I’ve been hurting this week, and especially today. Two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were shot and killed by police for no reason. And then five police officers in Dallas were shot and killed for no reason.
I was sad, and frustrated, and I felt impotent. I wanted to do something, but my perceived whiteness, my lack of direction, knowledge, financial resources, personal energy held me back. This is kind of who I am, too: I’m not a rash speaker or rash actor. I want to know more about things. And so with all of that weighing on my, I went to Facebook.
I follow folks on Facebook who think and talk about these kinds of things – people who support Black Lives Matter, racial-justice organizers, artists, writers, musicians, regular folks who have an ear towards current events and a heart towards the way things could be. So I learned some things this morning. Bernie Sanders and Sonia Sotomayor have eloquent viewpoints on the problem. Police in Dallas used a robot with a bomb to kill the man who was shooting at them. Philando Castile’s girlfriend has a name – Diamond Reynolds – and is speaking strong and important words after videotaping her boyfriend’s death. A racist talk-show host and former congressman has declared war on the President and on black people who are fighting injustice. There is a protest happening soon in Denver, where I live. There are lists of resources for people like me, white people who know too little or fear too much, or who realize already that grief and guilt and well-intentioned thoughts and prayers don’t really mean much to those who risk more than we can know simply by their existence. I learned all these things in the span of about an hour, at my kitchen table, where I heard sirens and church bells and voices ringing out sporadically from the streets outside.
Then I read this poem:
what they did yesterday afternoon
by warsan shire
they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
…and I broke down weeping because it rang so true.
It hurts everywhere, and perhaps this concise bit of deep truth is the insight that will give us all some common ground to build upon, because it does. It hurts everywhere.
Our black communities (and also all the other communities we’ve marginalized and oppressed: other races, women, LGBTQs, the poor, the indigenous, it goes on…) are hurting. We’ve been stepping on them for centuries, pushing them aside, forcing them or coercing them or re-educating them into submission. And then we dismiss them when they try to speak up, and we don’t listen when they talk about how they’re hurting, we don’t give space for their voices, and we don’t do anything about it.
Those in power are hurting too, but they can’t admit it, or won’t, or don’t know how. Vulnerability is strength, but strength is not power in this system. And so when power and wealth show themselves to be empty and oppressive, those with the power and wealth lash out, reinforce their walls, rehearse the lies about how they’re right because they’re on top, when really they’re scared because they might not be on top anymore if they talk about how they’re hurting, or give space for their voices, or do something about it.
The police are hurting, and there is even less room for them to admit it. The system in which they work is one of oppression, confrontation, other-ization, punishment, and death, and when the system is attacked they feel attacked as well. They have very little freedom for subtlety and compassion, and very little training on de-escalation, anti-racism, reaching out with understanding. And so they fall back on the broken tools they have – their own or their institutions’ pasts and prejudices, the myths in which they are inherently heroic and brave, their shields, batons, and guns – instead of talking about how they’re hurting, giving space to their voices, or doing something about it.
Outside of our borders people are hurting. War, genocide, refugee camps, terrorism, economic exploitation are happening every day, often in places we’ve never heard of, to people we’ll never meet. But for so long our world has been divided into colonizers and colonies, and so they use resources, sit and suffer, strap bombs to themselves, reinforce their hierarchies and religious dogmas. In the power systems of the economy and the world, there is no room to talk about how they’re hurting, no space for their voices, nothing being done about it.
And then there’s the rest of us. Those of us who are privileged to one extent or another, who exist in and are supported by the system to one degree or another. We are willfully or unwillfully ignorant of the pain of others, we go about our lives until we read these violent dispatches from an unfamiliar and frightening country. Then we are uncomfortable, sad, defensive, afraid – in short, frozen – because we don’t want to be labelled racists, don’t want to say the wrong thing, don’t want to give up our privilege. And so we share videos, go to Trump rallies, go shopping or drink or watch a football game, anything to keep us from the pain of talking about how we’re hurting, giving space for our voices, or doing something about it.
So instead we repress and stagnate, as individuals and as nations. Repression and stagnation don’t work for very long though, and so then we lash out, as individuals and as nations. Of course Alton and Philando were shot – lifetimes of power and aggression pulled the trigger. Of course those Dallas police were shot – lifetimes of oppression and violence loaded the gun. Of course that market in Baghdad was attacked – lifetimes of exploitation and dogma armed those bombs. And of course nothing is going to be done about it – lifetimes of privilege and comfort and distraction shake those heads and avert those eyes.
Unless we start to admit that we’re hurting. To each other, yes, but also to our “others”. Imagine a police officer stops a black man and instead of saying “get out of the car” he says “I’m just as scared as you are.” Imagine a Black Lives Matter protester at a Trump rally shouting at a Make America Great Again white male “I’m just as hurt as you are.” Imagine an ISIS recruit approaching a cafe in Iraq and yelling out “I’m just as oppressed as you are.” Imagine buying your groceries and telling the cashier “I’m just as broken as you are.”
Imagine these moments, and then work toward them, because they speak to our most common truth: it hurts everywhere.