The beautiful thing about this movement to end police brutality and by corollary to end the system which buttresses mass incarceration is that it has bridged culture, class, nationality, sex, religion, age, gender identification, race, ethnicity, political ideologies, and color. In the marches here in Seattle and around the United States, at any point that you turn around to look at the people putting their bodies on the line to ensure that Civil Rights are achieved you will see someone from any of innumerable walks of life and backgrounds. The beauty of it is that as different as we all are, we all believe that people should be treated fairly and equally.
The system of laws that have been written and instituted from the end of 19th Century through the beginning of the 21st Century are crafted in such a way to apply to everyone, but are in practice used to target particular groups of individuals. The People, who gather and march and chant and sing in these marches understand this stark reality and have unanimously declared time and again that this system is not a system of justice. The People, regardless of whether they are black, white, First Nations, Asian, Latino, wealthy or homeless have consistently stood shoulder to shoulder risking arrests and violence to their persons to make sure that black men and women are not being killed and incarcerated and atrocious rates.
I have personally witnessed people who could be physically identified as white putting their bodies between the police and the people of color who the police were attempting to arrest and harm. I have also witnessed firsthand, allies being sprayed with mace and arrested—this includes a Legal Observer who was there to ensure that the laws were being followed and was a non-combatant who was sprayed with mace—during our marches.
So, the claims that I have heard distributed that they are not putting their bodies and their liberties on the line, acknowledging their inherent privilege in this system and using that to benefit the cause are simply inaccurate. Even if you do not notice the arrests happening during the protests that does not mean that they are not occurring. In fact, there have been many occurrences of people being arrested after the protests and marches while they are walking home, and often times on trumped up charges that have nothing to do with the demonstrations themselves.
Earlier this December, I went to the King County Jail for one of our people who was scheduled for a bail hearing after the individual was arrested leaving a march alone. The charge was burglary, but there was not even enough evidence to set bail and the individual was released without bail or charges being filed. The individual was, it seems, arrested just because of their involvement in the demonstration.
This is not meant to be construed to suggest that Black people have not been arrested, maced or flash-bombed because that is not the truth. In fact, the Seattle Police are notorious for ramming their bikes into people and tackling us to the ground, fighting the whole way as a tactic of arrest and suppression. This has happened to many people of multiple races and ethnicities. My intention in sharing the description of the white people who are being maced and arrested is to show that the people who are standing in solidarity with the Black community are in fact risking their bodies and liberty for us and that needs to be both acknowledged and respected.
This is nonetheless, a Black led movement and it has to be. Frederic Douglass said in his speech West India Emancipation in New York in 1857: “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” He further said, “The general sentiment of mankind is that a man who will not fight for himself, when he has the means of doing so, is not worth being fought for by others, and this sentiment is just.” What this reveals, even from as long ago as the 19th Century is that the struggle for justice and freedom rests squarely with the people who are being oppressed. As Douglas mentions, if those who are oppressed do not stand up for themselves, then no one else will, or should either. That the people who are suffering from an unjust system must stand up for themselves and assert their right to life, if they are to have that right to life. “For a man who does not value freedom for himself will never value it for others, or put himself to any inconvenience to gain it for others” says Douglas, before he continues on to say: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.” Douglas was speaking about slavery in the 19th Century and achieving freedom from that servitude, but his words hold just as much weight and pith today as they did then; if the people are not willing to stand up and make sacrifices for our own freedom and right to life, then we are not worth that freedom and right. This is why the movement has to be Black led and why we must stand for ourselves with others by our side. And this is precisely what we have been doing.
Courageous people have been organizing and putting their very lives on the line and making the utmost sacrifices to demand our right to life and for justice. People have made sacrifices of school and work, of safety and life to demand justice and to fight for an equitable system, but to read the comments on many news or reporting feeds or to listen to the people outside of the marches critiquing the protesters’ motives say things like this comment from a KIRO 7 news feed Protest Planned at Pioneer Square During Seahawks Game (12/19/2014): “How many of these not so intelligent protesters are feeding of our tax dollars. They seem to have a lot of time on their hands to protest. But not enough to check there facts. It’s time for them to shut up and get a job!” To listen to and absorb these types of comments, whether in public, on television, the radio, or on the internet one might think that the people in these demonstrations had nothing to lose because we never had anything.
