Earlier this week, a lot of people participated in #BlackOutTuesday by posting a black square on social media, indicating that they were a person that was willing to listen and learn about racial injustice. I chose to not participate, because I felt my actions for the last decade of my life indicated where I stand.
Five years ago, I was an asshole for shutting down highways and streets in the fight against police brutality and racial injustice. I lost friends and jobs because I dared to say “Black Lives Matter.” I regularly received death and rape threats.
Three days ago, Ulta sent me an email that said “Black Lives Matter.” I am white and I am frustrated; I cannot imagine what I would feel if I was Black.
“Why do you care so much about Black Lives Matter? Is your boyfriend black?”
When Mike Brown was killed by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, organizers in DC set up regular protests that disrupted main roads and highways. These marches lacked pre-announced routes; there were no permits, no cluing the cops in to where we would go, what intersections would be blocked, what time we’d be done. MPD would try to beat us to a destination, and we would simply change our route. Sometimes snow plows would be lined up to hide us from tourists on the mall.
I attended every march that my schedule allowed, even occasionally lugging my protest sign to work events and coat checking it. And while I knew publicly talking about what I was doing was going to be polarizing, I didn’t really anticipate how much it would impact my life.
“I’m all for expressing your voice in discontent, but disrupting the lives of others by ‘shutting it down’ is not only inappropriate but illegal…not to mention unsafe.”
Personally, I think it’s pretty fucking disruptive to murder a man and leave his dead body in the road, but what do I know? I became the liberal nut job, the PC police. I lost work contracts, I was blocked on Facebook by “friends.” I was told I was wrong, over and over. People would tell me they had been afraid to talk to me because they thought I was going to be super race baiting obnoxious girl.
Imagine what they would have thought and said if I wasn’t white.
“I support the message, but I really don’t like how you guys are going about it. Do you have to block the highways? And don’t all lives matter?”
Even getting to the DCFerguson protests was always an experience. When I would stand on the train with my sign leaning on my legs, I could feel the discomfort in the air. The coverage of Ferguson had people on edge, and they hated the inconvenience of the road closures. White people wanted to read what I had written, but they didn’t want to be stuck engaging with me.
But as uncomfortable as I made white people, every time I carried the sign onto metro, at least one Black person would say something to me. Sometimes it was a comment about someone on the sign (usually Aiyana Jones); sometimes it was about wanting a better America for his or her kid; sometimes it was “thank you for doing this.”
Over the next few years I would hear “thank you for doing this, thank you for being here, thank you for caring” many times. I have heard it from old ladies, from teenage boys still in high school. Just like when people ask me why I even care, I never know what to say. I can’t imagine a world in which this is not vitally important. There is no choice but to show up.
“Maybe Freddie Gray didn’t deserve to die, but if he was innocent, why did he run?”
When the Baltimore City Police killed Freddie Gray, I re-routed my energy from DC to Baltimore. When the National Guard was called in to the city, they were placed in the “desirable” tourist district, the Inner Harbor. In West Baltimore, they placed the same riot cops who were causing the problems to begin with.
On one West Wednesday, we marched to Power Plant Live. Even though we were a completely peaceful group, fully separated from the property by a barrier and police, a sobbing white woman came up to us. Of all the people present, she looked at me and asked, “Why are you doing this? Why are they doing this to my business?”
Lady, we’re chanting about justice for Tyrone West. We’re chanting that all night, all day we will fight for Freddie Gray. Lady, listen — it’s not all 100% about you as an individual. It’s about targeting the white, wealthy areas of a city that are shown off to tourists and county bar goers. It’s about business owners who put their businesses in black cities and use black labor, and do not reinvest in the community in which they are growing their own wealth on the backs of.
And if you’re white, you’re going to have to realize it’s not all 100% about you as an individual either — but it is about you, too.
Where was your black square energy when people were posting photographs of Joda Cain and claiming he was Mike Brown? Where was your black square energy when Ferguson police yanked protesters out of their cars, when they illegally arrested reporters like Ryan J Reilly and Wesley Lowery?
Where was this energy when the car Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell were in backfired, causing Officer Michael Brelo to jump onto the hood and fire 15 close range shots through the windshield? And when the judge said he couldn’t be convicted since other cops fired 122 rounds in 20 seconds into the vehicle, and it was impossible to know exactly which bullets had actually caused their deaths?
Where has this energy been hiding while lead has lined the walls and pipes of the homes of Black children, stunting cognitive growth and ruining futures for generations?
Where has this energy been as COVID-19 disproportionally ravages communities of color?
Perhaps the most shocked at a protest I’ve ever been was watching women wearing pussy hats thanking guardsmen for being on Pennsylvania Avenue the day after inauguration. Or when Capitol Police on motorcycles drove back and forth in front of SCOTUS, asking people with baby strollers and puppies to get back on the sidewalk at a Muslim ban protest. There was no tear gas, no zip ties, no stingray, no kettling, no ominous announcement that we must disperse, no extra weaponry, no helicopters.
But now the police are showing you who they are. They have always shown communities of color who they are, and now that you know, you need to keep fighting — even when shops and bars are open, when a COVID-19 vaccine exists. When you have “something better” to do.
Because now you know why Freddie Gray ran.
You have an obligation to shut up and learn right now: both about white supremacy, and about police reform. When people of color are speaking, listen. You’re going to have to learn a lot; you’re going to have to come to grips with the fact you’ve accidentally been a microaggressing asshole, perhaps even to people you love.
It’s uncomfortable to realize things you have done have caused pain to others and helped maintain the status quo of white supremacy — but it’s time to get the fuck over it and do your part.
You have to connect the dots on all of the issues, because they’re all related — cops firing nearly 150 times into a vehicle because a car backfired, asking to touch someone’s hair, nude colored shoes being beige, lead poisoning disproportionately impacting Black children, calling Black speakers “so articulate,” good, liberal white families in the city sending their kids to private schools instead of the public ones, the prevalence of liquor stores and lack of grocery stores in many urban areas.
Even if you call out every possible thing you see other white people doing wrong, you will always be one step behind, and you will always have the ability to turn off.
Don’t rely on the emotional labor of Black people in your journey. If you don’t understand something, Google it. Read forums. Read social media. I promise, someone has broken it down for you already.
And if you’re able, go put your bodies on the line.