Black lives matter

White Privilege in Protesting: July 8 in Baltimore

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I’m on the purple circulator, the bus filled with orange-clad Orioles fans, at 6 p.m. on a Friday in July. This Friday holds meaning for me because I’m planning to go see the children’s movie “The BFG” in theaters. It’s my one full day off at this summer program, and I’m looking forward to this quiet introverted fun.

Soon after I board the bus, four people hop on together and grab the overhead rail in front of my seat. the Two closest to me are young white women with shortish hair and hipster glasses. On one, unshaven legs are apparent; on the other, unshaved armpits. One is holding a cardboard sign (folded over; I can’t read what it says) and one is wearing a #blacklivesmatter t-shirt.

The thing is that in America, July 8, 2016 isn’t just any Friday. It’s the first full week of July in 2016, a week that started as a standard celebration of American independence, a celebration interrupted by the fully-filmed murders of two different black men in two different cities by police officers, and then punctuated by the shootings of five police officers in Dallas, Texas on Thursday night.

And because of this, I know I need to go where these women are going.

I’m another glasses-wearing white woman on a bus. You’ve heard a lot from me lately, and from the rest of us well-meaning young white folks. You’ve seen us post that #blacklivesmatter. You’ve seen many of us fight with our conservative relatives in Facebook comments. You’ve seen us begin to show up at protests, or, at the very least, post a 10-second clip in our Snapstories of a rally we walk by. If we’re talking about white people in general, however, what you’ve mostly seen is silence.

As a white woman — a white girl, honestly, in both how I am perceived by others and how I perceive myself — I get to choose when I speak up. I even get to choose when i listen. This is the luxury of privilege. And it is horrible, because if someone is talking, especially if that person has different experiences from you, you should always try to listen.

Once I get off the bus, the accumulating protest isn’t hard to find. There aren’t a lot of people there yet, but there enough signs, megaphones, and police officers to see that it’s going to grow. After I sure the group of baseball spectators, some of whom I work with, are out of sight, I approach the group. Many people are in groups, talking — they know each other, they came together. Those with matching signs are apart of local activist groups; most proclaim the name of the People’s Power Assemblies, who I later learn organized the whole event. The protest is meant to recognize the racism responsible for the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, as well as the many similar tragedies in Baltimore.

I’ve never seen such a diverse group of demonstrators. but this isn’t surprising — although the demonstrations for racial justice in my college town are almost always led by people of color, students and community leaders alike, Ithaca’s own protests and vigils are peopled with well-intentioned white allies (congregating mostly in their early 20s and, perhaps, early 60s.) Baltimore is an area with a black majority and genuine racial diversity. The first thing I have to do is confront and dispel my feeling of discomfort. Aside from my gender, I’m seldom in a demographic minority, and I certainly am right now.

The program begins with a succession of speakers, many of whom I can barely hear over the mainstream media’s buzzing helicopters hovering over the crowd. One woman speaks about her fiancee, killed by police in Baltimore 16 years ago. Another woman, Tawanda Jones, lost her brother Tyrone West in 2013, emphasizing that “fighting” means being out on the corner every day, not just when there’s dozens of allies there to back you up. A little boy — age 7, his father Rev. C.D. West, says later  — gets the most applause and whoops of anyone when he shouts and stutters about how “we’re not gonna give up!” Of course, it’s exactly for him that we can’t. There are representatives from the Green Party; there is a young black woman running for local office. A petition for her eligibility to run is being passed around the audience.

I have so many questions for the souls standing around me. What brought them there? Did they come on purpose? For the older people: for how long have they been standing up here, for how many years? For the little ones: how did their mothers explain to them why they’re standing on this corner? For everyone: thank you.

I listen to the speeches, jotting down only a few quotes. I am a listener. Asking these questions that fill me as both a journalist and a person would interrupt the sanctity of this pure moment.

The snaps and claps of the demonstrators come in waves. Each time the group is emotionally moved, there is a collective physical movement. I feel enveloped in something much bigger than myself.

