I believe in bodies. No idea who Naomi Klein is? Doesn’t mean I don’t love seeing you in the thick of that climate rally. Never worked an hourly wage day in your life? I still appreciate the hell out of your labor rights retweets. And on and on unto pure unadulterated self-loving slacktivism.
For activism to achieve its most important goal — effecting actual change — it has to be inclusive. And as someone who came out of the womb caring about causes, I’ve always known the best way forward was together, en masse, from the people taking to the streets to the ones evolving institutions from the inside out.
But I find myself in the wake of this most recent miscarriage of justice — or sidestepping of justice, better put, as not indicting the man who precipitated Eric Garner’s homicide via illegal chokehold means crime and punishment were never even at issue — at something of a loss. Watching live coverage from the Manhattan protests on MSNBC, I couldn’t help but cringe when, asked why she was marching, a young woman started her response by saying she was at NYU and attended Occupy Wall Street. And when a righteously indignant friend texted me last night, “This is not a race issue; this is a humanity issue,” I both heard him and felt the need to put my head in my hands.
There’s a sweet moment near the end of Dear White People when a biracial girl and her white boyfriend lock hands. It’s meant to be infused with all sorts of meaning, from self-acceptance to wholly accepting others, but I’ll tell you where my head went instantly: Here’s one of the most important shots of a movie about race in today’s America, and three-fourths of the concerned parties are white.
I understand the need to broaden the narrative that surrounds cases like Garner’s, and I grasp entirely that our clearest path to changing whatever enables the wrong and all too common institutionalized murder of black men in America might be making this deliberately not about black men or even black people. But I can’t get past the very pressing sense that, when we go down that road, we dishonor the cause and further obscure the problem.
What happened to Eric Garner — and Tamir Rice, and Mike Brown, and John Crawford III, and Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallo, and Rodney King, and Emmett Till, and Frederick Douglass, straight back through to the first African slave put on a European slaver to the Americas — is absolutely about humanity. Or inhumanity. This is right and obvious. Some of it is about police brutality. This should not surprise anyone when we train and equip our cops like a paramilitary force. And a lot of it is most certainly about social stratification that’s so ingrained we can’t imagine a 12-year-old playing with snowballs and a toy gun could be anything but a hardened and dangerous criminal.
But here’s what it’s not: It is not about you. It’s not even about me. I look black, my family’s from the largely black Caribbean, my first real-world gig was at the black Savoy magazine, even my children could be black if I decide this can still be a world worth living in. And the single greatest learning I’ve earned being steeped in all this blackness? It’s that I’m not black.
I can feel those struggles. I can empathize, I can organize, I can advocate and agitate and educate — cry, vent, drown in frustration. But I will never, ever be inside the true lived experience of a black American person. No cultural commentator has ever condescended to tell me that, despite being the least desirable girl on all the hip dating sites, I should really try not to date criminals. No empty cab in the history of cabs has ever sped up just to get past me. No devoted mother has watched me set off to school and worried that, as a matter of course, I might not survive the afternoon. And no city cop has ever stopped me, or even spoken to me, frankly — except to say hi.
That is the reality of everyday life for a significant segment of American society. And the best thing those of us who can’t countenance that injustice can do is to acknowledge how deep it goes. Which means admitting that, no matter what, we couldn’t possibly get it — not in our bones, not in that way that affects our every unconscious decision and instant reflex, not like we’re subject to the political, psychological, and socioeconomic consequences of 400 years of systematic oppression from the moment our feet hit the floor each morning.
There is something we do get, though, if we’re being honest: We get what the other side sees. I heard Van Jones tell a moving and refreshingly candid story once about the first hackathon for his organization, #YesWeCode; in a room full of black children, with media and luminaries en route to meet them, he surveyed the scene and thought to himself, I hope there’s not a fight. We can all relate, sadly. And that’s how I know that what’s truly in question here — what this growing wave of tragedy is actually about — is how we see.
Darren Wilson says he wouldn’t change anything about the way he behaved the day Mike Brown died. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer in the Garner case, is sorry a life was lost, but I bet he’d also say he was doing his job. And I believe them — not because I think they’re bad people, but because it’s so clear that they believe the words they’re saying.
What Wilson saw was a demon. Whether a reasonable third party would have considered Mike Brown’s behavior demonic or not we’ll never know. But it doesn’t matter — because there are so many otherwise reasonable third parties who, faced with a black man, literally see danger.
It’s so common it’s almost comical. I remember going up to Cambridge for a high school debate trip and witnessing this myself for the first time. We’d stopped for Chinese, and when my mom’s fried rice arrived with the shrimp still frozen, one of my friends took it back up to the counter. We were 16 or 17, he was 6-foot-something, and the owner began arguing before he’d finished his first sentence. The police officers sitting nearby took about 15 seconds to interject — shouting my friend down, too — which of course got my mother up. Words flew, arrests were threatened, and I was so aghast I don’t even remember how we left it. But the tableau has stayed with me a long time: the cops, seeing in a teenage debater some specter of urban menace; my tiny mother, seeing in them unapologetic bullies harassing a young boy; and my friend disbelieving his eyes, wondering how he’d become the object of a standoff between the Cambridge Police Department and a suburban PTA mom.
What those cops saw — what I think lots of us see — was a shadow bearing only the slightest passing resemblance to the young man in front of them. It’s an amalgam of 5 o’clock news stories and HBO villains, implicit New York Times bias and explicit retellings of that one time so-and-so took the wrong exit and ended up in the ghetto. It is a monster, a modern American chimera of epic, evil proportions. So much so that in the end you almost can’t blame people for their dramatic misreadings; they’ve been receiving these signals their whole lives, their brains primed to perceive in some men's skin, or hair, or voice, or build a very particular horror. Till, in the instant it matters most, it is only devastatingly natural that they would act in the interest of their own survival against the grave threat they can't help but see.
That’s what we need to change. And though we might be able to do it by co-opting the narrative — generalizing it to the point that it’s lost the grit and base, human ugliness that make it so pernicious in the first place — I’m not sure this solves our larger problem.
I talk to black men around the country — old friends and new, even total strangers at the park or on the train — and it hardly takes 10 minutes for this topic to come up. More often than not, they laugh about it. Oh, I put my hands flat on the dash right away when I get pulled over. It’s a foregone conclusion to them that it lives on their blocks and would readily walk right up to their doorsteps. I’m in a mostly white neighborhood, so I guess two men of color — the Uber driver and me — in a black SUV looked like trouble to the cops. They dare to hope that their children might not share their own experience. My son just came back from London and loved it; he didn’t know how black he felt here till he got there and didn’t feel it. But they’ve got no reason to believe it — not really.
That is no way to live. And it should be unacceptable to us in a country like ours is meant to be. So care about this — because you’re human. And because you’re human, accept that, intrinsically, there is as much bad judgment in you as there is goodwill. Face that, in yourself and the people you respect. Observe, evaluate, read, listen. Ask yourself how diminished you’d feel hearing people do semantic acrobatics to make a wrong committed against you — for simply being who you are and what that represents to too many others — about everything but what it plainly is. Because the truth is just too painful.
And when it starts to strike you, subtly or otherwise, that this might in fact be about race — well, that’s when you’ll know you’re more than another body in the march.
Photo, Eric Garner Protest Union Square to Rockefeller Center, by Dave Bledsoe.