It’s been roughly two weeks since the death of George Floyd and the onset of protests concerning his death and the ongoing systemic scourge of police brutality. I live just outside of Saint Louis proper, but in Saint Louis County. The city is not unfamiliar with either death at the hands of those who are supposed to protest us or protest when this promise is broken, as it so often is.
As I have in the past (as a middle-aged, middle class, overweight, anxiety-ridden, cis-gendered, mostly straight, married, white woman), I have struggled how to best to be involved. I fully recognize that my place isn’t in any decision-making position. I take no issue with that. Where I struggle is that, as much as I want to be the one joining every march, I can’t be. I have been to several and will continue to go. But I aim for the smaller ones because the honest truth is that crowds and I do get along well.
This isn’t just about social actions. All my real-world friends know there is a fairly decent chance I will skip out on whichever social event they’ve invited me to, even if I said I’d be there. I once got entirely dressed for a Halloween party, costume and all, and then stayed home. Introversion, gotta love it.
This has recently played out predictably. I choose an action, spend all day telling myself I’m going, wimp out at the last moment, and then hate myself for it. I usually turn around and drop $50 into one of the Bail Funds, or ACLU, or Southern Poverty Law Center, or any number of smaller, local calls for funds. I’ve signed every petition and emailed mayors, governors, a newspaper over a racist cartoon, my senator, and other people in positions of decision-making power. Which I acknowledge isn’t without value, arguably is more valuable than one more white women marching.
But I want to be counted. I don’t mean me personally, like “Look at me, the good white woman, doing cookie-worthy things.” I mean as a body filling out the mass. Because every crowd of thousands of people is made up of individuals who got on the Metro, or in their cars, or on their bicycles and got there. Every crowd is made up of X number of people, plus one.
Despite my best intentions, I have accepted that I’m not going to be the front line warrior I am in my imagination. I’m going to be the quiet support in the back and that’s ok with me. But that still leaves the question of how.
I have misstepped in the past*. During the Ferguson Uprising I took part in a blog hop called #WeAreSTL that I believed was uplifting Saint Louis but was in fact really problematic. I am terrified to go back and read my own published work because I know I was uninformed and it’s probably problematic. I learned from those experiences and am trying to avoid another. But I do think I have a….perhaps unique opportunity isn’t the phrase I’m looking for, but an opportunity all the same.
I live in Webster Groves, MO. It’s considered an older, affluent neighborhood and happens to be 89.9% white. And even that’s not representative of the demographics, because the majority of the non-white people live in North Webster Groves (obviously not all), which predates the rest of the town that grew around it. So, I basically live in Whitesville**. (There’s a story of how we ended up here when moving back from England that has a lot to do with not thinking to check demographics, which is a privilege in its own right.)
Here’s the thing with a lot of older generation Whitesville‘s people (be it this Whitesville or another). A lot of them aren’t moved by seeing masses of protesters on TV. They see one looter and call it a riot. They see police abuse and want to know what the protesters did to deserve it. A moving mass of strangers means nothing to them and isn’t going to get them to think about their beliefs and learn anything new. In fact, it could have just the opposite effect. It gives them cause to dismiss them and what they represent.
I’m generalizing, obviously. There are plenty of liberal, open-minded people here too***. As the older generation moves out or on, and younger families move in, the mindset is changing more quickly. For sure. And there are more people who shrug at the whole affair than are openly and hostilely racist. I hardly see Trump flags anymore. But those who, say, put a Black Lives Matter in their yard find this sort of nonsense staples to it.
I can’t do anything for the latter and the former doesn’t need any inspiration to look further into systemic oppression or Black Lives Matter. They’re already there.
At some point, while kicking myself for not going to the downtown rally with 25,000 other people, I realized that I don’t have to join a crowd to do something. Being an introvert means doing things on my own is kind of my superpower. (Of course, being a white woman in a white neighborhood also provides me quite a lot of leeway many others are denied.) And I live alongside some people who are going to ignore that crowd anyway.
But…and here’s where I’ve been going with all of this…might they take notice of one. One neighbor, one member of their own community, one person who is presumably just like them? Might seeing that single, familiar local make a difference? Maybe not, but I’m hoping it might. If they don’t feel their hackles rise at the crowds (and all the subdermal racism involved in that) might they have the breathing space to consider giving themselves the chance to look into Black Lives Matter or systemic oppression or defunding the police? Maybe it will take passing me 50 times, but on that 51st, might they feel unintimidated enough to come over and speak to me, ask questions? Might I have access to this space that some others don’t?
So, for the last four days, I’ve taken my BLM matter sign, my camp chair, a metric ton of sunblock, and sat out on Route 66 (a fairly busy, main thoroughfare quite near my home). I’ve committed myself to do so a few hours every day. (I did four hours the first day, two the second, three the third, and four today.) And I intend to continue doing it (minus the week I’m scheduled to visit my mom.) I think this is something that has to be sustained if its to have any effect, and that’s my plan. I intend to be a repeated sight.
I don’t actually know if this will make a difference. I know it can’t hurt to be seen, to remind people again that the movement exists (and exists here). I’m really hoping I don’t look back at it and realize it was performative and/or problematic like the WeAreSTL posts. Or that I’m moving out of the allyship role by making a move on my own, when I said above that I know my role isn’t to direct actions.
