Say It Again: Black Lives Matter in Maine and Everywhere

Today’s post is written by Samara Doyon.  Samara has been a black girl living in Maine for the past 30+ years (read: her entire life). She is a writer, educator, wife, and mother. Despite the roots of her family tree, half of which reach generations deep inside the cool soil of the Pine Tree State, she recognizes that she will most likely remain an outsider for life, as the definition of “Mainer” upheld by the governor and half the state does not include people who look like her.

In July 2017, a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest took place in downtown Portland, Maine during which a confrontation erupted between pedestrians and a man in an automobile. (I’ll let that statement speak for itself). Local media described the incident as if the driver were an innocent victim, harassed by the hostile rabble while attempting to flee conflict. But eyewitnesses and the phone footage which was repeatedly removed from Facebook told a different story. An unconcerned driver glared defiantly at protesters who, in frustration but still calling him “Sir,” attempted to redirect his path around themselves. He pursued his course despite reason, continuing to plow directly into the crowd, eliciting reactive shouts and more insistent demands to change course (including slaps to the vehicle). This did not deter him. Not long after this show of entitled aggression, the driver completing his goal of physically forcing the crowd apart with a moving vehicle, the protest came to an end. Eighteen protesters were arrested and the 17 non-minors were eventually charged with obstructing a public way along with some other misdemeanors. The proceedings led to fines paid by protesters as well as a restorative justice agreement–discussions to take place between Portland police officers and defendants. The sessions did not move forward, however, as the specific terms became strongly contested. This conflict led to a reinstatement of the original charges and the arraignment I briefly attended last Monday.

I couldn’t stay long, because I had other obligations, but I needed to be near the sisters and allies as they entered the courthouse. They had submitted their personhood and reputation to public scrutiny, enduring ridicule, misrepresentation, and disregard for their religious practices in the case of the Muslim women (as pictures of themselves with their hijabs removed were circulated without their consent) to say for all Black men, women, and children: “We are human; we deserve to be treated as humans.” And Monday I had the chance to place my body in the line of the public gaze and in a city courtroom with others to say, “Thank you.” That was it, really. My presence wasn’t an instance of heavy lifting. It was simply a gesture of gratitude and support.

While I was there, several mildly annoying things happened. For one, those gathered for support encountered a verbally hostile, severely misinformed, maddeningly vague, middle-aged white man leaving the courthouse. Punctuating his sentences with expletives, he asked, “Are you kidding me?!” Followed by, “They’re going to bomb us!” I’m still not sure who he thought “they” were. Also, when I went through security to enter the courtroom and had the nerve to ask about what personal items I could take in with me, the security officer (who refused to look me in the eye) ripped the messenger bag out of my hand and ordered me to put my phone inside.

But the most frustrating part of my brief hour downtown took place when Judge Fritzsche took his seat and began explaining what BLM is about (you know, our perception of injustice) and why he thought sitting down and talking things through between the defendants and the Portland PD, creating some kind of mutual understanding and a new, restorative justice plan, was the only way to make things right. Have you ever instinctively known you were being handled rather than addressed; placated rather than heard? That was the mood in the courtroom. The judge insisted on pursuing this restorative justice course, as opposed to moving forward with a trial and giving the defendants the chance they sought to argue their case, ignoring the context of constant silencing, dismissing, and erasure faced by POC [people of color]  which makes “mutual understanding” a joke. With the kind of gross imbalance of power permanently lodged between police officers–those publicly respected, revered, and regarded with the “good faith” in which Judge Fritzsche kept imploring the courtroom to engage–and those of us so often regarded with a complete lack of credibility whenever we bring up any instance of injustice (“us” often meaning Black women), “mutual understanding” usually means those with less power holding our peace so that those with more power feel less threatened by our grievances.

