The last time I wrote for The Daily was to express my grief over the acquittal of George Zimmerman for his murder of Trayvon Martin. The event that sparks my return to a column is the murder of yet another young black person that has similarly gone unpunished. Last weekend, a Florida jury could not come to agreement on whether Michael Dunn was guilty of killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis after Dunn shot into the car Davis was sitting in because Davis’s music was too loud. The jury did, however, convict Dunn of attempted murder of the three other people in the car.
My reactions to this weekend’s verdict come from a much different place. The Zimmerman verdict tore open a sore that some of black America thought was healing. One of the women I worked with during last summer summarized that feeling the best: “What’s critical for the black community is this constant re-wounding of our place in the economic, social and political order.” And having experienced a wound that cut so deeply last summer, I am not surprised or disturbed by Dunn’s verdict.
This outcome makes sense to me given the reality of our social order. As my friend said to me, we as a society have never dealt with the fundamental traumas that slavery and Jim Crow caused in this country – and the legacies of these traumas cascade from generation to generation. We have never dealt with the fact that our government was at best complacent – and, more accurately, co-implicated – in setting up systems of racism.
These unaddressed issues resurfaced Sunday evening when I rewatched “Fruitvale Station.” The film paints a very real picture of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who was murdered by BART police on New Year’s Day 2009. The film spent the majority of its time humanizing Oscar Grant, because, as a formerly incarcerated, unemployed, young black male with a history of selling marijuana, his life tends to be otherwise predictable and expendable, his story undeserving of sympathy and outrage. Yet the film also humanized his killer and the police who were implicated in Oscar’s death. It is hard to know where to place our emotions when we realize that Oscar’s story is just one of many examples of racism and the policing of black bodies, one in which the cop who shot him was just one of many agents of the state that fail to serve and protect black people and kill them instead. Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman are just two more examples of people who take policing into their own hands.
And so I will argue that just as much as black society needs the time and space to heal from our historical wounds, non-black society is also traumatized and is also grieving. To live in a society that continuously tries to forget the systemic violence of its past is in itself a form of violence against everyone who lives within it.
No one is a winner in a world where we’re taught to fear black bodies, to define our experiences as humans with “at least we’re not black.” I am hard-pressed – and I challenge readers – to come up with an example of a non-black Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin or Marissa Alexander or Renisha McBride.
I challenge readers to prove me wrong and I charge that the reason it is so hard for us to do this is because blackness remains the thing most feared in America. Non-black people do not get shot for walking through gated communities late at night or for knocking on someone’s front porch and asking for help. This is not to minimize the experiences of other racial/ethnic groups, but to ask for an honest acknowledgment that we all retain a fear of blackness. It is a fear that black people ourselves fall into; it is a fear that I myself fall into.
I do not think Americans will ever be “free” (whatever that means), until we deeply examine and tear out the roots of our ugly history – not just against blacks, but indigenous people and immigrants of all varieties. It is an unpleasant past and present, which means the process will not be comfortable or convenient, but it seems absolutely necessary for building and ensuring a future that is just for all of us.
Last quarter, the black community held a panel on the policing of black bodies with Oscar Grant’s mother, his lawyer, the director of “Fruitvale Station” and one of the primary organizers working for Oscar’s justice in Oakland. The words of Dereca Blackmon ’91, the Oakland organizer, really stuck out to me and still resonate today. Recounting a conversation from her time as an undergrad at Stanford, she recalled having a self-identified rich student ask her, “Why should I care [about poor people]?” in a class on communicating across differences. Appreciating his bluntness, she responded: “You’ll never be safe – you’ll never be able to build enough fences to protect yourself from the people you don’t care about.”
So as remote as the murder of a black 17-year-old might seem from the Stanford campus, I encourage us to recognize the many fences we have around us: whether between Stanford and East Palo Alto, between residential clusters on campus, or between us as students and the people who keep the University functioning through maintenance and service. It is our responsibility as people deeply embedded in power to think about these things. We will never exist in a truly safe world until we take the time to care about and protect those who are on the margins.
Those interested in the national conversation on race might be interested in hearing Dereca Blackmon moderate a conversation between civil rights icons Elaine Brown and Jesse Jackson this Wednesday in CEMEX Auditorium.
Contact Kristian Bailey at [email protected]