“Whose lives matter?”
“Black lives matter!” echoed out across Rainier Avenue South last Saturday as protesters from two rallies — one beginning at 23rd and Union and one beginning at the Rainier Beach Community Center — converged just south of the Interstate 90 corridor. The group marched back to Rainier and MLK to block off the entire intersection.
The protest, which lasted more than four hours, was one of many held across the country as a part of a national day of action in solidarity with Baltimore after the murder of Freddie Gray.
Gray, whose spinal cord was severed while in police custody, is the most recent in a long list of black people slain by the police. Some were killed for petty crimes, some killed for no reason beyond the fact that armed police officers felt “afraid.”
Being an unarmed black person who has caused that fear has become a crime worthy of a death sentence. After the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Florida in the death of Trayvon Martin and the decision in New York not to indict New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner to death, we’ve learned that not only do our lives not matter, but that we cannot reasonably expect those responsible for those deaths to be held accountable because their fear is more important than our right to exist. This injustice isn’t new.
Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallo are names permanently etched into our collective psyche. But the list is so much longer, spanning not years or decades, but across centuries of systemic brutality.
And there are so many names we will never know, those disappeared, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and left to pollute rivers or decompose in unmarked graves. In 1964 as “Freedom Summer” began, the search for missing civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner uncovered the corpses of black college students, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddy Moore. They had gone missing that spring. Also found was the body of 14-year-old Herbert Orsby and five other unidentified Mississippi black folks whose names were never known.
Even in death they were not equal. No one searched for these men except for their families and local communities. However, the FBI and other agencies led a search for Goodman and Schwerner, two white northerners who got too close to the truth of the black experience. The bodies of Goodman and Schwerner were found shot once each through the heart, but Chaney, the black civil rights worker who was with them, had been beaten and then shot multiple times.
This genocide is not endemic to the south or to white police or even to a particular time in U.S. history. It’s simply made more visible recently by people catching these crimes on video and sharing them with the world. But even when the truth is evident, there is still no justice.
In a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, comedian Michael Che commented on the fact that six officers had been charged with the murder of Freddie Gray.
“It’s a vital and first step on the path to those officers being acquitted,” he pronounced to the titter of audience laughter. But really it’s a little too true to be funny.
I joined the the Seattle BLM march near Orcas Street to fully immerse myself in it. Since the dismissal of the case against Eric Garner’s murderer, I have been too angry to allow myself to feel. Who wants to feel when reality is so overwhelming? When the names of the black people murdered every 28 hours start appearing on your Facebook feed daily, it’s hard not to drown in hopelessness.
A few days before the rally, I attended a workshop on creative activism. During the workshop, facilitator Cambrie Nelson posed the question: What is activism? Was it marching in the street? Was it getting people to take the stairs instead of using the escalator? Was it throwing lit flares at the police? And was the purpose to effect change and if so how could change be quantified?
At the workshop, I realized the root of my depression was the feeling that nothing will ever change. Every February, we drag out footage of MLK talking about his dream and then we have self-congratulatory lattes in our Obama mugs because, gee, haven’t we come so far since then? Yes and no. We aren’t where we were. But where we are is a country that is OK with the fact that people who look like me are four times more likely to be killed. Houston (and Seattle, and the USA), we still have a problem.
“Black lives matter!” we shouted in unison on Saturday, quoting the now ubiquitous twitter hashtag. As we walked with one another, yelling, chanting and singing, with the police surrounding us every step of the way, we were met with a variety of responses. People stared. Some took out their phones and filmed us, some drove by and honked their solidarity, a few raised up black power fists, but few actually took a moment out of their own lives to walk with us.
At the end of the march, people spoke not only about the murders, but a wide spectrum of issues facing black people. Topics included police brutality, gentrification, racism in the school system or the criminal justice system.
One girl, who couldn’t have been more than 10-years old, demanded an end to these killings. She pointed at her own skin and affirmed its beauty. At such a young age, despite living in this racist patriarchal society she learned to embody what the rest of us struggled to chant — that her life matters.
That moment cut through my anger, my weariness, not just from the hours of walking, but from the years of ceaseless attacks on my people. Her speech shifted something in me and restored a sliver of hope. If this young woman could somehow remain intact, then it might be worth it to keep marching, to keep shouting, to keep affirming the truth of this movement. Our lives matter.
Now its time for Seattle to affirm the same. In this liberal bubble where pets are treated like people and everyone must recycle and compost, in a city with the nation’s highest minimum wage, where we regularly tout our progressive values, I felt a disconnect. In the middle of the street on a gorgeous sunny Saturday I looked around at the 200 others in attendance and wondered, where is everyone else? Why aren’t there thousands here standing with us?
Shortly after the march, I caught the light rail to the International District for the Taco Truck Showdown and had my question answered. Half of Seattle was shoved into the two-block corridor lined on either side with food cards pedaling tacos from every ethnic background. There were pho tacos, duck tacos, Hawaiian tacos, curried goat tacos, chicken tikka tacos and so much more. And people were lined up for hours to stuff their face.
In the face of such dedication— just getting a taco was a 45 minute commitment— I wondered what it would be like if Black lives were as important as carne asada. A girl can dream.
The next BLM rally will be held Saturday, May 9 at 6 p.m. at Westlake. Hope to see you there.