Perhaps most bizarrely, Judge Fritzsche repeatedly referenced the struggle of young Black men; with oblivious condescension, by the way, as though implicit bias and disproportionate violence at the hands of authorities were a matter of opinion rather than a terrifying, reality hanging over the heads of POC in this country everyday. And he pursued this topic of Black men despite the fact that not a single defendant in that courtroom was a Black man. I wasn’t sure how much further he could have removed himself from the personal struggle of the defendants before him while claiming to understand.

That is, until he brought up Chance Baker. That part almost did me in.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Chance Baker, he was a young homeless man who bought a pellet gun in Union Station Plaza this winter and was brandishing his purchase in the plaza parking lot when Portland Police were called. The specifics of what happened at that point differ, depending on who you ask. The police knew the weapon was a BB gun, or they had no idea. Baker was clearly not under the influence of any chemical substance, or he was obviously intoxicated. The pellet gun was in his hands and he refused to set it down, or it was on the ground. It’s hard to find clear answers. Everyone agrees, however, that Chance Baker was shot in the forehead by Sergeant Nicholas Goodman and that this kills shot was the sole shot fired. Also, despite the bizarre assumptions of several mistaken bystanders, Chance Baker was a light-skinned Black man.

I think in his mind, throughout the proceedings, Judge Fritzsche was validating the awareness of injustice looming over BLM supporters in his courtroom. I’m not sure. But when he explained that there was no way to know how much, in the intersection of race, homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse, we could tell which factors had led to Baker’s death, the fire in my bones nearly propelled me out of my seat to shout, “It doesn’t matter!” Because when you, as a POC, learn that a young man desperately in need of help, living in your own small city, has been shot IN THE FOREHEAD by an officer, a human being shot down like a paper target at a local fair, the detectability of his blackness is not the factor dropping the weight of loss like a cannonball into your own gut. It’s the disposability of his entire life. It’s the fact that alternative paths of resolution were never pursued (a non-lethal, disabling shot for instance). It’s the way so many people in the community shake their heads and say, “Oh, well. It’s sad, but it couldn’t have been helped,” when his death clearly could’ve been helped. It’s the lack of accountability. It’s the total, unquestioning acceptance. For whatever combination of reasons (blackness, mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness), a human being’s life didn’t matter in that ugly and terrifying equation which played out at Union Station Plaza. That’s the part that stays with you when you live your every moment wrapped inside the stunning and glorious but systematically dehumanized skin of the marginalized.

I left the courtroom and returned to my own daily chaos, later learning that Judge Fritzsche had recused himself from the case. And while I was glad about that for the defendants’ sakes, I also couldn’t help thinking he was letting himself off the hook on a personal level. This could have been an opportunity for Judge Fritzsche to broaden his own understanding, to listen and learn what BLM is really about, specifically here in the city of Portland, Maine, and for the women and men who had come to make their case in his courtroom on Monday. But when someone drives their preconceptions full-speed toward the brick wall of an unimagined reality, something has to give, either the preconceptions themselves or the nerve of the driver and his determination to engage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Judge Fritzsche’s preconceptions survived the day, highlighting the necessity to continue speaking the truth others still don’t know they need to hear: Black lives matter.

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Calling all white people, part 11: Can’t be accountable to everyone

Calling All White People, Part 11

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Accountability is essential…but it isn’t a simple, blanket concept
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

There’s been a lot of talk lately in anti-racism/racial justice circles about accountability. Mostly right now, it seems to be a term attached to white-led, white-focused anti-racism groups (e.g., groups formed to educate, mobilize and support white people in dismantling white supremacy and educating their fellow white people about racial justice and racism) and criticisms that many of these groups are not acting in a way that is accountable to people of color. That is, they are simply centering white people in a new way and/or perpetuating white supremacy by making anti-racism efforts all about white-led movements.

I’m not saying that this isn’t something to be concerned about. It is. We white people have to constantly check our biases and examine our relative privileges vis-a-vis people of color because it’s so easy to slip into bad habits. We’ve been raised to be centered in this American culture because of our whiteness, and so we can make terrible missteps even when we try to do good or are sure that what we’re doing is right and just.

