07 July 2016

Showing Up and Saying Names in the Twin Cities

There was a vigil for the latest in the list of ordinary Black American names that had been propelled into horrible ubiquity by the gunfire of an American police officer, so I put on black and biked into St. Paul. By the time I arrived, the crowd outside the school where Philando Castile had worked was drifting apart already. Rain was starting. There were more people inside the school, but organizers had spread word that the space inside was to be held for those who had known him—who were feeling a particular grief and anger and nausea instead of the general grief and anger and nausea inhabiting bystanders like me—so I drifted around in front of the building a little, wished I had brought flowers to lay upon the pile, and rode back west, pulling the rainstorm along in my draft as Minneapolis still shone before me down the hill across the Mississippi.

I was not entirely surprised the crowd was dispersing; the vigil had started well over an hour before while I was wrapping up work. I was not quite disappointed and not quite relieved to find it dispersing, because I was not taking much of an interest in my own feelings beyond the grief and anger and nausea that was not truly particular, that had simply been brought into periodic focus by the predictable cycle of news and state violence as it had been before and assuredly would be again. But I was aware that I would have felt nearly as adrift even had there been a larger crowd, and that I still would have had nothing to share but the bug spray I'd thrown into my bag, anticipating the usual July evening conditions outdoors.

It seems important to decenter most of one's own feelings when one is a comfortable White person standing witness to the everbearing horror of state-sponsored anti-Blackness in America. And yet the attempt at bare rationality does not get you anywhere of use here, either. Bare rationality (or at least its body double, self-interest) says: why go join the crowd, just to be one more body drifting within it? Why go, when true change happens in patterns so vast your body in comparison is only a Brownian particle bombarded by the storm of larger forces?

Of course, that voice is not entirely rational either. The patterns need the particles to exist. But it is a very easy voice to heed, when one is White and comfortable and, often enough, anxious and depressed. It is so easy to be buffeted by these forces on all sides such that you ultimately move nowhere, and someone has to look very closely to notice that you are not placid but buzzing with dread.

In the winter it was Jamar Clark's name in the news and on our lips. My romance with Minneapolis was still fresh; his slaying shocked me in a way I couldn't have been shocked by police killings in Chicago. I'd bought in, assumed that the bubble of safety I experienced as a citizen of this gloriously progressive city must be general.

I didn't go to the protests for a long time, though I did eventually march. I didn't manage to join the crowds at the Fourth Precinct. Instead I glued myself to Facebook and watched it archive the community that grew outside the station: music, bonfires, feasts compiled in the biting cold.

I dithered; I deferred. What could I really contribute? And if I could not really contribute, was I not just taking up space? Was my desire to participate not probably, at root, as selfish as my hunger as a child to be included in all the groups of friends who did not want me in their ranks?

And then, more shootings. Armed and terrified white supremacists who'd showed up to the Fourth with who knows what murky plans, who'd been flushed out, fled, and fired in retreat. There was a sense of something wrenching itself loose from the crawlspaces of the internet or the collective mind, and intruding into the real world.

That wrested back some of the public attention that had gone slack as the news cycle rolled on. But even once that attention drifted away again, the occupiers of the Fourth kept showing up, day after day.

And I began to think about the possible aims of protest beyond external change. It began to occur to me that protest might also be a very effective means of care for self and community—that it could be, even in the absence of confidence in its power to shift policy and opinion, a tool for the preservation of the soul.*

I am not saying this is the best or only reason for otherwise comfortable people to consider showing up and saying, out loud and in public, "NO," when something occurs at the hands of the state that is intolerable to the soul. But even in the midst of deep hopelessness it is a motivating one, and that is notable, and I will seize it when I can.

* A concept which requires no real faith, in my assessment, beyond the belief in the value of one's fellow humans and oneself that is, after all, the only thing keeping any of us safe from all the weaponry the world has for the taking. Beyond the general benefits of community contact and staking public space for one's convictions, it seems to me that it is almost always soul-preserving and humanity-preserving to convert the general into the particular—which motion is in fact one of many brilliant tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through photos, through the voices of family, through sheer repetition, the movement confronts the world with the particular being of the irreplaceable person who has been stolen from it. Say his name. Say her name. Say his name.