Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why I Stand with Ferguson (They May Come for Me Next)

I'd never heard of Ferguson, MO until two weeks ago.

On August 9th, a young man named Michael Brown was shot while his hands were up, demonstrating the universal sign of surrender.  He was shot by a Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson.  Michael Brown was Black.  Darren Wilson is White.  

In the past two weeks, coverage on television and social media outlets has painted a picture of Ferguson, MO as the United States' version of Gaza or Baghdad, as military tanks rolled down the streets and police officers dressed in army khakis and pointed their guns at protestors, both peaceful and angry.  Community members as well as outside supporters and agitators came to the site of Michael Brown's death to demonstrate their frustration with the treatment that African Americans have been subjected to since the existence of what we call the United States of America.  

Over the past two weeks, some of my friends have been very vocal about what has been going on in Ferguson.  There is a core group of people on Facebook who have been daily posting about the events in Ferguson, or about the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, or about the trial of the man who killed Renisha McBride in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and of course these events cause us to reminisce (sadly) about the deaths of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, New York.  Out of my over 750 "friends", about 10-15 of us have been consistent in bringing to light the injustices suffered by people of color, especially this summer, especially at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve our communities.  Some of my friends have asked the question, "Why aren't more White people speaking out?"  And some of my friends have had a difficult time understanding what is happening in Ferguson.  They do know that an unarmed man was shot by a police officer, and some may empathize.  But some of my friends don't get why this is a "Black" issue or a "race" issue.  Most of my friends have been silent about this incident.  And yes, most of my White, Latino, and Asian friends have decided to stay in their bubbles of relative safety and post about babies or puppies or the latest show they are binge-watching.  I am not here to judge others' opinions or their decisions about what to post on Facebook, or to get everyone to agree with my opinion.  I can only express why I choose to share my opinion on my social networks as well as with anyone who wants to engage in these kinds of discussions in person.

I grew up in housing projects in Brooklyn, New York.  My family subsisted on welfare, disability benefits, food stamps,and medicaid.  My father couldn't work because he couldn't see out of one eye, and my mother couldn't work because she couldn't read or write.  Nowhere in that mix of circumstances can one find any kind of privilege whatsoever.  I remember filling out my financial aid applications for college, and it was so easy, because I just wrote zeroes down the page.  But that financial aid application was tied to college applications, which were tied to an opportunity to "get out" of my situation.  An opportunity to experience some of the privilege that I was not born with. Going away to a private university was a dream come true for someone who came from such humble means. This narrative could be anyone's - Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American.  There are people who have grown up in the Appalachian mountains or in rural areas of the country who could have had the same type of experience as me, growing up.  Eating "welfare cheese" and drinking powdered milk, getting the ugliest glasses because that's what Medicaid paid for, and living in apartments or rented homes that were falling apart because that is what we could afford - that could be anyone in this country, regardless of race or ethnicity.

But that first weekend in college taught me something about race.  There is something unique about the experiences of those who wear brown skin of all hues.  That first weekend, my friends and I decided to hang out and get something to eat on the main street of our college town.  As we stood there deciding what to eat, talking excitedly about what was ahead of us for the next four years, my friends - one Haitian-American, one Dominican-American, one Nigerian-American, and me, a Puerto Rican-American - watched as a Caucasian American walked up the street and shouted, "THIS IS WHY WHITE MEN CAN'T STAND NIGGER GIRLS, BECAUSE YOU'RE SO FUCKING LOUD!"

This happened to me twenty-five years ago, this first time I was called the N-word, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.  Up until that point, I had lived a life where I never really thought about my race (or even knew that I was not part of one race, but an amalgam of three), and I never really understood why Black people talked about race so much.  Up until that point, I thought I was different from my Black friends.  But in that moment, each of us from our different countries and with our different (but very similar) languages and cultural traditions, became the SAME to that White man.  We were all NIGGERS.

And that's why Ferguson, MO is about race.  Because, my dear White friends, and friends of White people, a White person is not going to be called a nigger in the street on his or her first weekend in college.  A White person is going to learn about the "Great White People" in his or her history in school, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, while a person like me never learned about Malcolm X, or Angela Davis, or Assata Shakur, or Audre Lorde, or the Black Panthers, or Nicolás Guillén, or Julia de Burgos, or Pedro Albizu Campos, or Lolita Lebron, or the Young Lords Party, until I went to college and became committed to learning about who these people were and what they contributed to history, art, politics, and social justice.  A White person is not as likely to be shot by police, even if he or she commits mass murder (e.g.: James Holmes, Jared Loughner), while an unarmed Black or Latino person is likely to be shot and killed on average twice a week in America in 2014.

That's why I stand with Ferguson, MO.  You may not want to see it, but this poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller demonstrates what happens when we refuse to acknowledge that this country was built on racism and that racism is the cornerstone of the social injustices we hear and experience daily:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.