of the protests throughout the U.S. in the last few months. It’s a stirring video, and heart-wrenchingly appropriate today, as protesters and families of victims converge in Washington D.C. for the “Justice for All” march, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Like others, I’m struggling with the feeling of being a spectator. I want to do something. Anything. I want to help the effort. I want to somehow ease some of the pain. But as I was reminded this morning, right now what is really essential is to continue to listen and to engage. I feel that is likely the best, right now, that someone in my position can hope to do.
There’s a tempting simplicity to the thought of flipping over the front page of my newspapers so I don’t have to see what new horrifying headline is popping up daily, or to scroll down in my internet news feeds, to try to work and play and go on like nothing new was there. But even if we tried to ignore it, the tragedy of it will continue to glare back at us, like a beast from behind the mirror. It would be easier not to talk about it. But it MUST be talked about.
When protests ignited this summer shortly following the shooting death of Mike Brown, startlingly close to where I lived in Illinois, part of me wanted to up and go to Ferguson. I said the same to a photographer of our local newspaper who was working on a project about Ferguson. Journalists there had their hands bound with plastic, and I was hearing a lot of disgust that the protesters and rioters were mostly outsiders; that the damage from the riots was harming the Ferguson community, and that fires and shooting had even closed the St. Louis airport.
I deliver newspapers overnight as a second job nowadays, which has given me lots of late nights in my car listening to the radio while I drive through the neighborhood my routes are in. This morning I happened to tune into a show on the Portland community station with a few young white people my age trying to sort through the issues at play in these protests. It was hard to listen to at times, and certainly not an easy subject to tussle with. But it was comforting to me to hear other young people my age talk about it on a public forum, and to open it to callers.
They expressed many of the feelings I share: Frustration at attending march after march, and protest after protest, and not seeing concrete results. Wrestling to check our privilege and own that we, as white people, don’t truly understand what communities of color are experiencing. Hunger for some kind of change, but uncertainty as to what it will amount to. All that, and a good deal of outrage at the idea of a “colorblind” culture, and rejection of the emergence of All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter.
So I called the radio line, and spoke briefly with them. It was good just to speak to others who felt the same way I do. They, like I, want to support the communities that are pushing to make their voices heard, while treading the delicate line of learning to listen and teaching ourselves when not to speak. I don’t know what my place is in this movement, but I want it to be grounded in a place of solidarity, not privilege. I want to encourage voices like that of J. Cole, and that of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, whose passionate preface to a show in St. Louis recently also ranks, for me, among the most emotionally poignant listening out there on the subject of police brutality, racism, and the current protests. I think the best thing that I can do right now is open my ears, not my mouth. Listen, closely, to what these voices are saying about how life is experienced today by people of color in the U.S.
The deaths of these men has brought us to our knees, and chilled us to our bones. We’re now incarcerating more black men than any other subgroup in America, and the wealth gap by race is greater in America today then in South Africa during apartheid. Check out this article by Nick Kristof for more (and regardless of your take on his politics, it’s hard to argue with the numbers he’s giving us.) There’s a breakdown in the justice system, that no one seems to know how to fix.
Most importantly, I think that we shouldn’t fear what might happen, and what we might find out, when we do open ourselves up to these voices. Coming to terms with privilege and institutional racism is not supposed to be easy, finding the strength to address it will be even less so. But don’t let that cause you to shut down. I felt so much healthier this morning when I spoke what I was feeling, to someone, anyone, even the young people sitting in a radio station somewhere, and allowed myself to make mistakes and then correct myself, and opened myself to learning a few things.
These times are scary, but I think what we are seeing in the U.S. right now is a call to challenge ourselves. The movement is growing. And know that it’ll be a struggle. But, know that you’re not alone.
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