As I read the news from New York City yesterday, about a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death, after the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, my chest was tight. I recognized my body’s reaction and reminded myself to breathe. Because I could. Because no one’s hands were around my neck, cutting off the oxygen that these human bodies require to live. And with that thought in mind, it was pretty hard to get rid of the tightness in my chest, the rock in my stomach. As well it should have been.
I don’t know where to start, so I’ll share some words from my friend Dan:
‘To all you people who think of Mike Brown and say, “just don’t assault a police officer and you won’t die,” I give you Eric Garner.
To all you people who think of Eric Garner and say, “just do what the officer tells you and you won’t die,” I give you John Crawford.
To all you people who think of John Crawford and say, “he should not have picked up that gun that was for sale at Wal-Mart and he would not have died…”
To all you people who think of [12-year-old] Tamir Rice and say, “he should not have played with a toy gun…”
I am tired of you waiting for the “perfect” case to understand that this is real. The people that you see protesting are not making this shit up. It is racism. It is real. We have a problem.’
On Saturday, I participated in a small demonstration at a busy intersection in South St. Louis City. This peaceful action, organized by a local Unitarian church’s “Standing on the Side of Love” group, took place in the same ZIP code where I live: the whitest, wealthiest ZIP code within city limits. At midday on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, this intersection, near a Target, Schnucks, and other retail locations, was hopping.
Within minutes of gathering, a woman stopped at a red light told us that we needed to “go back to Ferguson.” She continued to try to engage those in our group, blocking traffic in the right travel lane through at least two light cycles. How dare we bring this issue to her nice, quiet, monochromatic neighborhood?!? How dare we stand there quietly on the sidewalk making her feel uncomfortable?
Not long after that, the police swarm began. My friends who were walking to join us saw ten police SUVs speeding down the street with their lights on. Before long, our group of 30 or so demonstrators had attracted an equal number of police vehicles, each vehicle carrying multiple officers, for a likely ratio of 3 [fully armed, riot-gear equipped, zip-tie handcuffs at the ready] police officer to every 1 demonstrator. Oh, and some National Guard thrown in the mix, just for fun.
Two officers came over to talk to one of the organizers. I don’t know exactly what was said, but I guess they decided to “let” us stay (on the public sidewalk, where we were breaking no laws), though they had no intention to de-escalate the police presence.
It was an interesting ninety minutes. We received a number of friendly honks (as a bicyclist, you get good at discerning these) and waves, but there were certainly nasty looks and comments (shouted from the safety of cars) as well. These, to me, showed that the organizers had picked a good location for this action.
We had a single incident of a very riled-up man (red sweatshirt guy) jumping out of his car to confront us. The following minutes were tense. Most of the group wisely chose to not engage, leaving the discussion to a well-prepared organizer. Red sweatshirt guy finally calmed down, and before he left, I overheard a fellow demonstrator sharing his story, his experiences, of being a middle-aged black man, harassed by the police (on multiple occasions) for no reason. Red sweatshirt guy actually seemed to be listening. I have hope that, just maybe, a tiny seed was planted. Face-to-face encounters, where we actually listen are SO important.
As planned, the demonstration ended after ninety minutes. As Matthew and I walked back to the library, where we’d left our bikes locked up, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like one of the disciples, waiting for someone to say, “Were you with [them]? I think I saw you with [them].”
I’d naively assumed that most of the police that responded had quietly slunk away, but no, they were just one parking lot over. We had to walk right by them.
This photo probably shows about half of the police vehicles that responded. The rest were staged across the street in another parking lot, with the National Guard.
At the time, I had not yet read about police response to demonstrations after the no indictment decision, including injudicious use of tear gas (a chemical weapon). Amnesty International has sited some specific concerns about police use of force against protestors here, based on reports from their trained, on-the-ground observers.
These first-hand accounts are also important:
At best, the system is broken. At worst, it’s working as designed. Militarized police acting on decades of inherent racism, wielding weapons against unarmed people with impunity. My chest is tight. But I can still breathe. Unlike Mike Brown, unlike Eric Garner, unlike Tamir Rice, I can still breathe. And so I will continue listening to stories that are hard to hear, will continue to feel uncomfortable with the privilege my skin color confers, will continue to feel sick at the injustices that just. keep. coming.