The date was August 10th, 2014:
Me: A young, unarmed black kid named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri yesterday.
Fred: Well, what did he do?
For the last five years I’ve been working with adolescent young men of color who are personally impacted by the criminal justice system. I’ve witnessed the abuse of the system first hand: the injustice of sending people to jail before they are convicted of anything because they cannot afford to pay bail; the irrational power of bureaucracy that pins officers against “offenders” by strategic dehumanization; the physical, emotional and verbal abuse that is pervasive inside of correctional facilities and gets swept under the concrete rug; the blatant racism of American incarceration. When you bare witness to injustice you speak up, you act out, you do not turn a blind eye, you do not become part of the persistent problem - you strive to become part of the healing.
The hardest pill to swallow is how systemic our injustice has become. As a society, we rest in a crafted, negative assumption – the assumption that the young black man is a threat and an assailant, simply by existing.
It is particularly troubling that young black and brown men themselves are not always capable of observing the environmental/societal injustices that lead to the murder of young black and brown people by police. As indicated by the brief exchange with my employee, Fred (mentioned above), immediate blame is placed on the individual’s behavior. How do we go straight there? How do we go to “what did he do?” when we hear that a young black teen is shot down and killed?
Let me be very clear – there is NOTHING that Michael Brown or any unarmed young person could have DONE to DESERVE being shot dead. Nothing.
Well, he did steal from the convenience store. Okay.
Well, he did punch the officer in the face. Alright.
Since when do we punish these transgressions with death?
Violence of any kind is destructive by nature. People must be held accountable for their actions but we must look in the mirror and question how was can hold ourselves accountable for our negative assumptions of the young black man: our collective-assumption of the young black men is dangerous, it is murderous. We must regenerate a society that brings compassion to young black men.
Privilege exists when one’s baseline is comfort. People are privileged when they are able to exist without fear or preoccupation:
As the straight couple never second-guesses their decision to hold hands in public;
As the white woman walks through the security gate at a Delta Terminal;
As the able-bodied person hops up the stairs of the subway;
As the white parent packs up their 8th grade boy’s lunch for school;
Privilege is resting not in fear, but in peace.
In American society today, black and brown families with sons rest in fear. They rest in fear that we all (including the communities most impacted by systemic racism directly) have so deeply villainized the young black man that a child playing tag outside of school with their friends will be misinterpreted as perpetrating behavior.
This is captured honestly in Michelle Alexander’s piece in the NY Times today:
Tonight, on the eve of Thanksgiving, during this time of poignant boiling over of injustice in our society – bring love to the table. Bring compassion to your friends, family, neighbors. Bring compassion to young black men. Darren Wilson may never be held accountable for his actions – but this moment is not about one person going to jail. It is about us gut checking and committing to doing the work to undo the damage we've all caused and restore dignity to young black men. We move forward with the goal to - as we live and breathe - rest in peace.
Happy Thanksgiving Community - together we truck toward a brighter tomorrow.
Founder, Drive Change and President, Snowday Food Truck