THE BLOG
12/04/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Protest vs. Privilege: A Tale of Two Americas in the Wake of Eric Garner and Michael Brown

Mark Makela via Getty Images

When I was in college I belonged to an a cappella group called The Inspiration. There is nothing like the experience of different voices coming together in harmony.

There is also nothing like being a part of a group of voices that are just missing each other. This discord usually results from either someone in the group singing off key and being momentarily tone-deaf or from someone simply not listening to the other voices in the room. This was my experience the evening that the decision to not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner came out of New York. And this seems to be what our nation is going through with thousands if not millions protesting and speaking out for justice and millions more intentionally or unintentionally employing privilege and choosing to ignore it.

There is much in common between singing in harmony and marching in unity with others. Social activism and public demonstrations serve several purposes. Sometimes it is difficult for one voice crying out (or singing) to be heard, but when a group of a few hundred or thousand gather that one voice can become be amplified. Large demonstrations can bring injustice to light, raise awareness to the uninformed, bring hope to those who are discouraged and maybe even influence those in leadership positions. Singing and all forms of art are likewise powerful ways for messages to be expressed.

Being a part of a demonstration, like singing, is also cathartic in that it allows one to express and embody the complex emotions that they may hold within. This is of course not the primary reason why anyone takes to the streets. The marching of the last few weeks and months has been for justice, not for an emotional release. Yet there is something about joining with others who feel your pain and lifting your voices and arms and fists that allows for some healing to begin. When marching with others we remember that we are not crazy for being upset or for crying as we read and watch the news. We are encouraged to not give up hope. We are reminded that we are not the only voice singing and that no matter how loud the sirens might get, when our voices come together we can be louder.

On the afternoon and early evening after a New York grand jury decided not to indict Officer Pantaleo after he choked an unarmed African American man named Eric Garner, I joined several hundred other voices as they marched from Philadelphia's 30th St. Station fifteen blocks eastward to City Hall. The experience in the courtyard of City Hall was one of a painful and stunning discord. Not on the part of the demonstrators. In fact there was a beautiful unity on our end with people from diverse racial, ethnic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds all together marching and chanting and raising our voices in harmony.

The People United Will Never be Defeated!

No the discord came from the city's response. As marchers arrived in the courtyard, someone thought it appropriate to go on with the planned Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony that evening. Thus as people were demonstrating, the emcee and the DJ and the performers went on as if we were not there and as if Eric Garner and Michael Brown's deaths and our outrage did not matter.

It truly seemed like Black Lives Did Not Matter.

The DJ tried to drown out the sounds of the protesters by blasting Christmas songs. Dance troupes and soloists all came to the stage with all of them seeming to miss the irony of singing "Silent Night" or "O Holy Night" to a loud group of protesters filled with hurt and anger. Organizers of the tree lighting could not see this even with the presence of the famous/infamous "Philly Jesus" activist walking among the protesters (rather than being on stage celebrating the birth of the real Jesus or celebrating the hyper-materialistic holiday we observe around His birth).

The sounds blaring from the speakers and the cries to "Shut it Down!" from all of us gathered created a heartbreaking discord. I wanted someone to HEAR us and postpone the lighting for just one night. I wanted someone -- anyone -- to just acknowledge the crowd and why we were all there. But nothing. Just a tone-deaf yell from backstage that the show must go on and a turned back to the protesters.

A huge tree stood over all of us. Today shiny ornaments and lights hang on it. Not very long ago a black man would have hung on it. There was a time when those in power did not have to listen to the pleas and cries of black individuals at gatherings like this. They could ignore the cries about injustice as they lynched black individuals and then focused on decorating their trees with strange ornamental bodies. In so many painful and terrifying ways this lynching is still happening. And the careless ignoring of the cries of oppressed peoples are also still falling on deaf and tone-deaf ears.

One of the marks of privilege and power is the ability to ignore the cries and pain of those who are oppressed. This is something that happens everyday. Some of us can afford to change the station and not pay attention to Black suffering (or any other type of suffering) because we have the power to not feel it. The distance to not care.

When folks don't feel heard they do what they must to fix the song. They sing louder. The march over to the person who is ignoring them and sing in their face until they get the right pitch. Hopefully that is enough. Yet sometimes it's more than just one person singing off key. Sometimes the group needs to pause their singing altogether and work as a unified group to get the song right.

That's what many people are feeling today. It feels like these aren't just isolated instances that can be chalked up to one cop who racially profiled or one officer who used excessive force on an unarmed man. It doesn't seem like it is just one grand jury and one prosecuting attorney whom we knew would side with the police. It feels like there is something wrong with the system. Our policing system. Our criminal justice system. And while we're at it our incarceration system, educational system and quite frankly the way that people of African descent in this country are viewed (dangerous, monsters, hulks, thugs, demons...).

My old singing group occasionally had moments where we too were off. Groups that are tight can adjust mid-song and get back on key. We could sometimes do that. At other times we needed to stop singing and start over. The musical director would go around the room and make sure we all knew our notes and that we all were comfortable with our parts. If someone was off key, we helped him or her fix it. It takes a humble member to admit that they are singing off. Or they can keep on singing off-key, ignoring the frustration of the group. Kind've like the tree lighting organizers did in Philadelphia.

I am a pacifist. Committed to non-violence. I'm anti-war, anti-gun violence and against harming others. I'm heartbroken that so much of our nation is coming off as so off-key that I and many of my sisters and brothers in the street feel like civil and in some cases uncivil disobedience is the only way to get the attention of those in our society who refuse to fall into harmony with the rest of us. When it seems like you don't care about black lives, when it seems like you can't hear black voices and all of the other voices out here with us, it make people yell louder and do whatever they/we must do to get you to hear. When it seems like people would rather turn the music up in their cars and sing loudly with the windows up, it makes people want to go into the street, block traffic, lay on the ground and wake everyone up to the fact that our American song is now way off key.

Police forces need to lean in and listen. I get the desire to keep these demonstrations safe, but to be overly present in riot gear at a demonstration against police brutality, the over militarization of the police, and unaccountable police forces is an odd miscue. Philly police for the most part have been doing a pretty good job of this, but that has not been the case in other parts of the country. And I have to give a shout to the Black officers who were sent to be in the midst of the crowd last night (while their white counterparts held the outskirts). I saw your tears, felt your conflicted pain, and heard you chanting with us in unity.

Our judicial system needs to lean in and listen. The decisions not to indict and even take these situations to a trial scream in off key voices that black lives do not matter -- and certainly not as much as blue ones.

And those of us who don't feel connected to this news must lean in and listen. White privilege isn't simply the fact that a white individual can more often than not shop without being followed, commit certain crimes and avoid the harsher punishments of their black counterparts (see #CrimingWhileWhite) or be thought of as being smarter, safer, harder working, prettier, etc. just because of the way you look. White privilege is also the ability to not have to care about things like this. What does caring look like? It means stomaching the traumatizing video of Eric Garner's death. It means saying something on social media. It means not going on with business as usual in your work place or classroom while your black colleagues and students cry silently. Don't keep singing "Jingle Bell Rock" while the rest of us are singing "Strange Fruit."

Stop doing the mundane things that can wait a night and listen to the cries and the songs of justice of a people who are devastated, heartbroken, feeling let down by their country, feeling unsafe in their own cities, and afraid for their young people.

We can get back to harmony. But the first step is stopping the music for a second, looking each other in the eye, and then listening to each other.