The first time I joined a march against police brutality was the 2010 October 22nd Coalition march through downtown Los Angeles. I carried a sign that read 'Jail All Killer Cops' and chanted "Hey pigs / whaddaya say? / How many kids / have you killed today?" It was a surreal experience, since I had never personally had a negative interaction with local law enforcement (well, nothing undeserved.) I'll admit I went to the march because my activist friends were going, and had helped organize the day's events. I understood this to be "solidarity."
But when the speakers took to the makeshift stage in MacArthur Park to share their firsthand experiences of racism, brutality, and murder at the hands of police officers, the blood drained from my face and the bullshit from my mind. Police brutality and abuse of minorities and the poor is an intensely important issue, on multiple levels. This is the "long arm of the law," the soldiers of government who are tasked with upholding 'order,' whatever shape that may take. We are all responsible and culpable in their actions, and unless you are behind a badge, you are not on their side. Not in their eyes. That people of color, the mentally ill, and the poorest of the poor are on the receiving end of horrific and systematic violence reflects our society's values. It reflects on each and every one of us.
The more I studied, listened, and learned about the topics of police brutality, the militarization of our police forces, the school-to-prison pipeline, and our insanely corrupt prison industrial complex, the less I could turn a blind eye to the mounting list of names of those gunned down by those sworn to protect. Once your eyes are opened to it, the reports of officer shootings and dead young men become ubiquitous. How did I not see these patterns before? "No one in power will give you the education to overthrow them." It is up to us to educate and mobilize, as citizens, as Americans, as people with basic decency and a belief that all are owed a harassment-free, peaceful life.
Shortly after that 2010 march, I witnessed racial profiling on a personal level for the first time. An LAPD patrol car rolled up on Sofi and our friends, Guido and Carlos, as the four of us were downtown for a show. The officers claimed that Sofi handing Carlos his ticket, in front of the venue, was suspicious. They demanded we all stop, in front of everyone else on the streets, and prove we weren't doing anything wrong. The interaction didn't last longer than 10 minutes, but that shame and anger over being "suspect" at all lingered for the rest of the night. Even though part of me felt "exempt" as the only person with white privilege, I still felt intruded upon; when my friends are targeted, I will react. I can't deny that I will never fully experience and comprehend racist police acts in the way my friends of color do. But a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, no?
Yes, I have white privilege and yes, that exempts me from the worst of the worst. I do feel empathy with my friends of color, and I worry for them, as I worry for my undocumented friends who are completely unprotected. While cisgender members of the queer community in Los Angeles are, for the most part, no longer actively targeted by the police in the way they once were, as a member of that community I can't ignore that trans individuals still don't have that level of acceptance or protection. I fear for my trans friends too, of all colors. But it's not solely empathy that makes this my fight. As fortunate as I am to have received private education and to now work a job with benefits and steady pay, I'm still just above the poverty line. It would not take much to knock me down into that economic class, and it wouldn't take much to put a lot of my friends and loved ones there either. The socioeconomic factors in police abuse are real, and don't follow color lines or account for personal history. Not to mention, I'm a woman. Cases of rape and sexual assault perpetrated by police officers are not uncommon, and are understood to be widely unreported. If police can abuse civilians without repercussions or punishment, what on earth makes me think for a second that I'm exempt from ending up another statistic? Not to traffic in fear-mongering, but truly no one is safe unless they have power over the police. I'm tired of people saying "It's only a few bad apples." To this I will quote the Blue Scholar's excellent song 'Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant' "If you pay attention you will see / This shit is not the apple it's the tree / It's rotten underneath." This is a systemic issue, not a handful of rogue cops.
As the years went on, so did the marches, and so did the murders. As I grew more aware, I also grew more incredulous- how is this not a huge issue? Police departments are receiving military equipment and using it on civilians! They're wantonly stealing from the public! America's prison population is the highest in the entire world! They're murdering civilians at incredible rates and facing zero consequences. By now any half-intelligent American can rattle off several names by memory: Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Oscar Grant. Ezell Ford. Tamir Rice. Mike Brown. 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot while sleeping in her bed. It's enough to make you want to punch a wall.
That's one of the hardest parts for those in this fight- feeling so helpless. Frustrated. It's like you're yelling and kicking and crying in an empty house. It was this feeling that made Sofi and I jump at the chance to honor those whose lives were stolen at the hands of police; a pal from Grand Park reached out to the O22 Coalition, asking if we would want to build an altar for the park's Dia de Los Muertos celebration. With Ezell Ford's murder still fresh in our minds and the Ferguson case unresolved, the altar felt like a good way to do something positive. Not reactionary, not with fists up. But a quiet, sincere display of love and respect from our hearts.
Neither of us had ever built an altar before, but we think it came out nicely. Sure, we did it on a shoestring of a shoestring budget between the two of us, but it was a labor of love. We wanted to honor not only the victims but the struggle itself. It was modest, but it was there, in the middle of the park, for all to see. We both felt at peace for once in this fight, standing before the altar. We had done something, however small.
Last night the grand jury did not indict officer Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown. The dam broke and I was flooded with those feelings again- the morose heart drop, the deep and heavy sorrow, the absolute undeniable white hot burning rage. Within minutes the emails and texts came- we were mobilizing, we were organizing, we were meeting somewhere to do something, anything. 'another kid murdered, another cop goes free. leimart park' was the text from Sofi. 'leaving work now, be there in 40'
As I drove through Hollywood, NPR played Obama's ... speech, I guess you could call it. All I could hear was "it's the law" "respect" "violence solves nothing" "be calm." The longer he droned on the whiter my knuckles grew as I griped the steering wheel. Doubt crept up behind me "Why do you even bother? Barely anyone actually gives a shit. People will bitch on Facebook and then it'll die down until ... until the next one. What are you even doing??"