I could just as easily speak for others as I can speak of myself, but I will take the heat for this explication. I am a senior at the University of Washington double majoring in History (with a focus on empires and post-colonialism) and Philosophy (with a focus in ethics and justice). After completing my undergraduate studies and earning a Bachelor’s Degree I will be earning a Ph. D. in history and a Jurist Doctorate (Law Degree). With these degrees my plan is to work with the United Nations and to help the organization revise international policy and law so that it is more equitable and just for all. Prior to enrolling at North Seattle Community College, where I was the Treasurer for the Student Government, and earning an Associate of Arts Degree, I was an owner of a construction company in the Pacific Northwest region, which specialized in underground utilities. The contrast the presentation of these facts I am attempting to draw is that the protesters are not ignorant, uneducated and jobless people. My story is not unique. In fact, many if not most people have very similar stories and histories to tell.
My story contains more. Almost twenty years ago, I got into a lot of trouble in and around Seattle. I have a juvenile record that has been closed, though not expunged. When I was an adolescent I was involved with gangs and got hooked on drugs and as a result of both of these things I committed crime. I grew up in varying degrees of poverty, and even though I believe in agency, it cannot be successfully argued that one’s environment does not shape one’s decisions and opportunities. However, that is not the point, the argument that I am making by stating my history is that when I participate in demonstrations for Civil Rights risking arrests and potential charges, I risk everything I have been working on and for. If I am arrested then that juvenile record will be used as evidence of my character and against me. If that occurs, then I also risk losing the funding for my education, which will directly impact my ability to be a servant for our people, not just in the United States, but globally. (I will be happy to debate the morality of Federal Financial Aid, but this is not the place for it or the reason for bringing it up.) The point is that most of us are educated and do have jobs and furthermore, as Frederick Douglas said, we are risking everything to fight for our rights and for justice because that is what the struggle requires for progress.
It is easy to portray the protesters as thugs and criminals, as ignorant and leeches on this society because that makes the message that The People are speaking easier to ignore. It is an attempt to discredit the complaints that The People have with this system and to justify the suppression of the people.
There are just as many slurs that are tossed out at The People who stand and march in solidarity with Black people and work for a brighter tomorrow with us. The news and much of the public attempts to character assassinate some of these people by calling them Anarchists. And though some of them may be anarchists, not everyone who is at these demonstrations and that is not Black is an anarchist. In fact, there are plenty of Black Anarchists. Secondly, the media and the public attempt to discredit the demonstrations and the messages being projected from them by arguing that these demonstrations are nothing but white anarchists and who break things and start fights with the police. This may happen, but it is by no means the entire composition of all the demonstrations or any demonstration in particular. On all counts, the reports and accusations against The People participating in these demonstrations is simply inaccurate and often times nothing more than either, misinformation or outright propaganda meant to dilute the messages being disseminated by The People. Furthermore, as was stated above, these people are putting their bodies and their liberties on the line and have because they believe that this system is unjust.
A perfect example of this was at the demonstration at Bellevue Square when a woman with a child who was sitting in the area where The People gathered to sing, joined the demonstration with her young son. The People were singing “Which side are you on my friend, which side are you on? Justice for Mike Brown, is justice for us all” in the center of the mall. After the police, decked out in full riot gear encircled the demonstrators, they made a plea to the white woman from Bellevue, notifying her that they were about to arrest everyone in the demonstration and warning her that she should take her son away before they began. Instead of running away and allowing an unjust action to occur, she grabbed her son and entered into the center of the circle of this peaceful demonstration. It was both heartwarming and inspiring to see that someone who no one knew believed in fighting for justice so much would not conceal even her son from the harsh reality of oppression and suppression.
Regardless of what the uninformed or misinformed people attempt to present as facts about The People and what the people are doing by marching and protesting, or how they attempt to tear the people apart, it is not having the desired affect. In fact, it is having the opposite affect, it is drawing The People closer together and forcing us to become more organized and strategic. Communities which have been disparate are coming together and forming coalitions and networks, learning how to care for and educated each other and creating lasting relationships. We are tearing down the barriers that society has attempted to raise to keep us separate and we are standing in unity.
This is a Black led movement because it must be and it is long overdue, but because it is led by Black people does not mean that the people who are not Black are not valuable and necessary participating people in this movement; quite the opposite. It is a beautiful thing to watch so many people, from so many different backgrounds come together all to fight for justice and equality.
We claim the Right to self-determination.
We claim the Right to define justice.
We claim the Right to liberty.
We claim the Right to live.