Tag Archives: black lives matter

Astronomy isn’t About Race: unless there are people up there, then it is.

Race is not a thing. By that I mean it is not an event, an object, or even an adjective.

Race is a who.IMG_70891

Race is not the only thing a person “is”, but everyone has a race, and that race, because it is a social construct, affects how that person, all of us, interacts within a society. For most of America’s existence “race” or “race issues” really means things having to do with anyone who isn’t white. Otherwise those things are just plain old issues.

When the Declaration of Independence was written race was never mentioned but it wasn’t exactly ignored. White was assumed. So really, race wasn’t ignored, non-white people were ignored. The word race would only come up when “We the People” were being talked or written about in comparison to those who weren’t, or aren’t, considered white. So when it came to the constitution there was “we the people”, and then there were also Native Americans and those 3/5ths of persons held in servitude.

Remember that race is always a who.with flag

Because race is a who, making something about, or not about race, is really making it about, or not about, a person.

Knowing this is important, mostly for white people as we are the ones who are less used to our race being spoken of explicitly. We are used to just being people, not white people. We need to realize that when we say “this isn’t about race”, what that translates to is, “this isn’t about you.” Which is ironic because most of the times I hear someone say “this isn’t about race”, or “don’t make this a race issue”, it is being said by a white person who is referencing something involving non-white people whom they have never met.

For example when someone says college admissions should ignore race, what that really means is colleges should ignore that there are people who aren’t white. When a black person is killed by a police officer and our response is, this has nothing to do with race. What is really being said is that said instance wasn’t about the black person- though that is who was shot.IMG_1908

This gets real tricky, or troubling, when it really is about them. Or… maybe it is very telling when we white people talk this way.

As in I, a white person, looks at a situation in which I am not directly involved, and say to the black people involved, “this isn’t about race”, which would mean “this isn’t about black people”- then who is left for it to be about? What we are inadvertently saying is that it is about us. About white people. And if we white people are the ones saying such things we should probably think a little bit more about how we are at the heart of all these race issues.

This is the part, or the point, where we get very defensive and start “No. That isn’t what I said or what I meant.”

But it is. We just don’t like to deal with that. Because any issue or instance where people are involved- is a race issue.

You cannot un-race a person. Maybe one day skin color won’t hold real relevance, but even when that day comes, we will all still have a skin color, we will have simply shifted who “we” includes and the ways in which we value each other.

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Black History Month:Gun Rights

It is important to know that MLK’s ideology of non-violence was only one aspect, one wing, of the civil rights movement, and it didn’t really work everywhere. It mostly worked on television. Down South and in person, especially in places like Lowndes County Alabama, what worked was guns.

MLK and the SCLC were for the most part a PR organization. They literally marched through town, took a literal beating, and got it broadcast on television worldwide. It helped build political will nationally and created a public outcry against injustice.democratrooster

At the same time SNCC had a different job. SNCC would come and set up shop in various jurisdictions long term. They were there to organize political participation among the local Black population and it was dangerous work. This sort of activity regularly, not sometimes, but reg-u-lar-ly resulted in a Black person being killed. One SNCC worker explained that when one of them would come to stay with a local family, that home would immediately come under fire. Actual gun fire. These homeowners could not call the police, because they were among those doing the shooting. The only thing that stopped the gunfire was when those inside the home started shooting back. This was not how it happened once but rather this is how it would go every time. So naturally, armed self-defense became a regular part of political organization among the Black people in Lowndes County. In 1964 the place had zero Black people registered to vote. By 1968 there were 2,500. It worked.

Due to high illiteracy rates all political parties were required to have a symbol. This allowed those who couldn’t read, the ability to identify the party for whom they wished to vote. The Democrat’s symbol was a white rooster and the words “White Supremacy For The Right”. The local Black population formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization as their new political party. They intended to run candidates, register voters, and challenge the Democrats. They needed to declare a symbol and one member joked that they needed something that would eat that chicken- so they decided they would use a black panther.

