In the summer of 2010, the Bay Area was anxiously awaiting the verdict in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a BART police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant while he was handcuffed face down on the train platform. For anyone who had paid attention to the history of unarmed black men killed by police, there was reason to be pessimistic about getting real accountability for this tragic incident.
I worked in downtown Oakland at the time, and the buzz around the impending verdict in some circles was not about the potential for injustice. It was about not coming in to work because of fear of riots. It was about feeling threatened and unsettled by the prospect of people, with the unstated implication that it was largely people of color, convening and breaking out into violence. It was the fear of people moving into a rapidly gentrifying city seeing the rest of its inhabitants as dangerous people tearing up the streets.
I was appalled that people who supposedly want to live and work in this city would feel so threatened by it at the same time, especially when the so-called threat stems from a community coming together to protest and grieve. I went to the rally when the verdict was announced because I was angry about the lack of accountability for taking a young black man’s life. But the fear I saw made me even more determined to go in defiance of people who think we should be afraid of our own city and its justified desire to fight back.
It’s because of that experience that Mahroh Jahangiri’s piece about white people telling each other to “stay safe” in Baltimore resonated with me so much. While she acknowledges the natural desire to check in on loved ones, she provides some important recommendations for how to push back:
But responding to this concern by just saying “I’m okay!” erases the real disparities in who is and who is not victim to police violence. It seems to be a disturbing way of suggesting that you had a chance of being hurt by this form of violence in the first place. It claims you survived, even when you were never under attack. Talking about how we, as non-Black people, are “safe” strangely centers ourselves in stories of violence that specifically targets Black people. It continues to claim the status of our safety as relevant and a priority in a conversation where it shouldn’t be.
So let’s be a bit more responsible and comprehensive in how we respond to white concern for safety instead of just saying, “I’m safe.” Convey to friends and family that if their concern is driven by fear of violent “thugs” rioting, it is heavily shaped by biased news or racism or a combination of the two. Provide them withalternate sources that actually convey what is happening in Baltimore (or Ferguson or elsewhere). If their concern is driven by you being a woman, share with them the history of the threat of “dangerous” brown andBlack men being used to justify centuries of race-based oppression. Share sources that highlight those Black female organizers that have been at the forefront of each and every one of these protests — contrary to popular portrayals.
Above all, convey to them that their concern is misplaced, because the protests are not the systemic threat — the police are. And explain to them that police violence is discriminate and affects neighborhoods and communities that our race and class remove us from. Convey to them that not only is it Black people in Baltimore City whose safety is threatened right now but that this is nothing new — that the whole point of these uprisings is that their safety always has been and continues to be at risk. There is no option for “staying safe” from the police for Black people in America by just steering clear of the protests.