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“This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish… You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
I’ve been thinking about this post for some time now. I started writing it a while ago and have been adding to it little by little. I wanted to make sure it’s just right, but then realized that I don’t have to be perfect in my personal feelings about what’s going on. But, if I’m going to publish it publicly, then I have the responsibility to make sure I don’t say anything reckless, to be thoughtful, truthful and sincere, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. And I’m also not attempting to address the issues in Ferguson and elsewhere comprehensively – I’m just addressing one issue I find particularly frustrating.
So, here’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot since the deeply disheartening rulings from both grand juries in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. First, the injustice breaks my heart and I wish I could be at every single protest across the country, standing in solidarity with the mothers, fathers, grandmas, brothers and sisters demanding justice for their community. Have you been involved in a street protest? It is one of the most exhilarating, uplifting and scary experiences (the cops are the scary part – I’ve been chased for miles by cops in riot gear – it’s not fun). But in a mass protest you feel the intense solidarity in that moment, on the street with others who feel similarly to you – it’s energizing and beautiful and powerful and nourishing to the soul that rails against injustice of any kind.
But what I’ve really been spending the most time thinking about is how frustrated I am by the outrage coming from mainstream media and predominantly white Americans over the rioting following the Mike Brown case. Don’t get me wrong, destruction of property is rough and hard to forgive if you own a business that is targeted. And I’m not suggesting that randomly attacking businesses is the answer to a tragic situation. But what I am saying is that I understand. Or, more simply put, I get it. I get why the rioting happened and I wish other people did too. The seemingly indifferent response the rioting is triggering is disgusting and frustrating and just makes me want to scream and shake some sense into people.
(I’ll stop here and add this: I’ve been part of protests that have involved property destruction, not by own hand or the hands of protestors. Protestors have witnessed members of the Black Bloc and/or undercover cops lead the property destruction and then blame it on the protestors as a way to discredit direct action by the citizenry. There seems to be some evidence that some of the violent protest in Ferguson was perpetrated by the cops, although that remains to be fully proven: https://www.popularresistance.org/did-police-set-autos-on-fire-during-ferguson-protests/)
I have spent the last 20 years educating myself about social movements both in this country and abroad, educating myself to be an informed and steadfast ally to many marginalized groups (with lots of learning still to do). I’m also generally wired for intense empathy and compassion, so I am frustrated by some of the responses to what’s happening in Ferguson and around the country. Mainly because I think a lot of the people who don’t understand what’s going on don’t understand because they can’t see the events within the larger context of our history in this country and the lived experiences of many folks of color. (To be frank, I think many are just too lazy to deal with the larger context, it would require too much of them and cause them to have to explain themselves or be challenged and proven inept.)
In particular, as I personally reflect on what’s happening and try to make sense of it, I can’t help but return to my days as a student of African American Studies at UNM under the instruction of Dr. Shiame Okunor. I remember reading The Confessions of Nat Turner and as I struggled to understand what I was reading, along with my fellow students, I realize now that reading that book was a turning point in my life as an activist and as an ally to those struggling for their most basic human rights.
What stands out in my mind about Nat Turner’s revolt, and keeps drawing me back given what’s going on today in Ferguson and across the country is this – peaceful protest is a privilege that not everyone can afford. It’s almost always people in power or those who benefit greatly from privilege (mostly the privilege of not experiencing a great amount of state or civil violence) who are the loudest proponents of peaceful protest, of non-violence as means of resistance, with the main presumption being “don’t use violence, use the system to address your issues.” Well, what if the system has failed you time and time again? What if the system you are lectured to utilize as a means of change is the very thing perpetuating the violence in your community, against your family, against your children?
As a Buddhist and as a white person, I was confounded by the idea of violent resistance when I first read about Nat Turner’s rebellion. How could I empathize with someone who went on a rampage, killing dozens of “innocent” whites who hadn’t enslaved him (but were living off the fruits of his bondage)? How could I possibly understand his perspective and his ultimate choice to use violence to gain his freedom from his situation?
