We are living in a scary time. People are afraid. Tempers flare instantly and expand more than ever when one person disagrees with another. And the word that keeps popping into my mind is humanity.
Humanity. Synonyms include: compassion, brotherly love, fraternity, philanthropy, humaneness, kindness, consideration, understanding, sympathy, and tolerance. On this day, it is far-fetched to expect humanity in exchanges between humans. That, too, I find scary. Terrorism (however any particular person or entity chooses to define it) is in the news daily; we are essentially fighting at least one race war at any given moment; and all of us are constantly picking “sides.” Generally speaking, humanity and its synonyms are hard to detect, let alone experience. So, I am on a mission to propel into motion an effort to change that.
Let’s start with understanding. How many of us have engaged in a conversation with another person that lead to a conclusion of “you don’t understand,” leaving us frustrated and perhaps insulted? I am willing to say most of us. So, I hypothesize we should try harder to understand one another. I have been doing this lately with an exercise (a mantra, really) I like to call, “checking my privilege.” I obviously did not create this phrase, (and could not even find who used it first), but, here’s a solid definition:
“When someone asks you to ‘check your privilege,’ what they’re really asking you to do is to reflect on the ways that your social status might have given you an advantage – even if you didn’t ask for it or earn it – while their social status might have given them a disadvantage.'” Finch, Sam D. “Ever Been Told to ‘Check your Privilege?’ Here’s What That Really Means.” Standard blog. Everyday Feminism. Magazine Everyday Feminism, July 29, 2015. (See http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-checking-privilege-means/ written by Sam Dylan Finch.)
Checking my privilege allows me to attempt to step into the footsteps of a person to whom I would not necessarily ordinarily be able to relate. And guess what. It actually changes how you look at the world.
This post is not about feminism. Anyone who knows me knows that I now live, breathe, and grapple with feminism in nearly every aspect of my day. My point being, I’ve stepped into enough shoes of other women to feel comfortable saying I do not need to check my privilege pertaining to women, in general. That being said, I would not be honest if I did not acknowledge that none of us are just one thing. I am not just a woman. I am not just white. I am not just a survivor. None of us are just anything.
Approximately two weeks ago I went to a crowded grocery store with my Mom. Upon entering the store I saw a black man, approximately 6’ 4” and I’m guessing approximately 250lbs, wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. All I can remember about the T-shirt is that it said “Black Lives Matter,” had some sort of fist on it (to me a gesture of empowerment), and that it had a black base with white lettering/design. As a supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I thought about asking him where he got the T-shirt, but then thought maybe this was a situation where that might not be appropriate, and so I should check my privilege. So I didn’t ask him. I continued shopping.
Between 2 and 5 minutes later, two uniformed police officers entered the crowded grocery store, and I was not the only one who noticed them. By coincidence, I was facing the man I previously described, and saw his demeanor change from that of a routine shopper to one of pure and absolute fear. The uniformed police officers entered the store with a shopping cart, and spent maybe a minute deciding on what type of sandwich rolls they were going to get, procured said sandwich rolls, and left the isle. I confess I watched them less than I did the black man wearing the Black Lives Matter T-shirt. From what I saw, the uniformed police officers did not notice the black man in the Black Lives Matter T-shirt. But I noticed them. And he noticed them. Because from the moment these uniformed officers entered the store, this black man could not turn his back to these officers. He tried covering the message on his T-shirt while simultaneously trying not to make it obvious he was doing so. He literally could not take his eyes off of these uniformed police officers.
And I couldn’t take my eyes off of this “exchange.” This man only finally relaxed when the uniformed officers left the isle. In those moments, all I could think was, “Oh my God, I cannot imagine what he must feel like right now.” I saw the fear in this man. I saw the look in his eyes while he watched the officers. I saw how tense he became, and I saw how relaxed he was when the officers finally left the area.
Here is where I make assumptions and attempt to put myself in that black man’s position in those moments. This is what, in light of everything going on in our society, I imagine this man thought or felt. If I were him, I would be afraid. I would wonder if I made a move they considered threatening, I would be shot. I would be concerned that my Black Lives Matter T-shirt could incite these officers to start something with me just because it so often has across the country before. And I would not want to be seen.
Now, stepping back out of this man’s experience (and my assumptions of what it was), I am sad. In a crowded grocery store, where more than 300 people must have been, this man seemed to fear for his safety because of the presence of uniformed police officers. Please take a few moments and really think about that. Police officers are supposed to protect and serve the public. That is their duty. But this man, wearing a T-shirt with a message many police officers reflexively do not appreciate, was afraid because of these uniformed officers. Because so many black people have been shot and killed, (read: murdered), without cause, by police officers who had no reason to kill them. Some of you may disagree with that last statement; the statement that there was no reason to kill these black people. Maybe that is because you adhere to the constant cry of the officers’ “fear of life” defense.
