It is clear that the enemy is racism. But, especially in these instances of killings by police, the vehicle of the enemy is misunderstanding and the engine is fear. This is what makes the killings not only possible but actually legal.
If we are to focus our energies on one thing, if we are to identify one central kernel, one core crux, of the recent killings, it is this fear—massive, old, nearly alive itself, pulsing with insidious hatred and thriving off of ignorance and xenophobia. A fear designed to keep us separate, scattered, alone.
In the grand jury proceedings Darren Wilson said that Michael Brown seemed as powerful as Hulk Hogan, that “it” (Brown) appeared like a demon. What other than the compounding effects of fear-mongering narratives could make a boy who refused to join football—because he was afraid to hit people—appear demonic and unstoppable, could instill in an officer, an adult trained in hand-to-hand and firearm combat techniques, a “reasonable fear” of an unarmed, twice-shot teenager dozens of feet away?
It is the same fear, the same stories, the same ability to dehumanize black people, that resulted in the multiple officers beating Rodney King to describe a “Hulk-like” strength, that gave George Zimmerman reason to believe he needed to “stand his ground” and slay Trayvon Martin, that gave our country the mythology of the superhuman, hyper-sexual, hyper-aggressive Black predator that lurks in the shadows of our communities and seeks to destroy our way of life. It is a fear that at least nine of 12 jurors were able to intuitively tap into and thereby believe that there was insufficient doubt to even hold a trial to determine that Wilson could reasonably fear for his own life. This same perception of Black people’s monstrosity let the jurors on Joe Pantaleo’s grand jury decide that the force used that killed Eric Garner was warranted, even necessary.
This is the fear, the distancing, the demonizing, that allowed policemen to report the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice as the killing of a black man “around 20” years old.
This fear is an old and powerful enemy, and has been around since the birth of our nation—in fact, it was instrumental in it, was created to justify to our first citizens the inhumane treatment of African slaves, of indigenous peoples, of Asian immigrants. Ideologies of fear and dehumanization slithered serpentlike into the very legal and systemic fabric of the country. To deny this is not only expose a deep naïveté but also to be complicit in a system that hinges upon racial and other hierarchies, as well as demonstrate a severe lack of empathy on the part of those whom the system rewards.
We must remember that we are not alone, and we must value the work that has been done, that is currently being done, and that will be done.
Within the system, we can focus on these “reasonable fear” clauses. In all honesty they’re bullshit. What is reasonable fear to someone who has been raised on “thuggish” black men being humiliated on nightly news and on Cops? Does a system that allows “reasonable fear” to be determined by such a mindset result in “equal protection” for Black people, especially without necessitating the scrutiny of an actual goddamn trial? No. Let’s get rid of it.
But there is work to do outside the system as well—what moral imperative demands that people excluded by the law must submit to and preserve it? The very problem is that what has been happening to communities of color, Black communities specifically, is correct under the system.
There is no reason to be satisfied with laws written neither by nor for the people, nor to respect a social order which condones the racist marginalization of certain communities and bodies. A system that rules that the taking of Black lives based on dubious fear is not just. A system that allows Darren Wilson to literally profit from the killing of Michael Brown, from the dollars of citizens so twisted by fear, ignorance and overt bigotry that they laud him for getting rid of “another thug” or “gang-banger,” is not just. In high school, I had multiple classmates in my AP classes who claimed to not be racist yet confessed to crossing the street when a Black person approached on the same sidewalk “just to be safe.” A system that produces young people like this and then commends them as the “best and brightest” is not just—it has failed utterly.
It is a structurally unsound system, rife with hypocrisy and double standards, riddled with the sickness of prejudice, rotten to its core, reeking with histories of subjugation. We have seen how the system treats Black and Brown people. It is in many senses safer to avoid entering such a crooked house and to do work outside of it, operating from the margins and envisioning a new world to build.
Protests and public disobedience are powerful forces that effect change in the public consciousness, and we must support them. A die-in at Rockefeller Center or halting the BART system in the Bay may not melt the stony heart of the most ostrich-headed Americans, but it still does valuable work in activating the hearts and minds of Americans. If even one individual is inspired by the willingness with which demonstrators risk their lives under tank treads and hard batons, if politicians see that the only way to curry favor from their constituencies is to take heed of the voices crying out in anguish, and even if businesses recognize that in order to survive under youthful new paradigms they must support anti-racist causes, then demonstrations have succeeded in, little by little, shifting the tide of an America mired under centuries of racist legacies.
Beyond public demonstration, though, and beyond working to renovate our intentionally myopic system, I believe that anything and everything we do can and should be leveraged toward the awakening of the minds and hearts of mainstream America. I look at us passionate youth and see the next generation of chain-breakers and story-makers, the heroes on the front lines of the battle for the souls of Americans that are taught nothing but stereotypes and fear (remember, Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts).
The war on the bodies and spirits of people of color delivers its finishing blows in our justice system, yet it is a war prepped and fought in schools, in the market, and in the media as well. We can focus our energies on every front of this war.
The plight of people of color (Black people specifically) has always and continues to place those communities in a constant state of emergency in this country. In the fight for peace, respect and understanding, we carry both the curse and privilege of being drafted into the cultural wars, fighting for the protection of our communities. Our personal projects no longer belong to ourselves only but everyone we love and care for.
State-paid killers of people of color walking free drives home to me every day that our socially-conscious personal endeavors are not only commendable or assistive to a larger social landscape, but in a very real way vital to the preservation of lives of Black and Brown people.
If as a journalist you can create stories that show the multiplicity, complexity and integrity of communities of color, you must run them; it is a matter of life and death.
If you are an economist you not only should, but must, devote your considerable powers to understanding how we can create a just, equitable, and caring economic landscape, for it is truly a matter of life and death.
If you work within the justice system you must find ways to uphold and enforce laws equally and justly, and improve transparency and trust for communities of color; it is quite literally a matter of life and death.
If you have the talent to create art that forces America to confront and understand the humanity of Black people, you must, for in the aggregate it is a matter of life and death (if you can write a film or book in which characters must confront the tragedy of not only Black men but Black women and trans* people killed by whites and police, you must write it; it is a matter of life and death).
You must educate yourself and use your voice to educate those closest to you, in that way virally spreading the knowledge of truth about the humanity of your fellow human beings, Black and Brown communities, for the ability to empathize and stand in solidarity with oppressed peoples is a matter of life and death.
Remember—racism is a disease upon our world, one that takes the lives of people of color and fractures the humanity of whites. To survive, racism requires the shriveling of our empathy, our ability to understand the pain of our neighbor, our capacity to understand, to touch one another, to love. The antidote to that is the destruction of fear by the spreading of knowledge. By knowing you, we better understand, by understanding we can no longer fear. Perhaps then our Black and Brown loved ones will no longer be seen as demons.