In Using My Voice and Social Media Platforms More Effectively (step two)
by Perry Janes
*A version of this originally appeared as a post on the author’s Facebook page. It’s reprinted here with permission.
There are people on my newsfeed with posts and memes that read “Michael Brown is dead because of Michael Brown’s actions.” There are others voicing their support of the NYC police officer who choked and killed Eric Garner. There is literally no word in the English language to express the outrage I feel at these sentiments – at seeing them when I log in to my account – or to unpack the levels of racism and hatefulness implied here. Let’s set aside the fact that an armed, white police officer in a community already rife with racial tensions fired six shots into an unarmed teenager – six shots against an unarmed youth – and, for argument’s sake, let’s set aside any perceived ambiguity about what did or did not happen on that street. Let’s also set aside the fact that Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe” at least 7 times (verifiably, on video) before he died of asphyxiation on the sidewalk, that chokeholds are not approved by the NYC police force, and that Eric Garner did not appear to be an aggressor in this situation.
Instead, let’s talk about the people on Facebook, and in the world, who default to a racist and fearful narrative with or without realizing it, who level sweeping generalizations about how black and minority cultures respond to injustice (the recent riots in Ferguson with the possibility of further unrest now in NYC and across the country) while treating the myriad riots perpetrated by white people (the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riots being one small example, incited over hockey, I might add) with completely different levels of rhetoric and criticism; let’s also acknowledge that you can question and inspect this disparity in these dialogues (and the power structures informing this disparity) without approving actions you may view to be personally destructive.
Let’s talk for a second about how easy it is in too many white communities to unplug from this discussion entirely, to wave it away or disengage, and to disregard how impossible it is for other members of our community and our country to do the same.
Let’s talk, also, about the infrastructures of power and authority that exist in this country, about how these structures have been clearly abused, and what that does to a collective level of trust in the police, in government, in judicial systems; and then let’s talk about how positive and influential it would be if these same policemen and lawyers and authority figures – rather than be defensive of their colleagues – listened to public concerns, and validated them, and stood in solidarity of cultural and professional reform in order to repair this broken trust.
Let’s talk about history, too, about how short a time it’s really been since America was a country with institutionally and governmentally sanctioned policies based on skin color, a country where unsanctioned, regular, and rampant acts of racial violence were overlooked and accepted; about how that history doesn’t erase or vanish in a generation, or two, or ten, and how it persists in a variety of forms (readily seen and unseen) today.
Most of all, let’s talk about how these Facebook posts – that attempt to invalidate criticism or rigorous examination of the events in Ferguson and NYC, as elsewhere – reduce and undermine the ability to hold any conversation at all.
Part of talking means sharing. In this spirit, I’d like to share a poem. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to meet Danez Smith – I hope to, we share a handful of wonderful friends and colleagues – but this poem, which you can see him read (masterfully) elsewhere on the web, stopped me absolutely cold the first time I read it. This poem – featured in POETRY Magazine and on poetryfoundation.org following Smith’s recent Ruth Lilly Fellowship – hits about twenty different frequencies at once. And it couldn’t be any more relevant to the conversations taking place today.
So, to the people on Facebook making these posts: my first impulse – my desire – is to delete you from my network. It is hard to imagine us belonging to the same community. But the truth is: you’re also the ones I want to read this, to stop at some point – any point – during your day and think about the historical, personal, and political frequencies that fuel your denial of the voices expressing hurt and anger in the world around you. To acknowledge and engage with these voices means, ultimately, practicing empathy. To delete you from my network would only make it is easier for you not to take in outside voices, or not to engage with them. So this is me throwing a bottle into the endless Facebook breach – filled with voices of all kinds, some of which give me great hope and others that inspire nothing but sadness – and hoping for the best.