There is much to say, and there is nothing to say.
A couple of weeks ago a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. Grief, outrage, protests. I heard the helicopters over downtown Oakland. I saw riot police gathering. A member of my Meetup told of dodging rubber bullets. My hairstylist and one of her co-owners got tear-gassed in front of their own salon; looters broke two of their windows but neighbors saved the others. Protesters chained themselves to a BART train, staged die-ins, stalled business-as-usual for periods of four and a half hours — the number of hours Mike Brown’s body lay in the street.
Mere days later, another grand jury decided not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner. Grief compounded, outrage moved beyond primal-scream levels, protests shut down bridges and highways and major intersections all over the country. This time I saw the marchers from my window. My yoga teacher printed BLACK LIVES MATTER, one letter per sheet of paper, and taped the sheets to the front window of her home. The protests have continued every evening. In some places these protests have been joined by, sometimes co-opted by, non-Black protesters who may or may not care about Black lives; I read one gut-wrenching Facebook account of Black organizers trying desperately to contain the white co-opters’ violence. Meanwhile Black activists marched into well-to-do neighborhoods and interrupted Saturday brunch to read the names of Black victims of police violence.
I went to San Jose, about an hour’s drive away, to see my parents, and there it was as if none of this was happening.
What is there to say, that hasn’t already been said, in equal anger, in equal mourning, in equal frustration and exhaustion and anguish? Cops make bad decisions, Black people die. Many people protest in peace, Black communities get the blame for the looting. And in the face of Black grief and Black fear and Black rage, people (including some high-profile Black celebrities) say “this isn’t about race” and “this was just one incident” even though the one incident happens over and over, in various incarnations, and the racial dynamics are always the same. People call for peace and calm, not recognizing unrest as a bubbling-over of suffering endured too long.
Is this what it was like to live during the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s? In history books, a decade may be described in a sentence, scattered events shaped into a trajectory. Painful events are divided neatly into progress and against progress, hindsight a convenient tool for such categorization. Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1857, six years before the Emancipation Proclamation; Nat Turner made his rebellion in 1831; the Fifteenth Amendment barred race as a voting qualification in 1870; and yet, in a history book, these all have to do with the end of slavery. (And don’t forget, there needed to be yet another Voting Rights Act in 1965.) In “the past,” events of a century combine easily, without objection. Not so in the present. Do you even remember the events of the year, let alone decade? Where are we headed now? How long will it take before we know?
We, as individuals, where do we stand in history? We have choices, all of us, though not all the same choices nor the same breadth of choice. We don’t always want choices. Choice is confusing, damn confusing. How can we stand with protesters when demonstrations provide cover for destruction and disrespect? How can we not march in the streets when justice is openly and repeatedly denied? How can we talk to the people we love when they speak the same words as people we despise? How can we make change and still live our lives? How can we bear witness without despairing? And if we do nothing, what then?
Are there ever clear answers, in the moment? Any more than there is history, without hindsight? Or action, without foresight?
Although I painted/Photoshopped the illustrations for this post, #blacklivesmatter was created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Please read their words about its origin and about their work.