It was a summer day in 2014 that would change my outlook on the world forever. See, I was down in Texas to visit my dad for the first time since he moved away from Pennsylvania. It had been over a year since he had left, and not having seen him, I was excited to spend some time with he and my brother, who was living in Georgia at the time. However, I could not focus on spending time with my family when 640 miles away, the American government was putting on a horrific show.
Earlier that summer, Mike Brown was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson in what was described by the media as an altercation between the 18 year old and the officer. I was horrified by it, but confused. Every time I turned on the news, the news was finding ways to make the audience feel scared for Darren Wilson whilst vilifying this dead kid. They talked about Brown’s menacing stature, how he “came at” the police officer, how he shouldn’t have been in a criminal situation if he feared for his life… It was nauseating. No matter what situation preceded, I couldn’t imagine what could justify shooting an unarmed 18 year old eight times. One of the shots, as described in the autopsy, was to the top of the head with a “downward” trajectory. I read that over and over and over again. Michael Brown was six foot, five inches tall, one inch taller than the Officer he supposedly got into an altercation with.
Michael Brown was executed.
The local reaction in Ferguson, Missouri was one of anger. Justified anger, of course. The people of Ferguson took to the streets to protest the wholly unjust death of a boy who was just scratching adulthood. A boy who had just graduated high school, was planning for college and had his whole life ahead of him. However, the people of Ferguson took to the streets with peaceful protest. Signs, chants and gatherings were used to communicate their disgust and anger. The protests and case of Michael Brown’s murder drew people in from all over the country to support in protest. The local government’s reaction to these protests is what burned a hole in my head.
There were excuses for Michael Brown’s death being made by the media. Blame being placed on someone who was shot eight times by a veteran officer… I thought it was all bullshit, but any time I tried to express my anger with the situation, the defending of Darren Wilson, the murderer, met me. However, when the Ferguson Police department and other local law enforcement entities started brutalizing peaceful protesters, it was clear to me that there was a serious problem in this country. Fully armed police officers were firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, beating, attacking and taunting protesters. In 2015. In a country where I was taught that systemic racism was over.
That was another issue. I grew up in a small town in southeast Pennsylvania. The town famously has a very large Gay population and that is a huge part of its culture. From a young age, I was always taught to love everyone regardless of difference and I am truly thankful that my mom could reinforce such lessons throughout my childhood. I truly wanted to love my fellow man, but in a white, neoliberal, upper middle class town, it was hard to see the injustice in the world, so I thought it was mostly gone from our country. There were so many moments during middle school and high school that I would say, “Why are we talking about race?” As if not communicating our differences as people would somehow silence racism. Even during the times surrounding the Trayvon Martin murder, it just did not register. In my mind, I did not have any ill feelings towards black people, but I kept wondering why race was always brought up. It was ignorance, and I liked to believe that I’ve always come from a good place, but it is that ignorance that is a part of society’s problem.
When I tried to bring Mike Brown and Ferguson up to my family or my friends in my town, I was often met with “this isn’t about race, this is about following the law.” That is easy for people to say to assuage their insecurity about race and racism in America when our little town in Pennsylvania has less that 20 minority families and a police department of six guys. I got so pissed off with everyone because it was so clear to me that this violence was a product of the government’s opposition to race. Luckily, I was on my way to college in New York and out of the bubble I spent the first 18 years of my life in. In New York, I was blessed to meet an incredible amount of people from all walks of life. Through conversations with them and continuing to study a history of racism in America, I became more and more convinced of how America was constructed to oppress people. It wasn’t just about social conservatism; fiscally conservative ideologies were just as oppressive. Things like supporting red lining, opposing social programs for the less fortunate, zero tolerance “drug war” and militarizing the police were keeping disadvantaged citizens down. The country had been working to hold black people back for it’s entire history be it slavery, Jim Crow, Eugenics, police brutality…. There has not been a moment in American history that the Government or government bodies were not actively oppressing black people and fiscal conservatism vehemently opposes all programs that would work to assist and even the odds for those who have been marginalized for so long.
Studying these things made me so upset with the country I claimed to love and a political system I was blindly supporting to that point. I was disgusted with myself for the problematic shit I said in high school, trying to erase identity by saying race “didn’t matter” anymore. I wanted to make a difference. The issue is that change cannot come from the oppressed. All 70 million of America’s black population could take to the streets in protest and it would change nothing, because change must come from those who are empowered to do so. White people have the agency to create that change, but a majority of white people are either actively participating in the oppression, or even worse, standing on the sidelines…
Today, Martin Luther King Day, we celebrate the dream of a man who wanted equality and love in the world. He wanted to go about his work peacefully, and he fought his heart out for the people and ideals that he cared about. Unfortunately, his life was taken. In all of his expressions of nonviolence and preaches for love and acceptance, he was treated like the country treated any other oppressed person who rose up against their oppressor… He was murdered. King had a plethora of amazing and important things to say, but none were as important as his letter he wrote from a Birmingham jail…
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
This is the story of my hometown. Thousands of people who claim to care about black lives, just as they supposedly care about “all lives”, but when they are faced with an opportunity to take action to protect those lives, they let it fall by the wayside. They make excuses for the oppressive powers and say there are “different ways” to go about being upset. The reality is, they are no better than the cop pulling the trigger on Michael Brown. No better than the man behind the gun trained on Tamir Rice. They are no better than the hands that stole breath from Eric Garner. No better than the men who let Sandra Bland die. Silence is no better than violence, because it lets the oppressor know that their violence will go unopposed by people empowered by the system to make a difference. What we are experiencing in this country, over the last quarter millennium, is the systemic genocide of black people. The signs stare us in the face on a daily basis. Just ask yourself how a group of fully armed men can walk into a government building in Oregon and get no military reaction where as peaceful protesters are treated like feral animals… It’s the color of their skin. It is the government saying that white violence is ok, but black anger is not. This becomes more and more obvious with the day as politicians appropriate these actions through policy or through their words… It is clear what the slant is in America.
I am writing this because I want to reach those who were where I was 20 months ago. I am writing to tell you racism is very much alive in this country. It is killing people every single day and there are no signs of it slowing down. Standing in your living room, telling yourself you don’t need to speak out because you don’t “feel” like you’re racist accomplishes nothing but making you feel comfortable. If the life of all people really matters to you, than get up and speak up for the lives that are threatened every day. It is on the onus of white Americans to make a change in how this system treats minorities and silence changes nothing. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Martin Luther had a dream. He died for that dream. Now it is our duty to wake up from that dream and make it a reality.