Today I attended the racial justice workshop I have been participating in for the last 6 weeks. It was much needed. Tomorrow is the one week anniversary of the shooting of an unarmed black teen in my city. Yes, what I have feared most, and spoken about several times on this blog, has come here to my community, and to my veritable backyard. I live in a medium-sized city in the midwest. We pride ourselves on our liberal attitudes and open-mindedness.
We have one of the largest racial disparities in the nation when it comes to comparing the income, wealth, health and arrest rates of African-Americans and whites.
We’re now having to face, as a community, that we’re not so open minded.
This was a long time coming though. We have been living on a very segregated powder keg for the last 4-5 years. Just like other cities across the country, this shooting lit a spark. We are protesting, organizing, and trying to create change.
It has taken a week for me to be able to sit down and write this post. And it took four hours of sitting in a workshop with people equally committed to seeing change for me to be able to process what I want to say. I was sitting right where I’m sitting now when the shooting occurred almost one week ago. I was surfing Facebook and came across a small post from our local news channel’s Facebook page. It merely said there had been a shooting. This happens occasionally. We are a medium sized city. We aren’t Mayberry. But then, the post said “the Department of Criminal Investigation has been called to the scene.” I knew right then what had happened. Oversight only happens when someone unarmed is shot, and the post was being very closed lipped about details, much more so than usual. It didn’t take much to figure it out.
It was only a short time later that it was announced that the shooting involved an unarmed 19-year-old black man and a white officer. The teen was dead. Then came the onslaught. The comments that involved the word “thug” and “arrest record” and “history of violence” and “poor choices” and, finally, “he got what he deserved.” There were rebuttals. “Pig” and “racist” and “even f*&% the police.” The already ever present divide had just widened into a giant chasm.
I freely posted to Facebook that it is our instinct when processing these kinds of tragedies to identify with one of the parties involved. It’s human nature. I identify with the mother. Always. This is the most important hat I wear in this world, the ‘mom’ hat, so I immediately put myself into the shoes of this boy’s mother. All I could think was, good God, please don’t let her be reading these comments. Her baby is dead and people are saying he got what he deserved?!? Please God, don’t let her hear that.
She did. I’m sure she did.
In my own fear, and anger at these comments, and what I perceived as the world’s skewed view, I immediately looked for someone to blame. I think that might be human nature too.
As I sat in my workshop tonight, we discussed systemic racism, and the history that brought it about. We discussed events in history that led to where we are today, and the way we’ve stacked the deck against certain groups. Until tonight, I am embarrassed to admit, I had never heard of redlining. I was ignorant to the history that has created the world we live in today. I am there to learn. So, I own my ignorance and attempt to come into every workshop with a openness and vulnerability. After all, we are all ignorant on one level or another. I am no exception.
At the end of our workshop tonight, we discussed the local shooting. Now though, we discussed it with a view from a different lens. We had just spent three hours discussing the horrible history that has led African-American people in my community to live in the shadow of disparity that they do. We had discussed the redlining, which leads to a low tax base, which leads to poorly funded schools. We discussed the ‘war on drugs’, which has created a school to prison pipeline that a lot of African-American serving 20-30 year sentences for non-violent crimes. Then, we discussed the Facebook comments, the ones that proves that we are truly ignorant of the divide. The ones that question the personal choices or history of the deceased and ultimately lead to labeling with words like “thug.”
Then we spoke of the demographics of our police force. We spoke of the men and women who come from the rural areas of our state, where they are dropped into African-American communities and asked to police a population of people that some of them have never spoken to before, or even seen outside of their television. We spoke of their police stations that are peppered with pictures of black people who have fallen into the chasm the system has created. We spoke of the bias this creates. The bias all of us possess to some extent or another against groups we have lived completely segregated from.
Then, finally, we spoke of the individual, but not the individual who was shot. An African-American man in the group, who knows the police officer involved personally, referred to him as “a good man, someone I might even categorize as a great man.” For just a moment, no one spoke. We all absorbed that.
I had looked to blame. Not that it makes any of this right. But, in this case, I no longer had anyone to blame. I realized why the individual has to be removed from the conversation. Honestly, not having anyone to blame was scarier than when I could blame all of this on one racist, evil police officer. Someone, it turns out, doesn’t exist in the world that I know personally. I’m sure they’re out there, but not in my personal world. Now, the problem is so much larger. The problem isn’t any one person to be fired, or one tiny, rural, southern town. The problem might be the city I love, and the walls we’ve all built to keep ourselves separated. The problem might even extend outside those walls, to places my boys can’t escape.
What if the boy was a good boy and the police officer was a good man? Because, we don’t know. That might be true.
Where do we start?
How do we create change?
How do we stop this from happening as often as it is?
We start by acknowledging that black lives matter. Not more than other lives, not at the expense of other lives, but because our systems have taught us that they are worth less than white lives. They matter now, because in the past, they didn’t.
Then, again, we work on examining our own biases.
At the end of the workshop, we all went around in the circle again and in one word we were to summarize how we felt today. No one spoke. There were no words. We all just sat in silence.
And I cried.
–FullPlateMom, who feels more than a little powerless today, but who will keep on trying.