And I’m sure there are white-led groups focused on white people’s part in the anti-racism struggle that miss the mark and are doing more to make themselves feel good and/or try to steer the anti-racism ship with little or no input from people of color. And that is wrong-headed.

But my problem with accountability as the term is being thrown around a lot lately is with the vagueness that surrounds it. Some people have demanded that groups disband for not being accountable, sometimes when those groups are trying to reach out to figure out how they can be more accountable or when they are already engaged in efforts to figure out what they can do to be more accountable.

And in all this, I’ve seen very little specificity being offered by the people demanding that white anti-racism groups shut down as to what accountability looks like.

There are times when lack of accountability (or, more generally, lack of awareness/sensitivity around racial matters) is really, really clear and you will find probably no Black people or other people of color disagreeing with the assessment that the ball has been dropped by white folks unless those people of color have names like Ben Carson or Omarosa Manigault.

The recent furor over the Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner is a good example. Although many people shoved to the margins by people who love Trump have reason to be irritated with that commercial, I have to say that Black people were one of the most wronged, given how much risk has been involved with Black Lives Matter protests and similar activist actions around anti-Black racism and how that Pepsi commercial belittled those risks and the dedicated work of the people who endured those risks.

But then there are other times the waters are murkier. Right now, as I’ve already alluded to, there have been a fair amount of very vocal demands that chapters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)…or perhaps all of them and the national organization as well…should shut down because they are run by white people and overwhelmingly involve white people.

On the one side, you have Black people and other people of color who maintain that white-led anti-racism groups are inherently flawed because white people don’t get it and have traditionally messed things up. Some of the more vocal critics have even gone as far as to say anything led or designed primarily by white people is inherently trash. And so some SURJ chapters do seem to be shutting down under this criticism, with the message going out that white people need to individually educate themselves and their families and communities rather than organizing as a group to share questions, issues and support. Which to me feels like getting a degree via self-directed learning; most people can’t do it.

On the other hand, you have people of color who are all too aware that these groups sometimes mess up or misstep, but are glad to see large numbers of white people acknowledge white privilege and white supremacy and finally start making some kind of concerted effort to address those issues and fix them. They maintain that white supremacy and systemic racism were created by white people (who still hold most of the power and influence) and dismantling that mess without significant white effort would be nigh-impossible.

And there, for many white people who are concerned about racism and want to see racial equity arrive (if not in their lifetime, at least perhaps before we get to the next century), is the rub.

You can’t please everyone.

And to be brutally honest, you can’t be accountable to everyone.

As much as I hate to say this, if you’re in this work to try to cripple racism and other forms of social oppression, you are quite likely going to piss off someone in the group you are trying to support and spare from further bigotry at some point. In fact, with this post, I am likely to piss off a number of people who, for example, are in the adamantly anti-SURJ camp. It’s probably fairly clear in my tone and earlier comments that I don’t quite understand the logic of dissuading white people from having groups that will help educate them about racism (people of color often chafe at always having to educate us); that will provide them with strategies and tools to confront racism and try to chip away at it in their family, social and professional circles; and that will encourage and support them in their efforts as well as (theoretically) provide them with a place to check each other on biases they may still hold (which may indeed include centering whiteness too much and trying to control the anti-racism work too much). Having white people willing to organize in this way and gather in this way also seems appropriate given that a significant number of people of color are uncomfortable with large numbers of white people in their own anti-racism or racial-support gatherings.

As Teddy Burrage noted in a recent post here at BGIM, Black people are not monolithic, nor is any other group. Even when they are working on the same problem or issue and belong to the same marginalized group, people can disagree, sometimes sharply. And I think it’s a shock for many of us white people when we are supporting efforts like anti-racism when we see two Black people, for example, go head-to-head arguing over what is the right way to do something. Or whether, for example, SURJ is a good thing or a bad thing.

But in the end, anti-racism work, like any other complicated and messy work that involves dismantling oppressive systems, is a potential minefield for the people who work in that area. Especially for the people who belong to the group (or multiple groups) associated with dealing out that oppression.

