I never considered myself political, and I’m not sure I do now–I don’t really understand how politics work, and I haven’t spent time going to political rallies or protesting (except for in the early 90’s I went to my first and only one–to protect the Roe vs. Wade law in Washington D.C.). I haven’t been a part of organizing against anything, and don’t even venture into political discussions. I tell myself, if anything, I’m a humanist, which I’m not sure I even know what people would say is the definition of that is. My definition is that I care about all human beings and their right to live a respected, dignified life, with equality and fairness for all people.
Yet, last night I found myself at my first vigil. It was a vigil to honor the National Moment of Silence for Michael Brown, the black teenager from Ferguson, Missouri, who was killed by a white police officer this week. Michael was unarmed, and just walking on his way home with a friend of his. The vigil was also to remember the many other black youth shot and killed without reason–Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Ezell Ford, Jordan Davis…and the list goes on.
The local vigil was organized by Steve Roberts, a young black man, who led us in the moment of silence, and afterward spoke about his own experiences with being racially profiled for being black, and “looking like he doesn’t belong” in certain spaces. Steve called for a challenge to the system that allows this to happen, and then handed the bull horn over to anyone who wanted to speak. A handful of others followed–many young women of color–Black, Asian, Latina, several black men, and two white women.
The white women came up to the bull horn right after Steve finished–the first spoke about a negative experience her black son had with law enforcement. She told of how she went to Internal Affairs and that action was taken with the offending officers, and urged others in the crowd to do the same, assuring them they would be helped. The next women spoke about a police brutality incident with her white son and as she went on, I kept saying to myself, “please white people, don’t take over this space…don’t take over this space.”
The more I learn about white privilege, and the more I hear about and read about matters of race from many black people’s perspective, the more I am conscious of being in a space where black people and black voices should be leading the discussion, and that as a white person, I can be an ally, and support, and stand up for the wrongs of racism, and have my opinions, but that I and others, shouldn’t try to be in charge, shouldn’t tell black people what we think they should do, shouldn’t take up the space, like I was starting to feel might happen last night.
Yet, the women said their piece, and the mixed crowd of over 150 people–black, brown, white, young, and old, respectfully listened, even clapped, and then the bullhorn was turned over to mostly young women who spoke of actions needed to put an end to the violence against young black men. One black woman welcomed people of all races to work together on fighting the systemic racism that allows for these deaths to occur so often without the police being punished for their crimes. Another strong, young woman, said it needed to be people of color to lead the call to action. Speaking to the white woman who encouraged the crowd to speak up and get help, a young, black woman said that it’s not the same when black people go to places like Internal Affairs to get support for wrongdoings against them–that they won’t get the same treatment that white people get–hence the need for this vigil, and call to change the system of violence and oppression.
I had my daughter Darla with me, and as I think of the vigil’s beginnings, I felt proud of her for being there, and to link arms with her on my left, and a young, black boy on my right. As we stood at dusk on the grassy downtown lawn across from the State House for our moment of silence, I glanced around the circle at the faces in the crowd. At the signs honoring Michael Brown held by young women of color in Howard University sweatshirts, of elder white men and women I imagined had been attending peace marches for decades, of the young woman with the beautiful waist-length twisted locks, and brass earrings the shape of the continent of Africa dangling to her shoulders.
My eyes fixed on a young, black man across from me. While his arms looped through his neighbors on either side of him, he was not holding on to them. Instead, he held his hands straight up in the air, palms facing out. I had to do a double-take before it hit me. This young man was standing in the “Don’t Shoot” position.
We all can only hope and pray, and more than that, be a part of the change that needs to take place, so that this young man never has to hold his arms up in this way in order to save his life.