That “Aha” Moment: A White Woman’s Experience at a Black Lives Matter Protest
I am a blue-eyed, blonde-haired white woman in America, which makes me the very definition of “privileged” when it comes to policing in America. You don’t ever recall seeing a police officer with his knee on the neck of a blonde white woman, right? No, I haven’t seen that either.
Now I was never among those whites who thought excessive police violence against blacks was an infrequent and only occasional thing (I don’t know what planet those whites lived on, but apparently some actually thought policing was equable across races). I most definitely was never among those whites who would turn amazing mental and linguistic somersaults to make the case that when the police did use force against a black person — force that the white person might grudgingly admit was maybe a bit excessive — it was because the black person provoked it, which was just the closet racist euphemistic way of saying that the black person deserved it. Do you remember Rodney King? Do you remember the officers who gathered as a gang to mercilessly beat that man as he lay on the ground, and those officers were acquitted? Why were they acquitted? Enter the mental and linguistic somersault artists mustering the list of excuses that have long been used to defend police violence. It usually goes something like this: It is a dangerous job, a high stress job, and the police officers felt threatened, so they had every right to defend themselves. Yeah, right. Now that was decades ago. And all through the intervening decades, how many names of black victims do we have to list? And how many times were the same tired old arguments trotted out to excuse police officers for inexcusable behavior? Too many times. Far too many times. And I was disgusted by that. From Rodney King forward, again and again and again I was disgusted by the fact that simply wearing a particular uniform and carrying a badge gave you a license, apparently, at least as far as juries were concerned, to do whatever you wanted to do to “protect yourself” as a police officer. Yeah, right. I was beyond disgusted. But, I still remained on my white privilege couch, in my white privilege neighborhood, watching my nice white privilege high definition TV, and doing nothing other than just shaking my head in sadness and disgust at yet another and another and another instance of inexcusable excessive force by police, even to the point of murder, and no consequences for the police, other than maybe, at most, a wrist slap and a demotion to a desk job.
Last week, I joined the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Americans marching and protesting on behalf of Black Lives Matter. At first, I hesitated. I had seen the news reports, seen the violence erupt, seen looting, seen fires. I had seen police in riot gear launch attacks upon protestors with flash bangs, rubber bullets, tear gas. I was thinking about joining a protest, but a voice in my head said, “oh, c’mon, you don’t want to take that risk, you don’t want to take that chance, you could get caught up in the middle of something and suffer physical harm.” So I hesitated to go. And my initial decision was “prudence was the better part of valor,” so I would just stay home, stay safe. In the middle of my safe white privilege on my white privilege couch.
And then it dawned on me: that for me, because I was white, I had a choice as to whether or not I was exposed to risking possible physical harm. But if you are black, you don’t get a choice in the matter. By simply existing you face the prospect each day of meeting violence.
So, I took a deep breath, and I decided it was long past time I got up off the white privilege couch. I made a sign from cardboard, printed on one side Black Lives Matter and on the other side Silence is Violence. I pulled out from my closet black levis, black T-shirt, black baseball cap and black bandana to cover my mouth, and I attended my first ever protest march. I quickly caught on to the chant system I was unfamiliar with, the call and response. “Hands up!” cried the young woman leading the protest, “Don’t shoot!” we cried. “Say his name!” she cried, and “George Floyd!” we cried. “Say her name!” “Breonna Taylor.” “No justice!” “No peace!” “How many more?!” “No more!!!!” And then there was the simple chant over and over “I can’t breath!!!” which I screamed through my black bandana. I had never yelled before in my life. I had never shouted before in my life. I had never screamed before in my life. And I felt it deep down in my gut, that I long had wanted to yell, I long had wanted to shout, I long had needed to scream at the loudest volume I could muster. It was cathartic. I had heard others argue “What’s the point of protests? They don’t accomplish anything.” To whatever degree that may have been true in the past, I can definitely say one thing they do accomplish. They help our mental health. Sometimes you have to scream. And there is nothing quite like screaming in unison in a crowd that is crying out for justice. Catharsis.
Our march progressed to downtown, and we occupied an intersection, taking up positions on the four corners and continued our chanting while we encouraged cars driving past to honk their horns. My throat got very sore, so I moved to the back of the crowd to momentarily take a knee, rest, and drink some water. I stood, and for the first time, really looked around. And that was when I saw the incredibly huge number of police officers stationed all around us. Encircling us. Watching us. I stared at them, as they balefully stared back at us. And I had my “aha” moment. Because for just one brief small moment, I felt a twinge of fear. Staring at those police officers staring at me, I felt fear. I pretty quickly dismissed it as an irrational feeling of fear. These officers were not advancing on us. They were just watching to make sure things did not get out of hand.
But later that night, after I got home, exhausted, with a sore throat and no voice left, but suffused with a powerful and frankly wonderful sensation of being in the midst of a Moment in History where real change for the better is on the horizon….I thought back on everything, and I thought about the moment of fear I felt. For just one tiny tiny tiny moment, this White Woman got the smallest little taste of what everyday life is like if you are Black in America. Every day, a black person gets a moment of fear. Every damn day. This was my tiny little “aha” moment. And I know I am not alone in this experience. I know all across this country, so very many good-intentioned but otherwise comfortably white privileged people have all been having their “aha, this is what it feels like” moment.
Watch that now infamous footage of the Australian news woman, reporter Amelia Brace (white woman) who was caught up in that assault by police on peaceful protestors in Washington DC on June 1st. In particular, go to about the 1 minute mark of this linked clip, and listen to her voice, listen to how her voice shakes and quavers. That is what the “aha” moment sounds like, when you finally, personally, get to experience real and true fear. She said in reference to the police, “They don’t care. They are being indiscriminate.” I love that choice of word. “Indiscriminate.”
What is Black Lives Matter about? What is the economic and social inequality suffered by black people about? Obviously, it is about discrimination, and right now this convulsive spasm rippling across America is about discrimination practiced by police. But in this Moment in History, in the midst of these protests in every State in this nation, these police, these practitioners and advocates and justifyers of acts of violence and the militarization of a public service that is supposed to be about keeping the peace and not fighting a war, they have made the biggest tactical error they could possibly have made. They became indiscriminate. And their indiscrimination in their violence now has made it possible for so many of us white privileged folk to have our “aha” moment, good intentioned white people who grumbled before about injustice and excessive force used by police on blacks, but who had nonethless still remained comfortable on their white privilege couch. Countless thousands of us have gotten up off that couch to join Black Lives Matter in demanding justice and demanding reforms and demanding we all rethink what “policing” should even mean. And I assure you, we are not going back to our couch. There were Black Lives Matter protests in Idaho for crying out loud. There were Black Lives Matter protests in Missoula, MT, which is 90% white.
It took a long long time coming. A tragically long time. But white people have had their “aha” moment. Now it is Blacks and Whites side by side, arm in arm, seeking justice and fairness and real equality for Black, Brown, every shade, every background, every Human Being. It is going to be long hard fight, to see that substantive change happens and not just in policing but in the whole unjust structure of society that policing propped up. I am committed to that fight. I am not going back to my couch. I have more protests to go to. And in November, an election to go to. And beyond that, who knows what the future holds? Except the one thing I do absolutely know: I am not going back to my white privilege couch. No one gets to remain comfortably neutral anymore. It is time to stand up and decide which side of history you are on. It is not a difficult decision. Not difficult at all.