I cannot and will not ever accept a “fear of life” defense in the case of an unarmed person being killed because of the color of his/her skin. Go ahead and try to make the argument to me that these officers had a legitimate reason to fear for their safety/lives, and I will hear “facing a black person is a reason in and of itself to fear for your safety/life.” To reiterate, because I cannot make this point enough, what I hear you saying in defending these killings is that the color of one’s skin is in and of itself a reason for a police officer to fear for his/her safety/life. And the skin color that a police officer is excused for fearing is black. Because that’s what is continuing to happen all over the country, is it not? I could not possibly cite all of the unjust race-based murders by police officers in recent weeks, months, or years, but please feel free to research it yourself and be horrified.
I will reference what I find to be one of the most disturbing shootings as of late, which is the case of Charles Kinsey, who thankfully did not die. For those who have not heard about this shooting, a link explaining the story is here: http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/New-Video-Shows-Moments-Before-and-After-Man-Was-Shot-by-North-Miami-Police-Officer-387716761.html. This was a situation where a black man was lying on his back with his arms and legs extended, and in doing his job, was trying to comfort an autistic man who had escaped from the group home where this black man worked, and for all his efforts, was rewarded with being shot in the leg. To quote the above article, “The video shows two officers standing behind light poles several yards away, their guns drawn. It lasted for 3-4 minutes, then Kinsey was shot in the leg….“’My client asked why did you shoot me? The officer told my client, “I don’t know,” that was his words verbatim,’” attorney Hilton Napoleon told NBC 6. “’Another officer asked, “Why did you shoot this guy?” and the shooting officer said he didn’t know why he shot him.’” And then to add insult to a complete lack of logic, “Police said officers responded to the scene after they received a 911 call of an armed man threatening suicide. Officers tried to ‘negotiate’ with the two men and at one point, an officer fired, police said in a statement.” Can I just ask, who brings weapons like this to a suicide threat? What was the thinking there? Put the gun (read: toy truck) you intend to kill yourself with down or we’ll shoot you? What the actual hell? And this story had a happy ending, because at least the man who was shot by police lived. Come on, humanity. My final quote from the article, “’He’s an unarmed person who got shot doing his job.’” Why is that okay?
Horribly, what upsets me about the above incident further is that a white, male, barely acquaintance, accused me of posting the story on Facebook from “an inflammatory website” and that maybe further video evidence would show why this police officer had a valid reaction; that perhaps he meant to tase him, not shoot him. Already, even in the face of video evidence, people coming to the defense of the police officer who shot an unarmed, unmoving, cooperating black man. That should not be. What is it about these incidents that makes people jump to defend the people who are hired, paid, and expected to serve and protect when they are shooting and killing a disproportionate amount of black people? My answer to that question would be either “ignorance,” or “people with privilege need to believe that what they have been taught is correct,” because otherwise, the world is not, gasp, fair. Or, these people are just delusional racists who do not care about a group of people who are not the same as them.
So, we’re dealing with the murder of black people, because they are black. And this is not a new phenomenon. If you can, I urge you to watch the movie “Fruitvale Station,” starring actor Michael B. Jordan, based on the true story of the murder of Oscar Grant III by a white police officer on New Year’s Eve/day 2009, arguably one of the first cases in which a police officer was held accountable for his actions due to cell phone video evidence produced by the crowd. It’s heartbreaking and real and necessary if we’re ever going to embrace checking our privilege and stepping into one another’s shoes in hopes of achieving the coveted humanity. The police officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served a whole 11 months in protective custody for this murder, for your information. #NotJustice.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement started on social media on July 13, 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. The movement grew after Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner of New York were both killed by police without, in my opinion, legal consequence or adequate explanation.
So here it is. For those of you who do not understand #BlackLivesMatter: I urge you to try.
I do not know the first person to compare #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter, but I traced at least one tweet echoing my sentiment to an Arthur Chu on Twitter (@arthur_affect) who tweets, “Do people who change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter run thru a cancer fundraiser going “THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO[?]” Of course all lives matter. Was that ever an argument? The obvious point is that black lives apparently matter less than all lives in a nation where you can be shot for doing nothing except being black. I hereby and forevermore reject (and detest) the #AllLivesMatter movement as ridiculous.
Now, to those of you who adhere to the #BlueLivesMatter “movement,” created to support police in the face of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, all I can say is, shame on you. By creating this hashtag you are saying it’s us versus them, cops versus blacks, uniforms versus black civilians. Pardon the interruption in your misplaced excuse for self-righteousness, but these ideas are not mutually exclusive, and the fact that anyone would perpetrate such a hate-based disgusting idea is not exercising humanity or understanding or anything remotely close. You are making it worse. Stop it. It’s pathetic, weak, and ugly.
