Saturday, December 6, 2014

Justice and White Privilege

Lying in the street last night as part of the #Indict America Davis Square March in Somerville, I thought of other times when I have laid down among strangers. When I went to summer camp and we laid down on the tops of mountains to look at the stars. When I was initiated into the rugby team my freshman year of college and all the new players were told to lie down on the floor of the town’s dive bar while the other players dumped beer on us, (even at the time, I found this asinine and quit the team shortly thereafter.) When I’ve taken wilderness medical courses and role-played being a patient for other students to practice their rescue skills on.

Last night was somehow a constellation of all three—a scrying look for light and beauty, communal initiation, and imitating a victim in hopes of learning how to solve a problem.  

It is unconscionable to me that we live in a country, a world, where one person can cause the death of another human and face no consequences from the alleged justice system. Regardless of any self-defense, stand-your-ground, castle-doctrine, line-of-duty legalese, I can’t wrap my heart around abdicating responsibility for ending someone else’s life. Add in the entrenched racism that makes some white cops feel particularly justified in using force against black citizens, and all my injustice alarms go off. These latest events—Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, most notably—where unarmed people are killed by police are beyond my comprehension.

So, there I was, lying in the street with a few hundred other people, at busy intersections, at rush hour, in Cambriville. It made as much, if not more sense, than anything else to do in response to violent injustice. I arrived in Davis Square a little after five, and when I got there, people were already laying in the street. It felt odd and melodramatic to walk past the ring of embarrassed looking spectators with cameras out and police with conflicted faces and neon vests and lie down with the edge of the marchers. But it felt a more dishonest type of strange to stand on the sidelines and watch people put their bodies in service to the common sense and outrage at the racism so violently entrenched and codified into our country’s system of law and order. Once I was present, it would have been false to not lie down and join in.

Four and a half minutes of a “die-in” is a long time to lie in silence on your back on the December pavement, breathing in and out and gratefully aware to be breathing at all, while you try to not kick anyone in the head, while you listen to parents sooth their fussing babies. I’ve lain on my back to see snowflakes fall, to watch meteor showers, in corpse pose in yoga classes, and there was something similarly meditative in this particular action. In taking a moment of stillness, the vast connectivity of the world seems more apparent. Lying on the street by choice and lying on the street by racism and violent…there but for the grade of skin tone go I.

I had told several friends about this protest, but none were able to make it. People have other commitments, other priorities, and most were cringingly aware of their white privilege in apologizing for being unable to come. Me, I have no babies to run home from work to care for, my work is remarkably untaxing on my life—I am never required to stay late, and I had no other plans for this Friday night. I have a life that leaves me with the rare freedom to frequently be where I want, when I want. Which, yesterday, happened to be marching and lying down and standing up and simply being in solidarity with the other people who make their passion for justice manifest in the world. It is as good a way as many spend my hours.

It is the phrase “white privilege” that stuck with me, as I watched helicopter lights through the fog, circling the very peaceable events of the rally. It is a privilege to know—almost certainly—that if I am ever arrested, it will be at a time and place of my choosing, likely for a very intentional and deeply personal act of some sort of civil disobedience. I have never been stopped on any street, I have asked directions of police officers, smiled at them, thanked them, joked with them, several have pet my dog, and almost all my police interactions could have been out of a white children’s book.

Until the Trayvon Martin shooting, I was unaware that black kids are frequently given not just an uncomfortable and terrible sex-talk by their parents but also a “how to behave around cops” talk. What I know and what I have learned, am learning, about how deep the gulf is between white and black is partly a mark of privilege, but more a mark of my deep ignorance. I think of myself as being just another human for justice, and beyond black or white, but the truth is that I am white in a world that is unfair in my favor and that fact plays a part in how I am and can choose to be in this world.

That I am unafraid of law-keepers is something I have never thought to be aware of, grateful for, and now I am furious that others cannot feel the same. Injustice gives me a screaming migraine, the shame of my ignorance makes me nauseous, and I am deeply aware that one white liberal lady’s response to racism should merit no time on anyone’s watch. How I feel is immaterial: the criminal patterns that such ignorant, unquestioned privilege perpetuates are the point.

One of the chants going around last night was “If you shoot us down, we will shut it down.” It was hard to hear, and hard to tell, but I got the slight sense that white people were frequently saying “if you shoot them down, we will shut it down” and black people were frequently saying “if you shoot us down, we will shut it down.”

A small difference, and one I hope was a trick of acoustics and the imperfection of call and response while marching through traffic.

But I don’t know. With the phrase “white privilege” I always try to think of it as responsibility the ability to choose, rather than merely an insulating tier or flip response. Saying white privilege doesn't assuage or laugh away the guilt or responsibility to use this absurd power for the good of everyone, whatever color. I worry that myself and the other white liberals who mostly think of ourselves as standing up, speaking and marching and breathing for those who cannot, that there is still a dichotomy between “us” and “them,” that white American liberalism regarding race is another weird twist of the paternalistic/Colonial “white man’s burden.” It’s like the tricky line that male Feminists walk—wanting to support women’s rights as human rights, but not wanting to fall into the traditional, protective role of being louder, more powerful or more often heard than women themselves. I go to some marches and rallies and vigils because movements need followers even more than they need leaders. Part of the phrase “white privilege” implies that white people hold more of the cards, that we’re naturally at the top and have the choice and responsibility to act justly and wisely to care for the downtrodden “others.”

If that’s the case, we white privileged people are doing a terrible job and shouldn’t be allowed to run anything.

Because, it can’t be us or them anymore, in any regard—black or white, citizens or cops, men or women, rich or poor. Lying there, listening to the silence of a shut down street, and thinking of the snowflakes and stars and emergency survival skills and yogic breathing and the beautiful brown toddler sitting with her mothers behind me, it did all bleed into one big world. All we have is each other, just humans.

And how we choose to act towards and for and with and around each other is, actually, a matter of life and death. 

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