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Jennifer Harvey

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For Whites (Like Me): We Are Not Ignorant

Posted: 09/18/2013 11:22 am

"Mad," "angry," even "outraged" just don't capture it. So, I realize it's not a very nice word but I'm pissed.

We get "pissed" at someone or something. It is targeted and specific. It's directed. It's sharp.

And I'm pissed about the death of Jonathan Ferrell.

Tragedies upset us. Life is hard and people suffer, sometimes cruelly. As a parent now, when young people die by illness or accident my "the universe can be so brutal and unfair" antennae tunes in so hard it hurts.

But this is worse, because it is not that kind of tragedy. This is not an accident.

And we are not ignorant.

In case you didn't hear, here's the story. Farrell (age 24) was in a horrific car accident, had to climb out of his back window to escape his vehicle, walked a half-mile for help, only to have the woman behind the door he knocked on call 911. When the police showed up, one of them shot him dead.

I don't know the woman's race. (I could speculate.)

I don't know the police officer's race. (He looks white.)

I know Jonathan Ferrell's race. (He was Black.)

I also know that police reports are already reciting the predictable repeating lines in the prewritten script that is almost always found when unarmed Black and Latino men are killed by police officers. The predictability only adds to how suspicious the lines are just on their own accord. Like in Scene 1 where for some reason (so the script goes) an innocent, unarmed young man "charged at officers," somehow able to do so even "after being tasered." Scene 2 usually includes botched evidence, Scene 3 a case thrown out on legal technicalities by the grand jury. If we get a Scene 4 it's officer(s) "innocent" with apologies to his family for their ordeal.

Curtain closes.

(I've written about this script elsewhere. A group I was once part of discerned it by reading hundreds and hundreds of pages related to such cases.)

Maybe we'll get a different result this time. Unusually, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has actually stated that the use of force here was unwarranted. Maybe.

But even if we do, Ferrell is still dead.

And here's the point: We know that this keeps happening, over and over and over again. Even we white folks know it.

We are not ignorant.

Many of us white folks get pissed when we hear another of these preventable tragedies (the "preventable" moving it from tragedy to injustice) has happened again. But after Trayvon Martin was murdered and Zimmerman set free how many of us moved our bodies in response?

Because, here we are again.

This is not an accusation, I swear. (No self-righteousness here. I haven't been active on this since moving to my city in 2004.)

It's a plea.

I know we white folks feel helpless about what to do. I get that.

But this helplessness is learned. It's chosen. And if we know it's going to happen again (which we do) we've go to unchoose it!

Last weekend I facilitated an antiracism workshop. When asked why she came, one white participant explained that for a long time she thought things were hunky dory in our post-Civil Rights world. Then at some point realized this was a lie. After that, she said, she spent a lot of time in anger and despair.

Recently she told us, she made a decision: "I've decided to start acting like there's something I can do about it."

This was one of the best things I've heard a white person say in a long, long time.
There are organizations in endless neighborhoods, towns, cities in which Black and Latino communities are at work actively trying to end this kind of violence. Trying desperately to protect their children. They do so in most cases without the active, allied, solidarity of those of us who are white and who claim to care.

I went to a meeting of one such organization yesterday. (In this case, there were actually a lot of white people there, which was awesome, though it was nothing close to representative of the racial demographic of our city.)

There I heard Black citizens describe a city that I simultaneously live in, but have never lived in.

The same police department that will check to make sure I have the car seat installed correctly for my babies causes these families to live in fear for their babies' lives. The same department that sponsors "Safety Town" so my kids will know how to safely ride their bikes causes these families to teach their 16 year-olds how to more safely drive their cars: by knowing ahead of time they will be pulled over and how to comport themselves when it happens (the Black version of Safety Town).

I hate that this is true.

After one mother shared the most recent experience of her 21-year old, honor's list, college graduate, no-charges-of-any-kind-ever, fully-employed son who has been stopped "more times than I can keep track of on my hands and feet" a local pastor stood up. "I'm Isaac's pastor," she said. And, breaking into tears, "I thank God Isaac handled himself [at midnight, handcuffed because (official explanation) he was "acting nervous" when three white officers with guns pulled him over for no citable reason (Acting nervous? Go figure.)]. Otherwise I might have been doing his funeral today."

We are not ignorant.

Steven Biko, the South African Black Consciousness activist, hero and martyr, also killed by police once compared liberal, anti-apartheid (but inactive) whites and pro-apartheid whites, saying:

In any case, even if there was a real fundamental difference in thinking amongst whites vis-à-vis blacks, the very fact that those disgruntled whites remain to enjoy the fruits of the System would alone be enough to condemn them at Nuremburg. Listen to Karl Jaspers . . . 'There exists amongst men [sic], because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence of which he cannot be ignorant. If I do not do whatever I can to prevent them, I am an accomplice in them. . . .' Thus if whites in general do not like what is happening to the black people, they have the power in them to stop it here and now. We, on the other hand, have every reason to bundle them together and blame them jointly.
(Biko (p. 3rd rev. ed., p. 136-7.)


No difference among whites? Is this what we want? What do we want?

Besides knowing we can unchoose helplessness, we need to know that if we are not ignorant and we do nothing we allow these deaths. We are accomplices.

Hating that this happened is not enough. We have the power to be part of stopping it here and now. Not by ourselves. Not by going (white) solo. Not with an expectation that all of it in one fell swoop will end tomorrow if we show up.

But if we hate this, we whites need to find out where and when folks are already fighting it right where we live, fighting because their babies' lives are on the line. Every day.

We are not ignorant. And, thus we can't be declared innocent.

But we can start acting like there's something we can do about it.

 
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