The crowd I walked up to in Leimart Park was small, maybe 100 people if that. I spotted Sofi (her afro helps) and joined her. She just looked up at me and gave a quiet 'hey.' Her heart was obviously broken. Everyone's hearts were. Local organizers took the megaphone in turn, calling on us to boycott, to hashtag, to not forget. "What are we even doing?" the voice was still wadding around in the back of my head. A 9-year-old girl took the megaphone and looked up at the adults twice her size. "They're killing us like- like we're ants! Ants in the streets! It's not right!" Ants. I mulled over her word choice. Ants. Workers. Bottom of the food chain. Dispensable.
My emotions were all over the place as the speeches and pleas continued. I wondered what I was doing there, if one could really fight a system so large. Then a lady next to me started to chant. "Black lives matter, black lives matter!" She was 2 feet from me, so I felt compelled to join her. She was turning around to the crowd, still chanting, when on the 4th round her voice broke. "Black lives matter!" When I saw the tears in the corners of her eyes I couldn't hold it anymore- I started crying too. Why is this an issue at all? Black lives matter. ALL lives matter. Why does our society make a 9-year-old girl see herself as an ant?
That snapped my head back to the reality, to the moment in front of me. I was here- we were all here- because humans are not ants. This system is not acceptable, and to roll over and take this abuse, or to step back and watch it continue, is not acceptable. None of us are innocent in this, whether or not we're on trial. "Do you want to march?" The megaphone screamed. "YES! YES!!!"
Our small but fiercely determined group took off down MLK Blvd roaring "No justice, NO PEACE! No racist police!" Someone at the front yelled back that the street had been blocked- should we turn around? "NO!" The crowd continued, even as Sofi voiced her worries "I hope that guy isn't an instigator, we've gotta stay peaceful." She was right- cops were suddenly everywhere. Again I thought of ants. But then the crowd cheered and roared- up ahead, another group! We rushed to join the other (much larger) crowd of marchers. "Whose streets?" one of the others yelled back at us. "OUR STREETS!"
As we continued down King, I saw the 'blockade.' Someone (ahem, LAPD) had commandeered a double Metro bus and jackknifed it in the middle of the street, attempting to choke off the protesters. Come on. This isn't our first rodeo. People clambered over and around the vehicles blocking the path, and lo and behold, there were even more protesters on the other side. In the hurry to mobilize, everyone had been gathering in different spots, but now we were collecting each other, forming something much much bigger.
The marching continued as drums, megaphones, signs, and fists were raised in the air. The LAPD were everywhere; it was hard to imagine any officers were left for the rest of the city. Motorcycles lined up along every cross street, patrol cars snaked in long lines along parallel roads, blue and red lights flashed from every direction. "Hands UP! DON'T SHOOT!" The crowd lifted both arms into the air whenever our path crossed with a gaggle of officers. It was, admittedly, scarier than I'd anticipated. The act of lifting both arms to the sky, leaving yourself open and completely vulnerable, was harrowing in the face of all that riot gear. I found myself yelling "DON'T SHOOT" with true sincerity. In all my rage and sorrow, I hadn't expected to feel such fear, too.
Cars honked as we overtook the streets, stopping traffic in all directions. Whether or not the horns were in support or frustration I couldn't say. As the crowd continued, more and more people joined- black, brown, tan, white; there were protesters of every color, age, and background imaginable. It was heartening to see. That stupid voice in the back of my head was drowned out by the chants of "The people, united, will never be defeated!" As the march grew, so did the police presence; at one point I counted no less than 8 helicopters circling in the sky. It pissed me off, because they had prepped. They expected this. And honestly, didn't we all? We knew this would happen, because this is how it always happens. The kid is dead, the killer is free.
Throughout the march, we spotted familiar faces. Activist friends from other organizations, other rallies and marches. A wave, a hug, a nod- they all were accompanied by the same small smile, that soft 'hey.' That underlying thought of 'we're here. Again.' Some of our comrades have been marching for decades, and here I was thinking I should just go home. As brokenhearted as we may all be, I am grateful to those friends. To hold them, to look up to them, to know their strength in turn gives me strength. By the third hour of marching, that collective power had completely recharged me. In the huge mass of people raising our arms above our heads, it no longer felt like a vulnerable position. Instead it was like a bear standing on hind legs; I felt strong, bigger than myself. "Hands UP!"
ETA: Last night, a grand jury let Eric Garner's murderer walk free. Within weeks of the Ferguson decision. This sends the clearest message possible- police can kill you, in public, in front of a crowd, on camera, for a possible minor offense, and walk away clean. Obama says he wants cameras on police. Cameras for what? Garner's murder was on camera, nothing came of it. Dirty cops will just turn their body cameras off, as they always do. And they will continue to get away with murder. The DoJ says they want to "restore trust between the black community and police." What trust? It was never there. The system won't protect those it was never designed to protect.
This is not about one man, one boy, one case. This is about the entire corrupt, broken, oppressive system. This is about freedom of the press in the face of pepper spray. This is about the right to due process, and the right to not get shot dead in the streets in lieu of a trial. This is about the rights our country was founded upon, the rights to assemble and fight against tyrannical government without being beaten or spied on. This is about the steadily growing Orwellian tide that concerns all of us without a badge. Our anger is righteous, and it is building. I cannot say when change will come, when we will start to win. No one can know when the verdict will finally come back 'guilty.' All I know is that we cannot just roll over and take it, no matter how Sisyphean the struggle feels. We cannot allow these injustices to continue, to watch our civil liberties violently dissipate before our eyes. Even if we march for decades more, we can never stop fighting back. We are not ants. We are humans. And we will act and be treated as such. We will demand it. United, we will never be defeated.