Notes on a Riot
Like many professors, I live on the same campus where I work. As a result, I’ve watched drunk East Carolina University students urinate and puke on my lawn and toss empty red solo cups into the shrubbery around my home. But one evening I had a more troubling run-in with a college student. It began when I woke to the sound of my dog barking. It took me a minute to orient myself and understand that my dog was barking because someone was knocking on the front door. It was 2 am and my husband was out of town, but I opened the front door anyway. On the stoop was a college-aged woman dressed in a Halloween costume that consisted of a halter top, small tight shorts, and sky-high heels. The woman was sobbing and shivering in the late October air and her thick eye make up was running down her face. She was incoherent and hysterical– I could smell the tequila on her breath — so it took me a while to figure out what she wanted .
She told me that she was visiting a friend for the night and that she had lost her friend…and her cell phone. She had no idea where she was or where to go. I think she came to my door because my porch light has motion detectors and she must have thought it was a sign. As she rambled on and on I could hear my baby crying upstairs. I told the woman to wait on my stoop, that I had to go get my baby and my phone, and that I would call the police to see if they could drive her somewhere. “Nooooooo,” she wailed, “don’t call the police!” I urged her to wait a minute so I could go get my baby and soothe him, but when I returned a few minutes later with my cell phone in hand, she was gone.
I felt many emotions that night: annoyance at being woken up, panic over how to best get help for the young woman, and later, guilt over my inability to help her. But one emotion that I did not feel that night was fear. I was never threatened by this young woman’s presence on my stoop and I never felt the need to “protect” my property. Why would I? She was a young woman, no more than 19 or 20, and though she was drunk and hysterical, she needed my help. I was reminded of this incident when I heard that Renisha McBride, a young woman of no more than 19 or 20, was shot dead last fall after knocking on Theodore Wafer’s door in the middle of the night while drunk and in need of help. Wafer was recently convicted of second-degree murder and manslaughter (which is a miracle), but that didn’t stop the Associated Press from describing the Wafer verdict thusly:
McBride, the victim, a young girl needlessly shot down by a paranoid homeowner, is described as a nameless drunk, even a court ruling establishing her victimhood beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, just a few days later in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens are actively protesting the death/murder of Michael Brown, another unarmed African American youth shot down for seemingly no reason. If you haven’t heard of Brown yet, here are the basic facts:
1. On Saturday evening Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer on a sidewalk in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
2. There are 2 very different accounts of why and how Brown was shot. The police claim that Brown got into their police car and attempted to take an officer’s gun, leading to the chain of events that resulted in Brown fleeing the vehicle and being shot. By contract, witnesses on the scene claim that Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking in the middle of the street when the police car pulled up, told the boys to “Get the f*** on the sidewalk” and then hit them with their car door. This then led to a physical altercation that sent both boys running down the sidewalk with the police shooting after them.
3. As a result of Brown’s death/murder the citizens of Ferguson took to the streets, demanding answers, investigations, and the name of the officer who pulled the trigger. Most of these citizens engaged in peaceful protests while others have engaged in “looting” (setting fires, stealing from local businesses, and damaging property).
Now America is trying to make sense of the riots/uprisings that have taken hold of Ferguson the last two days and whether the town’s reaction is or is not “justified.” Was Brown a thug who foolishly tried to grab an officer’s gun? Or, was he yet another case of an African American shot because his skin color made him into a threat?
I suppose both theories are plausible, but given how many unarmed, brown-skinned Americans have been killed in *just* the last 2 years — Trayvon Martin (2012), Ramarley Graham (2012), Renisha McBride (2013), Jonathan Ferrell (2013), John Crawford (2014), Eric Garner (2014), Ezell Ford (2 days ago) — my God, I’m not even scratching the surface, there are too many to list — I’m willing to bet that Michael Brown didn’t do anything to *deserve* his death. He was a teenage boy out for a walk with his friend on a Saturday night and his skin color made him into a police target. He was a threat merely by existing.
Given the amount of bodies that are piling up — young, innocent, unarmed bodies — it shouldn’t be surprising that people in Ferguson have taken to the streets demanding justice. And yes, in addition to the peaceful protests and fliers with clearly delineated demands, there has been destruction to property and looting. But there is always destruction in a war zone. War makes people act in uncharacteristic ways. And make no mistake: Ferguson is now a war zone. The media has been blocked from entering the city, the FAA has declared the air space over Ferguson a “no fly zone” for a week “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities,” and the police are shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at civilians.
