There’s a lot of extreme emotion in the air this week. It’s tangible. I see it across my social media feeds and dripping between words spoken and unspoken at home, work and play. Most people I know, myself included, are in a constant state of vacillation between disappointment, rage, despair, determination and just plain old fatigue.
Other people are rejoicing, some of them in spray painting racist graffiti in Philadelphia, or pulling Hijab off of Muslim women while hurling racial slurs and obscenities at them in California and Louisiana. Yet they’re not the ones being told to calm down for some reason.
This is what many of us were afraid of, but not surprised, to see coming. History’s already shown us what happens whenever there’s racial “progress”: privileged classes tend to respond with a fierce attempt to maintain the status quo. These attempts often far outweigh and outlast any “progress” previously made. More on that in a second.
I put the word “progress” in quotes because it’s a really relative term, if you think about it. By a lot of standards, President Obama has been quite progressive (health care, marriage equality, etc.). By other standards, he’s either not been progressive enough (see: criminal justice reform), or he’s been just another branch of the oppressive class (see: his deportation record).
I also put the word “progress” in quotes because not every attempt to move society beyond oppression is seen as a positive by every individual. Take for instance Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. Most of us would probably not be down with the actions he took to free himself and his fellow slaves by killing entire white families left and right, but his goal of freedom in the context of the very real risk to his life that he faced in order to even consider pursuing it at all can’t be ignored.
Which brings us back to historical backlash. By the time Turner’s rebellion was over, approximately 51 white Americans were dead. But more than 250 slaves were tortured and/or killed (including Turner himself) in retaliation. Two. Hundred. And. Fifty. Think on that for a second.
Think also about the period of American History known as Reconstruction after the Civil War. For about 12 years after slavery was abolished, particularly in places like New Orleans where I’m living now, there were black-owned businesses, black politicians, educators and artists who rose up and flourished, until some white people got a little uncomfortable and created this thing called Jim Crow (maybe you’ve heard of it), which heralded an era of oppressive laws, exponential prison growth and straight-up murder that lasted for almost 80 years. Eighty. Yet another example of backlash that far outweighed and outlasted the “progress” of the previous years.
Fast forward a few generations to the Black Lives Matter movements and Dakota Access Pipeline opposition of the past few years. In both arenas, prayerful vigils by largely minority members of the population have been met with massive displays of aggression by those who are supposed to have sworn to protect them.
Now you might argue that “not every protest has been peaceful,” etc. But consider for a second the following: There is an inherent power imbalance between myself, as a therapist, and my clients. As such, I am bound by a code of ethics that promotes the creation and maintenance of a safe and respectful environment for my clients, regardless of how they might lash out at me. I don’t think it’s so far out of line to expect police, who also carry a great deal of power and are similarly bound by an oath to serve and protect the population, to strive to maintain a standard of safety and respect as well. Actions like the dumping of protectors’ confiscated items on the side of the road from a garbage truck captured live on video in North Dakota this past month do nothing to support this.
Consider also that when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series a couple of weeks ago, nobody was tear-gassing or shooting rubber bullets into the crowd of fans that was lighting cars on fire and smashing glass in the streets. It only seems to be when an oppressed class of people react against acts of oppression that those in power suddenly multiply and posture to shut it down.
I want to be clear that I don’t condone violence of any kind. It should also be said that often the level of aggression shown at protests is often escalated, if not by the law enforcement, from nonlocal “voluntourists” who don’t have to live with the results of their actions in that community. They can throw a bottle or firework, fly back to their home state and blend right back in to their old lives. But those tested and true organizers on the ground, whose homes and lives depend upon their actions, not to mention the response of those with whom they’re attempting to engage, their actions will more closely reflect that desire for peace in their time.
So what’s my point? My point is there’s a historical precedent for everything we’re seeing in our world today, and you should know it. You should know it because if you don’t, history is bound to keep repeating itself and lives will literally be lost. I for one don’t feel like standing by and letting that happen.
So what am I doing? And what can you do?
New Orleans is hosting a #NoDAPL solidarity event next week, as are countless other cities across the country (you can visit this link to learn more and find one in your area). I’ll be attending. I also encourage you to learn more about local and national organizations taking a stand for minorities of all walks of life, populations that — if they aren’t facing outright aggression already — will likely be facing some in the months and years to come.
I see LGBTQA+ groups advocating for trans individuals to get their passports and other IDs lined up with their identified gender now, before laws potentially change to make that more difficult. I see Black Americans and women developing social media codes to communicate that they aren’t OK so help can be sent if they can’t escape a hostile situation. Get in on all of this — get connected to the people these things matter to, learn their history and lift up their voices.
And don’t just do this online. Do it offline, too.
The holidays are coming up. Talk to your family members. Try to hear and understand their frustrations, and confer to them with compassion, but also urgency, that in order for all lives to matter, the voices of the marginalized and disenfranchised must matter as well. Lives literally depend on this.
Together we can keep moving beyond oppression no matter what cheetos-haired, howling, nationalist obstacles might try to stand in our way.