After about an hour, the collective movement takes off in a march throughout the Inner Harbor, a touristy and urban center of Baltimore. Since it’s a Friday night, people are everywhere, snapping pictures of what’s going on. We get into the rhythm of chants, some of which I know and some I don’t. There are staples like “no justice / no peace” and “the people / united / will never be defeated.” Many are more specific to the struggles of baltimore: “all night / all day / we will fight for Freddie Gray.” Gray died in the back of a police car in April 2015 in Baltimore, sparking many of the “riots” that made national news. The officers present at his arrest are having charges dropped against them just this week, another tragedy of brutality for this city. Only one chant specifically maligned police.

Police were surrounding the protest, barricading the streets. It seemed these people were truly doing their jobs: protecting vulnerable bodies. Their faces remained stoic even when there were shouts against them, although there were few. How did these officers feel after Dallas just the night before? For once, were they just as frightened of escalation as protesters were?

As the march approached the police station, its final destination, I couldn’t hold my questions in any longer. I found a friendly face, introduced myself as Alexa, a journalism student, and smiled. I’d never been less nervous to do an interview in my life, which was automatically strange. Then again, I’d never been a participant journalist before, either; they don’t like that in journalism school.

I spoke first to Rebekah Kaufman, a Baltimore City Public Schools employee with a sign proclaiming “Justice for 12-year-old Tamir Rice” waving in the air.

“I feel it’s a very sad time in our nation’s history,” she said. “I wanted a time to hear about what other people are saying about the police shootings and the shootings of the police officers.” She’d hoped to hear more from the rally about the officers shot in Dallas yesterday, but that when she got here, she understood that this wouldn’t be the space for that.

“It’s interesting that there are many different opinions here,” she added. “I tend to be more on the moderate side. I didn’t agree with everything everyone said, but I agree with the general sentiment.”

I spoke next to Joe, who said he was a teacher. When I asked him why he was here today, he considered a whole succession of events in his personal life, beginning when he applied to 64 teaching jobs post-grad and only got a call back from Baltimore.

“Little did I know that I would get involved with all this work that the good folks of Baltimore are doing,” Joe said. Right now he is working in housing justice. Before his experiences here, he said, he “had never realize how much elected officials’ decisions can adversely impact folks.”

For Joe, justice in Baltimore was a connected issue: housing justice, racial justice, and everything in between. why wouldn’t he be there?

Leonardo White and Douglas Jones were standing near the back of the march. White’s responses came immediately to the here and now of the movement.

“Honestly, I feel like it’s important to be here today because these injustice with our justice system happen so frequently and if we don’t tell people what we want and what we stand for, things are never gonna change,” he said. It’s a “long and arduous path… but every step is a step closer to ending police violence.”

Jones agreed.

“Time and time again they’ve proven to us that our lives don’t matter,” Jones said, citing not only police violence but the co-opting of black culture, fashion, and entertainment.

“We have to fight the system because they’re killing us like animals for — I don’t even know what for.”

When we arrived at the police department, speak-outs and chanting continued. The streets were barricaded and officers and mainstream media vans were present in every direction. I took pictures and listened and chanted — until I became afraid. A few men were yelling at the police officers who were standing outside the department building, standing to protect both their haven and the demonstrators themselves.

As a white person, I left when I felt I was in jeopardy (not long before, in fact, four protesters were arrested.) I left when I was afraid that this three-ish hours of demonstrating in a city new to me could get me in trouble at my job. That was my white privilege in action, and writing about it doesn’t make it better.

As I walked away, cutting through the thinning crowd in the one direction we were free to walk in, the sign of a woman maybe 10 years older than me echoed the phrase that had repeated in my mind on the bus as the guy next to me made snide comments about the hairy-legged women: “White silence is white consent.”

It comes down to that simplicity. We can’t be white allies and not think that, say that, act on it. I’m doing my best to act on it now. And I know I won’t walk away next time. If I do, that feeling of being a part of something better is a self-serving illusion.

Because, as Douglas Jones told me, there’s only one reason we all marched that Friday evening.

“I believe it’s important to be here because black lives matter,” he said. “There’s no other way to say it.”


For pictures of what was happening near the center of the action, check the Baltimore Sun’s gallery.