“You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.” —Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
“The clock is ticking and the time is late. This situation has been thirty years in the making.” —Malik Ahmed, the C.E.O. of Better Family Life in Ferguson, to New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb.
During George Zimmerman’s trial, as we waited to find out if he would have any legal consequences for killing Trayvon Martin, I read the words of black mothers and grandmothers—some of them friends or acquaintances, some of them strangers. I heard their anguish, on Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and sometimes in news outlets—will my boy be next? I tucked my son into bed, lying next to him and knowing that if I were black, I’d be thinking, He could just be walking down the street. And there’s nothing I can do to protect him.
This is what the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri are about: the continued and continual loss, the ongoing devaluation, of black life. The national, white acceptance of the death and imprisonment of young men of color, of police brutality aimed at young black men. It has become an epidemic—four unarmed black men have been killed by police officers this month, including Mike Brown—and it is long past time to change it.
Are we beginning to? Change it? That is to say—are we taking the next step toward equality, the continuation of the civil rights movement, the next pushback against an America that has never fully recognized the humanity of black people?
When Rep. John Lewis asked President Obama to declare martial law in Ferguson as a way to protect peaceful protesters, that was a signal: this feels like historic civil unrest. (Lewis later expressed dismay at the militarized actions of the police.) Jelani Cobb describes what is happening in Ferguson as a movement: “More than one person in the streets of Ferguson has compared what is happening here to the chaotic days of the Birmingham desegregation campaign in 1963. And, like that struggle, the local authorities, long immune to public sentiment, were incapable of understanding how their actions reverberated outside the hermetic world where they held sway—how they looked to the world. That incomprehension was the biggest asset the protesters in Birmingham had. Michael Brown was left lying in the street for hours while a traumatized community stood behind police tape in frustration, grief, and shock: an immobile metaphor for everything that was wrong in Ferguson, Missouri.”
Just what was wrong? It’s an area with a long history of racial tension, in which most residents are black, and most of the town council and police force is white. An area in which black residents are stopped and arrested far more than whites, despite the higher rate of contraband for whites. An area in which black people regularly feel disrespected and ignored by the white people in power.
These are the specifics of this time and place, but similar specifics play out in many American towns and cities. And we know this—we have known it for a long time, and many black people have protested against it, body and soul, for a long time. I believe we are now awakening, as a nation, to the vital need to change it, and to the fact that we are just at the beginning of that change.
The protests in solidarity with Ferguson and in mourning of Mike Brown, both online (with hashtags #Ferguson, #MikeBrown, and #BlackLivesMatter) and in person across the country, speak to our growing awareness. They also speak to our awareness that our civil liberties as a nation are on the line, as the post-9/11 militarization of the police, and a sense of police entitlement against the press, has been on full display.
At the core of the pain in Ferguson, as in so much else, is violence—in this case, our patriarchal use of violence, fueled by racism, in the name of authority. No one can speak to our nation’s need to address the pain of parents who lose children to senseless violence—especially racially motivated violence—than Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother. Her open letter to the Brown family in Time magazine are words that I hope will reverberate in history:
“But know this: neither of their lives shall be in vain. The galvanizations of our communities must be continued beyond the tragedies. While we fight injustice, we will also hold ourselves to an appropriate level of intelligent advocacy. If they refuse to hear us, we will make them feel us. Some will mistake that last statement as being negatively provocative. But feeling us means feeling our pain; imagining our plight as parents of slain children. We will no longer be ignored. We will bond, continue our fights for justice, and make them remember our children in an appropriate light. I would hate to think that our lawmakers and leaders would need to lose a child before protecting the rest of them and making the necessary changes NOW…”