In a perfect world, people would stop and give considerable attention to others’ outcries of pain and suffering.
The Babylon I’ve come to know, however, is far from the Land of Milk and Honey my Liberian parents and family members make it out to be. In fact, it’s a Hellhole chock full of zombies culled into a mediocre existence and fixated on the latest fashion and technological trends, thanks in part to the shallow topic matter that permeates the 24-hour news cycle and other forms of media.
Though I’ve come to know this in recent years, this bitter reality dawned on me during the few hours I spent in front of the J. Edgar Hoover building on the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest. I counted among a dozen or so people who stood in solidarity with Sister Sandra Bland a day after a Texas grand jury failed to indict Waller County jail officials in her death. Three days before she was found dead in her cell under troubling circumstances, a cop violently detained her for what we now know to be the most trivial of reasons – asking questions and refusing to extinguish her cigarette during a traffic stop.
As a young black man in the United States, I know too well the terror that can ensue when a person of African descent comes into contact with law enforcement. Even in the moments where there’s no abhorrent miscarriage of justice, your life still feels threatened. The lessons of yesteryear primed me for that depressing worldview.
During my adolescence as a visitor of East Takoma Park, Maryland for example, it wasn’t uncommon for officers in unmarked vehicles to ambush me and my friends and incessantly ask questions about our whereabouts and what we were doing on the streets. From the time I “hopped off of the porch” at the age of 14 up until my 18th birthday, I had more than half a dozen headshots taken of me by a black female officer by the name of Ms. Tina who, along with her colleagues sometimes, cajoled the young men who posted outside of the Hampshire Tower apartments into the action whenever she saw us. Soon, running away from “the boys” became a survival tactic, even when I had nothing to hide.
One chilly night, an effort to leave Fort Totten Metro Station and get home safely turned into an episode of “Cops” when I stood up against a disrespectful Metro employee who replied to my inquiry about exit fare with “This isn’t Africa boy. You have to learn how to the use the machines.” A white female Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer nearby walked over to see what happened, remaining neutral for only a second when I lightly brushed her chest in my attempt to confront the guy. Immediately, she detained me and demanded that I give her my full name so she could check if I had any warrants. Now I was a potential villain just for speaking my mind. Desperate to get out of this situation and unaware of my rights, I acquiesced. When my name didn’t show up in the police system, she let me go. The betrayal I felt in that instance would follow me into adulthood.
It was no different in the supposedly safe confines of Foggy Bottom, located in Downtown D.C. One night toward the end of the fall semester of my senior year at The George Washington University, an MPD officer pulled up next to me as I walked outside of my dorm before stopping, stepping out of the car with his hand on his holster, and yelling at me to put my hands in the air. Because I had been dressed in all black from head to toe – to beat the harsh winter weather, mind you – I became a suspect in a robbery that occurred around the corner from my residence. For the next 30 minutes, I pleaded for my life in the middle of that street. An unmarked vehicle, most likely driving the victims of the alleged robbery, pulled up across from where I and the officer stood and shined its light on me. Thankfully, they didn’t identify me as the perpetrator. I would dodge another one.
But Sandra Bland wasn’t so lucky.
By the time her case came to my attention earlier this year, I had become desensitized to the justice system’s lack of regard for black lives. It didn’t surprise me that this grand jury didn’t do its due diligence in holding Brian Encina, the arresting officer, and his colleagues accountable. That didn’t stop me from being angry, and rightfully so. I’ve come to know so many brothers and sisters of various educational and social backgrounds who’ve been beaten down at all levels of the legal system — the streets, court room, and correctional facilities. One “wrong” move on my part and I could have suffered the same fate, so of course I felt the need to honor the memory of my fallen sister in the form of nonviolent protest.
It didn’t take long standing outside of the J. Edgar Hoover building before my eagerness to spread the word turned into melancholy. In theory, chanting and holding our signs in front of this building and the nearby Department of (In)justice would be symbolic middle finger to what we saw as a crooked system. As frustrated, disenfranchised people, it seemed that there was nothing more we could do. Navigating the legal system as Thurgood Marshall and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have wanted us to do hasn’t been effective. At this point, all we could do was yell and hope that folks would hear our cry.
The total opposite happened.
Groups of police officers in full gear and on bikes talked and laughed among each other throughout much of the night. Government employees of various ethnicities scurried on foot, minding their own business. White families happily walked the streets in amazement at the monuments and other symbols of white supremacy. As each minute passed, it became clearer to me that our chants and speeches made by individual members of our group, though full of truisms, couldn’t break the Matrix’s hold on passersby.
Soon, I stepped into traffic with two signs in hand – one reading “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” and the other “If Sandra was white, they would indict.” Annoyed at my obstruction and that of other brothers who too stepped onto Pennsylvania Avenue waving their signs and the Garvey flag, drivers beeped loudly and swerved around us to avoid hitting us and get on with their lives.
