I almost left a few minutes into last week’s Citizen’s Police Advisory Committee (CPAC) meeting. The overwhelming emotion that filled the room poured over me like boiling water. After a deep breath, rather than running from the scalding, I stood still for it. Opened up to the pain. It was important for me to witness and support black voices being centered. It was a messy, imperfect, essential space for community grief and anger. May it not be in vain.
“Society doesn’t contain the harm against black people,” adrienne maree brown said in an interview on the For The Wild podcast. “Even though we are being shot on a regular basis, black people are expected to walk around as if we are normal and untraumatized and everything’s fine. We’re expected not to resist, definitely never to take direct actions, not to say to people, ‘this is not ok, will you pay attention to this.'”
Ms. Sandra Pearson, pictured above, was one of the family members I interviewed for the story I wrote about Jerry “Jai” Williams after he was killed by a member of the Asheville Police Department. I was able to write that story, “A life remembered,” because a family member asked me to. My intention was to paint a picture of Jai as the man his family loved, using their words. To honor his memory and to help white people exercise our empathy muscles. To make an effort to counter ages of false narratives that contribute to our society’s fear of black men.
The police beating of Johnnie Rush and subsequent burying of the body cam footage was another of countless reminders that those narratives and fear persist. The patterns repeat. As Ms. Sandra and others spoke at the CPAC meeting, they were echoing ages of agony.
Each incident adds to the cumulative rage and sorrow.
As we know, the inequities of the criminal justice system are mirrored in every other system. I am equally as horrified by the immediate violence of a police beating or killing as I am by the sometimes slow but just as damaging violence black and brown people experience in the health care system, the education system, housing, etc.
The numbers are bleak. “Convened to examine the causes of civil unrest in black communities, the [Kerner] presidential commission issued a 1968 report with a stark conclusion: America was moving toward two societies, ‘one black, one white — separate and unequal,'” begins the Washington Post story, “Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years.” After laying out stark national statistics (which, as we know, are mirrored in Asheville), the story concludes:
“The 1968 Kerner Commission report ended on a note of deja vu, citing a witness who recalled similar analyses, recommendations and, ultimately, inaction following a government investigation nearly 50 years earlier after the 1919 Chicago riot.
‘The destruction and the bitterness of racial disorder, the harsh polemics of black revolt and white repression have been seen and heard before in this country,’ the report concluded.”
Yet black and brown people continue to survive, and to demonstrate a beautiful resilience that shines light towards the future.
Sheneika Smith is powerfully rising to this moment and her role on Asheville City Council. Last week she spoke truth to power in the New York Times, “Outrage Over Footage of Police Officer Beating a Black Man in North Carolina,” and on CBC Radio, “Time to weed out white supremacist officers, N.C. councillor says after police beating.” Let’s keep supporting her as she does the difficult work within the system.
From a grassroots perspective, community organizer and all around badass Nicole Townsend just posted, “i see mama’s, working-class folks, poor folks, and folks without shelter sacrifice themselves on a daily in hopes to make our little mountain town equitable. in hopes that maybe things will shift just enough so that basic needs and access are not limited due to the neighborhood one lives in.
we can continue throwing money at initiatives and organizations, or (and/or – simultaneously) we can shift the culture so that our people are not put out once their program is complete, or money for ‘X’ project is gone.
asking for those in decision-making positions to invest – divest and for participatory governance is not too big of an ask. it’s actually relatively small considering all of the damage that has been done to those who are on the margins.”
With my writing, while naming the problems, I also aim to feed hope. As adrienne states in that interview, it is important that we are “not just stopping something bad, but generating what we want.”
In a conversation after the CPAC meeting, JMPRO TV‘s Julio Tordoya said that he was heartened by the size and diversity of the turnout, and the fact that the City provided child care and Spanish-language interpretation. Things that will be commonplace in the world we’re generating.
As I mentioned, black voices were (mostly) centered at the CPAC meeting. That is such a rarity in this town. I celebrate that. There will be consistent centering of historically marginalized voices in the world we’re working for. Alas, I will note that the white male “moderator” at the CPAC meeting (Chairman Larry Holt) spoke over people and even tried to wrestle a mic out of the hands of a female fellow committee member. Other people also acted in disappointing ways that are too be expected in our broken system.
Still, imperfection in process does not negate the possibility of progress.
I am writing this post on my grandmother’s birthday. She died in 2012 at the age of 98. Mudder, as I called her, wrote and published a book when she was in her 60s. When I am feeling like too much of a late bloomer her story inspires me. There is time for my purpose. I keep this picture of the two of us up in my office to motivate me. She is one of the many ancestors at my back.
The New York Times is running a series of obituaries of incredible women who were overlooked in their day. I was grateful to read their piece on Ida B. Wells. Excerpt: “She pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of modern journalism. And as a former slave who stood less than five feet tall, she took on structural racism more than half a century before her strategies were repurposed, often without crediting her, during the 1960s civil rights movement.” Another inspiring story, to say the least.
While I trust there is a place for my writing, I offer it in context. In “50 Years After the Landmark Kerner Report Called Out Media Racism, the Power Structure Persists” an op-ed by Joseph Torres on Colorlines, he writes, “It’s nearly impossible for people of color to achieve racial justice if we are unable to tell our own stories or control the construction and distribution of our narratives.” That is why, in addition to my posting here, my current collaborative projects are initiatives led by people of color who are actively engaged in telling their own stories.
Speaking of, read this: Center for Participatory Change’s 2017 Annual Report.
We will keep navigating the complexities as we move towards collective liberation.
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