Am I supposed to say “thank you”?
As the protests and outrage over the past month or so have continued to occur and we’ve seen the coverage in mainstream news media wane, I can’t help but feel like this moment in time is different than all the others.
What I mean by that is this isn’t new. Yet, somehow the feeling in the air is. For starters: Protests are still happening, whether national news media covers them or not.
For years now, Black people have been taking to the streets both physically and digitally, screaming into the void that #BlackLivesMatter. We’ve been trying to be patient and walk white folks and non-Black POC through what that phrase means, and that it was not an implication that “Black Lives Matter More,” rather “Black Lives Matter, Too.” We were met with rebuttals of “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” (as if “Blue” was a race/ethnic group rather than a chosen, undertrained profession that, in the South, literally arose from slave patrols). We were told that we were blowing things out of proportion, and perhaps one of the most gaslighting things that happened every. single. time. was the fact that people, and especially the media, latched onto whatever small details from the victims’ past they could to justify their murder by police.
“He used to smoke weed!”
“She was fired from a job!”
“She was mouthing off.”
“He had been suspended from school.”
“They had a criminal record.”
But worst of all, our white friends — our “allies” — were silent. Every. Single. Time.
They’d sometimes “like” our Facebook posts. They might say “I’m so sorry!” But when we’d ask them to share, or to publicly make similar statuses even just saying #BlackLivesMatter, we’d be met with silence. Or, perhaps an “I don’t post much on Facebook” (a lie), or “I don’t really want to get political,” or “I don’t know what to say …”
Now, I think people deserve to be activists in their own way. I don’t think there’s any one way to fight racism or systemic oppression. But I can pretty confidently say being silent ain’t it.
But again: This moment feels a bit different.
My theory is that we had a “perfect storm.” We heard about the horrific killing of Ahmaud Arbery sometime in April, when the slaying had actually occurred two months prior. The vigilante killers weren’t arrested until May. Around the same time, we heard of Sean Reed, a name largely forgotten in the national conversation amid these protests, who was killed by police after fleeing for speeding. One officer mocked him in his death, saying “that’s gonna be a closed casket, homie.” And similarly to Mr. Arbery, we became aware of the case of Breonna Taylor, who would have turned 27 this past June. She was killed in her sleep in March by police with a no-knock warrant, looking for someone who didn’t even live there.
And then, of course there was the incident in New York’s Central Park involving Amy Cooper, who called the police on Christian Cooper (no relation, thank God), a Black birder and former comics writer/editor, after he asked her to put her dog back on its leash.
This happened only days before the straw that broke the collective camel’s back and started the now monthslong protests that continue today : known-problem cop Derek Chauvin’s vicious and sustained suffocation of George Floyd, who was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin was aided by two other officers. They were not immediately fired or charged, and the first medical examiner’s report tried to blame fabricated preexisting conditions of hypertension for Floyd’s death. We all saw the video and knew instantly this was a cover-up — a blatant and very bad cover-up. No one would be expected to bear the full weight of a police officer’s knee to the neck — especially not for 7:46 minutes of video that was circulated widely on social media and news programs across the country.
All of this in the midst of a global pandemic wherein the U.S. response has been piss-poor at best, resulting in over 150,000 deaths (disproportionately Black), and more than 40 million Americans losing their jobs and health insurance.
Our newfound lack of distractions (no work, no school, no ability to go outside) has sort of forced white folks to sit down and look at what we’ve known as Black people has been happening in America for decades along with the never-ending list of names and hashtags. Now, our white friends and so-called “allies” can’t look away. The cynic in me wants to say, “Well they’re bored and need something to do, so now it’s OK to say something.” It’s not necessarily untrue. Perhaps not very gracious of me, but it is what is happening. We see our white friends finally seeing the world less obscured from their rose-colored glasses and more for the gray shitstorm it has always been.
And now, finally, they’re in the streets with us. Physically and digitally. Some are still nervous but finding courage more and more every day. Some are Venmo-ing their Black friends money (feel free: @dimitri-woods) for our emotional labor of educating and posting and posting and posting.
But there’s still something that feels weird. Like, is this performative? (Hint: A lot of it absolutely is. Mayors across the country are commissioning Black Lives Matter murals on city streets and renaming them, instead of cities passing legislation or meeting the demands of the movement. It’s not to say that art does not have its place in social movements — it absolutely does when done organically and not as some publicity stunt that public officials and the existing power structure couldn’t care less about.) Are you still going to care after this moment has passed? Are you going to relent once all the officers are in jail, and call it a day? Or are you going to keep fighting systemic oppression in your everyday lives? Are you going to take to the streets the next time one of us becomes a hashtag? Are you just going to “check in on your Black friends” and think you did enough? Are you going to demand that officials like Mayor Jenny Durkan actually show up for once for their constituents in real, meaningful and tangible ways? Or, when the country reopens and you go back to work, are you going to forget all that has transpired? Again?
Are you just doing this now to show us you’re “one of the good ones”? Are you expecting me to say, “thank you”? Why? For being a decent human being? For doing what is expected of you?
Remember: We’re Black 24/7/365. We don’t get to escape the nightmare. We don’t get to pick and choose when to “resist,” because our very existence is an act of resistance. So no, I’m not going to say thank you. I’m going to ask you, “What else are you doing?”