James and his daughter Aria. With each generation comes the potential for the Phoenix to rise from the fire and ashes of previous generations.
On Monday last, I went to the Black Lives Matter encampment in front of the Governors Residence in St. Paul, to see for myself what was going on, to talk to some of the folks and take some pictures. I did this and returned home to write this post. For the following four days I’ve tried to marshal my ideas. Every day something would happen to add yet another complexity to an already daunting situation. President Obama’s speech at the memorial for the five murdered police officers set off a storm of protest. The police and some protesters thought that what he said had in some manner betrayed or minimized the losses that each group had suffered. I kept trying to write but nothing sounded right; nothing felt right.
I’ve decided to post my first draft because it seems closer to what I feel. Here it is.
I drove over to the Governors Residence in St. Paul to get a firsthand look at the Black Lives Matter encampment. The day was hot and humid with skies overcast, the kind of weather that breeds thunderstorms and tornadoes.
Black Lives Matter had occupied the sidewalk and street in front of the governor’s mansion. The wrought iron fence that separated the public from the mansion was covered with signs and banners. Both the US and Minnesota flags at the residence flew at half-staff. Bob Marley was on the PA. About 50 people were scattered about, involved in the mundane daily routine of political action. No drama.
Supporters, many white, have provided supplies for the protesters.
They were there to demand justice for a young man, Philando Castile, who had been shot to death by police during a traffic stop. Philando’s death came just two days after another black man, Alton Sterling, was shot to death in Baton Rouge. In both instances Alton and Philando were carrying guns, one illegally the other legally with a permit. In both cases citizen videos showed men dying under questionable circumstances without weapons drawn. The following day, in response to these deaths, a young black man opened fire on police who were monitoring a peaceful Black Lives Matter march in Dallas. Five officers were killed, another seven wounded, along with two civilians. The following night, protesters in Minneapolis attempted to shut down a portion of the freeway. What began peacefully, ended with 21 police officers injured and 46 protesters arrested. Protests continue all over the nation. Everyone is uneasy. This situation could escalate into a summer of even greater violence.
I parked my car on a side street within a block of the encampment. The Governors Residence is on Summit Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard with beautiful large homes from another era. Direct access to the Summit Avenue was blocked by police squad cars and saw horse barricades. A group of black officers were talking and drinking bottled water. Under their blue shirts they wore bullet proof vests, the kind that provide protection from pistols and knives but are useless against military style weapons like the one used in Dallas. I approached them and offered my condolences for the police that had been killed.
Halfway down the block was the Black Lives Matter camp. This was a vigil commemorating the death of Philando Castile. At the same time it was also a statement of faith in justice and the belief that the future could be made better. Why would people march in protest unless they believed that their voices would be heard and that meaningful change would occur?
A black woman with hennaed hair approached me and asked if I was with the media. I said no, that I was a local blogger, and that I had come to see for myself what was going on. She said that Black lives Matter had prepared a statement. Her voice changed to an official tone and she said, “We have a duty to fight for our freedom. We have a duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
How often have I heard a declaration like hers over the last half century? Each time it has signaled another painful, incremental step toward greater equality, greater justice. That’s what a peaceful revolution is all about. Small steps, never enough but headed in the right direction, until after decades there is a noticeable change. There are always grievances that remain, that in time, will ignite another fire of protest and another small step in the direction of justice. This is the life blood of democracy; injustice leads to protest which leads to change.
It is easy for me to take the long view. I don’t know the people dying. I don’t feel like my neighborhood is under siege. I don’t feel personally threatened. I can only partially empathize with the grieving families. I have experienced death and crushing grief. But, none of my losses were the result of violence. I have no idea what it feels like when someone I love is killed through the actions of another. That is a layer of pain I hope that I will never endure. Yet daily, families across our nation are forced to live with it.
Death through violence is devastating. Death at the hands of someone you are supposed to trust, like the police, is worse. It is betrayal.
Among the posters on the fence was a rain stained placard with the following poem by Jeffrey Joseph Young.
Because of my skin
Because of my skin I am worthless.
Because of my skin I am judged more than those of the fairer.
Because of my skin you are uncomfortable.
Because of my skin I feel devalued and unwanted.
Because of my skin you are quicker to react in a more violent manner.
Because of my skin your approach is more cautious.
Because of my skin I receive a less friendly greeting at the grocery store.
Because of my skin I was pulled over because I fit the description of a suspect.
Because of my skin you squeeze your purse tighter as I walk by.
Because of my skin I am dehumanized and thought of as savage.
Because of my skin I was forced out of my homeland and made your slave.
Because of my skin I was passed around and thought of as not human.
Because of my skin I do not have a name, I am only a nigger.
Because of my skin you beat, raped, murdered in cold blood, sic dogs on and hung my brothers and sisters.
Because of my skin I get shot with my hands up.
Because of my skin I get choked harder when I said I couldn’t breathe.
Because of my skin I get my license to carry but am still terrified to carry my gun.
Because of my skin I get shot when I told you that I had my license to carry.
Because of my skin I get tackled and murdered while selling CDs.
Because of my skin I am shot first and asked questions last.
Because of my skin I can’t answer your questions because I am dead.
Because of my skin you are the oppressor and I am the oppressed.
Because of my skin I get your brutality and not your humanity.
Because of my skin I see the lack of democracy and the real hypocrisy.
Because of my skin my life doesn’t matter.
Because of my skin I do not matter.
Because of my skin …
Because of my skin?
Because of my skin.
I met the poet, Jeffrey Joseph Young and his dog Crypto. He is a gentle young man with black and white parents. He straddles both worlds. The fact that I need to describe him as such simply underscores the continuing power of race in America. We still live in a nation where skin color is history and destiny.
Later, I met another young man, James, and his 7 month old daughter, Aria. He told me that when he was a child, his father had exposed him to bad influences which had resulted in a troubled youth. Now he was showing his daughter a positive world of community and engagement. Later, when I looked at the picture of James and Aria I thought, “From the fire rises the Phoenix.”
At last the weather got to me and I headed back to my car. Along the way, I encountered more police, standing in the shade and drinking water. Again I offered condolences for the officers killed in Dallas. Violent death is violent death and its effect on family, friends and community is devastating.
I found it all confusing. Protesters and police separated by violence and yet bound together by fear and grief. I hope that all of the deaths this week will be the catalyst to meaningful changes. Peacefully seeking justice and understanding will lead us all from this darkness.