We Say That #BlackLivesMatter — Now It's Time To Prove It
When St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch smugly announced in late November that a grand jury would not indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown multiple times in August and left his body on display in the street, I cried for hours.
The tears came hot and fast. I felt heavy, like when I watched video of the Cleveland officer killing Tamir Rice, the 12-year old with a fake gun, in a park last month. And when I read about Dontre Hamilton, who was shot in the back last spring by an officer in Milwaukee. And when George Zimmerman walked free. And when Johannes Mehserle, the officer who shot Oscar Grant, was acquitted of murder. And when the officers who killed Sean Bell outside a New York City strip club were found not guilty in a criminal trial. The ongoing fight to prove that black skin matters resurfaced in the flush on my face and salt in my eyes.
Then, a grand jury decided Wednesday that Eric Garner's death on a Staten Island sidewalk, caught on tape, in front of a crowd, caused by an NYPD officer's use of an illegal chokehold wasn't worth a trial. I was sitting in an empty coffee shop in New Orleans when I heard.
I had no tears. The well of grief in my heart dried up. I was angry.
I've been watching, reading, tweeting and talking about police brutality for months. It has consumed my social media feeds. I've spent hours deleting "friends," coping with the painful reality that people I once confided in either don't care to understand, or blatantly deny my experience as a black woman in America.
I've argued online with people about the deflection that is replacing the popular #BlackLivesMatter hashtag with the fluffier "#AllLivesMatter." I've debunked repeatedly and exhaustingly the fallacy of "black on black crime," used to justify and distract from police brutality. I've provided proof that black people do care about crime in our community, even when it doesn't get national attention and a Twitter hashtag. Even when white people don't.
I've obsessively pasted links to stories that explain why protesters are blocking traffic on highways. I've challenged people's concern for property over black life. I have been baffled by white people's ability to understand why fictional, oppressed and largely white characters in the Hunger Games trilogy might riot but not real black people in Ferguson, Missouri. I've wondered, after reading righteous proclamations that insist violence have never solved anything ever, why everyone skipped U.S. and world history class in high school.
On Wednesday, I had no tears. The well of grief in my heart dried up. Finally, I am angry.
This cognitive dissonance sickens me as soldiers and sailors and airmen condemn looters in Missouri. The photo album on my iPhone is littered with screenshots of insensitive, factually inaccurate, outright racist Facebook statuses and tweets written by people I've known for years.
And in the midst of all this, I have uttered the words "black lives matter" dozens of times. I've added it to my Twitter bio because such an obvious declaration of my own humanity is necessary to keep racist trolls away, to ID myself as part of a tribe, to let people know that I get what so many others can't, or won't.
I used those words to help me keep calm while walking down the street in Harlem, drenched in fast-fading sunlight a few weeks ago. A police cruiser pulled up beside me, windows down, and two officers stared at me without explanation. "Black lives matter" were the first words I thought as I slowly removed my hands from my pockets and my headphones from my ears, carefully keeping them visible. I slowed my characteristic fast walk to what I hoped was a safe, casual stroll. My tongue flinched, ready to speak the Queen's English should I have to explain my presence on that block. I wondered where my Columbia University staff ID was, and how fast I could retrieve it from my bag. I glanced behind me, hoping for a witness and, seeing none, smiled weakly at the cops glaring back at me, hoping I didn't look threatening.
I thought those words yet again on Thanksgiving, when my 16-year-old cousin, over 6 feet of lanky legs and smooth, dark brown skin, told us about the time two police officers rang his doorbell and he asked if they "were here for him." He stood in the doorway of his own home, both hands raised, and said, pleadingly: "I didn't do anything, I swear." An endless loop of the phrase played in my head when he laughed, brushing it all off as business as usual. I started to correct him and the words tangled and snagged in my throat because he's right: It is business as usual. It always has been.
Those words have been all that I've had in the last few weeks. What else could I do but stubbornly assert my right to exist in the world, insist that my body is valuable, believe that if I say it enough it might actually become true?
Wednesday's news, though, has forced me to reconsider.
Nearly immediately after news of the grand jury's decision broke, the hashtag regained traction, but this time it brought me no solace. It felt like a sick joke, like a mocking decimation of all the protests, the tears, the calls to action, the solidarity that has materialized since Brown was killed. It felt unrealistic and foolish and, simply, false.
"Black Lives Matter" has been our rallying cry, our plea to be human. I understand why the phrase was coined. But I no longer believe it to be true.
A second non-indictment gives lie to the idea that America values black life. It gives lie to the hope many people sought in the viral photo of a white police officer in Portland hugging a sobbing black boy. It gives lie to the idea that voting, peaceful protest, pulling up our pants or even the much criticized looting might uproot the deeply unfair, racist values upon which our justice system was built and thrives on.
The failures of these grand juries only further illustrate the system's promise to police officers that a shiny badge and the right shade of skin will protect them, without apology, under the fantasy of "justice" when they screw up.
America didn't just decline to indict these police officers. We have declined, repeatedly, and on prime-time, to afford black people basic rights and due process when we are denied those rights. We have declined to acknowledge reality. The harsh truth is that black life clearly does not matter in this country.
I understand why the phrase was coined. But I no longer believe it to be true.
Hours before the grand jury announcement, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced a body camera pilot program set to roll out in select precincts this week. But if there's one thing the Garner decision makes clear, it's that brutality can be witnessed, recorded and uploaded to YouTube, and still not matter. Body cameras will do nothing but transform police departments into reality shows, a new age version of Cops. They will not rid law enforcement, and the justice system that protects it, of racism.
They will not protect us.
I wonder sometimes whether it is irresponsible for me to hope to have children one day and to raise them here, in the country of my birth. Their lives won't matter underneath the law and, increasingly, the reckless behavior of police officers demonstrates that they are well aware of this. What kind of mother-to-be would that make me, to willfully bring black babies into that reality?
Rice, a 12-year old, held a fake gun and was shot within seconds after an unfit cop arrived on the scene. Police in Detroit shot 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in her sleep, a reality TV crew in tow. John Crawford held a pellet gun that was for sale in an Ohio Walmart and was shot dead.
Oscar, Trayvon, Jordan, Renisha, Rekia, Dontre, Kathryn, Ezell, Yvette.
And Garner. Unarmed. Outnumbered. Frustrated, but not violent. He couldn't breathe. Indeed, black people have been unable to breathe since we were brought here, centuries ago. And America is nothing if not consistent in her biting, triumphant disregard for that.
When the Ferguson decision was announced, I cried for hours. On Wednesday, I raged. But my tears and clenched fists don't change the fact that black lives, and my life, do not matter.