I’ve hesitated to write about the events in Ferguson, MO for a few reasons. The first is that I have a lot of emotions, and that can be hard to sort through to write something clear and concise. But the feels are real, and I keep starting to compose this in my head, so obviously it needs to come out. The second reason is that this is not my story to tell, and I hesitate to make my voice heard over the folks that are truly affected, both in Ferguson and all over the country every day. So let me start by saying that I am writing about this topic as a white feminist ally. My experiences with gender discrimination make me empathetic, but they do not afford me authority to speak about racial discrimination. I cannot know the true depths of pain and anger that communities of color live with. Their words are paramount, and you should 100% go read this, this, this, and especially this, this and this.
The day after they announced there would be no trial I sat in my office, reading. I have read quite a bit about the shooting, the aftermath, and the effect it all has had. From my office in the Financial District, I read about the emotional and psychic pain felt in the community and I read about the callousness that some folks feel towards those people. From my office, overlooking the new World Trade Center, I thought bitterly about how lucky I am and about how uncaring and cruel the world can be. And even as I continued to read, becoming evermore angry and sad, I knew that my pain was nothing compared to the folks on the ground in that community, grieving their slain child and fighting against a system that was never meant for them, that was built on the very idea of their inhumanity.
Black Lives Matter. You shouldn’t say ‘All Lives Matter’ because some lives, particularly white lives (and more specifically hetero-white-male lives) already matter and everyone knows they matter. It’s important to specifically say Black Lives Matter because black bodies are seen, by the state, as more expendable and dangerous than other bodies. Replacing Black with All is like saying that you think all lives are devalued in the same way, and this is not the case.
Privilege is a hard thing for a lot of people to comfortably grasp. It is hard for me to talk about my white privilege because I hate that it’s real, and because (obviously) I love a number of incredible black and brown people and it makes me ill to think about the personal and institutional ways they’ve been hurt because of racism. But acknowledging my privilege is essential. It allows me to better empathize, and without acknowledgment and empathy the conversation is not honest. Here is a classic and wonderful essay on privilege that we all should read and reflect upon.
Racism is a feminist issue not only because it affects women of color. It is a feminist issue because structural violence and oppression must be dismantled in all forms. Racism, patriarchy and misogyny, classism and corporate greed, they are all interwoven. We must fight them all if we indeed believe in social justice. Black women are leading the protests in Ferguson, on the front lines and keeping this movement alive. Black women have always been an integral part of the civil rights movement, despite being overwritten by their male counterparts. Another example of how racism and patriarchy overlap and entwine.
And we must believe that these issues are both structural and personal. If you do not believe that racism exists in the very foundation and fibers of our country, then you need to wake up and read more. This country was founded on stolen land and the death of an indigenous culture, and then built on the backs of black bodies that were enslaved, degraded, and hated. This hatred did not end with emancipation, and our educational system, housing laws, pop culture and police tactics are still laden with racist policies and attitudes. Not to mention the mass incarceration of black bodies. The deck is stacked. To say otherwise is to uphold the idea that if black folks just worked hard enough they could have the American dream, and that their communities are violent and impoverished because they as a people are inherently violent and impoverished. Those lies are gross, and perpetuated by white culture to relieve our own guilt and justify our discrimination.
I do not believe that a kid deserves to be shot down in the streets for petty theft, for being tall and ‘threatening’, or for being black. Michael Brown was 18, still full of youth and potential. The loss of that potential is tragic, especially when taken in alongside the lost potential of other black folks who were murdered as part of our racist American history. I believe that any police officer who uses lethal force should always be subject to a trial. Fuck a grand jury. Police should be held to a higher standard, as they are acting as attendants of their communities, sworn to protect and serve. And if you yourself, as a white person, have never had a negative experience with cops or the justice system, I urge you to consider that as evidence that the system is not only racist, but working as designed.
Furthermore I believe that the militarization of the police is an act of war against the American people. I believe that our state perpetrates violence on its own people each and every day under the guise of ‘protect and serve’ and also under the guise of state sanctioned war. I believe that guns have no place in homes or on our streets, and the police shouldn’t have them. Other countries manage just fine without them. The continued killing of children, of people of color, and yes even of criminals (who deserve a trial at the very least) disgusts and disturbs me. Even when a whole group of white children, and they were rich white children, were gunned down in their elementary school, we did nothing. That level of apathy, the fact that we’ve allowed our elected representatives to be bought so fully, leaves me speechless.
I think about how women’s bodies are written as a site of out-of-control sexuality, and how we locate the shame and guilt of sex in all female-bodied persons. And then I think about how we criminalize the black body, and locate the fear of violence and chaos there. And I want to stop labeling bodies, and stop criminalizing and dehumanizing bodies. I condemn violence in all forms but do not and cannot condemn this community’s actions. I will never know how it feels to live my entire life with the burden of state mandated racism. I will never hear the daily comments, never live with a police force that targets my body and my family. I will never live with the fear of an authority that claims to protect you, and I have never watched my son/friend/brother/neighbor lie in the street for 4 hours in the late afternoon, shot dead for no good reason, knowing that justice was an unlikely ending to the story. If you are more outraged by the ‘riots’ and property damage than by the violence enacted each and every day by the state, and by the history of pillaging and plundering and slavery and lynching and rape that is our nation’s story, then I think you need a priority check.
I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.- Martin Luther King Jr
I suppose this is getting rambling, and I hope I’ve remember all the things I want to say. I want to say that my thoughts and feelings as an ally to oppressed people’s everywhere are tangential to the real story, which should be told by folks who live this everyday. My place is to march silently in the streets when I can, and to use my voice in harmony with theirs but never to speak over them. The story of racism should be told by black, brown and non-white folks, and their stories deserve to be heard and believed. And then we must all use our collective voices and our collective power to undo the structures that support our racist history and limit the potential and humanity of black bodies. I vow my solidarity and my support, as a feminist and social justice warrior. I wish I could do more.