Over the last few days, you may have noticed a series of posters featuring names, ages, and locations posted on the entrance to Frost or your dorm. Like me, you probably hadn’t heard most of those names before. But one you likely have heard of is Michael Brown. Each of those names are of black citizens murdered by police officers, security guards, or self-proclaimed vigilantes without any due process of law, like Brown. Unlike him, most of those names never reached the spotlight of mainstream media. These names have been posted by the new student group Black Lives Matter: Organizing Against Police Brutality, as a part of Awareness Week. One of the organizers, Athri Ranganathan, a junior, says the goal of the week is to “bring meaningful conversation to all aspects of the Amherst community regarding police brutality in the US, especially in the framework of systemic inequality.” The death of Michael Brown is a symptom of this systematic inequality, despite being treated as an isolated incident. Major news networks have moved on to other issues and, like the Zimmerman case, the process of forgetting the past has set in once again, at least for those who have the choice to forget.
I’m white. Forgetting Ferguson is an option for me. I could go through my life spending my time with a majority of white friends, complaining about reverse-racism to dispel the occasional appearance of white guilt. When one of these murders comes to the attention of national news, I could take the opportunity to play devil’s advocate and try and explain why such incidents aren’t racial issues but legal issues, and should be treated as such. This description of the hopefully-not-to-be future me is an exaggerated but realistic portrayal of some of the responses I’ve heard both in the news and from friends during the fallout of Brown’s death. I could easily take these stances on racial issues and, though they would occasionally be challenged, I could walk away from such confrontations confident in my safety. I won the life-lottery of privilege, and the current world we live in allows me to use that privilege to invalidate the struggles of others, whether that’s through ignorance or denial.
In 2012, 313 black people were killed by police, security guards, or vigilantes. From that number, it is estimated that every 28 hours, another such death occurs. Those statistics seemed unbelievable to me, at first. I remember having an instinctual reaction to try and discredit the study that found this. But each of the murders listed in the report comes from a combination of police records and news accounts. This instinct to deny that others face challenges I don’t fully understand or experience can be more dangerous than outward racial prejudices because it is so difficult to identify. When those instincts are felt and acted upon by journalists, politicians, and especially police officers, it can have profound consequences on real lives.
Until recently, I hadn’t thought of police brutality as a key issue in the US, and I’m sure many other white people hadn’t either. I’m not the most qualified person to write an article on police brutality because it’s a form of oppression I have not and will not experience. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore it, or that I shouldn’t care. That doesn’t mean it isn’t my place to speak, as long as I speak softly, so the voices of those that know this oppression far more intimately than I can be heard.
During Wednesday’s panel, called “Beyond Ferguson,” one of the panelists mentioned a white couple at a protest who said “we’re here to support the cause.” A discussion arose regarding the phrasing of that statement, particularly how saying “the cause” externalizes the issue, as if one were donating to a hurricane relief fund. These murders don’t only affect black and brown people and communities. Their impacts affect and hurt all our lives. I don’t want to live in a segregated country, or one where those that are different than me live in fear of those that are supposed to protect them. “The cause” is my cause, too. It’s one in which I should listen first, and then speak, but I am a part of it. I need to be a part of it. As a person with privilege, I have an obligation to recognize that and work to dispel the systems that oppress others. And that is an uncomfortable process by nature. We instinctually want to ignore such discomfort. But the comfort of white people cannot be valued above the safety of black people.
The reactions of the police in Ferguson stem from this same discomfort. The instinct that leads officers to use tear gas and rubber bullets, to wear “We are Darren Wilson” armbands, for people to start crowdfunding campaigns and Facebook pages for a murderer is the same instinct I feel when I first hear the phrase “every 28 hours” and think “that must be incorrect.” Exaggerated versions, sure, but the same discomfort and attempt to dispel that discomfort. For the police, their discomfort comes from the possibility that one of their own could have committed race-based murder. For me, it comes from the possibility that such killings occur systematically and without my knowledge. In both cases, the first thought is to refuse these possibilities rather than face them.
It is that discomfort that caused the police department to release footage of Michael Brown robbing a store. The narrative of a criminal being shot produces less discomfort than that of a black boy about to go to college being murdered. It is that discomfort which leads people to construct hypothetical scenarios where Brown, unarmed, would charge an armed police officer. It is that discomfort which lets people think an autopsy revealing traces of marijuana in Brown’s ways somehow justifies killing. These arguments support the narrative that has led to so many deaths: that black people are criminals who can be killed without consequence. And when people attempt and claim the death of Michael Brown isn’t an issue of race, that narrative is being supported.
Over the summer, I came across a poem by Langston Hughes called “Let America Be America Again.” One line, repeated throughout the poem, stuck out to me: ‘America was never America to me.’ Our nation prides itself on the equal opportunities that are supposedly given to all people. We use our rights to free speech and press to justify our self-appointed position as the leader of the “free world.” But there are very different Americas within our borders, each superimposed and layered in such a way that each is blind to the realities of the others. These divides manifest themselves physically as well, as neighborhoods throughout the country are often segregated by race. Before I moved abroad, the people I was surrounded with throughout my childhood in San Diego were almost entirely white, something I became aware of only in the last year. Race wasn’t something I was brought up to think of as a current and alive issue. There are many different Americas, but it is only the white one that is post-racial.
We do not live in a post-racial era. One cannot claim to be free from racism by declaring oneself “colorblind,” and thereby stating that Michael Brown’s skin color is of no consequence. To do these things, to deny the past centuries of inequality and claim they have no impact on the present, only makes you part of the problem. You are denying people of color their life experience. You are claiming it is not true because it is not yours. If you claim you are “colorblind,” you are saying you are blind to the heritage of every other culture but your own, and to the struggles others face. We white people cannot declare that we live in a “post-racial” era because we are not the ones affected by racism. We still benefit from it, simply because we don’t have to live in fear of getting shot for walking in the middle of a street or holding a sandwich.
As a white male, I live in an America not unlike the America of which patriots dream. But the America that women, people of color, transsexuals, homosexuals, those in poverty, and others live in is void of those rights. I can exercise my free speech, but the black population of Ferguson is silenced.
Too often the privileged become defensive in fear their understanding of the world may be shattered. Too often the realities of minorities are ignored. Don’t forget Ferguson. Don’t forget about the murders that happen far more frequently than we would like to admit. Speak the names of those that are unjustly killed and too often unknown. Go to the Awareness Week vigil at Memorial Hill on Wednesday at 5PM. Talk about racism and police brutality, and don’t stop after this week is over. A saying that Ranganathan uses goes, “a week of awareness, a month of dialogue, a year of action, a lifetime of continuous awareness, dialogue, and action.” Racism isn’t going away anytime soon. There’s no way to fight it in a week, a month or a year. But if each of us spent our lifetimes refusing to accept the segregated nature of society today, deconstructing the narratives that persist to allow such violence to occur, and encouraging others to do the same, we can only hope some impact can be made. Don’t be afraid to recognize your culture’s flaws and your own. Talk about the things that make you uncomfortable. But, more importantly, listen to the voices of those who live this oppression every day. Listen to try and understand struggles you will never fully comprehend. Listen until you notice the blinders that will forever be glued to your face, so when you speak, it is not to explain what you see before you, but to help the next generation be a little less blind and make the world they see a little better.
(Image is courtesy of the Black Lives Matter: Awareness Week Facebook page)