Before I delve into part 3 of “Being There”, I need to address a topic that has hit very close to home.
Two weekends ago, in one of the neighborhoods of North Minneapolis just 5 miles from my home, there was a shooting of a black man by two police officers. Witnesses say Jamar Clark was lying face down and handcuffed when he was executed. Video footage has not been released to confirm this, though, and the chief of police insists that her officers did everything by the book.
I didn’t realize the ramifications of this shooting until the following Monday afternoon, when I drove past the 4th Precinct where protesters had taken up residence, demanding that the names of the officers involved be released. Colorful tents blanketed the lawn surrounding the station. And even at 2:00 in the afternoon, people of all colors had gathered, huddling close together as they warmed their hands over a bonfire. The next two days, I took the same route to Courage Center for my physical therapy. By this time, the police had blocked off the street for the growing number of community members who were coming together to show their support for this young man and his family. While the names of the police officers had finally been released, the video footage of the murder has not.
Knowing that I would not be able to participate in the protest due to my worsening Dystonia symptoms, I relied on the local news, social media and even activists at a national education conference for information. On my television screen Wednesday night, I watched my neighbors in North Minneapolis get sprayed with chemicals by policemen standing, with hoses in hand, behind a fence. A Black Lives Matter activist later told me the news outlets had been reporting that the protesters were gassing themselves in an effort to make the officers appear more violent. Yet, the footage doesn’t lie. The cameras showed an up close, one-sided battle where police officers were attacking my fellow Minnesotans, a group of people who were only there to seek justice and pursue the truth.
After hearing so many conflicting stories, I had to ask myself, “Whom can I trust?” I have no reason to distrust the people who are fighting for justice for Jamar: a son, a brother, a friend, a man. Having driven on Plymouth Avenue for 3 days during daylight hours where the activists were gathered, all was calm and peaceful. Over the years, though, I have been given many reasons not to trust media coverage in the United States. And friends who live in North Minneapolis have shared stories of their own encounters with the police; the constant fear of knowing that just one physical trait, black skin, makes them a target no matter where they go.
Three thoughts come to mind. First, while I can imagine what it feels like to be singled out everywhere you go because of my skin color, I can never truly understand it. White privilege was given to me on the day I was born, whether I like it or not. I hate the feeling of having a “Get out of jail free” card just because of my white skin. It isn’t right, but that’s the way it is. As we learn from people who have lived in fear all their lives, whether it be the stories of refugees from Syria and those countries where violence is the norm, or the tales of those who live in cities like Tel Aviv where terrorist attacks occur every day, I wonder if that institutionalized fear is anything close to what it feels to be a black person living in America. I can’t answer that question, but these discussions and uncomfortable conversations have got to take place.
So what can I personally do about the institutionalized racism that persists throughout the U.S., especially with my disability?
As a political science major, I have always been drawn to activism: Namibian Concerns, Students Against Drunk Driving, animal rights, civil rights, campaigning for politicians, anti-war rallies, and teaching my elementary students how to make a difference in the world. Social justice is a part of my being. Going to protests, chairing committees to raise money for social justice causes, knocking on people’s doors and speaking with them about the issues, writing letters to the people involved and our representatives in Congress, serving on our school district’s service learning committee for years, being the sponsor for 3 years of a student-led environmental group that evolved out of two 5th grade students’ service learning project in my class…Most of these things I cannot do anymore. My role as a volunteer has had to change since I went from being a healthy 39 year-old woman five and a half years ago to one who was diagnosed with an incurable neurological movement disorder.
In the specific case of demanding justice for Jamar Clark, what can I do? I have shared petitions on Facebook, I have shared my writing about this violence on several social media outlets, and I’ve met a couple women on Facebook who have shown by example that these things do make a difference. What else could be done? Writing letters to the mayor, our city council members, our governor…Bombard them with a call to action. Another idea suddenly occurred to me.
On my way home from PT a few days ago, I stopped by the precinct to see what was needed. “Hats, gloves, mittens, scarves. Those would be our top priorities,” said one of the volunteers. So that night, about 36 hours before Thanksgiving day, I sent a message to my extended family, asking them to donate any of these items they may not be using anymore. While it was a last minute call for action, we were able to collect 7 items to donate to the people who will remain at the 4th Precinct in the coming weeks. These are the things I can do, and if all of us did them together, imagine the impact we would have. Sharing our ideas is essential for making a positive difference in everyone’s lives, including our own.
My Hopes: I hope we all do our part to speak out, step up, and engage in uncomfortable discussions about racism in our country. All of us share responsibility for taking care of one another in this world of ours. I am proud of my community for standing up and saying, “Enough is enough!” This isn’t just “another murder” by cops. This was the murder of a man with a name and a family in our community.
I also hope that we wait to get all of the facts before deciding that the language of hate is the one you want to speak. What reason can anyone have for denying to choose the language of love? Finally, my hope is that the protesters, while defending themselves when necessary, will continue to fight for justice without using violence on people or property.
And my hope for me is that I will find my way as an activist in this moment, even if I have to do it sitting on the couch in my living room, typing on my computer.