Differences Matter: Reflections from the #BaltimoreUprising
September 5, 2015
I didn't even see it coming. All of a sudden I was being pushed backwards. I instinctively put my hands up. At that point, I did not want to get arrested. The others I had come with had not planned to get arrested that day. I was still operating under the assumption that I had some control over whether I was arrested in that moment or not.
More upsetting than being pushed was when a Lieutenant officer (who happened to be African American) began yelling at me, "Do it again! Do it again!" “What did I even do?” I thought. Then he said, "You can go, too, sweetheart." (As in, go to jail.) "Yes, I can go, too,” I thought. “They can do whatever they want to me."
It was the anger and the hate in his eyes that surprised me. The police seemed to hate us for being there; for our perceived antagonizing presence "against them." We were the enemy. We were all the same.
The reason for this encounter, as best as I can comprehend, was that I was in downtown Baltimore as a protestor against the motion to dismiss charges against six Baltimore City police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, and I was walking where these officers had decided I was not allowed to walk. I was on the sidewalk, not on the street. I was where they had told us to be. But not where they, in that moment, decided I was allowed to be.
As I walked with the crowd toward the police van where they were taking Kwame Rose, I had the naïve thought, "Maybe if I tell them I am his priest they will let me go with him," like the police van was an ambulance and this was a normal situation.
Any sliver of illusion that I was somehow "safe" in that situation because I was a white woman in a clergy collar disappeared with that shove. I am grateful that illusion is gone now.
I was shocked to feel tears welling up behind my eyes. With that one sentence (“You can go too, sweetheart.”), that police officer had shamed me as a woman and as a person he deemed less than deserving of his respect or his protection. He had the power in that situation—over me, over all of us—and he was going to make sure I knew it.
I was struck by how sad and unnecessary the entire situation was. I was not against him. I did not hate him. I personally did not pose a threat to him. But I did pose a threat to him, because in his eyes, in the eyes of the police as a group, and in the eyes of the state as an institution, the group I was with were enemy combatants.
Us verses them. The protestors verses the police. The black community verses law enforcement. The people verses the state. If you are not with us, you are against us.
And I was standing with them—the people demanding to be seen. The people demanding that the power structures change. The people demanding that the world wake up to reality of how things really are.
When the encounter was over, I kept thinking how what I had just experienced was an incredibly small fraction of the violence done against the bodies and souls of people of color on a regular basis.
Yes, my experience, and my thoughts and feelings about it are important. They are important to my journey as a human being and my development as an activist.
But they are also important because they serve as a reminder of where I stand in this struggle and the limits of solidarity. They are an important reminder of the larger context of our reality and the reason for this movement. Even as I stand with my black brothers and sisters in protest, I still have white privilege. Even though I was not safe in that moment, I was safer than they were. Even though I am committed to the same cause, my life is not on the line in the same way, and it never will be. And this is all part of the problem.
One of the most important ways we connect with one another as human beings is through empathy. We draw on our own experiences in order to imagine what another person is feeling and experiencing.
Yes, I experienced violence and harassment by the police. Yes, I experienced the very real fear of knowing that the rules can change in an instant, and suddenly you are no longer safe from those whose duty it is to keep you safe. Yes, I now feel like I understand a tiny, tiny bit better what it is like for others who experience these same things on a regular basis.
BUT my experiences are not the same as the experiences of racial minorities in this country. And it is dangerous to suggest that they might be.
Why? Because to do so is to trivialize the intensity, severity and systematic nature of the oppressive experiences of racial minorities. To focus too long or too much on my experience, would be a secondary offense against people of color, because it would take the focus off their experience and puts it back on me, a white person.
Depending on your perspective, this may seem unfair. Guess what, the whole thing is unfair. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
We must deal with the reality as it is, not as we wish it would be or think it should be.
It is not about whose oppression is worse. It is about understanding the reality that our society is structured to benefit some and work against others based on differences of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, age, and physical ability. It is an about an awareness of systemic injustice and the intersectionality of oppression. It is about understanding that context matters and our contexts are different.
I walked away from the protest Wednesday on my own two feet. I went home with a bruise. Kwame Rose was pulled to the ground from behind, held down by two police officers with a Taser pressed into his upper back. He was dragged into a police van and ultimately taken away in an ambulance. He spent the night in jail and was charged with assaulting a police officer. He was set free on bail on Thursday morning after hours of paperwork mishaps and being kept in a cell with toilet water on the floor.
There is a difference. There is a difference between my experience and Kwame’s experience. The difference is emblematic of the differences between our life experiences, because he is a black man and I am white woman. The differences matter.
Like I said, it is not that my experience does not matter. It is not that my friends should not express concern for me or outrage at what happened to me. It is that the differences are extremely important and need to be noted.
The differences are why this is a #BlackLivesMatter movement and not an #AllLivesMatter movement.
We must connect with each other’s humanity and at the same time realize that we will never truly know what life is like for another person because their experience will always be different from ours. We must be able to tap into our own experiences of injustice and oppression, of being excluded and marginalized, and at the same time realize that these experiences are happening on different scales.
We need to see the difference. We need to honor the difference.