These Protests are Not Those Protests

I’ve heard many folks, including some of our Black Elders, compare and contrast the most recent protests against racial injustice and police accountability with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s .

Making such a comparison is, frankly, ridiculous . We live in a different time with different technology and different circumstances and reasons for protest. The two are no where near the same. This is not that.

Now, I’m only 52 years old. I was not quite yet born when most of those early protest actions were going on. But, my Mother and Grandmother were very involved in them. They participated in marches and sit ins. They let themselves get arrested at “Whites Only” lunch counters and filled the jails next to their neighbors. I heard the stories in great detail when I was growing up. What was sacrificed for me, a Black child, to be able to go to a desegregated school. So, I know quite a bit, from first hand accounts, how those marches and sit-ins and jail-fills came to be.

They were organized by leaders in the movement (local and national) and planned months in advance. This was done in secret — in homes and church basements and businesses after close. Word spread around mouth to mouth to those who could not make it to the meetings. They decided how they would dress, what they would do, where they would go, what injustice they would target, when they would do it, who would be in the front of the march and who would be in the back. In what order they would take their seats at the lunch counter. All of it would be planned within an inch of its life.

It was not published in the newspapers. There were no flyers posted. It wasn’t even spoken about on a telephone (because in those days operators could and did often listen in). Because, if the word got out that something was going to happen, those doing the planning would be hung from a prominent tree as a message to the rest. There was little chance of word getting out of the circle of those in the know ahead of time, unless there was an infiltrating informant in the midst. That did happen from time to time and people got killed because of it. But, in general, a march or sit-in or other civil unrest action was not known by the wider world until it happened.

This is not the way protests are planned today. In fact, most are barely even planned.

To the extent these things are organized today, it happens online. Publicly. On a social network. It happens largely spontaneously. There are no leaders in the traditional sense. It’s mostly a critical mass. And while there is much power and speed in getting something together after, say, a Black man is murdered on video by police (which is also only widely known due to those same social networks), it is mostly spontaneous. There’s no real plan. No real coordination. Just a call to show up and make your voice heard.

Of course, this also means that those that wish to infiltrate an otherwise peaceful protest to commit violence, loot, and/or advance an agenda also know about it and show up too. They see the opportunity to ferment chaos and they use it. This is what they do. Thus, what was otherwise a peaceful protest becomes a “riot” in the eyes of all that were not there. What are otherwise the majority — citizens peacefully yet vocally demanding justice and equality — are lumped together with a violent minority and the message drowned out.

Now, are there lessons the current movements could learn from the past ones? Sure, there are always lessons to be learned from history. That said, the technology has change so vastly that the results, good and bad, would likely still happen all the same.

So, I get very, very annoyed when these two movements are compared without the context of history and technology considered. Doing so only serves misunderstanding and propping up straw-man narratives.

These protests are not those protests.

This is not that.

The WhileWeAreAtIts

The project started off with a well defined scope. It was moving along slowly but suredly. then, the “WhileWeAreAtIts” started to creep in.

“While we have everything already moved out, we could install shelving.”

“Since the mattress that was in that room was no great shakes, let’s get a new one.”

”Let’s touch up the paint here since everything is over there”

”While we’re at it, why don’t we…”

Now, don’t get me wrong, all of these are valid things to take care of. They make sense both from a practical perspective and in the grand scheme of things. It’s just that these extras were not considered and accounted for in the project at the start. What should have taken X amount of time takes Y. What should have been done by now is not.

All too often, it’s hard to account for these things. You don’t tend to think of them or even see them until you do. Not until you are in the weeds of a project do the WhileWeAreAtIts reveal themselves.

Just know that, more often them not, when taking on a big projects the WhileWeAreAtIts will likely be there waiting to pop up. Do your best to adjust your expectations accordingly.

The revolution *is* televised…

It’s on the 24 hour news channels. An everlasting mirror of who we’ve become. Gil said, “The first change that takes place is in your mind.” But now, our minds are all online.

We broadcast our loves and our hates. We retweet our support for our heroes and disdain for our enemies. We transmit every transgression and cancel those that fail to meet the mark. We all have cameras now, so we film the “Karens” and the cops. We are the anchors and the audience. Everyone is reporting live, local, and up to the minute.

We air what we’re thinking, who we’re voting for, and what we believe in. No investigation is needed because there are no secrets – only news not yet discovered. Any harbored thought not shared is deemed suspect. Your dreams are live in three, two, one…

All the news that fits the narrative of now, breaking and live, for the whole world to see. Delivered the way you live your life. Seeing the world as it is — not fair and unbalanced. We’re mad as hell and can’t stop taking in more and more of the feed. The ticker tells the tale of our discontent with it all.

When the screen is off it’s a mirror, reflecting a loneliness we can’t bear. Yet, when it’s on, it’s a mirror of a different kind, reflecting the humanity we’ve let slip away.

Gil said, “You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move…It will just be something you see and you’ll think, “Oh I’m on the wrong page.”

The real revolution, therefore, is not on the television or on the front page.

The revolution we need will be a buried lede.

Juneteenth

“My people weren’t slaves. We were always free.”

That’s what my Great-Grandmother Handy told me while growing up whenever the subject was broached. I really didn’t understand it at the time. A young kid who’d been taught, as most people have in U.S. History classes, that if you were Black in the south and living in America pre-1865 you were a slave. But, my Great-Grandmother Handy was proud and adamant and we knew not to question or argue with anything she said. Therefore, I just took this statement at face value.

