White Privilege at a Racial Justice Action

SURJ note

In February 2015, Natasha McKenna, a 37-year old neighbor and mother, called 911.  The help she expected was not what showed up.  Instead, she was herself arrested on an outstanding warrant.  In custody, she suffered a mental health crisis.  She was restrained while naked and put into leg shackles and handcuffs.  Six Fairfax County police officers in hazmat suits put a bag over her face and tazed her four times.  She stopped breathing.  Natasha McKenna died a few days later.  The deputies responsible for her death faced no charges and continue to work in law enforcement.

Today, SURJ Northern Virginia gathered at the Fairfax County courthouse in front of the detention center where Natasha McKenna was held and brutalized.  The protest found its way to Route 123, a narrow and busy corridor through downtown Fairfax.  At 9:00am right during rush hour, we stepped out into the street and stopped traffic.  Coverage of the story is here and here and here.

The primary objective of this action was to focus enough attention to Natasha McKenna’s case that county Sheriff Stacey Kincaid will bring charges against the six officers.   The protest is also part of a larger goal: to stand with Black Lives Matter.  We need our neighbors and leaders to hear that racism and brutality are not problems somewhere out there, in Memphis or St. Louis or Ferguson.  They exist right here in our own community.

As a white person at her first racial justice action since protesting the death sentence of Mumia Abu Jamal at the 1995 governor’s convention (that’s 21 years ago, people!), I’ve got some catching up to do.

This work is about Natasha McKenna.  It is about changing structures of law enforcement and governance that dehumanize and destroy People of Color.  This work is decidedly not about me.  Yet when stepping out today, I woke up to a few things — food for thought for other allies who are considering their involvement? — about being white while working for racial justice.

Like how stark the difference between our treatment today and that of Black protestors using the same tactics in other cities.  The police who came on the scene took their time to congregate.  They kept a safe distance.  They gave us three clear warnings and articulated exactly what would happen if we refused to move.  No one touched a weapon.  No one hid under helmets or riot gear.  When they handcuffed the folks who blocked traffic, they asked if the cuffs were comfortable.  The ones under arrest were booked and released in less than an hour.  Everyone had time to get to work.

White privilege at a racial justice action means knowing that my job is safe even if I show up late, or show up on TV.  I can take personal leave or just stay after 5:00 to make up the lost hours.  Many of my co-workers, my supervisor, and even the students I serve will be supportive of my involvement in political protest.  My livelihood is secure.  I have no criminal record and I’m not on probation for any of the thousand tiny infractions that can land a Black person in jail.  Even if I get arrested, even if my name is in the news, the consequences are negligible.

White privilege at a racial justice action means I can choose whether or not to be arrested.   Both the cops and the activists know the script and the parts they play in it.  We move through the choreography.  The certainty is near total:  I’ll block traffic at 8:00 a.m. and be heading to the office by 10:00.

Being white at a racial justice action means that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the armored truck trying to turn right into me is not going to run me over.  I can plant the giant image of Natasha McKenna in front of me.  I can refuse to budge.  The driver is welcome to be as pissed off as he wants.  He can rev his engine, nudge up to me, come within 10 inches of my body, and I’m going to be safe.  The cops standing there will not let him hurt me.  There are laws in this country that protect me.  And I’m secure in the knowledge that those laws will do exactly that.

And guess what?  The Loomis truck driver growled and cussed, then backed up and shot an illegal U-turn to find an alternate way around us.

Being white at a racial justice action means that when the gal with the bullhorn clicks off the mic to confer with the cops and everyone is standing there waiting for guidance, I get to hide.  It’s a white sort of hiding.  I can stand there silent and anonymous and surrounded by 20 other silent white folks in front of double lines of cars stretching a mile in either direction.  My privilege — and the expectation of decorum and conformity — allow me to gaze off vaguely and wait until our leader is done.

Awareness of white privilege at a racial justice action is something altogether different.  It means reaffirming the commitments that brought me out.  It means calling to mind the simultaneous actions going on around the country, and remembering that the People of Color leading this work are tired.  They are always the ones on the front lines or in the line of fire.  Arrest is no joke.  Law applies differently or not at all.  They don’t have time for my timidity, my uncertainty, my need for a perfect plan.

They are why I showed up.

Ending the racism that permits the white privilege that keeps our little group of protestors safe — and its dehumanizing corollary for everyone else — means that I get to check myself.  Confusion and embarrassment are thick veins running right through the heart of the white culture I carry, particularly in the affluent, educated whiteness that is my native land.   This need to know what I’m doing before I do it, this fear of looking stupid or screwing things up, these are all part of a crippling anxiety that has no part to play in the work of liberation.

So I say to myself, you know what, Smirk?  No one knows what the hell to do. No ONE. 

No one knows how to build this thing.  No ONE. 

But you are not one today.  You are many, you are a force, you are part of an improvisation and a collaboration and a movement.

Go.

Being white at a racial justice action means stepping through the silence, opening up my  out-of-practice voice, and shouting out the call:

Black Lives Matter.  Black Lives Matter.

Black women matter.  Black women matter.

Say her name.  Natasha McKenna.

Say her name.  Natasha McKenna.

No justice.  No peace.

No racist.  Police.

Black Lives Matter.  Black Lives Matter.

Say her name.  Natasha McKenna.

A final note:  Putting down my sign at 10:00 and heading to the office, I realize with stunning clarity how goddamned much I have to learn.  Becoming more skilled, knowledgeable, and effective will take some work.  For this, I take the lead from activists and authors of color on all these fronts.  This week, I dive into this excellent Black Lives Matter reading list which curates and categorizes a number of recent pieces from folks working on racial justice.  It and others are available on Longreads.


Image:  Note from a morning commuter sent to the SURJ organizers today.

 

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16 thoughts on “White Privilege at a Racial Justice Action”

    1. Part of me, anyway. There’s a metaphor here about crop rotation. . . planting in a field that’s been fallow, and letting rest the one flourishing.

  1. Thank you for standing up for the “underdogs.” A lot of people think that racism doesn’t exist, and that a black man is treated the same as a white man. But as we can see… there is a slight skew on how people are treated.

    Thank you again. Aloha!

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