Am I too cynical? Disillusioned? Unbelieving? Hopeless? That when I march with a crowd of hundreds for the shared belief and desire for peace I can’t but not roll my eyes? What is wrong with me?
I’m wondering if this is a safe space for me to process an event that I participated in yesterday in my city. How can I explore my own beliefs and experiences in a way that is both honest, healing, and works to dismantle the minds and beliefs of those like me who also marched? Because the work that I am MOST interested in doing is confronting and dismantling systematic oppression, misogyny, and white privilege. And I’ll tell ya, that pisses a lot of people off. It means that those of us in positions of power and privilege have to take a good, long, difficult look at ourselves and our work and confront how we support and benefit from these systems. Even when we march. No, especially when we march. Solidarity, unity, allyship is more than a held sign, a shared Facebook post, an identity. It is a process of rejecting our privilege and giving it away without receiving approval, praise or acknowledgement for our work. It is the work of humility and confession, putting others before ourselves. We become lower so that others can become higher. Isn’t unity and equality supposed to put us all on the same level? I’ll go ahead and answer that question for you: No. No it’s not. We should be putting those who have been made less than in our system on top at the expense to ourselves. So, yeah. It pisses people off.
What I am going to do here is explore and examine my own experience at The Silent Mile NFK march that I participated in yesterday afternoon. These are my thoughts, my observations, my experiences, my confessions and they do not represent anyone else who attended. I don’t want to take away from the good work that was done yesterday and I do not want to disparage anyone that attended. But instead, what I do want to do is point out that the racially and class privileged people at the event were not confronted with their complicity in systematic racism and oppression; a message that is vital to dismantling it.
I stood on the Hague walking bridge yesterday with hundreds of people waiting to walk single file down Brambleton Avenue, one of the busiest streets in Norfolk, during rush hour and block it for about 20 minutes while we crossed. Most of the people who stood around me appeared to be from Ghent and ODU; they’re not very difficult to recognize. I didn’t feel in the least out of place. I felt like I belonged, though slightly less tattooed than most. I felt safe, comfortable, almost good about myself for being there. Before we marched, each of us were given the name of a black person who has been fatally shot by police in the last year and we were instructed to Google them before the walk began. This is when I first started to feel uncomfortable. Let me digitally introduce you to Kevin Hicks, the man that was put on my shirt and who I was walking in silence for. I don’t know any more about him than what that link produces. What I do know is that he was shot and killed by a police officer after he assaulted his wife in their car while their kid was in the back seat. While he was assaulting her, she called 911 and approached police at a gas station for help. Video surveillance shows him assaulting the officer who initially attempted to use a taser to subdue him, but it escalated to the use of deadly force after the officer’s hand was broken and bitten by Kevin Hicks. I was marching in a funeral procession for him. I will have to be honest with you and say that it took everything inside of me to keep his name on my shirt. I wanted to throw it off. He was a misogynist. A wife beater. He physically assaulted and harmed the officer who was trying to protect his wife and child. I felt ill just looking at his name, let alone wear it. My experience at the event never recovered from that moment.
In that moment I was immediately confronted with the complex layers and intersections of this very important issue and I was uncomfortable with continuing. As I was internally grappling with Kevin Hicks we began filing in and silently marching. I held up a sign that was provided to me by organizers that said “Break The Silence. #BlackLivesMatter,” as I walked past dozens and dozens of police officers that stood by and blocked off streets for us, directed traffic, and boiled in the sun. I couldn’t help but to feel deeply ashamed of myself, ashamed of Kevin Hicks, ashamed of this broken system, and ashamed for feeling ashamed. But still I marched. Each step troubled me and I longed to reach the end where organizers were waiting for us with a planned demonstration. I hoped for some consolation at the end, something, anything, to assuage my grief. But it never came. We packed and filed into rows on the empty lawn while organizers called out the 144 names of black people who have been fatally shot by police officers this year. There were some people who placed the piece of tape with their person’s name on it over their mouths. Silence. Reverence. A life lost. My piece of tape seared through my shirt, into my skin and boiled me into shame.
There I was. Standing with a large group of people, most of whom were very similar to myself in both class, race, and privilege, and I was alone. When I look at racialized and classist police brutality from the outside I can’t understand it. I’ve never experienced it. I don’t fear it. I struggle to believe that it exists. If there weren’t videos of it and if my black friends didn’t keep reminding me of it’s pervasive existence and affect on their own psyches I would go about my days unaware and unchanged. Hell, I see and hear it in the news and online and I’m still barely changed. I’m still grappling with what it means to support someone who has made criminal decision, like Kevin Hicks, and then ended up dead at the hands of the police. These aren’t isolated incidents in people’s lives. These aren’t isolated “racist” cops gunning down minorities.This is a system of oppression. One in which we’re are all interwoven and complicit in. And this wasn’t addressed at the demonstration. The group of people who marched and demonstrated were not confronted with our place in this system of oppression, racism, misogyny, and police brutality. The organizers of the silent mile said that one of the things they want is accountability of police officers. Do you know what I want? I want accountability from our community and the people that marched yesterday. We all identify as allies. The good guys. The anti-racist people against other bigoted, racist people. And that is a false dichotomy. We all make choices in this system that benefit ourselves and harm others. We choose where to hang out, live, get coffee, send our children to school, who we vote for, if/when/where to volunteer, to be silent or to speak, and to protest or not, in a system that works for some and against others. And if we don’t locate ourselves on the spectrum of that system, if we don’t confront the choices that we make and the privileges that we have, then we are not allies. Because the truth is that we had a choice to be silent. If we don’t recognize that there are others who do not have that choice, that there are others who are silenced, then we are going nowhere. The Black Lives Matter activists are often silenced. The Silent Mile activists chose to be silent. There is a difference. A very important difference that needed to be recognized and confronted.
Only 4,000 feet away from where the march ended yesterday is a public housing community, Young Terrace, where crime, violence, poverty, and fear exists in an incubator. Those of us on that were on that lawn barely know that it exists and are complicit in the system that put the people in that community and works to keep them there. It’s the work of our local laws, regulations, policies, policing systems, social systems, education systems, voting systems, business systems, on and on and on, that work to benefit a few and oppress others. The ones reaping from and collecting those benefits stood in solidarity on the lawn, a stones throw from the people to whom we stood in solidarity with.
I will end with reinforcing that this was a very good and needed protest. It drew attention to a very important and deadly issue. I’m thankful to those who organized it and showed up. But there is so much more to do. We need to collectively confront our privilege and the systems to which we benefit from and work to shift the power. That means marching with and lifting up Black Lives Matter activists. It means demanding that our local officials and representatives focus their time, money, and resources on our most desperate neighbors and neighborhoods and not just the light rail lines, shopping malls, trendy grocery stores, art districts, coffee shops, and schools for our most privileged students. It means putting our time, energy, and money where our mouth is. You want to end systematic oppression and racism? Then we need to own our place in the system of racism and privilege and displace it. Spend time in these neighborhoods. Spend your money at black owned businesses. Demand that grocery stores are put in our food deserts. Grow a community garden in a dangerous community and then DON’T COMPLAIN when the people in that neighborhood reject you and trample on your plants. Keep working. Keep loving. Keep dismantling. Form relationships. And keep marching.