Last night, another innocent American, Keith Lamont Scott, of Charlotte, N.C., was quietly sitting in his car, reading. He was tased and then shot by police officers. He was disabled, black, and the father of four. When I read the story on my Facebook feed, I thought how, earlier that day, I arrived at an appointment and sat in the car for a few minutes, reading an article on my phone. And yet, I was able to return home safely at the end of my work day.
Just days earlier, another innocent American, Terrence Crutcher, was tased and then shot by a police officer in Tulsa, OK. He was having car trouble, and was inspecting the situation when police arrived. Any one of us in similar circumstances might have had the expectation that the police had arrived to help. He was black, and was shot when his hands were raised above his head in surrender. He made the mistake of reaching into his car, probably to get his license and registration required at all traffic stops. If I were stopped, I feel confident that I could reach for my documents in my glove box, and live to tell about it. As a 61-year-old, white, female, cisgender, grandmother, I have a privileged profile and am unlikely to be perceived as a threat to anyone.
Philando Castile in St. Paul, MN, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA, were also black, unarmed, and killed by police earlier this summer. We know other names, thrust unwillingly into public consciousness: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland. There are many other names we don’t know. At least 138 black people have been killed by police in 2016. A study by the Guardian showed that young black men are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police. NINE TIMES MORE LIKELY. The same study recorded 1,134 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers in 2015 alone.
We are all aware that the suffering of black people is not new. My own memories and awareness stretch back to the 1960’s, growing up white and privileged in an affluent and largely segregated Chicago suburb. There was exactly one black student in my high school graduating class of 860-something, and perhaps three in my entire school. Oh, and one Japanese guy. My parents were Democrats, like most people in Chicago; liberal, socially-conscious, and yet worried that Bobby Kennedy was “too progressive.” The notorious and crime-ridden Cabrini Green housing project was a mere 25 miles from my comfortable home, but it might as well have been light years. I grew up feeling proud that I was not racist, because my Dad had hired a black woman to be his executive secretary – the first in that major corporation. At the same time, I was completely unaware of systemic racism, and that I was its beneficiary in virtually every aspect of my young life. Of course, the suffering of black people did not begin suddenly with my awareness of it. Black people have been systematically oppressed since their involuntary arrival in this country, as slaves, over 300 years ago, and it continues today in multiple aspects of our society.
While I have worked for equality have have supported various social justice causes behind-the-scenes for many years, I have not been as vocal as I could have been, or possibly should have been. I will no longer be silent. Despite the soul-crushing despair and disgust and heartbreak I feel over these most recent killings, I also feel strangely encouraged. I’ll tell you why.
I am reminded of the cumulative effect of news reporting during the Vietnam War. It was the first war that people watched on television. While the reporting began in an upbeat manner, I remember the casualty reports on the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. The bodies, the bombings. The villages, the civilians, the children. For years. Although it took far too long, the tide of public opinion began to turn. And once it had turned, there was no turning back.
Today, and almost every day, we are served up images of the violent killings of unarmed black people, captured on amateur video and police dashcams. Raw and wrenching video, unedited, horrifying. Day after day, on television and on your computer or mobile device, as you drink your coffee, eat your meals, take your breaks, you see something that happened. There will be more, you know there will. Even the most reticent citizen must employ basic pattern-recognition skills at some point to come to the realization that SOMETHING IS WRONG.
So while my friends of color ache and carry on bravely every day despite their terror, I listen. Their lived experience is real, and now documented for all the world to see. I despair that these killings will not end soon enough, but at the same time, I have faith. I have faith that, albeit slowly, people are waking up to what is going on around them. I have faith that we can and will do better. I have faith that social media will accelerate the process, with daily, real-time reportage, relentlessly streaming. I have faith that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” I have faith that people of color will tell their stories, and that gradually, people will listen. I have faith that people of privilege will use their voices and their influence, speak out and step up, call out and sit in. When you see something, say something. Educate yourself on how to be an ally. Speak up when it’s hard, when you are with your friends who look like you. Whatever it takes, we must do, and do now.
Change is gonna come. Be the change.