In part, I was totally conflicted because of the stories we were told in school about Gandhi and MLK, that peaceful protest was paramount in the SUCCESSFUL struggle for human rights. But, no one talked about the Nat Turner revolt in high school. Violent protest wasn’t covered in history books, not in a way that presented them as the complex situations they in fact are. They were glossed over and instead we’ve been preached at in school about the absolute truth of peaceful protest as THE ONLY ACCEPTABLE solution to injustice. I went to high school in Virginia, they didn’t teach us about the Nat Turner revolt despite the fact that it happened in our state and is thought by many to be the event that ignited the Civil War in this country. Also, a recent article points out that the violent Stonewall protests were the linchpin for the modern LGBTQ movement in this country. Violent protest has no value? Why do we gloss over this in school?
(This last bit is a rhetorical question – it doesn’t serve the state to teach people about violent insurrection as a means of change… but that’s a whole other blog entry…)
As we read through Nat Turner’s confessions, our professor told us to really and truly think about the experience Nat Turner and other slaves at that time were living, to try to put ourselves in their shoes – and most importantly, understand the larger context in which Nat Turner and millions of Africans enslaved in the United States at that time were living. He encouraged us to not just see Nat Turner’s insurrection as an isolated incident (which far too many white Americans and mainstream media are doing to the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases – “but he stole cigarettes, but he resisted arrest, but he was disrespectful to a cop”). Dr. Okunor pushed us to understand Turner’s rebellion as a response to the bigger picture. At that time, what was the alternative to being beaten, raped, tortured through enslavement, your children ripped away from you and indiscriminately killed at the whim of another human being – all without recourse or sympathy? The system at that time surely wasn’t a help to enslaved human beings in America. It officially defined slaves as chattle, a belonging to do with what you will, to be used as you see fit. Given this situation, what is your next best option? The answer is, in this particular case, Nat Turner felt there wasn’t a next best option, BECAUSE THERE WASN’T A NEXT BEST OPTION. Violence to achieve his freedom was his only option given the situation he was put in. Whether you agree with that or not, his lived experience at that time told him he had no other option.
At the time though, I thought the answer was simple – just run away, don’t kill anyone and live in the swamps. But thankfully in college you have your beliefs and thoughts challenged by others who are struggling to understand complex issues right alongside you – people who come from different backgrounds than you, who can share a new perspective you might not have ever entertained. I finally realized that my simplistic option wasn’t an option – runaway slaves were routinely and mercilessly hunted as animals. Their escape meant a crucial blow to the economic and moral standing in the community of the slave owner. No, runaway slaves were hunted until they were found, and often killed for their rebellion. Nat Turner had no choice.
I will never know what that must have been like. Not even close. I can imagine it. Just like I can never know what it must be like to be a person of color in America in the 21st century and still be suffering under a clearly racist system that refuses to acknowledge it has a problem, let alone try to fix the problem. I can imagine it. I can witness it. But I can’t know what that experience is really like. I can’t truly judge what is the right response to such a system, to such injustice, to such intolerable grief at the murder of yet another young person of color. I can imagine what I would do, but I am not faced with a struggle that feels insurmountable and leaves me and my family and community no choice.
Do you see what I’m getting at here? Do see why my mind is making the connection between the two – the Nat Turner revolt and protests in Ferguson and other places? If you are white or otherwise benefit from privilege that keeps your family relatively safe from police violence, do you have it in you to try to put yourself in the shoes of black folks in communities across this country who are faced with an epidemic of poverty and violence, often through no fault of their own? Can you just for one minute imagine living their experience and the RIGHTEOUS indignation you would feel? How you just might be compelled to throw a brick at a glass window?* Can you imagine that you might resort to violence because of the absolute desolation and grief and anger you feel at the non-stop violence perpetrated against children who look just like your babies? Perpetrated against your community ad nauseum? I can. I can totally imagine it, even if it’s not my lived experience. I can deeply empathize with that feeling of anger and frustration and hand-wrenching and eventual outburst of violence. I can imagine that being an option, what I might feel is my only option.