Word got out that the Black people were serious so the Klan threatened to summon all of its members statewide to stop the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Come election day, the local authorities, and the Klan who had all been warned by the FBI that a bunch of young thugs from out of town were on the way to cause trouble at the polls, were all shocked when hundreds of old Black people carrying loaded weapons, showed up to vote.

The press went wild talking about this new Black Panther party and their guns. They left out the fact that the average age of the party was 55. One Black leader also pointed out that if the Alabama Freedom Organization was going to be referred to as the Black Panther Party in the news, the right thing would be to also call the Democrats the White Cocks. This request was not granted.NRA

The success of those humble Black farmers with guns gave a sense of excited hope to Black people nationwide. In Oakland CA, frustrated by violent policing, Black Panthers took their loaded guns to Sacramento and occupied the capital building. This completely freaked white America out and that same year California governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act banning the carrying of loaded weapons in public. Reagan was quoted as saying he saw “no reason why on the street today, a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons”.

That was 1967, one year before MLK was killed.IMG_1989.JPG

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Black Firefighters: Black History Month

America’s first firefighting company was founded in Philadelphia by good ol’ Ben Franklin in 1736.

The first “Black” firefighting company in Philadelphia was founded by a free Black man named James Forten 82 years later. Back then all firefighting was done by volunteers, no one was getting paid to extinguish flames. But still the white people protested against this new fire company and the city shut it down in less than a year.IMG_1297

The city started paying professional fire fighters in 1871, but none of those professionals were Black till they hired Isaac Jacobs in 1886. The catch was they didn’t actually let him fight fires, just clean the stables. Mr. Jacobs wasn’t satisfied being a stable boy, he wanted to fight fires, so he left the department after 4 years.

In 1905 Philadelphia hired its second Black fire fighter, Steven Presco. He insisted on fighting fires and was killed doing so 2 years later.IMG_1299

Twelve years later, in 1919 Philadelphia founded its first official Black fire station, Engine 11. Despite being designated as the Black station, Engine 11 was captained by white firefighters and not used to fight fires but was strictly restricted to city maintenance work. They were the city’s original pothole crew.

It was not until 1952 that Philadelphia officially integrated its fire department. That makes a full 134 years between the city’s first black firefighter and actual integration. What a long hard road full of death and humiliation to fight for the privilege of protecting people from fire.

Philly’s story is not unique and similar story lines played out in Virginia, New Orleans, and an especially interesting case in San Antonio.IMG_5303

The city of San Antonio formed a number of professional fire brigades immediately after the close of the civil war. Their cadre of companies included 2 engines run by freed Black men. The catch was the white brigades were paid by the city and the Black brigades were not paid at all. Yet they still functioned. That is until these two companies requested to be paid like the others and in response the city simply banned Black people from being in fire companies.

All of these stories illustrate a couple of different things. First, that there existed qualified and willing Black people since the very beginnings of American firefighting. Second, is that the obstacles to full Black participation in this form of professional, or public life, was not the Black people themselves but a combination of the general American population and the white people who ran city governments.

But despite the obstacles intentionally placed in their way, Black people continuously persisted and fought.

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James Brown was Rich

In 1964 when James Brown went on the T.A.M.I. show, he had already earned more than a million dollars. He was rich. He wasn’t only rich, but he was so universally popular that on that show he shared the stage with the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones. A lot of white people loved James Brown- in 1964. That’s kind of a big deal.

The very next year John Lewis’s skull was fractured by a police officer when Lewis attempted to walk across the Edmond Pettus Bridge. The year after that, James Meredith was shot for trying to help black people register to vote. Then, another year later, a song by four black singers, The Four Tops, sat solidly at #2 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. By this time Berry Gordy had been rich for a decade.

All of this, the success of black people and the extreme violent oppression of black people, were happening in the same country at the same time. On the grand timeline of history James Brown and James Meredith are on the same dot. This reality is worth some extra consideration, especially considering where we are right now.

Colin Kaepernick made millions of dollars for playing quarterback better than Alex Smith, in the same year that unarmed Chavis Carter allegedly shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car. This is the same year that Wiz Khalifa was featured on a song that hit #4. Same time.

