Sometimes I find myself unable to write- blocked by my feelings if inadequacy, or by an assumption that what I have to say is unimportant for one reason or another. But as I work through these feelings I hope the reader too will learn that our voices, no matter how uneducated or rough around the edges, are important to exercise. For even if we find out that we are wrong in our observations or assumptions about the world, we have through our interactions many chances to rectify ourselves and build upon our resounding personalities. The key with communication is to remain open to change- open to the idea that what you lay down may need to be picked up again and reworked given new information or new perspectives. Like a farmer who learns the ways of their crops by trying one year, and improving the next, our crop of ideas which we form and share ought to be tried in the world, and refined over time, until we begin to yield some goodness with regularity.
The idea I would like to share today is one of connection. As we watch the world (from our places of restricted movements) there are many issues bubbling to the surface of society which seem to be connected. There was first the concern about social distancing measures and how that would impact the most vulnerable in society, including people who would lose their jobs, those without health insurance, those in the prison system, those detained by ICE, and many other groups. The states and the federal governments, as well as legal aides and advocates, stepped in to try and mitigate the harm by passing laws to stop evictions, freeing hundreds of inmates, protecting those most medically vulnerable, providing additional support for unemployment and loss of income, and expanding testing. Still we see many remain in precarious situations particularly if they cannot qualify for unemployment, do not have health insurance and cannot get tested, or are medically vulnerable and detained in conditions that would lead to a high risk of exposure. We learned here about how an illness can connect all aspects of society.
Aside from the circumstantial risks that we see people, government, and organisations trying to mitigate, a new statistic emerged which pointed to a larger, deeper issue. We began to find that people of colour, black folks, Indigenous populations and Latinx were bearing a greater burden of cases and deaths relative to their portion of the population. The numbers coming from various states and communities highlighted existing disparities in health and income that many of us were already aware of, but had tuned out as we often do when we feel we have nothing to contribute towards a solution. Yet this time, instead of just acknowledging a problem, many continued to question why these disparities existed so deeply along racial lines, and probe why solutions had been overlooked. Answers came in the form of generations of systemic racism playing out before our eyes, settling in a death sentence for hundreds; and this perhaps gave us a clear cut example of how the mere sentiment of hatred or superiority can be deadly. But if we are honest, this type of race-based outcome which seems so shocking in this pandemic, is actually nothing new – because poverty and racism plays out in tragedies all the time, including those of hurricane Katrina of 2005, or the Chicago heatwave of 1995.
I’ll remind you that while all of this is hitting the headlines, black people across the country – all too familiar with the deadly nature of hatred- had been grappling with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, next in a long line.
And then the murder of George Floyd.
And then Tony McDade.
And we know what happens next.
I think what is most amazing about this latest wave in the movement is not that so many people are showing up to support- but that this movement is speaking so cogently and clearly about the kind of connection between issues that visionaries get assassinated for. They aren’t marching for just one matter. They aren’t acting as a faction, lobbying for a singular issue. That is because though black lives is distinctly black, it’s about life. The ability to live without fear, without poverty, without ill health, without violence, without insecurity. If you listen to the messages of organisers and protesters, folks are pushing for the sort of systemic change that will affect people across lines of race, economic status, gender, sexuality, religion, disability/different ability, immigrant status, etc. They are pushing for change that will affect those without homes, those without health insurance, those living in low income households, or in poverty, those suffering from LGBTQIA+ discrimination, lack of educational opportunities and those experiencing violations of Indigenous rights or dignity.
Not only that- the protestors, en masse, are daring to dream of a world that is different. Sometimes it would seem difficult to get a crowd of folks, let alone one mind, to dream. But we are doing it- by reimagining ways to spend the disproportionate amounts that currently go towards policing and military, and instead increase support for life-supporting programs like jobs and education, art and health, environment and recreation. We are dreaming of a world where not only black bodies are safe from racism and cages, but where the entire society can benefit from an expansion of services meant to empower and build. This interconnected dreaming is really beautiful, it resonates with the dreams of those in the 60’s who fought tirelessly for a new free world to be possible, and the dreams of writers and artists who try to share their starlit visions with the rest of humanity. It resonates with the innocent drawings of young children who imagine a world where they are free and happy, and do not even think that it would be possible for their lives to be taken, calmly, with impunity. And we dream for these children- we want them to grow up in a society without the constant barrage of violent confrontations with the state—in an ever-looming presence of armed patrols throughout their designated “crime ridden” neighbourhoods.
It’s worth pointing out here that racism exists on two levels. One is on the level of the individual, where the colour of your skin designates you as “from the ghetto”, a concept I believe I heard on a TED talk, or was it NPR? (I cannot remember by whom). Basically, my skin colour is a signal to folks that I am either from the “ghetto” or I “escaped” it. (Why this association exists, for example ‘why ghettos exist’ is a deeper conversation relating to structural racism, segregation, redlining, Jim Crow era laws, etc).
This brings us to the second level of racism, which is on a community scale. This is the racist assumption that communities of black people are inherently poor “ghettos”, and therefore crime ridden. As such, being in or associated with a poor neighbourhood labeled as “crime ridden” makes you an automatic suspect for any crime (often related to drugs, which by the way is another double standard issue because drug use in a black neighbourhood is “criminal” whereas drug use in a white suburb is treated as “mental illness”). At any rate, these neighbourhoods and our bodies are policed at a much higher frequency, which leads to more negative confrontations with police, more confrontations with the jails and prison system, more instances of mistreatment, and more fear and distrust.
The police, the way they are structured, get away with many of the aggressive and violent acts they do, but once in awhile they get caught on camera. Even so, the blackness of their victim, or the blackness of the neighbourhood in which they are policing, gives them a free pass because both are assumed to be culpable of association with criminal activity. In fact, the news often jumps on the behaviors of the victims and their past record (if they have one) as a way to confirm this intrinsic culpability. So even the media plays into the racism narrative. All of this put together, (plus much more which I haven’t gone into), is why these killings keep occurring with impunity.
We are over policed. We are over criminalised. And we are the victims of overtly racist assumptions by law enforcement, the media, the justice system, and a mainstream public which does not see or perceive the living racism in their society. There is a whole trail of law and policy and urban design which plays into how racist associations are made today, and there is a lot more to this systemic problem than what I’ve stated, but hopefully this gave a clear idea of why policing is so aggressive towards black bodies.
Yet, despite the generations of racism and false narratives about our bodies, stemming back to the days of slavery, people still dream. That should tell you something about the character of this present movement.
I think this movement is so relevant to everyone because the laws and ideas and concepts which give rise to the type of policing and lack of accountability for violence against black bodies and in black neighbourhoods, are the same types of ideas that are applied to other bodies, to other people of colour, and to poor people of any colour. Because this is foundational for the country- the same racism that allowed slave masters to own and abuse other human beings without accountability for this human rights violation, is the same racism that allows people to kill and abuse a black man in broad daylight in the name of “looking suspicious”, is the same racism that polices Indigenous and Latinx bodies, is the same type of state violence against poor white people when they stand up for their rights. When we root out racism against black bodies we are dismantling foundational injustices that impact everyone.
In this I have great hope, and I find that whatever happens, as long as we have great masses of people calling for justice, and dreaming of a safer, more inclusive world, then a better world is possible.