MLK said it best in his Letters from a Birmingham Jail. While the exact circumstances of life lived in America in 2014 aren’t the same, if you listen sincerely and with an open heart to folks of color in this country about their lived experiences today, there is still a constant struggle against “nobodiness”: ““Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
Listening to the grand jury decision by Robert McCulloch on the radio that night made me sick. Even sicker was Obama’s lecturing of the nation, the protesters in Ferguson, that violence would not be tolerated. Obama has a history of community organizing, I would bet he gets this more than he lets on and I know he’s the leader of a country that isn’t equally educated on human rights struggles in this country and so has to temper his response somewhat, but his complete denial of the violence that instigated the ensuing fierce response unleashed by an exhausted, aggrieved community disgusted me. It made me sick to listen to McCulloch discount all witnesses to the crime, to indirectly blame Mike Brown for his own murder and to try desperately to cast a negligent police officer as an innocent bystander in this terrible injustice. Just sick to my stomach.
“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results.
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., just weeks before he was assassinated
This is what we should have heard pass the lips of Obama in response to Ferguson.
Just to be clear, and to tie all of this together (in case you missed it in my rambling), I’m not condoning violence or looting. I’m saying it’s not a simple argument of “do this, not that,” that you can’t judge a single event without taking into account the larger context of history and current lived experiences of the people involved. I’m saying that YOU CAN’T SPEAK FOR PEOPLE WHOSE LIVED EXPERIENCE IS DIFFERENT THAN YOUR OWN AND TELL THEM WHAT RESPONSE IS THE RIGHT RESPONSE. I’m saying that peaceful protest isn’t always the only answer to a human rights struggle. I’m challenging peaceful protest as THE ONLY answer as a privileged stance. What I’m ultimately getting at is that until we acknowledge the complexity of all the players involved, the systems involved, the history that got us to where we are today, that the answer to what happened to Mike Brown and countless other folks of color in this country isn’t as simple as “peaceful protest.” So, please check your privilege before you lecture people about what the appropriate answer is to a profoundly distressing struggle for a basic human right.
And because I am not a prolific writer of any kind, I often look to the brilliant writing of others to help educate me about what’s going on in the world, to expand my perspective. Here are some links I have really appreciated reading about this situation:
“Things to Stop Being Distracted By When a Black Person Gets Murdered by Police”: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/08/things-stop-distracted-black-person-gets-murdered-police/
“They’re murdering our kids and getting away with it”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/26/police-brutality-victims_n_6225776.html
‘We Don’t Need Nice, We Need Justice: Racism and the Moral Blindness of White America,”: http://www.timwise.org/2014/12/we-dont-need-nice-we-need-justice-racism-and-the-moral-blindness-of-white-america/
Colorlines’ “Killed by the Cops” infographic: http://m.colorlines.com/archives/2014/11/infographic_killed_by_the_cops.html
“5 James Baldwin Quotes that Foreshadowed Ferguson”: http://www.advocate.com/politics/2014/11/25/5-james-baldwin-quotes-foreshadowed-ferguson
“On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (And Isn’t)”: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/11/ferguson-destruction-violence-really-isnt/
“10 of the Most Striking Eric Garner [Political] Cartoons”: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2014/12/06/see-10-of-the-most-striking-ericgarner-cartoons-so-far/?tid=sm_fb
Finally, I’ll end with the profoundly wise and beautiful human being, Howard Zinn. I love his thoughts on optimism in times of struggle. There are a lot of people who are weighed down by the enormity of the crises and injustices of our times, but I remain optimistic and will again say, which I say all of the time, there are a million small, unpublished, didn’t-make-the-news moments in life when people are kind and generous and care for each other. We have to remember those moments to enliven us to be part of the solution to the bigger struggles.
“Consider the remarkable transformation, in just a few decades, in people’s consciousness of racism, in the bold presence of women demanding their rightful place, in a growing public awareness that gays are not curiosities but sensate human beings, in the long-term growing skepticism about military intervention despite brief surges of military madness.
“It is that long-term change that I think we must see if we are not to lose hope. Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act. Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.
“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t ‘win,’ there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile.
“We need hope. An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.
“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
*There’s a trend of retail stores popping up all over the country that sanction violence – you pay to break a room full of dishes. I’d be really curious to know the racial demographics of customers to these stores – I’m gonna make a wild guess and assume predominantly white folks are the proprietors and customers. And I’m also gonna guess these stores are lauded by the community at large as being a great way to “blow off some steam.” But god forbid a group of terrified and angry folks of color break a couple of windows in legitimate response to the unjust murder of youth in their communities.
(C) 2010 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.