While we are not living in the same America that existed in the 1960’s and plenty of things have changed- some things haven’t.  Human nature doesn’t change. That is why history’s lessons are applicable. It is why, despite retrospect, we sometimes repeat ourselves. We think we do, or have, evolved, but we are really still the same types of people as Nathan Bedford Forest or Frederick Douglass. Or maybe James Brown, James Meredith and Bull Connor.

We cannot simply look in the rear view mirror and assume we are safe from whatever it is that’s back there. It is why when solving the problems of today we must persuade ourselves to do what is right, while simultaneously building protections against those who do, or will, choose otherwise. Because our children will be just like us.

In 2008 people started using the word post-racial to describe a supposed new America. They pointed to the elected leader as proof that the struggles of the 60’s had born good fruit and we were now past the season of labor and into the time of harvest. White America looked around and saw LeBron James or Beyonce just like we might have seen James Brown or Jim Brown, but in 2008 we didn’t see, or we ignored, George Wallace.

Perhaps a part of the reason racism hasn’t been solved, why Dubois’s color line remains, is because we white Americans both forget and deny Bull Connor. Some of us might learn about James Meredith integrating Ol’ Miss, but we don’t linger on the lessons inherent in the fact that it was the local Sheriffs who started the ensuing riot. We just rest on the idea that those who fought Meredith were wrong, but we spend no real time wondering why back then they thought they were right. We could ask Trent Lott, he was there, but instead we march forward with pride believing we are past that and thinking we are now somehow individually better. And we aren’t. And because no humans are magically better than all of the humans that came before we will still fall for the same traps as our predecessors unless we look back and learn. And understand. And own. Then grow. And change. And work. Then teach.

I wonder if Hazel Massery, the white girl seen screaming in that iconic photo of Arkansas school integration, liked James Brown and thought this meant she wasn’t racist. I wonder if the man who shot James Meredith resented Meredith’s college education and saw that as proof that people like Meredith were just snowflake complainers. Maybe most of us don’t wonder this because we have no intentions of shooting anyone. So they are nothing like us now, not really, and I guess there is some truth there. But the people back then, the ones who didn’t shoot anyone, who just went about their lives, but thought it was all a ruse by the commies or who dismissed Martin Luther King as an adulterer, might be just like me. Maybe an unemployed and struggling white man back then, marveled that a bunch of black college kids could find the time and money to spend a summer just riding the Greyhound around starting trouble, and he just knew this meant black life wasn’t so bad. Maybe he thought that their time wasting bus stunt earned them the beatings and burnings they received. Maybe the father who simply loved his children and had never even thought the word n****r, only moved away when the black people arrived because his family’s stability hinged on real estate value. What if the PTA president who watched the Watts riots loved the Four Tops, but simply loved following the law even more?

What if today we are all just like them?

And so the color line remains.

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The Bravery of Children and Colin Kaepernick

Eight years ago I clicked on a video that came across my Facebook feed. I thought I was clicking on a news article. The headline read something along the lines of “Police Officer shoots and kills handcuffed teenager”. I thought it would be like the news on television, I didn’t think they were going to actually show the video. But it was just the video, there was no article. I watched it thinking it was about to cut out, or that there would be some editing, but there wasn’t.

I sat and watched Oscar Grant be shot to death.anaheim

That image haunted me for weeks. I can still see it in my head. What struck me was that there was no running, jumping, shouting, not even a real altercation. Just a kid in handcuffs lying down on a subway platform, a cop standing up over the top of him. Then he reached into his holster, pulled out his firearm, and with a little “pop”, Oscar Grant was dead and the cop was still just standing there. It was not bloody, it was not dramatic, and it was, strangely, casual.

Since then there have been hundreds of viral videos of people being killed and I do not watch any of them. There is nothing for me to gain in watching another person die. I don’t need to be convinced that injustice happens. I know it does.

But then a few months ago I did click and watch. I did so because I knew it didn’t include a death, and this one came to me from a source less popular than normal, so I hadn’t heard from side channels all about it, and so I watched.