We can’t be accountable to everyone, because everyone doesn’t agree. You certainly can’t be accountable to every individual Black person (or Latinx person, or Muslim person, or anyone else) because different people are going to have vastly different opinions. Different groups, too. You’ve heard the phrase “You can’t please everyone” and the fact is that you can’t.

I mean, you can be “accountable” in the sense that you need to respect and listen to people in marginalized groups and, when they say you’re doing something wrong, actually examine your actions and feelings closely to see if they’re right (and if it’s racism and you’re white and you’ve been told you’re doing something wrong, experience tells me the odds are that you probably did mess up). But you can’t be “accountable” in the sense of following one set of rules, because there isn’t one.

Bottom line: We as white people need to constantly check our privilege. We need to constantly self-diagnose ourselves as to whether or not we’re exhibiting unfair bias. We need to hear criticisms of our actions and attitudes by people in marginalized groups without getting defensive. We need to change what we do, say and think when it’s clear we’re hurting a group or a good cause. At the same time, we need to resist the urge to respond to the loudest, angriest voices all the time, because they aren’t always the right voices or even the majority opinion.

Unless and until there is a monolithic rulebook for every marginalized group (and there won’t ever be; I can promise that), you need to realize that in being accountable to one set of voices, you will almost certainly run afoul of another set of voices…and all of them trying to do the same work for, largely, the same fundamental outcome: freedom and equity.

That sucks. That makes the work harder. But fighting oppression is a fight; make no mistake. You’re going to get bruises, and they won’t all be from the enemy.
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What is the Role of White People in Racial Justice?

This is a reprint of a piece that I co-wrote and published on Medium. Recognizing that many readers may not have seen that piece, I am sharing it here as well. Community Change Inc. (CCI) is a Boston-based antiracism organization that since 1968 has been working to promote racial justice and equity by challenging systemic racism and acting as a catalyst for antiracist learning and action. CCI makes visible and challenges the historic and ongoing role racism plays in the institutions that shape our lives. We focus particularly on involving white people in understanding and confronting systemic racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. The following statement (which was written by Executive Director Shay Stewart-Bouley and the board of directors) is a response to the current question of what the role of white people is in racial justice spaces.

These are unprecedented times (in the modern era, at least) that we are living in as we watch the Trump administration unravel much of what we for so long considered to be truth. Marginalized communities are especially feeling the impact under what increasingly feels like the Trump regime. American citizens are being asked to show proof of citizenship at restaurants in order to be served, former law enforcement agents are being detained without cause, our children are being teased and taunted, just to name a few examples. The list of injustices grows daily and the Trump administration remains silent.

For those on the front lines of educating and organizing for racial justice, after several years of nonstop and often unpunished assaults on Black bodies, these are very stressful times. We are in a dynamic period where we are watching a younger generation of organizers and activists coming together and using modern technology such as social media to create larger and stronger coalitions and to bring people who traditionally haven’t been engaged into the work. At the same time though, these technologies occasionally lack nuance. And that is why I am writing to talk about why, since 1968, CCI has believed that working with white people on the white problem is critical to dismantling white supremacy.

At Community Change our core mission is to address the “white problem” of racism by shining a spotlight on the roots of racism in white culture with the intention of dealing with racism at its source, as well as with its impact on communities of colorand by organizing spaces where white people can gather, educate, train and support each other to become active, aware and capable of working productively in multiracial antiracism efforts both in predominantly white communities and in support of People of Color-led efforts in racially mixed or predominantly global minority communities.

There is much that accountable white people can do to prepare and engage other white people. Teaching the fundamentals of Systemic Racism, White Culture and White Supremacy. Coaching and coaxing and oftentimes aggressively pushing other white people through the myriad misunderstandings and hard-wired racist biases and white culture-based assumptions of superiority — often a process that takes years and is never really over. Dismantling liberal white people’s problematic and often counterproductive tendency to adopt a patronizing savior role in relation to non-white people. Interrupting the practices of inviting people of color into leadership circles in a tokenistic attempt to appear politically correct without sharing power or consciously honoring and taking leadership from People of Color. And more.

