In the heat of the Ferguson protests, it was hard to look at Darren Wilson’s corn-fed, supposedly bruised face and not suspect you’re looking into the eyes of white privilege. Or flat-out racism. If anything, the months since the verdict–verdicts–have showcased the ease with which an individual can become a synecdoche, an effigy, or a martyr.
I started writing about this last year, in the midst of the original protests, but return to it now because people keep getting shot in my neighborhood. Backstory: Last summer I moved from a middle-class neighborhood in Oakland to one where unemployment and crime are high. This was to purchase a house in a place we could afford, because real estate in Oakland is not much cheaper than it is in San Francisco. However, illegal stuff happens on my street all the time. Most of it–casual drug dealing by the mild-mannered guys who live in their vans–isn’t threatening. Yet the neighborhood has its paroxysms of sketchiness, and sometimes outright scariness. Last week I called the cops three times in 24 hours. That Friday, three people were shot a few blocks away, on a bike route I often use. This came at the end of a two-week period in which our streets were shut down three times for police raids. We woke to the sound of helicopters, smoke grenades, and K-9 units, and seeing men with drawn guns run past the house. The police presence around our new home is huge.
So it is fair to say that I listen closely when people talk about crime, being black, or the police, because though I am white/Arab, my home is not.
Yet since December’s spate of protests that shut down freeways around our house, popular discourse looks less like dialogue than it does street marches that turn violent; or whole bristly ideas jammed together in a tweet and hashtagged (#fuckthepolice #blacklivesmatter), ideas that rub shoulders in discourse but which are practically antithetical. The most useful material I’ve encountered so far are personal essays about racism and an art project connecting everyday people in Manhattan with ones in Tehran.
It feels like nonsense. It’s almost as if there are no words. And maybe that’s just how it feels to encounter the system. The reason this is on my blog and not tidied up as an essay for somewhere legit is because, like so many others, I have nothing to add except more doubt. Yet it almost physically hurts to not talk about it at all.
The protests leave me uncomfortable, albeit not as sad and angry as seeing systemic racism played out in predictable ways at unpredictable times. It makes sense to me that this is a relevant Occupy issue. Yet in trying to sort out what I think of it all, while it’s happening, I am unable to dig very far through this rocky soil before hitting a number of questions that make me feel stuck anyway. Yes, today’s Mike Brown is yesterday’s Oscar Grant, but do we really think we can accomplish something in a society that can’t even prevent school shootings? Does someone, somewhere, have a way of talking to one another instead of over one another? Is there a way to make it better?
And by mitigating or replacing capitalism, will we really solve systemic issues? I answer this bookishly, by turning to Ursula Le Guin. In her anarchist novel, The Dispossessed, the hero struggles with the same flaws in human society despite living in an otherwise successful anarchist colony. Le Guin is no fan of capitalism, but even she seems to recognize that short of creating Humanity 2.0, some problems just don’t go away. They have to be solved over and over again at the individual level, in everything from your own ethical choices to how you raise your kids.
Or how you train your police, as it were.
Yesterday a woman was shot about a half-mile from my house. A helicopter almost directly above my backyard brought me to the window. Wondering what was happening, I went to Twitter. A few people had already posted photos from the fringe of the crime scene: a 25-year-old black woman named Yvette Henderson confronted security guards after shoplifting in Home Depot and ran away, encountered Emeryville police officers, and following about seven gunshots, she was dead. They recovered a gun from her body. A witness on a passing bus cast doubt on the report, saying she was waving for the bus to stop and held a purse in her other hand. Cop cars, bystanders, and news crews gathered at the scene all afternoon. By nighttime, Yvette Henderson was a hashtag, and protestors shattered a window at Home Depot. Someone tweeted that her body had “been left in the street for hours.” The news crews posted the story, a brief repackaging of the police statement.
It all happened RIGHT THERE. But a fog materializes around the events anyway. It is reflexive to doubt everyone. Of course her body was left in the street for a while–it’s evidence. And how does shattering the Home Depot window help? What does that have to do with anything here? But also: “Police recovered a weapon.” In its calm neutrality, the statement seems undermine itself. A lawless, cynical voice that I had no idea existed in my head silently adds …that they could have planted on her. And more cynicism: tweeters and candle-holders only appear for the memorial services in semi-gentrified neighborhoods, so are those the (lost) lives that matter more? Are these memorial services undermining their own point?
My normal bike route through my own neighborhood is as far away as Ferguson. But the truth feels like it is on the tip of my tongue. What really happened? Some lady shoplifts and goes running down the street, but rather than end up in jail for the afternoon, she’s dead?
It is wrong, and it is happening every week.