Of course police officers’ lives matter. Of course an officer’s job is difficult, scary, intense, emotional, and dangerous. But if you put on that uniform, and hold that badge and gun, I need to know that you have gone through sufficient training to do your fucking job. Because right now, there are cops all over this country, the supposed United States of America, who are making you look bad. And the #BlueLivesMatter “movement” is adding to your lack of ability to make a rational, carefully calculated, informed decision. I do not envy police officers. I respect them, for the most part (barring those cops that do not adhere to the principles of protecting and serving the citizens of our nation). But every day that you are a police officer, every day that being a police officer is your job, your vocation, your choice, you are getting paid to do the right thing. And the right thing is being able to tell the difference between an actual threat and someone who happens to be black. If you cannot do that, you should not be a police officer, period, end of story. To quote Presidential Candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, “One murder is too many.” Mic drop. And yes, sadly, she was alluding to the murder of black people by police officers.
Black people do not get to wake up and decide to be black. They do not get paid for being black. It’s not a choice to be black. You have to be black every day of your life and hope against all hope that you are seen as a person and not a color. Imagine that. So do me a favor and stop it with the bullshit of #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter. All people are not oppressed. And police officers are overwhelmingly saluted, praised, and martyred. #BlackLivesMatter is about those who need a movement to be treated equally.
I’ve spoken with people I trust and respect immensely about the scene I observed in that grocery store. And since I’m sure by now you’re wondering why the hell I entitled this article in part “See something, say something;” strap in. We’re told by authorities that if there is a potential terrorist on the loose, we should be more observant than ever, and if we see something suspicious, we should say something to people of authority and to the police. My challenge to you sits in my first point about humanity.
As a feminist woman, I have, at times, pretended to know a female who I did not know who I saw as a target for sexual assault. Perhaps I will write about my own plethora of experiences with assault and near sexual assault another time. Here’s merely one. When I was in a crowded elevator full of couples leaving a wedding and two men who knew each other stepped in, and those men started making comments as the floor numbers went up about how I was dressed, and the attention I must have been trying to get, and how I had to formulate a plan to get to safety as quickly as possible during that short trip in that elevator, and how that elevator stopped at the floor of the garage where I knew my vehicle was parked, and how I expected (extremely naively) that someone, anyone, would intervene, and how I was chased to my car by these men, and how I barely made it inside my car and locked my doors before their crusade to do God knows what to me was abandoned, and how I posted this incident on Facebook, and how the reactions were 99% about what I should have done differently, and how I realized that the problem was not me, and how I realized that as a society we are conditioned to blame the victim (any victim), and how I had the power to see something and say something and potentially save a life in the future (and so do you), I understood.
But I wish I understood further. And I wish I had the foresight to do this myself in that grocery store. Because if you ever experience a situation like I did, if you ever see something that isn’t right, for example, a black male afraid for his life because uniformed police officers are near him, maybe, just maybe, you will say something to him. I wish I had walked up to him and said anything. Maybe, “hey, how’s it going?” Or, even better, “hey, I really love that shirt and want to get one for myself, where did you get yours?” Because I choose to believe that we can understand one another if we try. And I think it needs to start with you and with me. I believe that I could have calmed down that man by acknowledging what was going on. And I wish I had. Maybe it would have been received poorly, but maybe it could have been a lifeline during a time when a harmless person was terrified for existing around law enforcement. Maybe I could have caused the officers who had not previously (as far as I saw) noticed this man to notice him, which maybe was the last thing he wanted. Maybe if I approached him he would have been more distressed (after all, when I put myself in his place, I did not want to be seen). I’ll never know.
I’ve since bought a couple of different “Black Lives Matter” shirts. As a white woman, I have my reservations. To wear one, I felt, I could be offending someone. But as a very dear black (and it pains me immensely to qualify him in this way, though I feel it is necessitated by my acceptance of his words) friend and mentor to me said, “It takes balls, nay, ovaries, to wear that shirt, no matter who you are. And your intentions are what they are. And people are going to receive things as they will. In my opinion, anyone who wears that shirt is brave.” And I have to agree.
It is not me against you. It is not police against black people, even though to me it often feels that way. It is not #BlueLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter versus #BlackLivesMatter. It is not about being right, wrong, educated, ignorant, or anything in between. It is about equality, and how at this moment, in the world we live in, it does not exist. So I will continue to get in your face. I will continue to make you uncomfortable. I will continue to check my privilege and judge yours. I will keep trying to put myself in another person’s place, and I will continue to challenge my beliefs. I won’t stop until there is equality and justice for all. We pledge allegiance to a country that promises its citizens liberty and justice for all. I’ll be here challenging what’s wrong while I wait for that promise.
But what I won’t do, what I’ll never ever do again, is acquiesce and stay silent.