To Those Who "Are Not Angry"
I've been struggling with what to say about Charlottesville, because it has ripped me up to see mutant flags made up of American, Confederate, and Nazi flags. It has terrified, enraged, and bewildered me to hear what those "nice-looking young boys in the polos" were shouting. And most of all it has broken me to hear people I love dearly defend such a clearly, unequivocally evil group of hate-filled people by repeating propaganda that tries to downplay or shirk our collective responsibility for the horrendous state of race relations in America today.
But also because for the last year, I've been doing a lot of soul searching about my own privilege, and my inability sometimes to even see it.
My beliefs up until last summer were that people (not just black people) were looking for trouble when they disrespected cops who, even when they made mistakes, were just trying to do their jobs. My thoughts on Black Lives Matter were that it was "only one side of the story," but in truth, the whole thing made me uncomfortable, so I just didn't think about it too hard.
No one wants to believe that the police, a group of people to whom we have given so much power, have been systematically allowing gross abuses of that power. No one wants to think about what it would take to change such a massive, complex system as our law enforcement. And of course, no one wants to think that their own experiences might differ from someone else's so radically, but so completely based on chance.
For me, the turning point was this article, about a Dread Scott piece, a black flag that reads "A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday," that SPACES was discussing bringing to Cleveland last summer for the Republican National Convention (and did ultimately bring):
My initial reaction to the flag was that it was unnecessarily inflammatory. (Which I thought was a very "safe," middle of the road stance.)
So I started reading about the flag in an effort to build an argument against bringing it to Cleveland. (Which is amazing to me how easily and immediately "neutral" became opposed, without a second thought at the time.) And I came across some articles that confirmed that it was indeed intended to be inflammatory, but argued that it was necessarily so. And then I came across the Times article, which talked about the original 1936 NAACP flag that Scott's new piece was referencing. And I learned that that flag too was meant to be inflammatory. It was so successful that it was taken down:
"The [Dread Scott] flag itself now hangs inside the gallery, in another stunning echo of history: In 1938, the NAACP stopped flying the “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag after their landlord threatened eviction."
Somehow, in the context of the past, the flag seemed a necessary agitation to me. Because lynchings were occurring, whether people liked it or not or wanted to talk about it not. And forcing people to look at the words makes it something you can't run away from or stop thinking about.
But what does "lynch" actually mean? A lynching is an execution (traditionally, a hanging) for an alleged offense without a trial.
That hit me like a brick. What I had never picked up on in years of history classes is that subtle justification of racial violence: if the (mostly white) public is convinced someone did something wrong, they're less likely to speak up about the dubiousness of the way in which that person was killed. If the dead guy was a "bad guy," it's a problem solved, right? And what Dread Scott so heartbreakingly underscores in his work is that in 1936, the lynchings were, at best, considered "vigilante justice" of civilians. In 2016, it's our actual law enforcement operating under the notion that if someone is suspected of committing a crime, the right to a trial is, at best, an afterthought: a nice idea that takes a backseat to "justice" by whatever means necessary.
However, murder is not justified in this country, and regardless of the supposed guilt of the person they retain the right to a trial. Even if they're caught stealing, running, or mouthing off, loitering, or missing a tail light, none of these are capital offenses, and do not warrant an on-the-spot execution. Human beings in America have the right to a trial. This is an important component of the overall belief in America (and much of the world) that the law has more power than any one individual. It does not matter what petty crime a person is suspected of doing, they have the right to not be murdered by "neighborhood watchmen," or even (especially) by the police. Because the power of the police comes from their charge to enforce the law.
Once I made this realization, I looked back on my assumptions and was ashamed. It's increasingly obvious to me how blind I've been to the privilege of never, ever being afraid that an eye roll, or some back talk, or a misunderstanding between myself or a loved one and a cop would result in my death. That has never crossed my mind before this year. And now my heart breaks every day for black friends and acquaintances who have since told me in conversation how often they've been pulled over (exponentially more than I have), and what runs through their minds when they are.
The boldness of these white supremacy groups to hold a rally like they did in Charlottesville shows that this deep vein of hate will not go away if ignored. It's more evidence that what our black friends and neighbors have been telling us is true. If you are not angry, if you are not outraged, if you are not bitter, heartbroken, and agitated, at best, YOU ARE NOT PAYING ATTENTION.
Here is another Dread Scott artwork that has stuck with me, because it feels like those conversations I've had with friends. It puts a face, a person, with their statistic.
Here are just a handful of the many, many articles that can be found on how racial profiling affects entire communities, reinforces distrust between cops and the neighborhoods they police, and perpetuates this cycle of racial tension.
And finally here is a summary that has encouraged me to think and act more productively. The outrage needs to fuel conversations, compassion, the re-establishing of trust, and ultimately real change in how white people see themselves and others.
It's my hope that if you're not angry, it is indeed because you're not paying attention. Because you've had the luxury of the OPTION to NOT pay attention. As a friend and fellow human being, I would like to continue to direct your attention to this problem. Ignoring it does not make it go away. And choosing to ignore something is a privilege only those who are certain they are safe can afford.