But no matter. The images of masses of brown faces in the streets of Ferguson can and will be brushed aside as “looters” and “f*cking animals.” Michael Brown’s death is already another statistic, another body on the pile of Americans who had the audacity to believe that they would be safe walking down the street or knocking on a door for help.
What is especially soul-crushing is knowing that these events happen over and over and over again in America — the Red Summer of 1919, Watts in 1964, Los Angeles in 1992 — and again and again we look away. We laud the protests of the Arab Spring, awed by the fortitude and bravery of people who risk bodily harm and even death in their demands for a just government, but we have trouble seeing our own protests that way. Justice is a right, not a privilege. Justice is something we are all supposed to be entitled to in this county.
When the uprisings in Los Angeles were televised in 1992 I was a freshman in high school. All I knew about Los Angeles is what I had learned from movies like Pretty Woman and Boyz N the Hood –there were rich white people, poor black people with guns, and Julia Roberts pretending to be a prostitute. On my television these “rioters and looters” looked positively crazy, out of control. And when I saw army tanks moving through the streets of Compton I felt a sense of relief.
That’s because a lifetime of American media consumption — mostly in the form of film, television, and nightly newscasts — had conditioned my eyes and my brain to read images of angry African Americans, not as allies in the struggle for a just country, but as threats to my country’s safety. I could pull any number of examples of how and why my brain and eyes were conditioned in this way. I could cite, for example, how every hero and romantic lead in everything I watched was almost always played by a white actor. I could cite how every criminal, rapist, and threat to my white womanhood was almost always played by a black actor. And those army tanks driving through the outskirts of Los Angeles didn’t look like an infringement on freedom to me at the time (and as they do now). They looked like safety because I came of age during the Gulf War, when images of tanks moving through wartorn streets in regions of the world where people who don’t look like me live come to stand for “justice” and “peacemaking.” Images get twisted and flipped and distorted.
The #IfTheyShotMe hashtag, started by Tyler Atkins, illuminates how easily images — particular the cache of selfies uploaded to a Facebook page or Instagram account — can be molded to support whatever narrative you want to spin about someone. The hashtag features two images which could tell two very different stories about an unarmed man after he is shot — a troublemaker or a scholar? a womanizer or a war vet? The hashtag illuminates how those who wish to believe that Michael Brown’s death was simply a tragic consequence of not following rules and provoking the police can easily find images of him flashing “gang signs” or looking tough in a photo, and thus “deserving” his fate. Those who believe he was wrongfully shot down because he, like most African American male teens, looks “suspicious,” can proffer images of Brown in his graduation robes.
Of course, as so many smart folks have already pointed out, it doesn’t really matter that Brown was supposed to go off to college this week, just as it doesn’t matter what a woman was wearing when she was raped. It doesn’t matter whether an unarmed man is a thug or a scholar when he is shot down in the street like a dog. But I like this hashtag because at the very least it is forcing us all to think about the way we’re all (mis)reading the images around us, to our peril.
The same day that the people of Ferguson took to the streets to stand up for Michael Brown and for every other unarmed person killed for being black, comedian and actor Robin Williams died. I was sad to hear this news and even sadder to hear that Williams took his own life, so I went to social media to engage in some good, old fashioned public mourning, the Twitter wake. In addition to the usual sharing of memorable quotes and clips from the actor’s past, people in my feed were also sharing suicide prevention hotline numbers and urging friends to “stay here,” reminding them that they are loved and needed by their friends and families. People asked for greater understanding of mental illness and depression. And some people simply asked that we all try to be kind to each other, that we remember that we’re all human, that we all hurt, and that we are all, ultimately, the same. Folks, now it’s time to send some of that kind energy to the people of Ferguson and to the family and friends of Michael Brown. They’re hurting and they need it.
A True Story About Being White
Editor’s note: I apologize for my long absence, dear readers, but I started a true story blog back in May, Tell Us A Story, and that has monopolized all of my summer blogging time. I promise to return to this blog in the fall, with my usual posts about film, TV and popular culture. In the meantime though, I have a different kind of true story to tell.
