Not at first, not right after the video came out, when there was no denying or spinning a murder, but soon after. It was shocking footage, so it took a few minutes for you to come around to the familiar narrative that George Floyd’s death was his fault, somehow.
And then there were those protests. Many, and massive. And some looting and smashing at the edges. And you found your voices again. That is not the way to protest, you said. We write the rules on rage, you said, and this is out of line. We didn’t like the way you did it before, on one knee, either. That’s a shame about the man we watched get murdered, but he probably had drugs in his system. He probably committed a crime. He probably mouthed off. He probably had a preexisting condition in the form of a working carotid artery.
Somewhere in the back of your head you are able to hold two contrary thoughts at once: “I don’t see color. Why does everything have to be about race?” And: “Those people have to expect that stuff like this is going to happen because so many of them are criminals.” They don’t act right. They’ve got it coming. It’s a shame, but this sort of thing is going to happen, because they’re either criminals, or look just like one.
That’s what you saw. Criminals, arsonists, freeway-blockers, troublemakers. A criminal force that must be met with greater force.
And I agree. Force? Meet the greater force of sustained, growing, fervent, peaceful protestors marching night after night. After night. After night. They’re still marching. United against terrorism.
That’s what I’m calling it. Is that word too strong?
What do you do when you see a headline about a victim of violence? You scan down a few lines to see if you’re safe. That’s a black name. That’s a bad neighborhood. That won’t happen to me. But when the planes took down the twin towers, you were terrified. As unlikely as it was any one of us would be the victim of terrorist act, you were still afraid because for the first time–for most of us–you knew you were the target. And that’s what made it terrorism. It was a message sent to a few and meant for many.
That’s what the knee to the neck is. It is a body dangling. It’s a message to an entire race: you don’t matter. You are disposable, not quite human. White people know very well that this is never going to happen to them. And some of them put that down to their own virtue.
We’ve heard you. You like to call us snowflakes. But you are the ones who are so afraid of people that you roar for a police state, an autocracy, you cheer the leader who will build you a wall and call up the military against your fellow citizens. You arm yourself against villains that live in your own imagination. Or villains created and served up to you by politicians determined to hold their power through your fear.
But watch this greater force.
It was our dear young neighbors who first mentioned–from a chaste and respectful twelve feet away–that they were on their way to the latest march. I crumpled. How could we miss this? “Dave and I want to be there, but we’re just not ready to be in a crowd like that, not now…” That’s okay, they said. You shouldn’t be there. It’s not safe. We’re taking one for the team. Don’t worry. It’s our turn now. They smiled. I wanted to cry.
And I did, a few nights later, when the most audacious march yet ended up a half block away. Thousands poured onto a freeway three lanes wide and marched a mile to the next exit, another two miles to our street, and farther, and there was no fatigue, no letup, just a beautiful stream of young people saying We’re done with this shit now. We’ve had enough. This was the twelfth day of peaceful protest. I stood at the corner, a few yards away, tears seeping into my face mask.
Meanwhile, you think black people get too worked up about race, but you go all to pieces if you’re accused of having white privilege. And you’re right, in a way. That so-called privilege should be the default condition of all people. Everyone should have the sense of their own agency, should be able to prosper in a world that accepts them, or crash and burn in spite of a world that accepts them. And then it would not be described as a privilege at all.
But that is not the world we live in. And until black lives matter, which it is clear they do not, it can never be said that all lives matter. Unbunch your privilege panties and own that.