Stand Your Ground and the Call to Solidarity

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.

A Letter to Atlanta

Dear Atlanta,

I have walked your streets. I have seen the splashes of colorful graffiti adorning your walls and I have languished in the torturous and disorienting trudge of your traffic. I’ve talked to folks in the red-clay streets of the southern suburb of Clarkston, just outside the perimeter, where the American Dream towers from afar like something shining and new. And I’ve talked to folks arcing their necks to see the skyscrapers up and down Peachtree Street, looming and beckoning like some futuristic metropolis. I have walked down the central drag, admired the towers and sculptures and the worlds of fantastical art and culture within this city, products of the human imagination contained in each of us.

I don’t understand you, Atlanta, but I appreciate you, in all your honesty and brutality, bless your heart.

1400808_10101655762186269_470048246_o

A piece of public art seen along the Atlanta Beltline, a recent municipal project here.

This city is more than a little bit sneaky and subversive. The coolest spots are sometimes tucked away, behind (quite literal) trick bookcases and hardly recognizable side alleys. There seem to be decrepit streets emerging in every direction, but they are speckled with commercial projects  “being worked-on” and lovingly imagined but yet to be realized city markets (one on Krog street, one on Ponce de Leon), which color my neighborhood with an expectant aura, a buzzing energy and incipient, burgeoning potential for growth. There is a dedicated ’20s club dressed up like a speakeasy, a cavernous Paris on Ponce antiques store lined with curious oddities and remarkable trinkets, and underground clubs with names like MJQ, and The Graveyard, where the drinks flow like water and the dancing is unbelievable.

It was here that I re-earned for myself the confidence that I have something in me that is valuable and precious. It is here that I reignited the hope and inspiration in me to write for a living. I found warmth and comfort and acceptance here from people who, like me, were searching for a way to live with meaning in the world. In the year-long volunteer program I was a part of, I found camaraderie with other young people engaged in the same struggle I was. Having all recently left college, we, like so many others, were all faced with the imposing question: “What now?” And now, well into my life on the other side of that experience, I continue to face that same burning question.

After the volunteer program, I was suddenly thrust back into the job search, and I picked up the first promising job I could line up for myself, at a community newspaper, and worked my ass off for them, but this project didn’t work out for me  in the end. A couple friends and I had settled into a new intentional community with each other, and set up a foothold for ourselves in a new neighborhood. We helped each other get on our feet, and through the transition into new jobs and new roles. Some stayed with their organizations, others moved home, and a few of us stuck it out in Atlanta. I still see and talk with them all the time, and they remind me of good times.

But  now, I am working in the heart of the city, observing it from the inside out, as a valet in a hotel here. It was so strange to go from the outskirts to the interior, and to see the city through the opposite lens. Where before I would write stories of struggling, hard-bitten entrepreneurs, new Americans and former refugees for my non-profit organization, I was now writing for myself only, and solely when I had the chance between shifts of parking cars.

work long hours, and living off tips is thrilling but unpredictable, and I find it difficult to find time to devote to my life’s passion. This is a shared state of affairs for many if not most mid-twenties millennials. We are an under-employed, over-worked, tweaked-out, tech-addicted, narcissistic generation, but give us some credit. We were mostly raised by our iPods, after all.

Here in Atlanta at least, we young people breathe in and out a spirit of reckless agitation and righteous fury, touched with a glimmer of edgy self-expression and provocative invention. There are arts festivals and parades nearly every weekend throughout the summer, scattered among Atlanta’s many neighborhoods. We are just as likely to be celebrating through the weekend as we are to be working hard at our regularly-scheduled jobs during the week. There are more than enough fantastic concerts in the pages of Creative Loafing than I could ever scratch the surface of, especially on a volunteer’s budget. Every other person is an aspiring musician, poet, or artist on the side. Our generation of movies, like Frances Ha, explore the neuroses and ambitions of our generation, and paint engrossing portraits of lost artistic souls just trying to make it in the city (a timeless tale.)  This story is the prevailing story of the emerging adults of the new millennium.

Atlanta_rose

A rose in front of a house in Old Fourth Ward, my neighborhood in Atlanta.

And after all, why not? This is, after all, the hotbed of the Civil Rights movement, where young people struggled and fought to redefine the old boundaries of a dated society, and actively, mostly non-violently, challenged the prevailing prejudices of America. Atlanta, you have been my friend in the midst of these torturous twenties, where nothing can be taken for granted and the future is a big neon-colored UNKNOWN. Your confusion mirrors mine, and your extremes match my own, the pulse of which I am becoming more familiar with every day. Atlanta, you bleed extreme joy, extreme anguish, personality, and a deep, almost religious fervor and spirit. You are as grounded as the cold pavement of your streets, if sometimes a little bit fumbling and polite.

I am glad to be here, in the urban capital of the South, and I am glad to have learned from and with you, through the Snowpocalypse, and the most recent election, and the emergence of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones as national obsessions. I was here for the National Championship in the Georgia Dome, and I saw Muse and Sting and Dave Matthews perform in Centennial park. I mourned with my colleagues during Sandy Hook, and I watched with horror on the day of the Bostan Marathon bombing. I have searched for jobs here, and I have searched for houses here, and I have explored your coffeeshops and restaurants. I am so lucky to have found myself here. Atlanta, you have been a difficult friend, but the kind that is endlessly rewarding to know. And I’ve enjoyed spending this piece of my twenties with you.

Anyway, that’s all I really felt like saying. I hope you’re ready! Spring is here! It’s pollen season. The leaves are coming back. Let’s enjoy this warm weather, and celebrate the fact that we are alive and young, and that our future awaits us, and that really, truly, anything CAN happen, and here in Atlanta, it probably will.

Affectionately yours, Justin