It started as soon as I got to work.
“Bet you’re glad the history club isn’t going to Baltimore this year!”
A comment between two social studies teachers. Nudge. Nudge.
I moved on to my morning duty and a science teacher asked me, “How about all that looting and rioting in Baltimore?”
Smirk. Chuckle. Conspiratorial tone.
Then at lunch, they were talking about a “hilarious” video where a black mother was yelling and hitting her son for being part of the riots.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Am I the only white person who doesn’t need reassured?
Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re asking for confirmation, comfort, soothing.
It’s not white people’s fault. It’s those uppity… uh… black people.
Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died under mysterious circumstances two weeks ago in Baltimore police custody.
His spine was allegedly “80% severed” at his neck. He had three fractured vertebrae, and his larynx was injured.
Police say he was arrested without any violence. Bystanders say he was beaten with batons. A cell phone video shows him being dragged into custody while in visible agony.
And what did he do to attract police attention? He met an officer’s eyes and then ran. After tackling him to the ground, the police found a knife on him.
And now he’s dead.
It doesn’t take much to see why people are upset – especially people of color.
Yet another police encounter that leaves an African American dead with no provocation.
Peaceful protests took place on Saturday and no one paid much attention. Some protestors turned violent by Sunday and the story suddenly became those crazy black folks are destroying their own communities again.
And every white face I see wants me to join in the condemnation.
It’s the black people’s fault. They keep acting out.
What does this solve? What does it prove?
PLEASE! Do not assume that a lack of melanin in my cheeks means a lack of common sense.
Freddie Gray’s death is not an “excuse” to riot. No one sits around all day checking the headlines for a reason to go wild and set cars on fire. That kind of violence doesn’t just turn on at the flip of a switch.
It’s a slow burn in the pit of your belly, quietly consuming your insides until there’s no recourse left that makes sense. All you can do is scream and go crazy for a while.
Everyone’s done it. After a particularly bad day, the garbage disposal won’t open, so you kick it. You get some terrible news and scream at the neighbor’s dog.
You get it out. You take it out – usually on someone or something that doesn’t deserve it. Often hilariously so. The garbage disposal had nothing to do with my bad day. The neighbor’s dog didn’t cause my bad news.
It’s called being human. Looting and rioting are a more extreme version of the same thing. They don’t solve anything. But how dare you say you don’t understand!
Black people – especially men – are being murdered, and our justice system seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
Maybe there’s some strange extenuating circumstance that exonerates police in Gray’s death. But I doubt it. Even if they had nothing to do with his injuries, they certainly should have gotten him medical attention immediately after the arrest.
They are culpable. They were wrong.
Why can’t white people admit it?
We’re so afraid if we acknowledge white folks have done any wrong to black folks, it will start some kind of moral accountancy. Once we start, we’ll have to go through the racial debt point-by-point.
Freddie Gray will lead to Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. That will lead to unfair incarceration rates and sentencing. That will lead to Jim Crow laws. And before you know it, we’ll be talking about S-L-A-V-E-R-Y.
Can’t have that! It might make white people feel bad.
Some of us already feel bad. We feel bad that our black brothers and sisters have to keep putting up with defensive, frightened white people.
I am not afraid of black people. They are my friends, my neighbors, my students.
I am not afraid of exposing grievances. The truth deserves to be told.
I love black people. I love justice. And I want it for all of us.
NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and the Badass Teachers Association blog.