There is little left to say about Ferguson. Protests continue across the nation and abroad, now heightened following the decision to not to indict the police officer responsible for Eric Garner’s death, but the expression of grievance appears to have reached its peak. It seems futile for me to add to the long list of thought pieces on the issue. But this feeling of futility and the silence it engenders can be a useful response, because it precipitates reflection—a glaringly absent component of the emotional recovery and social reconstruction needed to cultivate a sustainable society.
Silence, however, can also serve as a powerful weapon. Its reach is far more capacious and insidious than the violence of militarized police forces—whose acts disproportionately affect marginalized peoples from the United States to Mexico to Brazil—which we can more readily condemn. In response to tragedy, silence is lethal; if we do not fight against it, we are all its victims.
The response to racialized police violence in this country conforms to a disappointingly predictable script. Many react by employing respectability politics, blaming the victim or his or her community for being harmed. This diverts attention from those who committed the act of violence and places the victim on trial. There is a knee-jerk second-guessing, caused and reinforced by the belief that marginalized groups have no authority to express their own experiences. And worse, still, there are those whose lives have never depended on a revolution, but who insist on telling others how to conduct themselves in the midst of one. They want to school them on how to speak, behave and feel—a response akin to crashing a funeral and telling the bereaved family to cease their tears because “I TOO HAVE FELT LOSS.”
But it is always the silence that hurts the most. The silence of which I speak is the deafening silence of legislative officials, who less than a month ago lamented with little irony that black and Latin@ voters had not shown their support at the polls. Or those who, upon surfacing for comment, do not make the connection between the use of weapons of war on America’s streets and those we use at our borders and throughout the world.The silence of which I speak is the empty rhetoric of our president, whose faith in “the rule of law” and “good policing” fails to recognize that racism and classism are deeply embedded in the U.S. criminal justice system. The silence of which I speak is that of our mainstream media, which has abdicated its purpose of informing us and seeks only to entertain, censoring protest as it sees fit and harnessing its voice in concern over Christmas trees instead of human lives. The silence of which I speak is that of the people we’d considered friends, but who responded to what is not only a personal—but national—tragedy with nothing at all.
This silence is personal, because some of those who employ it consider themselves our allies. They are those who have expressed support of movements around the world for freedom and equality, who have declared themselves “liberal,” who voted for Obama and gave themselves a pat on the back, who have denied their racism on the basis of having “black friends,” whose ahistorical optimism has led them to believe that things are getting better and that racism is bound to die out. And in this moment of silence—given not in honor of the dead, but in willful ignorance and indifference—we have a chance to determine whom we can trust to support us and be our friends in a time of need, and whom we cannot.
This silence is powerful enough to create its own genre of wounds, the deepest of which is loneliness. Silence in the wake of tragedy renders suffering a solitary act; the sufferer becomes an abandoned being upon which the contentment of larger society rests. Like the economic structures that rely on the underdevelopment of one country to sustain the overdevelopment of others, one group’s suffering sustains the moral and ethical obliviousness of another.
It is within this intentional silence that tragedies are made to appear far away, isolated, limited to one community, or even one individual. These moments become points of comparison, events upon which some can gaze and think, “thank goodness I never have to worry about that,” or, “they brought it upon themselves.”
Thus, it is of the utmost importance to interpret Mike Brown’s death as a universal experience. Though the color his of skin prevents some from identifying with him, his family, and many of those protesting, it is imperative that we look beyond the strategy used by detractors of the movement to make this a “black” thing, and recognize that we are all indeed Mike Brown or Eric Garner—or Amarildo de Souza, Tamir Rice, Claudia Silva Ferreira, and Aiyana Stanley Jones. And by extension, in a social climate that repeatedly dehumanizes groups on the basis of difference, we are also Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and Emmett Till, among countless others.
I am not implying that those outside the black community have experiences with the police or general public that neatly align with the experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. and throughout the Americas. Nor am I implying that solidarity is as simple as superimposing one person’s or one community’s struggle over that of another’s.
Instead, when I say we are all Mike Brown, it is to recognize that we are each part of a system of perpetual abuse and we must work together to demand recognition for the sanctity of life. We must demand accountability from the government. We must demand that state resources be distributed fairly and used to all of our society’s benefit, and not its detriment.
And finally, we must hold ourselves accountable. We, as a society, must remain aware, read between the lines, and make connections both global and historic. And if we have the privilege to be heard, we must not remain silent.