Dismantling white supremacy requires that white people need to develop the capacity to check their own privilege and practice humility and deep listening instead of rushing into multiracial organizing spaces with expectations of having entitled access to leadership roles, presumed participation in decision-making, or taking up a lot of space at the microphone.

In the past two years Community Change has become the home for three very active education and organizing projects: White People Challenging Racism, the Boston Knapsack Anti-Racism Group and the Boston Chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). In these projects, people of all racial identities are welcomed into spaces where the expressed priority of the work is to meet white people wherever they are on their path of becoming awake to the realities of racism and white supremacy and then organizing them and moving them along to greater effectiveness, sensitivity and active participation in local, national and international movements against racism and white supremacy in all its forms.

Prioritizing making space for this work with white people is a strong departure from decades of beginning-level antiracism education and organizing work where a great priority was put on striving for a solidly multiracial mix of folks in the room. That idea was that we really need to be in direct contact with each other to learn how to respect each other and learn how to work together. This mode of work can be very powerful, meaningful and effective with the right facilitation and commitment of the participants.

But over and over people of color participants — most often in the minority in these settings — were not only being asked to do the greater part of speaking to the effects of racism and the reality of their own oppression in our white supremacy culture and economic system, but also being asked to repeatedly witness and patiently support an endless series of white people expressing and gradually confronting the many layers of misinformation, internalized racial superiority, white cultural entitlement — note to mention ignorance of the current and historical facts of people of color enduring and fighting for respect, basic rights and liberation in the white-dominated, culturally oblivious and racially oppressive white supremacist culture of the United States.

More and more over time, People of Color leaders have specifically asked their white comrades in the antiracism movement to step up to educate and organize other white people. We know from decades of experience that there are several layers of initial training and support that educated, experienced and accountable white trainers — often in collaboration with people of color trainers — can do with other white people to check each other’s ignorance, entitlement, internalized racial superiority and promote not only an awareness of white privilege but an understanding and capacity to learn how to use that privilege in the service of dismantling white supremacy. We have always worked to design and develop these training efforts in accountable relationship to Black-led organizing history, systemic racism analysis and current People of Color-led organizing efforts.

All three of our projects (as well as all our other in-house training and educational programming) is organized and conceived and carried out in conscious and active awareness of our connection and accountability to People of Color leadership and the intergenerational, intersectional and multiracial movement we share in building locally and regionally.

In this urgent and tumultuous historical moment we are joining antiracism organizing efforts across the country in seeking to deepen, clarify and make transparent how we practice active accountability with the People of Color organizers and organizations we are actively working to support. We seek accountability in how we develop our programming and in how we focus our resources in support of collaborative campaigns and long-term community organizing efforts. We continue our history of mutual and accountable relationships and we remain dedicated to keeping these relationships robust, active, effective and healthy even as we understand that this work is almost always messy, painful, contradictory and confusing.

Given the many forces seeking to keep us divided against each other, we are proud to continue our dedication to making thriving, effective and actively accountable relationship between organizers across differences in economic background, culture, gender identity, age, ability and race. We are determined to overcome whatever current and future obstacles are thrown in the way of doing this work together. And we are always open to dialogue and collective problem-solving to make our beloved community stronger, more effective, more loving and more resilient.

We are proud of the work we do to specifically address the white problem of systemic racism by working in multiracial organizing campaigns and also by specifically stepping up to play a major role in bringing white people into spaces where they can be supported to shed their defensive clinging/adherence/attachment to racial superiority and disconnection from community and grow into humble and powerful accomplices in support of movements envisioned, designed and led by People of Color. We know this work is important. We invite you to participate in ways that you are willing and we welcome active dialogue about the ways our work can continue to be more and more effectively focused, accountable and effective in active support of the growth and success of the mass movement against racism that we are a part of.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.