So far, the response has been positive (in the sense that I don’t feel like I’m hurting anyone or wasting time). I get the occasional honk and “woo-hoo,” or “Yeah, Black Lives Matter!” Two of my neighbors have come out to speak to me. One, a young man, in passing to cross the street, stopped to tell me about being at a protest the previous weekend and I felt like it mattered to him to be able to share that. Another got a text (and a picture, eek) from a friend telling her there was someone sitting at the end of her street with a sign. So, she came out to investigate. I think partially to ensure it wasn’t an ‘outsider’ because she visibly relaxed when I identified myself as X and Y’s mom. (We actually know one another in passing. But with masks and hats and glasses, who can recognize anyone?) I was able to connect her to the local action group, so she’ll know when things are happening locally. And one young woman stopped and gave me a sixpack of water, a snack and a hug. The people flipping me off exist, but in fewer numbers than I’d expected. I’ve not seen any overt anger or been harassed by police. (In fact, I jaywalked in front of a white SUV with my chair and sign this morning, and didn’t realize until it passed and I could see the side that it was a police vehicle. It didn’t even slow down.) This I attribute to my privilege, the same privilege I’m trying to leverage in doing this.
I realize I have centered myself in this. I share it not because I want recognition. But because this is my blog and I often work things out on it, in a sort of public diary format. But also because I frequently use it to hold myself to account. I said I was going to do this, so I’m doing it. Even as it gets hot, even as I had to give in to the ridiculous straw hat because the sunburn is real, this post exists to remind me to stick to my commitment. And maybe, if it’s not too arrogant to say, to encourage others to do something similar. If you can’t get to a protest for whatever reason, you could find something that works for you. I mean, this certainly counts as social distancing for those that are immunocompromised (except for that hug, but when she asked for it there was no way I was saying no to that most basic of human comforts).
Another aspect of all of this is that I didn’t want to spend hours sitting staring at passing cars. I understand that protest isn’t meant to be comfortable. But I am aiming for more time and I didn’t think I’d last long like that. But I also didn’t think sitting there reading science fiction was the way to go. So, I’ve further committed to reading topically informative books during my time, educating myself. I’m starting with the books I already have though. So, some of them aren’t all well known. But when I finish them I’ll move on the the bigger, more well known ones.
The first two days I read When They Call You a Terrorist, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele. I’ll add a review below since this is usually a review blog. And when I finished that I moved on to We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I’m reading now.
Since I’ve been really lazy over the last couple of years about reading nonfiction, they’ve been multiplying. So, I have the following lined up.
- Reclaiming Our Space, by Feminista Jones
- A Particular Kind of Black Man, by Tope Folarian (which is technically literary fiction, but I’m going to include it)
- Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, by Saidiya Hartman
- Jim Crow Schools, by David Stovall and Terrenda White
- We Wear the Mask, edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page
- Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country, by Tim Scott and Trey Gowdy
- Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement, and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul, by Anthony Graves
- Human Property Hanging in the Family Tree Yields a Harvest, by Ann Lee
- Shared Values: African Americans and Republicans, by Richard M. Rosenfield
- Crooks Kill, Cops Lie, by Timothy C. Richards
- Hope in the Hood, by Shirley Alarie
I’m a little iffy about a couple of them. At least one is self-published and reviews say its very poorly edited, I don’t trust anything by the republicans (but there is value in ‘knowing your enemy’s,’ so to speak), one may turn out to be a white savior story and one may be written from the perspective of a ex-cop. But I am going to start with these that I have on hand. And if I get through them I’ll get more (aiming for more well known and recommended texts).
That’s about all the rambling I have for today. Here is the promised review of When They Call You a Terrorist.
A poetic and powerful memoir about what it means to be a Black woman in America—and the co-founding of a movement that demands justice for all in the land of the free.
Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin.
Championing human rights in the face of violent racism, Patrisse is a survivor. She transformed her personal pain into political power, giving voice to a people suffering in equality and a movement fueled by her strength and love to tell the country—and the world—that Black Lives Matter.
Part of me feels like I should say that the very fact that this book exists means it deserves a 5-star rating. It does a wonderful job humanizing people that are too often made faceless. It is a marvelous and loving tribute to family. It highlights and describes many of the atrocities our government and police forces partake in still today. And it does it in a way that is engageable.
It’s worth noting that this is a biography of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, not necessarily of the Black Lives Matter movement, though that is covered in the last few chapters. And I felt the structural writing could have been cleaned up a little bit. There are several repetitions and the lack of a consistent timeline is occasionally confusing. Also, there seems to be an inconsistency in capitalizing names. But I sense that is intentional (just look at the cover), even if I don’t know what convention is being used.
*This is an added note to say I’ve misstepped even since I wrote this post last week. When the necessity for masks developed because of Covid-19, I bought masks with the city of Saint Louis’ flag on them. I’ve since learned that the fleur de lis was used to brand runagates. This obviously isn’t a symbol I want to be walking around with on my face and certainly isn’t an appropriate one to be wearing to BLM marches, which I have been. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This is me holding myself accountable and trying.
**Yeah, I made that word up.
***June 14, 2020: I feel like I should give Webster Groves a little credit, considering I painted them as quite conservative above. I went to the #WGSDMarchforChange march today. I’m always a little wary when things are labeled “family-friendly,” and “support and solidarity.” I kind of feel like that suggests standing on the sidelines cheering people on, instead of getting in there and fighting with them. But I also accept that I’m quibbling with semantics, and as such a predominantly white neighborhood, maybe that’s the best we can do. Regardless, I expected it to be a small affair. But I was wrong and impressed with Webster Groves. They (we) turned out. There were significantly more people there than I expected. I’d guess ~1500 people. I don’t want to discount what I’m doing on my own, by saying, “Hey there are a lot more people looking for a change here than I expected.” But hey, there are a lot more people looking for change here than I expected and I’m so glad to see it.