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Wake Up, White People

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“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

— Benjamin Franklin

It is time, white people. It is well past time. We can pretend that we are “unaffected” by police violence against people of color in America, or we can be outraged. Those are the only two options I see. Because you can’t watch the video of the police swarming all over Eric Garner in Staten Island and see it as anything other than homicide.

There are no questions, no conflicting accounts as there were in Ferguson; it’s all on video. As is the aftermath where six or seven officers, presumably trained in CPR, stand around watching Eric die on the sidewalk. One goes through his pockets. Another pats his shoulder and gives him the encouraging advice to “Breathe in, breathe out.” How sweet.

Parallel Universe

When I heard that the Staten Island grand jury would bring no charges, I felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me — like I was the one pleading, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” And I don’t have brown or black kids. I have a lot of friends who do, though, and I can’t imagine how they must feel every time their child walks out the door.

Meanwhile, my white Facebook friends are “outraged” at the latest changes in Facebook privacy policies, or else super-excited because Safeway has whole shopping carts full of candy bars for only a buck. I look around to see if I’ve crossed into a parallel universe. Haven’t they heard the news? I don’t even have a TV, and I heard the news.

But no, life in the white world goes on as before.

But not entirely.

Signs of Humanity

One white girlfriend calls in tears, partly hopeful because there are people demonstrating in the streets all over the country, and partly distraught because of “what has happened to our country.” She has made a sign for her window that says simply, ERIC.

Another white friend who teaches at an elite private school struggles “to justify teaching the structure of a sonnet when there seems to be no structure in the world —or when it seems that the structures that do exist appall and offend you.” I wish more people had his soft heart, where “simply falling asleep in secure comfort feels viciously calloused, knowing there are people dying wrongfully at the hands of others while the world looks on and declares No harm, No foul.”

A Facebook friend asks, “Where is the fierce urgency of now among my fellow white liberal base? The cultural state of the country feels more dire than at any time in my lifetime.” (I might add, where is the conservative base that’s supposed to care about individual rights? Oh, that’s right, they are too busy creating cartoons of our black president’s head coming out of a dog’s butt to notice people being gunned down and strangled in the streets.)

So, Mr. Benjamin Franklin, white Americans may be slow to wake up and slow to outrage. I know that I feel powerless over all this, and it’s easier to be in denial. But there are signs of an awakening. And this is a democracy — or at least it used to be. I think it’s possible that perhaps, just perhaps, these African-American men and boys will not have died completely in vain. Perhaps justice will one day be served in this country when White America recognizes that there is no one “unaffected” by racial oppression.

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“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemoller

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The Time I Stole Swisher Sweets and Didn’t Get Shot

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I’ve been thinking about the time I stole a package of Swisher Sweet cigarillos. Despite the encouragement of my friends who liked to stick it to “the system” as often as possible, I did not shoplift much as a kid — just a yo-yo, a lipstick, and the Swisher Sweets. That’s why I remember the event clearly.

swisher

It was a small package, maybe four or five cigarillos, and I stole them from Packett’s Pharmacy in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I was with Frank D., who stole a smoking pipe and a Mars Bar.

It was Autumn, and the leaves rustled under our feet as we walked up the street with our loot to hang out on the benches outside the public library. Every Friday night, a dozen or more long-haired high school kids would congregate there to act cool. Our parents told themselves that we were studying. Sometimes we were, mostly we weren’t. Nobody questioned us or told us to move along. Incidentally, we were all white.

I was fifteen. I did not get caught stealing from Packett’s. There were no security cameras back in those days.

Odds are good that there was marijuana in my blood — there often was back then. The odds were also good that I was not going to be shot for stealing those Swisher Sweets, even if I had gotten caught, walked down the middle of the street, and been aggressive with “the pigs,” as we respectfully called officers of the law in the early seventies.

What Matters

I’m not saying that the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 9th did so because he thought Michael had stolen Swisher Sweets. I’m not wading into that controversy — it doesn’t matter from where I stand, except that I think the police ought to be honest about it.

I’m not saying Michael was smoking pot, either. That doesn’t matter to me. Yes, it matters that “anonymous officials” are flinging around “facts” about the case and the autopsy in an unprofessional manner, which — surprise! — makes some people suspect an intentional smear campaign against Michael Brown.

But in the end what does matter, and matters very much, is that there’s another African American boy dead in our streets, shot by bullets from a police officer’s gun. I suppose that somebody somewhere might think that stealing cigarillos and smoking pot is punishable by gunshots to the head, but I don’t know them.

Maybe Michael did get aggressive, maybe he didn’t. No doubt both he and the officer were scared out of their wits. Who knows what happened on that street?

Nobody’s perfect, not cops, not teenagers. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made a lot worse ones than stealing Swisher Sweets.

But people who make the mistake of pulling a trigger six times and shooting a kid dead should not be police officers.

I’m not judge and jury, but perhaps if at least some of these trigger happy cops went to jail, our streets would be safer for everyone.

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