7 Things To Stop Saying To Protestors, Because They Need Your Understanding More Than Your Judgement
On April 12, a 25-year-old man named Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore police and a week later he died due to a spinal cord injury that appears to have been inflicted while in police custody. Baltimore has since erupted in mourning, protesting, and revolt.
By the time I heard about Freddie Gray, I already felt dangerously close to my limit of exhaustion with regards to stories like this. For months, our country has been inundated with stories of black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. We've watched as the officers in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner weren't indicted. More recently, an officer was finally charged in the death Walter Scott, but I can hardly be hopeful after the cop in Rekia Boyd's case was found not guilty. How do you maintain a sense of well being in a country where people who look like you are have suffered such fates?
So far, I have been so lucky – because that’s what it really is, just luck – that I haven’t personally known any victims of police brutality or been located at the sites of the larger protests. I can’t imagine what this kind of reality must be like for the victims' families or the people who live in these cities — especially Baltimore, which has a history of questionable behavior by police. But the worry and fear that I feel for myself and my loved ones is still very real. So when I saw the first images of rioting in Baltimore, I couldn’t muster a hint of surprise. Because I understand why it's happening: people are scared, frustrated, and tired of a justice system that has repeatedly failed them.
And that’s the issue I have with many of the responses to the protests: they reflect a complete lack of understanding and empathy. As friends on social media make statements of sympathy and understanding for Freddie Gray's family and the protestors, others respond with comments that completely ignore the heart of the issue: that the protests began because Freddie Gray was allegedly fatally injured while in police custody. The responses display a lack of empathy for the loss of black life, an unawareness of police brutality in cities like Baltimore, and a skewed understanding of recent and even colonial history. These comments miss the mark and fail to be constructive when it comes to discussing why riots like those in Baltimore and Ferguson happen. As we try to understand the issues that the US needs to address to prevent rioting from happening, these are some comments people need to stop saying about protestors.
1. Using any Martin Luther King Jr. quote about nonviolence
I’ve addressed the issue of using Martin Luther King, Jr. to try to silence people as they speak up about racism, but it bears repeating, because it happens every time there’s a protest. In fact it happens any time there’s a big issue involving racism in the US, with people somehow (willfully?) confusing Martin Luther King Jr.’s message with one of colorblindness.
Martin Luther King, Jr. — the man who was harassed by the government, assaulted by civilians who probably would have called him a “thug” today, thrown in jail multiple times, and eventually assassinated for speaking up against racism — was an intelligent and nuanced man. He preached nonviolence, but he also condemned “the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society,” aka racism and oppression. In the same speech where he reinforced his stance on nonviolence, he also stated that he understood that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” If your response to people who are rioting in Baltimore, Ferguson, or wherever, is to use MLK's words to condemn them, you’re exploiting his legacy for your own purposes.
2. “Violence isn’t the answer.”
Nobody ever said it was. But you can’t genuinely condemn violence as the answer while ignoring what it’s a response to. “Violence” like what was seen in the uprising in Baltimore is what happens when years of police brutality go unaddressed.
Comments like this often come from people who were completely silent before the rioting and looting broke out. If you are so anti-violence, where was your condemnation when it was first revealed that Freddie Gray's spine was allegedly severed at the neck while in police custody? To me, that's violence, and to only preach nonviolence after rioting begins is contradictory. As Ta-Nehisi Coates stated, “When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”
3. “You’re reinforcing stereotypes.”
You know what’s also a con? This conveniently late concern about stereotypes. Black people are dying in police custody and your biggest concern is that someone will be stereotyped in the process? You don’t want black people to riot because you’re afraid that people will stereotype and criminalize them? If stereotyping is your biggest concern now, I just want to tell you that it’s way too little, way too late. These deaths may not have happened in the first place had it not been for black people being stereotyped.
4. “You don’t see white people doing this.”
But, you do. We see white people rioting all the time. The major difference is that when white people riot it’s often for very trivial reasons (like when their sports team wins, or it's Black Friday) and they don’t get called “thugs.” But white people rioting isn’t even a new thing in the U.S. Anyone remember the Boston Tea Party? In fact, what would America be without a foundation built on looting and rioting? It’s interesting that people can understand people uprising because they’re tired of being taxed without representation, but they can’t understand people uprising because they're tired of being attacked with impunity.
5. “This wouldn’t happen if…”
I’ve seen comments that basically blame police brutality on black parents. One Facebook commenter even suggested that incidents of police brutality could have been avoided if the victims had been taught “right from wrong." These are often baseless and disproven assumptions about black families — plus it’s victim blaming, plain and simple. If Walter Scott's parents had raised him right he wouldn't have been shot in the back by a cop? You know who we should blame for this alleged police brutality? The police. To paraphrase a point that's been circulating on Facebook, maybe if parents had done a better job of raising the police officers in question, we wouldn’t have these problems.
6. “Why didn’t you care when…?”
It’s one thing to bring up legitimate concerns with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, such as how female and LGBT victims and protestors are overlooked on a national level. It’s another thing to attempt to dismiss an entire movement by bringing up issues that you’ve never voiced before. Are there non-black POC and white victims of police brutality? Yes, absolutely. Saying #BlackLivesMatter is not the same thing as saying that other victims don’t matter. But when people only mention #AllLivesMatter as a rebuttal when somebody says #BlackLivesMatter, they aren't showing any genuine concern. Accusing protestors of not caring about issues that you yourself haven't showed concern for doesn't further any cause, it only seeks to silence people.
7. "You want peaceful protests, right?"
Or any such leading and simplistic questions that only seek to make somebody condemn the riots. As Baltimore protestor Danielle Williams pointed out, these questions also fail to acknowledge peaceful protests that have gone largely ignored. Nobody actually wants violence or rioting, but after years of documented police brutality in Baltimore, months of non indictments and "not guilty" verdicts for similar cases around the country, and weeks of peaceful protesting with no answers about what happened to Gray, I understand why rioting broke out. We would all prefer a peaceful solution, but as activist Deray McKesson eloquently stated, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.”
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