After the devastating ruling in the George Zimmerman case I read a post by the Crunk Feminist Collective in which they asked:
“Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. Six white women (some say five) decided that a young Black man was responsible for his own murder, and they believed that a young Black woman could not be a credible witness. Where is your (OUT)RAGE?! Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, that not only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors? Where is the accountability? Where is the allyship? Why AGAIN do we have to ask you to show up? It is time for y’all to do the work. We refuse. We are tired. We are choosing to take care of ourselves and our communities. “
I took these words personally because these words are personal. They are directed at me and they fill me with shame. So I am trying to not be silent. With all the talk this summer about what it means to be a young black male in America, I thought I would write about what it means to be a young white male in America. I’m going to tell you a story about my son and being white in America when it’s dark outside. It isn’t much, I know, but it’s what I have right now.
My husband and I are both originally from the Northeast (New York and Pennsylvania, respectively) but we currently live in North Carolina, due to the somewhat bizarre and unforgiving nature of the academic job market. Don’t get me wrong, I have actually come to love many things about my new Southern home: the heat, the complete absence of winter, the way people wait and hold the door open for you, even when you are a good fifty paces behind them. I even like being called “ma’am.” But there are drawbacks to our Southern location. Obviously, North Carolina’s stance on marriage equality, abortion, voter rights, religious freedom, etc.. etc. is garbage. But that’s a different post all together. The other problem with living here is, of course, that my husband and I are 400-600 miles away from our families. This means that we travel a lot, especially in the summertime. This is a story about one of those trips.
A few weeks ago my husband and I packed up our minivan and our kids and headed for central Pennsylvania. We take I-95 North, a highway which always seems to be plagued with construction, traffic delays and accidents, which means that a trip that should take 6 hours often takes 8 hours. To avoid these delays, we usually try to drive during off-peak hours, leaving around 6pm and arriving around midnight. On this particular trip, my husband and I were delighted to be getting off the D.C. beltway, onto 270, around 10pm. That meant we would reach our beds by 11:30pm. We were in the midst of high-fiving each other when our 3-year-old son, who only speaks in capslock, announced “I GOTTA MAKE POOPY.” Our faces fell. 270 exists to get people on to and off of the beltway, not for potty breaks. All of the nearby exits led to gated communities and medical parks. There would be no easily accessible bathrooms for many miles.
“Hey buddy, can you try to hold it for a little bit?” my husband asked. “SURE” yelled our son. But ten minutes later he bellowed “I CAN’T TAKE MUCH MORE OF THIS,” a turn of phrase he has recently learned and which he tries to use whenever possible. We sighed and took the next exit, knowing that locating a bathroom at 10 pm in the Maryland suburbs was going to be a challenge. We drove for miles and miles, seeing nothing. “I NEED TO GO POOPY” the 3-year-old periodically reminded us. “I know, honey, we’re trying.” Finally, after 15 minutes of frantic searching, we spotted a group of men playing baseball in front of what appeared to be a recreational center. I suggested we check it out, reasoning that these men would probably need a bathroom break at some point during their game. But as we drove through the complex we could find nothing. “Not even a port-a-potty?” I lamented. “I WILL GO IN THE PORT-A-POTTY” said the 3-year-old. “I know buddy. But there’s no port-a-potty.”
As we were about to turn around and leave, our goal of reaching bed by midnight now a distant memory, I saw a woman sitting in an SUV, talking on her cell phone. “Wait! Look over there! I’ll bet that woman can tell us where a bathroom is!” My husband stopped the minivan and I grabbed my son and headed over.
At this point, I should probably tell you a little bit about my son. My son is adorable: he has big blue eyes, curly brown hair, and a friendly smile. People go apeshit for my son. They stop me in grocery stores and on the streets to comment on his appearance: “Look at those curls! Look at those baby blues!” It happens so often, in fact, that it embarrasses me. I don’t say that to brag, because I have nothing to do with his good looks (he looks nothing like me). And he has nothing to do with his good looks either. He was just born that way. He’s lucky.
So it’s 10 pm on a Thursday night in a Maryland suburb and my very cute son and I approach the woman in the SUV. “Excuse me?” I say, tentatively, because she is on her phone “We’re looking for a bathroom?” The woman raises a finger, indicating that she heard me, and says good-bye to whomever was the on the other line. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just that my son really needs to use the bathroom and we’ve been driving around…” “Come with me” she says, leading us to an alley behind the rec center. It is only now that I see that this woman is wearing a blue custodial uniform and a name tag. She works in the rec center and she is going to use her key to let us in. “What good fortune!” I thought to myself.