I watched and what I saw sort of surprised and inspired me.

I cried. That isn’t normal for me.

What I watched was a bunch of semi-rowdy brown kids standing on someone’s lawn, and that someone, a white off-duty police officer with a shaved head, was confronting one of those children, physically detaining him, and then the man pulled out a pistol and fired it into the ground amidst a crowd of obvious middle school kids. It was shocking to watch a grown man deliberately pull out a gun and fire it in a crowd of children. It was even more shocking considering that on the sidewalk, watching the whole thing, was a grey haired white man with a cane, just standing there unmolested. Within ten feet from each other, the able bodied white adult thought the situation dire enough to discharge a lethal weapon, while the man who required a cane felt safe enough to just stand there. It was astounding. But that wasn’t why I cried.

I cried because what stood out to me the most was the collective bravery of this crowd of children. It was real life heroism. The contrast between the fear of a grown man with a gun and the backing of the government, and the bravery of brown children, moved me. Who are these kids? If this is the rising generation I am both in awe of their capacity, but more so, I am devastated that this is what is demanded of these children in our modern society. This was not Chicago or Baltimore, it was Anaheim. The suburbs.

These are children who I am sure have seen that same Oscar Grant video. These are kids who know the names Treyvon Martin and Tamir Rice. I have no doubt these kids knew the stakes. These kids knew that a grown white man with a gun might in reality kill them, no matter if they are unarmed, and that this white adult won’t necessarily go to jail for killing them. Knowing this, these kids didn’t run away. They stayed for their friend.

I watched it over and over in amazement. Not only did the kids not run away, they rallied behind their friend. And for some reason on that day, I felt for them. They gathered behind him and pled with the adult to let him go. They argued, they begged and pleaded- even tried insults. They grabbed their friend and tried to pull him out of the captor’s grip- all the while pleading and begging. The white man did not pull out a badge. He just held his ground and detained this kid. The kid didn’t attack the man he just pulled and pulled and squirmed trying to escape. And his friends did not abandon him. After some time, having exhausted other options, a few of the boys switched tactics. They tried punching the man, not in his face which is what any fighter would do if trying to hurt someone whose hands were preoccupied, but rather they punched at his hands. They weren’t attacking the man, they were attempting to free their friend. It didn’t work. Then they tried to tackle the grown man. They were unable. They were so helpless against him that after fending off multiple tacklers this white man retained enough control to hold this boy in one hand, reach into his belt with the other, and pull, then fire, his weapon.

The kids and the camera scream and run, then slow, and regroup.

Again, I do not have the words to fully express that these were just children!

I am not sure if I, in my many decades, have ever done something so brave. But they did. And the reason they had to do this was because of a grown, white, police officer who thought keeping a kid off of his lawn was adequate reason to fire a gun.

When police arrived on the scene, they arrested two of the children, but not the adult. He is still on duty with the LAPD.

The family of the child who was restrained is suing the officer bevause the state saw no grounds to press charges. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, who are representing this grown man, called the lawsuit a “shakedown”. They followed up by saying,

“We hope that this lawsuit determines why multiple young adults chose to physically assault a police officer and what the parents of these young adults could have done to teach their children right from wrong,” the statement read.

It is obvious why those kids did it.

And it is in large part, why I understand, and support Colin Kaepernick.

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What the Police Told Me: “they will kill you for being white”

Back in 1995 I lived in an apartment on Bankhead Highway in Atlanta. My roommate and I were the only white people in our complex, on our street, and as far as I could tell, on that whole side of the city. We got a lot of funny looks, were the subjects of quite a lot of loud jokes, but no one ever gave us any real trouble- but then there were the police.

