After the announcement that a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death (doesn't that sound nicer than murder? sure it does) of Michael Brown, I spent most of the night sleepless and heartbroken. And now it's two weeks later, and we've seen yet another grand jury decide not to indict yet another white cop for killing yet another black man (choking death! also better than murder, amiright?)-- and I'm appalled and angry and heartbroken. I have the luxury of expressing this outrage here at my desk, in my house, in my tiny town where just about everyone looks like me if not necessarily thinks like me. Where I can reasonably expect that if I get stopped for speeding, or decide to go for a nighttime stroll, or walk toward a police officer for any reason at all, nobody's going to look at me and see Threat. Criminal. Demon.
Yes, a part of that's because I'm a woman and we're not so much seen as threats. And the rest of it, the big part, is because I'm white, and I get a considerable number of free passes based on nothing but that. I spent a lot of my life blissfully unaware of the literal get out of jail free card my skin color was giving me. Privilege was not growing up poor, or having to struggle to maintain a scholarship GPA. Not being afraid to go to a party alone, or a bar alone. The faith that if you reported a crime, you would be listened to and treated fairly. The expectation that you would be given a raise, respect, the right to govern your own goddamn reproductive organs. In other words, privilege was for rich white people and straight cis white dudes of all classes, but not so much for me.
But privilege is for me. There are people that have more of it than I do, but I've got plenty.
That ignorance of privilege is one of the hallmarks of having it. I was always looking at what I didn't have, and I missed seeing what I was born having-- like the ability to motor through my education on the understanding that there really was nothing I couldn't do if I just applied myself, or the assumption, made by any number of teachers, friends, family, officials, strangers, and of course myself, that I had a right to be where I was and to go where I was headed. That the system would work for me. That the police were there to protect me. That the door would open. That the world was mostly a good place. That I was worthy.
That my country was built on fairness, and freedom for all, and justice that was the same for everyone.
Well, it isn't.
It might look like it from up toward the top of the pyramid, when you're one of the ones that the system was in fact mostly built to serve and protect. And I'll admit, some of what has made me so angry was that realization, driving home. It's been years since the fact of my own privilege was invisible to me --even in an industry as insular as publishing it's hard not to see the glaring imbalance in representation of people of color-- but I was still completely shocked by that grand jury decision. By both of them. This wasn't choosing not to convict, mind you-- they chose not to indict. They decided that the shooting death of an 18 year old black boy by a white officer where eyewitnesses offered multiple conflicting statements --which should have meant that the matter warranted further investigation-- wasn't worth a trial. And within a week another grand jury made the same decision about a case with fewer ambiguities and much more supporting evidence. The officer who killed Eric Garner used a chokehold banned by the NYPD, after which he and his fellow officers stood around Garner's unmoving body for several minutes, not rendering first aid or appearing to care. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. No further questions, your honor! We know all we need to, or, at least, all we want to.
There are so many problems these two cases spotlight, so many things we need to think about-- the effectiveness (or not) of grand juries, the militarization of our police, their standards for the ifs and whens and hows of the use of force… our blind idealization of the image of the man in uniform serving and protecting us all, that inspires our entire justice system to look the other way when that ideal is inevitably failed by a flawed, frightened, angry human being. All of these things matter. None matter as much right now as the lives that have been taken, the fact that in 2014, while we lie to ourselves about how much better than this we are, a white man sees a black man not as another flawed, frightened, angry human being but as a magnified, inhuman threat-- and our long and ugly history of racism, and our equally long and ugly silence about it, reply: excessive force warranted. No further questions required.
We talk a big talk in the world about justice and freedom and fairness, about opportunity for everyone, but we're not walking it. The hypocrisy of that gets harder and harder to swallow.
I'm not saying this because I'm the genius who's figured out some magical fix that will make this better. I'm saying this because it's time for all of us to try now, whether or not we're the ones who benefit from the current, fundamentally fucked-up arrangement. Looking the other way isn't choosing not to participate-- it is actively supporting the thing that's wrong. I'm a writer before almost everything else, so my tiny, personal effort to look the right way is this: I point with words, I speak on pages. We all have to point in our own ways now. We all have to speak, with our words, and our actions.
We should be better than this. We must be better than this. We must bear witness, we must look and keep looking, and speak, and keep speaking. The silence is deadly.
I write. I also read, eat, sleep, sneeze, work, cook, bathe, watch TV, and go out to bars.