Every now and then, history picks up the pace. Things come into sharper focus and anyone who isn’t hiding under a rock knows that something important is happening.
Since the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, we have been living through such a time. It’s the #BlackLivesMatter moment, and attention must be paid.
The Movement for Black Lives is meeting for the first time ever this weekend in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s an appropriate location: not long ago, a twelve-year old boy named Tamir Rice died at the hands of a policeman there.
But here’s the sad truth. This meeting could be held just about anywhere in America, and there’d be a nearby place where an unarmed Black man or woman died from police violence. State-sanctioned violence against African-Americans is part of the country’s DNA, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynchings to bombings to mass incarceration.
I know this history intellectually, but there’s no way that I feel it in my gut the way my Black friends and colleagues do. I never felt the need to warn my now 24-year old son about how to act when spoken to by the authorities. And Lord knows it never, ever occurred to me that my daughter might get pulled over by a cop and end up dying in jail.
It’s a moment of reckoning for the nation. A thousand or more of our fellow citizens — nearly all of them African-American — will gather in Cleveland to strategize and mourn, to plan and weep and build. If you’re not African-American, you just need to shut your eyes for 30 seconds and think what it would mean if every day or so, someone who looked like you was killed for no reason that can ever make sense.
It’s hard to fathom, but it’s reality. The most recent reality belongs to a woman named Sandra Bland. Her story bears retelling.
Two weeks ago, Ms. Bland was driving to start her new job at Prairie View A&M University. A police car approached with sirens wailing and she changed lanes to allow him to pass. But she failed to signal and the officer stopped to pull her over. The situation escalated quickly. When she didn’t put out her cigarette, the officer ordered Ms. Bland out of the car, brandishing a taser in her face. She was forced to the ground and arrested.
And a few days later, she was found dead in her jail cell. Her death was declared a suicide. Whether it was or wasn’t, her real crime was to be Black. There is just no way that this chain of events would have happened to a 28-year-old white woman.
The truth is, Black people are often treated as somehow less than fully human, and their lives accorded less value. That’s at the heart of the meaning of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It’s at the heart of the challenge this country faces.
Class and race are deeply intertwined in American, but they’re not the same thing. And while we desperately need greater economic equality for all Americans, it would not have prevented Sandra Bland’s death. She had a college degree and a supportive family, and she was traveling to her “dream job” at her alma mater. Didn’t matter. It was still snatched away.
I tread on unfamiliar ground writing this. It’s not merely that I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what it means to be Black in America. It’s as if I live under different rules, as if I can exert my full rights and humanity more than others. A middle-aged white guy like me fears that even writing this may strike some as presumptuous or grand-standing. But my footing gets sounder as colleagues of color at Working Families help us navigate towards a more just and equitable society — one that requires the dismantling of the twin confines of structural racism and economic inequality that prevent us all from reaching our full potential.
Movements have a way of confronting and changing the public consciousness and the culture. They make us uncomfortable. They are supposed to. As Occupy Wall Street focused the nation’s attention on inequality, the Movement for Black Lives has forced us to directly confront the racial inequities and violence that persist in our society.
A dozen Working Families organizers from across the country are in Cleveland this weekend. I’m glad we are able to send a delegation to participate in a movement that we hope will only grow from here. I am supporting the convening with a donation, and I hope you’ll join me.
A friend said it to me this way: Have you ever wondered what you would have done during the civil rights movement? Stop wondering. It is the civil rights movement. What are you doing?
In solidarity and hope,
Working Families Party