Of Ferguson and a Black American Future
Of Ferguson and a Black American Future
Roughly a year and a half ago, I sat in a South Side Chicago bar with two white friends as the travesty of the Zimmerman verdict was read. I was floored, destroyed – as if I hadn’t seen this before, as if I didn’t know. I cried that evening and the following day too when we convened a space at Young Chicago Authors for young people to come and vent, to tell us how they felt about what had just transpired. Father of a two-month old when that verdict dropped, I wondered what I would tell her about that moment and how I responded. What would I do to change the country’s culture, that succeed or fail, I could point to the fact that I worked and I threw my shoulder against the boulder constantly rolling back down onto our heads.
As the Grand Jury handed down its non-indictment last night, that baby girl is 18 months old. She says about 20 words, including most recently fuck, bless you and keys. She walks through the house pointing at pictures of me and yelling Papa! It’s happening quickly. She’s willful and opinionated. When the Zimmerman verdict on Trayvon Martin’s murder came down I imagined having to answer her questions on the subject in 15 years. Now I’m thinking I have 7 years tops.
When I got the news that Mike Brown was killed I was numb. In the interim since Trayvon, we’d dealt with Rekia Boyd and Jordan ______. I didn’t know what to do anymore with my unforgiveable blackness, its challenge apparently to all good sense by simply being. Except for work and the child, I stayed in bed for a week. I didn’t attend any vigils. I didn’t share any opinions on the various social media platforms. I was subsumed by my black inefficacy and disempowerment in the world. I figured I’d leave the rage this time to the young people. I was cried out. I had my own problems. I needed to conserve my energy I reasoned. I didn’t try to figure out how to lend my energy and voice to the discourse until this past Columbus Day when I resolved I’d go to Ferguson to see what was happening, to learn how this next generation of young folk was fighting for theirs, to see how I might help. The response in St. Louis to the oppression there; the oppression that brought the murder of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson, has been tremendous and the state response to it has been an equivalent hammer. The most egregious example of American police militarization in perhaps, ever, was visited on the youth, and that movement got its legs from the energy, voices and bodies of disenfranchised St. Louis youth who call themselves Lost Voices. History will certainly tell us that Ferguson was when the torch got passed from the Civil rights movement to another completely different generation. No linked arms and we shall overcome(s), no hymns, no discussions of non-violence. This was a generation of teargas canisters caught and hurled back, hip-hop the percussive soundtrack that signaled we older activist types had to stand back and offer our support and nothing else.
The State has of course decided that it will further underscore the extent to which Black Lives do not matter to it, by not indicting Darren Wilson, much less convicting him. The horizon appears to be limitless for the kind of hurt and pain that will be expressed as we rage against the hundreds year old machine/culture that is telling us once again that we must adjust when our young are killed – that there is no onus on white authority to re-think how they police, or more importantly, how they race – how American history has brought us inexorably to this point by refusing to deal with the legacy of the country’s building. Indeed, it is more than a refusal, but a deliberate using of that history to exacerbate animosities amongst populations and keep real profits accruing to a white and powerful elite.
How then to fight such a thing. A year and a half ago I proposed an idea called Occupy Whiteness. This is some of what I was thinking then:
In the frustration, I’m asking myself time and again, how do we force whiteness in America to recognize the right of people of color to be wherever they want to be. This exclusivity of space is a question at the center of the culture that has defined America racially and it has made its way from Reconstruction through Jim Crow, through residential redlining, through de facto segregated public schooling, up until today. People of color have been made to feel, generationally, that some space is “white people space.” Segregation’s dirty work continued institutionally in housing and education, make sure that black people here, like the folks in Cape Town that day, know that they don’t belong. So we don’t try to, and in so doing we reinforce for whiteness in America, that there are indeed spaces we will not/should not show up in. I have a fantasy in which Zimmerman goes out on patrol, and there are ten black boys going about their business in different parts of the neighborhood, and it confuses Zimmerman and he doesn’t know whom to profile, and fatigued, he says to himself ‘Well I guess niggas live here now’ and he goes back home and Trayvon Martin lives to become something extraordinary. OccupyWhiteness aims to address this fantasy. It aims to make it so.
OccupyWhiteness is an initiative which seeks to encourage young people of color to go into spaces they do not think of as ‘theirs’, spaces which they see as ‘white’, and create cultural shift in those spaces, simply by being there in numbers. Public spaces of corporate buildings, public beaches in neighborhoods not their own, museums, the opera, parks, restaurants and the like.
Young people of color in groups of 3 or more will visit an event, location of their choice. They’ll simply enjoy themselves there. They will also observe their surroundings and round table after their outings to talk about what they noticed, what they felt like etc. There are no accompanying adults. In this way, the young people are both companions on an outing and support system for one another in negotiating whiteness in public spaces.
This is for young people of color between the ages of 16 and 24. They should be old enough that their parents already let them out socially on their own, and young enough that they’re still part of a rough peer group. Ideally the youth going out on any given outing should be friends, or have at least met with one another once before. There must be a level of comfort with one another.
I no longer know if this is a possibility for me to spearhead. Indeed, more each day I wonder if an initiative like this puts our youth more and more in danger. But there is work to be done in several quarters if we are to force America towards examining its History, and of course its contemporary situation. A disdain has been forged between the working class white population and people of color. This working class white population from among whom are culled the police, fire services, all of manufacturing America that has been sold out by big business so as to manufacture just about everything more cheaply overseas and create a fake prosperity here by making available all sorts of consumables which convince us we are free.
This okey doke is made possible by centralizing the prison industrial complex as one of working class white America’s number one employers and further upping the social ante on the need for warm black bodies to fill those prisons. The narrative that requires this also requires that those bodies be seen as dangerous - that even when they are children’s bodies they be seen as capable of adult violence, and so they must be treated as such, charged as such, their schools occupied as such, the very vision of them approaching you (or running away) a clear need to ‘stand your ground’ by making sure they have none to stand on.
On Thursday the celebration of the occupation and dominance of North America commonly known as Thanksgiving Day could not be a better time to begin a visible action. What if we post nothing on Thursday except the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’, as often as we feel like. No commentary, no articles, no analysis of TV shows, no fine booties or handsome beards – just ‘Black Lives Matter’ all day Thursday – on twitter, instagram, facebook, pinterest, tumblr – whatever. And then Friday make a concerted effort to not buy anything. Nothing whatsoever. #NoBuyFriday not online not in a store not offshore – nothing. #BlackLivesMatter Thursday #NoBuyFriday on Friday. It’s how we begin to Occupy Whiteness – at the point of the weapon used to render us a threat from time immemorial. You all have to begin and I have to begin. Nina is talking more each day; catching up fast. My time is running out.
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