12thecity

They never gave us any real trouble either, but they surely gave us a lot of attention. We used to ride the subway and I could tell every time the transit police changed assignments, because the new officers would without fail, ask us if we missed our stop once we passed the Georgia Dome. They were trying to be helpful, they usually looked concerned. The regular officers knew better, we were easily recognized in that we were Mormon missionaries in white shirts and name tags in addition to our whiteness. There was one instance where a veteran interrupted a new cop mid inquiry, by hitting his shoulder and rolling his eyes, waving the new guy to move on down the train. But always, there was a well-defined line which when the train crossed, the white people needed protection. They never asked the black kids if they missed their stop.13bball

There was that other time when a cop car pulled over to us as we were walking down our block. “Hey! You guys lost?” the officer asked. “No we are fine. Thank you.” Was my reply. “No. I mean what are you doing here?” He followed up. When I explained to him that we live “right over there,” the officer responded by calling me stupid. That is the word he used. I had at this point lived in that apartment for 7 months, and as a 19 year old I probably was in many ways stupid, but I remember clearly what the police officer said, “You are stupid. You shouldn’t live here. These people will kill you just for being white. Don’t call us when you are in trouble for being stupid because we won’t come help you. It is your own fault.” Then he drove away. I never did call the police and no one ever killed me for being white.

Since that time I have heard countless stories from white people, who were at one time in their personal history functioning in a majority black or brown environment (school, work, neighborhood) and were warned, sometimes by school officials, that they would be the target of violence. These stories are almost always told as a means to build the story tellers credibility or first-hand authority in matters of American race relations. There is normally an implied, though sometimes spoken, statement of the teller’s toughness for having endured the dangerous circumstances of being a white minority and the warning of how race really works in the world. These stories happen after a driver takes a wrong turn and finds themselves driving through an area full of brown people, or that time when they were 12 and had to go to a mostly black school and every time the point is that the white person was in real danger.

Yet none of the stories ever include a white person dying. I can recall about three stories (out of 30) where the school kid got in a fight, though none of them required medical attention. The black people on Bankhead never hurt me and none of those I have met who took the dangerous wrong turn, were ever actually assaulted. Where are the dead white bodies? By the persistence of these stories there should be graveyards filled with white victims of racial oppression. I suspect that white people reading this are simultaneously searching their memories to find their examples of actual black on white violence to refute my question. They (we) are looking for their anecdote to support this idea, that a brown or black majority is synonymous with anti-white violence. But it isn’t really necessary because the idea that it could have happened, because it is perceived as a possibility, is always enough to prove the point.

Why?

Is it true that white people in black spaces are in danger, so these stories are simply a practical warning? The data does not bear this out.11church

Does the data not back the lore because the warnings have been heeded? If the white folks had not fled when black people moved into their neighborhoods would there have been great rashes of black on white beatings? Are white people not accosted while driving through “bad”, aka black, neighborhoods at significant numbers only because the white people are listening and driving the long way home? Perhaps the myth is only a myth because it is effectively serving its purpose. Maybe.

I have wondered this quite a bit since 1995 and it led me to do a lot of looking. I have looked all the way back to the 1600’s and I will admit, I found some stories. There was that time in 1675 when a bunch of white people found themselves settling in a brown neighborhood called Plymouth and the brown people started burning villages and killing people for 3 years before they were permanently defeated and almost completely, exterminated. There was that time in 1831 when Nat Turner tried to kill all the white people in his neighborhood, or 1859 when John Brown riled up some black people and they killed 5 white people, injured 9, but were then themselves crushed by Robert E Lee. There was that time after the civil war in 1898 when the whole state of North Carolina, including Wilmington, was a black neighborhood. Violence broke out on voting day- and 100 black people were killed, black homes were burned, yet strangely no white people died.

There have been race riots in Atlanta (1906), St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Tulsa (1921), Harlem (1935), Detroit (1943), Watts (1965), and on and on up till today there has been violence when black and white collide. Yet in every single one of those situations, including the ones back in the beginning, the primary casualty has always been the brown or black people. The white people win every time so why in all the stories people tell me, are the white people the ones in danger?

Maybe the persistence of this story, this trope, grows from the collective suppressed white awareness of how truly mistreated brown people have been, and the logic that says that this violence will inevitably be reciprocated whenever the opportunity is presented. Perhaps that is it, though that would be some seriously collective subconscious logic at work, but I think individuals should spend some time thinking through this logic and all of its implications and lessons.

