MLK day is wrapping up again this year. It was a great day for me…..until I saw footage of a savage attack on people celebrating the holiday in Florida. If you haven’t heard about it yet, I am sorry to break the news to you. Video is below, though we’ve all seen enough of these images in the past couple years to not really ever need to watch one like this again. We get it. They’re all pretty much tragically and horribly the same. I encourage you to skip it if that’s what your self-preservation requires today…..though, if you are white, I urge you, especially, to watch it. The apathy of white folks is often only achievable, I think, through an active ignorance of–especially–black pain. Use your own judgment on whether or not to watch it, but I urge you to seriously consider it first:
Suffice it to say, the fight for civil rights and just human decency in this country is a fight still very far from over.
So these people in Florida whose lives have been rocked forever now are on my mind first and foremost. You all are in my heart tonight and I mourn with you from afar.
Having said that, I do want to honor the fact that in my small, personal world here–until an hour ago–it was a very fruitful MLK Day for me and I hope it was for you too. We need that in the face of horror. It was a day in which I had a few opportunities to continue my community activism and rededicate myself–in a longer-term sense–to committing to more community activism in the coming years. Though I’ve been to 5 MLK-related events in the past 3 days (yes, 5 events in 3 days–Racine is on their grind) and had the opportunity to hear several speakers…..some of them who, I admit, were really uninspiring at best……I want to share the words I found most impressive and spot-on this weekend. They come simply from a post my wife, Angela Malone, made on Facebook. I have posted it below in full.
Before I paste Angela’s post here, though, I want to say this: if you hear this news of tragedy and violence on Dr King Day and you find yourself righteously outraged and burning to see this country changed from its current, inexcusable state of racial hatred, I have two suggestions for you: 1) get involved in anti-racism initiatives in your local community and 2) get involved in The Injustice Boycott.
The Injustice Boycott is going to go down as a civil rights act at least as crucial as the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I believe. It is an amazingly wise and practical approach to large-scale community change against racial oppression (largely modeled after the wisdom of the bus boycott). Its leadership is impressive and its organization is clear and solid. The main figurehead of it is Shaun King, a writer and activist I hugely admire. He is scheduled to do many speaking engagements in the coming months. For those in or near the SE Wisconsin region like myself, he is scheduled to speak at Marquette University in February.
I’ll leave it at that–I won’t actually go into detail about what the Boycott consists of. You can do that work reading and clicking links yourself. I will just say that, if you–like myself–are devastated by a mass shooting on the day we celebrate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and you are not sure how you can help stop this kind of demonic insanity in your country, look no further than The Injustice Boycott. Definitely be doing work in your own community first and foremost. But, in terms of a larger-scale, national solution-plan for these issues, The Injustice Boycott is something I encourage you to invest your faith in fully.
And Now, here are the words of my brilliant better half. May they further serve to spur you into action:
“Tomorrow is MLK day and that dude was all about the hard work of dismantling our biased systems (even tho he tends to be shamefully reduced to the more palatable message of “we’re all the same on the inside so let’s all just get along”).
Watch this video. Actually, you don’t even have to watch it, because the audio is what’s most telling. The beginning is unfortunately an all too familiar scene. A traffic stop of a black motorist and a bunch of cops. He gets out of the car and puts his hands up and tries to start explaining himself (not how cops like you to do it). They rush him, assuming he is an immediate threat based on information that only they have and all yell different things. They say “stop resisting” at him a few times (for the cameras) while he is on the bottom of the pile. They punch and knee him into compliance a little, still having not asked a single question. Etc. Etc. Etc. And shocker… it’s his car. It’s your textbook driving while black scenario, although usually they can find a bag of weed or a traffic warrant or an old picture of dude in a Biggie shirt to confirm that he made himself a target by being a scary black criminal type. This time they accidentally got a nerdy engineer who knows his rights. Oops.
Now to me, this video isn’t even about the cops. They most definitely look stupid here and like they’ve never handled a potential felony traffic stop. They all need retraining and disciplinary action and this brother needs to be paid. Quick, fast and in a hurry. But what disturbs me most and what I can’t get out of my head is the voice of the woman giving her statement to the police. I know this woman so well and she is the number 1 source of eyerolling in my lifetime. She was the caller and the reason for all the suspicion. She just watched what happened and almost begins to cry at what she caused. She says, unprompted with a shaky and sad voice something to the effect of ” I wasn’t trying to racially profile”. Right there. That is the moment. The perfect illustration of the lack of understanding of our own biases that constitutes privilege. She needs to ask herself some tough questions. The piece that I have felt is missing from these conversations about police abuse is the callers, the good samaritans rooting out crime in their neighborhoods by alerting authorities of suspicious behaviors. The problem with that is that suspicion is in the eye of the beholder. And police don’t give everyone the same assumption of innocence or benefit of the doubt. Now if you call the police on someone, you need to understand that and take responsibility for your part in it. You don’t get to wash your hands. To me, I can hear this woman being confronted with how her bias combined with the all too predictable bias of responding officers and how it may have almost just gotten a man killed for getting into and driving his own car or maybe he got locked out and was getting back in or he said something about putting something on the roof. I don’t know. Whatever behavior made her suspicious, it started with a biased premise. It started without the benefit of the doubt.
When I used to dispatch, I would get calls all the time from people reporting suspicious activity. Oftentimes they would use phrases like “doesn’t look like he lives in the neighborhood” and “it just doesn’t look right”. One time a patron in a bar called to report that there were a lot more black people in the bar than usual because it was “not that kind of bar”. He was worried that something was “going on”. I asked to speak to the bar owner and when I mockingly relayed his patron’s concern and confirmed that nothing was actually “going on” his response was “yeah there are a lot. I don’t know where they came from.” I politely confirmed that these were in fact paying customers simply drinking in his bar and informed him that no officers would be responding. But you know what? If I had put in a call for that bullshit, an officer would have actually had to show up to that bar looking like a racist idiot and if one of those customers had gotten understandably upset that the police had been called on them for nothing and that officer happened to be poorly trained or just a dick things could have gotten really bad. That’s the recipe. And the burden is always on the accused to stay calm (even though being upset is a completely understandable and highly legal reaction), be understanding and have an unimpeachable character so no one can say you deserved it. The bar is too high and I don’t think I know any white people who could manage it either. But this type of stuff happened constantly. And my point is not “look at all the racists. Aren’t they the worst?” My point is that part of being able to say you resist racism is doing the work of being aware of your personal bias. You’re not a piece of shit because you notice a lot more black folks in your bar. You’re not even a piece of shit when that makes you uncomfortable. You become a piece of shit when you decide that your discomfort indicates an actual threat. When you get defensive when that logic is challenged. When you blame people for making you feel that threat because you refuse to take responsibility. When you cry to an officer that YOU CALLED because you got a man roughed up and detained and humiliated for driving the luxury vehicle that he worked hard for and earned and that by all accounts has promised to exclude him from the racist stereotypes that haunt black men.
And I’m not setting myself apart. We all have prejudices and biases that we have to contend with and navigate in our decision making but the first step is admitting that to ourselves. And hating it and reminding ourselves that we can not believe everything we think.” —Angela Malone