The alley is dark and garbage cans line the brick walls. “I JUST NEED A PORT-A-POTTY!” the 3-year-old offers. “It’s okay,” I tell him, “the nice lady is taking us to the potty.” We finally enter the building and I immediately see a sign for the women’s locker room. “Thank you so much!” I tell the custodian, as I head inside. “Oh no!” she says, shaking her head, “You don’t go in there. It’s DIRTY,” she explains. I look again at the locker room and see that this is where the rec center staff probably goes to change and shower. “You follow me,” she says, and leads us down a series of hallways, until we reach another set of bathrooms. “See?” she says, “Clean.” I nod and head inside “Thank you SO much!” I repeat. I’m starting to feel a little guilty now, as this is getting to be a lot of trouble for her.
When we emerge from the bathroom 10 minutes later I am surprised to see that the custodian has waited for us at the end of the hall. But of course she had to wait — she let us in with her key, we were now her responsibility. We follow her out of the rec center, and I repeat my thanks. “You feel better now?” she asks my son, smiling, placing her finger tips to his. “Such pretty hair,” she adds. “THANK YOU” my son replies, in capslock. And then we get back into our minivan. “People are so nice,” I tell my husband, as I buckle the 3-year-old into his carseat. “That woman probably wanted nothing more than to go home, take a shower and go to bed after a day of work, but instead she spent 20 minutes helping a stranger and her son get to a bathroom.” My husband nods in agreement.
As our roadtrip resumed, I continued to think about this encounter and the kindness of strangers. But then I thought about something else. I thought about how this scenario would have played out if I had not been a white woman with a blue-eyed son, emerging from a minivan. You see, this incident happened just 5 days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, in which jurors decided that being young and not-white and male is inherently threatening, that being all of these things meant that Zimmerman had a right to feel threatened by Trayvon Martin and to “stand his ground.” Indeed, if I had I been a young, African American father whose 3-year-old son needed to use the potty at 10pm in some Maryland suburb, I would have had to think twice before approaching this woman in the parking lot. I would have needed to be careful not “scare” her. I would have needed to demonstrate to her that I was not a threat. And then, maybe, maybe, my son could use those nice clean bathrooms in the rec center.
But of course, I didn’t need to worry about any of that at 10 pm on a Thursday night in the Maryland suburbs. When I approached that woman in her car, I did so without considering my skin color or my son’s skin color. I rarely need to consider my skin color. All I needed to do was be white and the world curved itself around my needs. And this is how things are going to be for the rest of my son’s life. He is white, he is male, and he comes from an upper-middle class home. The world is open to him — all he needs to do is decide what he wants. I’m not saying that he won’t have struggles. His life will be hard at times, in the way all peoples’ lives are hard at times. But his difficulties will likely be unrelated to his race or his gender. He will be playing life at its “lowest difficulty setting” and, really, good for him. He’s lucky.
The same is basically true for my 7-year-old daughter, though of course, she will have to fight a few battles that my son won’t, just because she’s a woman. For example, when she goes to a pizza parlor to pick up a tray of manicotti, the men who work there will offer to carry it for her, and even after she tells them, twice, that it really isn’t heavy and she can manage it just fine, thank you very much, they will take it anyway and start carrying it to the door until she says, a little too loudly, “REALLY. IT’S FINE. PLEASE GIVE IT TO ME.” And then they’ll hand her the manicotti and wonder, silently, why some women can’t just accept a little help now and then. And she’ll carry the manicotti, which isn’t very heavy (really) out to her car and she’ll try not to be annoyed at those men because they were just doing what they’ve been trained to do, which is to help white women who seem like they can’t help themselves. She is a virtue that requires protection. This is annoying, sure. But her life won’t be too hard, her difficulty setting being only a little higher than her brother’s.
I’m writing this because I know our world is filled with all sorts of kind people, like that custodian who looked at me and at my sweet boy and decided to help us out, even though she didn’t have to. For the most part, this is how I experience the world and those experiences show me that the world can be a kind place. But as my family and I made our way up 270, I couldn’t help but think of Trayvon Martin’s family, and how different the world must look to them.
This post is a drop in the bucket. It’s an attempt to talk about being white, which is something white people don’t do very often. This post is me being not-silent. Thanks for listening.