Hands Up. Don’t Shoot.
This past weekend, Michael Brown – another young and unarmed black man, was murdered.
By the police.
In response, his community of #ferguson, Missouri responded en masse. The predominantly African American community has taken to the streets and given voice and body to the shared grief, indescribable outrage, and deep wounds suffered by African American communities across America.
The demonstrations evoke for me the tales and visuals of the African American civil rights movement in the 60’s. We have seen Michael Brown’s mother laying rose petals in the place where her son’s body lay for hours in the street; We have seen neighbors and friends gathered at candle light vigils, and we have seen stoic confrontations with police where members of the Ferguson community line up and face law enforcement wearing sophisticated and militarized riot gear. We have also seen something different. The police response has been especially disproportionate- characterized by local police roaming the streets in riot gear, a scene more reminiscent of an invasion of Iraq than of engaging communities wracked with grief and outrage.
Shock and Awe.
I cannot intellectually, emotionally, or verbally process the images I’ve seen – images of black and brown people confronting police and being quickly pummeled, doused with tear gas, and shot with rubber bullets in their own backyards. This response from law enforcement has been different in degree, but not in type, from other news stories. Communities of color know (in far too familiar ways) the violence and oppression enacted by law enforcement. Communities of color, especially those that are of a lower income, have known, since the inception of America, that they are especially prone to violence and aggressive police action. Communities of color know that the justice system will fail them. Communities of color know that the only recourse they have is taking to the streets and attempting to raise the moral conscience of a nation that has consistently refused to engage her full citizenship via any moral character.
What Do We Do?
So what do I do? I am a white, middle class, cis-gendered man. When I think about the institutional violence visited upon Mike Brown, Chanel Larkin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Islan Nettles, Ezell Ford, Kathryn Johnston, Trayvon Martin, and so many others, I feel angry and often bound. I feel like I don’t have anything to contribute. I feel like my points will be viewed as invalid and out of touch. Those thoughts and feelings are present within many of us, but they can’t take us out of the action. They have to motivate action.
• We can start by believing. Humility on our parts can become tangible by believing the narratives of people of color. We shouldn’t believe “even though” they are different narratives, but believe because they are different narratives. Though we may never have to utter the title of this post out loud “Hands Up” “Don’t Shoot,” we can start by believing those who do.
• Speak up. We tend to operate in circles of people who are like us. The circle of friends, co-workers, and peers with whom we closely interact can become echo chambers. Invest something new in your conversations. Talk about Michael Brown. Say his name. Discuss the epic police violence. Ask folks to imagine what would happen if a child in their community were gunned down and the police did nothing but inflict more violence.
• Leverage social media to advocate for #michaelbrown and #ferguson. Social media can, of course, be used to discuss Kimye’s latest debacle or our latest quinoa recipe. It can also be used to draw strong popular attention to the experience of the people in #ferguson. Social media also gives us unprecedented access to lawmakers and those who craft policy. Hold them accountable and don’t let Michael’s death be like other deaths of black and brown young people. Hold our governments accountable.
• We can choose to listen. I actually do mean choose to listen. We learn in very real and practical ways from those not like us, and who have experienced targeted violence from the police. “You’re focusing too much on race,” and “There’s no connection there,” have all too often flown out of our mouths simply because we have not had the experiences of people of color. We can listen and learn from people who only know police and law enforcement to be harsh, targeting, and prejudiced.
• Quit condemning. People of color have been fighting institutionalized white supremacy for a long time. Our “white-splaining” i.e. telling people of color how to respond to institutional racism, would be energy far better spent in other ways. Such as…
• Going to a rally or protest. Public displays of dissent are powerful. It helps people know they aren’t alone in their concern. It solidifies our own convictions. It helps us build communities of folks who care about common concerns and can organize in the future for action.
• Investigating what’s happening in your own town or community. Atrocities like Michael Brown’s murder happen all the time around the United States. Michael Brown has gained a semblance of national attention, but many other communities of color are fighting the same battles. Plug in to community organizations and advocacy groups who are working to achieve tangible and measureable change.
The most important thing we can do is “something.” Refuse to sit idly and let this concern pass. One of the wisest authors of our time reminds us,
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss
Tony Tyler is a queer activist and educator currently living in Des Moines, originally from Oklahoma, committed to developing strong communities and advocating for just societies.