But whatever the cause or origin of this line of story telling, that white people in brown or black places are in physical danger, what concerns me most, is when this idea is perpetuated or enforced, by those in authority- like cops. Or teachers. This concerns me because I have yet to find any tangible set of facts or events that bear out this widespread idea, in fact I have at least 20 years of first hand experience refuting it, but we as a society are trained to believe and trust police and cops. Or maybe I should just say white people are trained to trust these authorities.

Maybe thinking about this sort of storytelling can help us understand why there is a gap between who trusts the authorities and who does not.

When my white body moved into black Atlanta spaces, the police felt I needed protection. Their actions and inquiries made this obvious. Maybe those officers really did have information I do not, or had direct experience that I did not (surely both are true in many respects), but what was clear in those moments, and in all of those stories, was that the authorities believed that black and brown people posed a physical danger to white people.

That is the whole point of these stories. And it makes me fear for those black and brown people when I consider that people with badges, or run schools, are the ones who believe and tell that tale. In this sort of reality who are the ones being hurt?

It isn’t the white people.

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I Am Not a Protester: I am a parent

I am not a protester. That has never been my “thing”. But that was before a news report made my daughter cry.

I am not opposed to protesting, or protesters per-se, I just generally think my time and skills are better suited elsewhere. I have a fundamental, even primal, understanding of how those who are normally being protested against, react to protests, and it is almost never in a way that moves the observer closer to the ideal the protesters are pushing. Even if message confusion and ideology conflation are set aside, I simply think other tactics are more effective. At least for the goals I would like to see the greater “us” achieve.

But yesterday was different. I didn’t change, but my needs did.

When my 13 year old heard the radio reporting the “unite the right” march in Charlottesville, including one participant driving his car into a crowd of anti-racists, she began to cry. I asked her why and she said it was because she was afraid.

Afraid for her own safety.

Because she is black.

I often complain that everyone in the suburbs, which now includes us, are too afraid of everything. We think anyone and everything is prowling just out of sight ready to rape pillage and plunder us individually. We build walls, fences, gates, and make everything private in the name of safety. “We” advocate concealed carry for our own protection, are willing to cede rights to police for “our” protection, and prioritize national defense over humanitarian aid for “our protection”. And here was my daughter hearing about some events off on the other side of the country and she was crying out of fear that this meant she was not safe. My first instinct was to roll my eyes.

Because I’m white.

I am also a grown man. I am by experience and by design the most inherently safe of all. She is 13 and aware enough to see the world around her and think about what she sees. She is old enough to consider motivations, and power dynamics, and historical context. She is aware enough to know that not everyone is one way or the other, but at 13, the thing she is struggling the hardest to understand, is herself.

I do my best to help her respect Police officers and authority in general, but when shots are fired far too often the character to which she can most closely identify with, is the black person being shot. No matter who it is that shot them. When she hears our president speak out about what is dangerous in the world or wrong with the country, more often than not she identifies with the one being called dangerous and not the man behind the podium. And when she sees and hears about a crowd of white men rallying against black people- where I see the guys who look like me and easily dismiss their absurdity- she sees herself in the woman killed by their car.

Why wouldn’t she be afraid?

Who, or what, or where, is she getting messages to counteract all those others? Every parent knows the danger of their own incessant droning being drowned out or dismissed. She hears us at home, but where else? Who else is saying to a young black girl, “I see you and you are safe.”? I thought about this sincerely and I didn’t like the answer.

So we went to a rally.

We went so my daughters could see other people, friends or strangers, who were willing to publicly say that white supremacy is wrong. We went so my daughters could hear people honk their horns to show support. We went so my daughter could be a little black girl, and people would show out loud, that they see her. I wanted her to be surrounded by these people and feel safe.

So no, I am not a protester. I do not think my presence there changed the mind of anyone in opposition. I do not think the waving flags and catchy signs swayed anyone who previously disagreed. I still think my skills are better suited to something akin to lobbying not rallying, but no matter my skill set or political stance, what I most need to be- is a parent.

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