Looking back, causing slight displeasure for the unaffected counted as the high point of this dreadful experience. For at least one second, white people had to look me in my eye and read the signs I made. I doubt they could resonate with the significance of the non-indictment but it felt great interrupting their lives as mine and that of other black people have been countless times before. Even so, questions from white, and some black, people about the Sandra Bland case angered me. With all of this news out here about police brutality, how could one NOT know about Sandra Bland? As much as I detest the mainstream media, there was SOME coverage of her case in the wake of her death.
Alas, few people – fewer than I anticipated — knew the details of Sandra Bland’s case and it became more apparent in our march around Downtown. Our journey over the course of two hours took us through Metro Center and McPherson Square before we posted up in front of the White House. By that time, my anger reached a boiling point. A white lady reading my signs asked “Who’s Sandra?” I knew I had to walk away at that point before committing a violent act against her, or at least yelling in her face.
Of course, many of the older men and women in this liberation movement who I’ve come to respect would’ve seen the white lady’s question as an opportunity to educate, but I had no interest in entertaining her or other so-called white sympathizers out and about that night. In my eyes, they had no intention of stopping their lives and taking on OUR fight. Considering the luxuries that the white supremacist system has afforded them and their ancestors, dismantling the forces that dole out black suffering wouldn’t work in their favor. When our group crossed paths with most people, they were overcome with the Christmas spirit. A taste of our reality would put a stop to all of that, and I saw that fear in some of their eyes as an older brother on this march with us calmly explained the intricacies of the Sandra Bland case.
No lie, I admired his patience in breaking down the situation. But I made up my mind a long time ago that I would only engage and enlighten people of African descent. I saw no reason to do otherwise and the events of the evening confirmed it further for me. The silver lining in all of this was the minute I spent with an Ethiopian family in front of the White House. Though they didn’t march with us, they nodded their heads in approval with our actions. Unbeknownst to many, Ethiopians and African Americans share a history of rebellion against imperialistic European forces. I felt that unity in talking with the young brother in that family, so much so that I enthusiastically said “Amasa Genalu” an Amharic phrase meaning “Thank You” to which he and his siblings, perhaps surprised that I could speak a phrase in their native tongue, belted praises.
Other than that, the rallying and marching on that night, or any other instance, hasn’t done much to bring about any semblance of the racial progress I believe black people in the United States deserve. Of course, I had a few other feel good moments. The sight of an entire orchestra group moving away from the White House fence when we interrupted their photo shoot made my heart flutter for couple seconds. I also felt confident staring down a police officer and telling him “yea we’re talking to you” as we walked along 15th Street. Throughout much of the night, looking any seemingly nonchalant tourist in their eye during the protest became a remedy, even if it was a panacea, for my outrage at a multifaceted problem.
But that’s the point. I’m tired of these shallow overtures by “allies” and baseless assurances that we’re making progress. Many of us look at the Civil Rights Movement through rose-colored glasses. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that marching couldn’t have been the only way that the leaders of our past struggle made change. If anything, history has proven that. Though a contingent of Millennials shares this sentiment, there are still many, including myself, who dedicate a significant amount of time to posting long diatribes about America’s race problem on social media. Albeit it’s effective in some ways, oftentimes I get nothing more than a headache from battling white people who want to police my thoughts.
It’s the same case for marching. In a sense, the smirks and looks of indifference from people who walked past us serve as nonverbal cues for black people to “stop complaining.” While we would love to stop doing that, other ways haven’t worked. We use the mainstream media to drum up support. We attain lawyers and follow protocol in bringing complaints against the system. Even with the successes of mass boycott movements, I saw many black people towing large shopping bags after feeding the machine with their dollars.
The powers that be still control the justice system and the means to production that line the coffers of interest groups that work against our freedom. Like the countless disenfranchised people of color across the country, our pleas for justice weren’t heard that night. Frankly, I’m tired of asking for my freedom and telling people that “Black Lives Matter.” That has been the case for quite a while, but this recent experience showed me that I might be on to something by having this mindset.
While many of my counterparts across the world enjoy the holiday, I, as I’m sure, other angry black people will be thinking of other ways to secure justice for Sandra Bland and other people killed by the injustice system. With every book I read and every discussion I hear, however, I increasingly see the need for a revamp of the entire United States and a total separation – economic, social, educational, and whatever else – of African people from the rest of the world. Reaching that goal would take immense planning that can, and should, happen behind the scenes.
In this globalized system, total seperation would be nearly impossible. If Africans must interact with other groups, then let that relationship be equitable. Right now, that’s not the case. If any, it’s grossly exploitative.
Anyone who says differently sure as hell hasn’t had the sense of hopelessness that I felt on the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, contextualized by lessons life thrown my way about what it truly means to be a black man in America.
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