On the anniversary of the shooting of 18 year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, another young black man—18 year-old black Tyrone Harris Jr.—was shot by police officers in Ferguson.
Police say that Harris opened fire, which they then returned. In the ensuing gunfight, somehow Harris was the only one injured. If you have the luxury of taking that story at face value, congratulations, sounds like a nice life. For the rest of us, however, we who have a cursory understanding of how the police system operates in America, we remain skeptical.
If Tyrone Harris Jr. lives, if some grainy cellphone footage happens to emerge and if the police are unable to lie and manipulate evidence to their liking, perhaps we will find out what truly happened. And maybe, yes, Harris did open fire on the police first! But the fact remains that no matter who fired the first shot, the entire incident was a direct result of the aggression and continued escalation of tensions by the police in Ferguson.
Those who marched in Ferguson last night went to mourn and remember the life of young Michael Brown and the approximately 1,083 Americans the police have killed since August 9, 2014. The Ferguson police showed up, yet again, in riot gear and stared down the people of Ferguson—the people who they have been entrusted to protect and serve, the people whose taxes pay their salaries—the way soldiers look at an enemy.
As I watched this all unfold last night—primarily through tweets from protesters and media on the ground—one of the pervasive messages by observers and myself was: Wow, is this really happening again? Did the Ferguson police seriously show up to what was supposed to be a peaceful protest in riot gear and tanks, again? Did they really pepper spray citizens, again? How is this possible?
Of course, this is all possible due to the single fact that this is America. This is our deeply shameful history. This is what we do.
Watching this devastatingly familiar scene, I was hit with a heaviness in my chest by a full realization of the weight and the span of violence, injustice and suffering black people have endured in America.
Truly, how are we still here? We shouldn’t be here. Slavery should have wholly broken our spirit—our grasp on reality—and banished us to an existence rooted in deep trauma: the psychological handicaps bred by believing you are the property of another man.
The burning of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma should have so opened our eyes to the fact that white people in this country will be so unsettled with us prospering and building real wealth for ourselves, that they simply will not allow it. If racist practices and intimidation didn’t work to stifle us, well—they’ll just take things into their own hands and burn our shit to the ground.
The daily humiliation of Jim Crow should have worn us down to weak, deferential hopeless shells in the exact way that it was designed to. The acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King senseless should have shattered any lingering, anemic belief in justice. We should have simply given up, given in and accepted our fate in America as less-thans, undeserving of basic humanity and the protection of the Constitution.
There has not been a time in our history when this nation has not been at war with black people. Perhaps at times the battle was quieter or we were less aware, but it has always been present.
They used coded language and developed policies specifically designed to keep the boot on our necks. The social, political and financial degradation of black people has been so effective that many of us have internalized the inadequacy that our country sees in us. The work of white supremacy—which is to say, America—was done so deftly and completely that we continue to hurt and stifle our own progress and wellbeing all on our own.
The abject devaluing of us as a people is present in every arena, in every decade.
We have been used as lab rats for medical experiments because our pain is not real.
Think of the white people who rationalized a disgust with sharing a water fountain with black people but instructed us to nurse their children.
The American soldier is arguably our original and most untouchable hero. You send us off to fight and die in your wars and when black soldiers come home, they return not as the heroes they are, but as the second class citizens America has always seen them as.
We are put in situations where success is nearly impossible and when we succeed anyway, instead of marveling at that accomplishment, you boo as we smile in your face.
That we see ourselves as beautiful and openly flaunt our skin and our hair and our features when you’ve done everything possible to convince the world that we are ugly is extraordinary.
The history of suffering by black people in this country is immeasurable and unrelenting.
We are remarkable. There is a reason that “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem during the Civil Right’s Movement. There is a reason that Maya Angelou wrote, “Still I Rise,” and young people today are chanting the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Because we have always been, in some way or another, alright. We are still standing. And the fact that we are not only standing, but thriving and fighting is a feat of indomitable will and resilience.
I can offer no tangible solutions to avoiding what happened in Ferguson last night and a year ago. Body cameras will not solve this problem. Increased training of police officers will likely fix nothing and voting for Bernie Sanders probably won’t do the trick either. I don’t know what the solution is because American history has proven that just when we think we’ve made real progress—a black President, for example—we have white people parading through the streets with Confederate flags.
We are a miracle. Be angry, be sad, be outraged, but remember to celebrate and stand in awe of the fact that we have always found a way to survive.
So I say this: Burn down the stores. Sag your pants. Blast your music. Protest. Write. Sing. Dance. Ace their tests. Beat them at their own game. Let America know that we are here and we are alive right now and forever. Let your shining blackness blind them. Let the sound of our chants deafen them. Let our collective living manifest itself in an energy so powerful and unwavering that to deny it would be to deny the sun.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Image via Getty.