Last week on MLK’s birthday, protesters in Boston, in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, blocked traffic on I-93.They were arrested and everyone in town has an opinion on it.
Pearl-clutchers attempted to shame and discredit them, stating that delaying ambulances was not the right way to achieve their goals. Strangely no one seems to be concerned about whether or not an ambulance can get through when the city is gridlocked because of a Red Sox game. Or really any other time, because traffic in Boston is notoriously awful every single day.
Stranger still, unlike this time, during a protest which blocked traffic in the 80’s, no arrests were made. Of course, considering that protest was against cutbacks in police and fire protection, it’s not really strange at all.
I’m too much of a rule-following wuss to do something that might get me arrested. I celebrated MLK weekend by seeing Selma, and I urge everyone else to see it as well.
With the timing of MLK weekend and the recent protests, as well as seeing James Reeb (a white minister from Boston who died from injuries he sustained at the hands of white men in Selma) featured in the film, Selma struck a particular chord with the city, and with me. I wondered if I would be willing to give my life for this struggle. It’s a massive privilege to be able to think about this academically. But I like to think if it was asked of me, I could.
Nobody is asking me to die right now though, and this doesn’t need to be an all or nothing question. Everyone can do something. There was a protest march happening in my neighborhood on MLK Day, so despite my social anxiety (and weak ankles) I showed up. The friend who was supposed to meet me there unexpectedly cancelled, and I have difficulty talking to people I don’t know.
I noticed lots of people like me, though. At least, I think they are, because they have tattoos and quirky glasses like me. Well-meaning, with language about intersectionality, even though some of us live in gentrified neighborhoods. Aware of our privilege, mostly, in various degrees, on a spectrum. Not perfect, but trying.
I didn’t know if I should participate in the die-in, since I have never been stopped and frisked or even pulled over for speeding, let alone threatened by law enforcement. Speaking of which, I saw dozens of cops lining our protest route, all with guns in their holsters, zip-tie handcuffs at the ready. Flanked on all sides by the police, I wondered what form their actions might take under the guise of “protect and serve.”
Thankfully the protest remained peaceful. I didn’t know if I should make the Black Power fist when the organizers asked us to, wondering if they meant “even you, white lady.” I didn’t want to make a special snowflake exception of myself, but I didn’t want to presume to understand the struggle.
And it wasn’t their job to tell me. The organizers had enough to do without babysitting white people. Laying on my back on Charles Street, staring up at the sky during the die-in, I thought about what I want from male feminists. I want them to educate themselves, since there are literally hundreds of books and websites and articles about sexism. I want them to speak up against sexism in the spheres where they already have a voice to speak. I want them to talk to other men about this so I don’t have to. And I want them to shut up and listen. Mostly I want them to be more critical of themselves. And I am trying to do that myself as a white person. I figure my role in the fight against racism, at the bare minimum, is to feel uncomfortable more of the time, because that usually results in a lesson.
So we finished the march and I walked home, my feet numb from the cold. I wore my Wonder Woman sneakers, which are cute but impractical for New England in January. I can be like Wonder Woman. She’s (always portrayed as being) white, and she uses what power she has to help people. I don’t have a lasso of truth. I have an ok ear for language and enough credibility (some earned and some unearned) to sometimes have my words published.
With MLK weekend behind us and Black History Month on the horizon, I want to tell my fellow white people, especially those who argue that we should have a white history month, that Black History is white history, and white history is not pretty. The struggle against segregation would not be possible without white people’s bigoted insistence on segregation, or white people wringing their hands about “acceptable methods” of fighting for basic human rights.
Do you support the Boston Tea Party, but not #blacklivesmatter activists momentarily delaying traffic? Think for a minute about why that might be. White people, let’s try and make 2015 the year we get our shit together.
Photos of #blacklivesmatter die-in and protest in Illinois by Jeffrey Putney, CC-licensed via Flickr.