Now, my Great-Grandparents lived in New Orleans and even as kids we were made somewhat aware that not all Black people were slaves. New Orleans had a large Free People of Color community all through its existence and there are many folks in New Orleans that claim, some correctly and some incorrectly, to be descended from them. Those that claim this do so with a sense of pride (and more than a fair amount of class distinction). So, I just sort of assumed that’s what she meant.

As I’ve grown older, heard and read more family stories, and finally did some research of my own, I found out the real story behind the statement.

My Great-Grandmother’s Grandfather was a Blacksmith in Africa. He was hired by a plantation owner in Kentucky and his passage paid to come work for him. Yes, you read that right. He was hired — paid — for his work. He was not a slave. He came to America as a free man and was given “free papers” to prove it . So, he was free, with job and, importantly, the protection and guarantee of freedom granted by his white boss. In fact, he did so well for himself that he was able to “purchase” his wife who was a slave and, thus, set her free.

They had children and, the thing about “freedom” in much of the slave-owning US at that time is that it was “inherited”. In other words, if you were a free man married to a free woman then your kids would inherit that freedom (and the free papers that proved it). Thus, they would be free. If they, then, were able to marry a free or freed person, then their kids would be free and so on.

And now, you know, that my Great-Grandmother Handy told the truth. She was the descendent of free Black people. I recount this story today mainly to  recount that History is not binary — it is nuanced. That for every “fact” of history you will often find many exceptions. Not all Black people in the south were slaves, some were free.

On this day, Juneteenth, we rightfully celebrate the emancipation of those that were slaves in the United States. We celebrate our Brothers and Sisters for which bondage was a very real and traumatic thing. We celebrate freedom. But let us also remember that freedom is not, should never be, and should never have been a commodity, as it has been from this country’s very exception — like a coin of gold that can be passed down, taken or given by some entity, protected by an army, or granted to some and not others. Freedom is and should always be a human right. That is where we always should have been in this country. That is what this country espouses itself to be. That is the American dream we have yet to live up to. That is the promise we still need to keep working to achieve.

The Problems, The Privilege, and the Pain of Being Invisible

The Problem

I’m a Black man. Yet, for most of my life, in general people don’t see my Blackness. Therefore, I often feel invisible.

People see my light skin and green eyes and, frankly, don’t know what I am. So, they assume. In my experience, Black folks assume I’m either mixed-race or Latino. Latino folks assume I’m Latino. Middle Eastern folks assume I’m Middle Eastern. In my experience, White folks don’t know what to think. They know I’m not White but not sure what I am. I guess I’m just Patrick. I’m just just different. My Blackness is invisible.

And when I speak, I speak the Kings English. I can code switch when the circumstances require it but, for the most part, not even opening my mouth gives my Blackness away.

Being the son and grandson of long time Civil Rights Activists, growing up my Blackness was drilled into me. I was never allowed to forget where I came from — who I was and who my people were. I was never allowed to forget the many times my Mother and Grandmother were jailed during protests or sit-ins. I was never allowed to forget that our family knew the King family. That MLK was a close friend of my my Uncle Talbot (my Grandmother’s Brother) and was his roommate at Seminary in Boston. I was never allowed to forget that my people were in that fight next to him. I was never allowed to forget that the previous four generations of my family had gone to Dillard University, an HBCU, and that I would be expected to as well (which I did). I was never allowed to forget that their struggle and sacrifice was first and foremost for me. Not just for me but for my Blackness and my ability to operate with freedom and dignity within it.

The Privilege

So, in my mind, soul, and heart, my Blackness is alive and visible. Yet…

I’ve never been pulled over by police for little or no reason. Because my Blackness is invisible.

I’ve never been obviously and/or knowingly profiled. Because my Blackness is invisible.

I’ve found I’m often the only one in the room but not treated like I am. Because my Blackness is invisible.

So, while inside my Blackness is alive in me, so is the privilege I receive because my Blackness is invisible to most.

I’ve never knowingly been passed over for a job or paid less or treated differently in the workplace because my Blackness is invisible to most.

So, I’ve personally never experienced what so many of my Brothers and Sisters do, I have and still do experience what White folks do — privilege. The privilege of not having experienced those things because my Blackness is invisible to most.

The Problem

And, here in lies the rub… Many would read this and think I should be thankful for that. That, maybe, I should be grateful that my Blackness is invisible to most. And, this is conflicting in so many ways. The fact that I don’t reveals the problem with racism in this country. That it does have everything to do with a perception of Blackness. A perception based on superficialities. The color of skin and not the content of character as MLK said. The fact that I’m invisible, that my Blackness is invisible, reveals how basically silly it is.

Yet, here’s the other rub, the handful of times I have been pulled over by the police for very legitimate reasons (3 times for speeding and once for rolling a stop sign), I’ve been let off with warnings. Because my Blackness is invisible, my life was never in danger but…

I was terrified. Because while my Blackness is invisible to them it is not invisible to me and I know the moment it is seen I will be treated differently. Though I have no personal experience with such myself, I know that so many my Brothers and Sisters do. And the reasons they do is simply a matter of their Blackness being visible. And, because it is so visible to me, I figure it is just a matter of time before it is visible to, say, a cop.

Like I said, I live in and my life long experience has been in the privilege but because I know who I am and feel who I am, my internal emotional compass points to the magnetic North of the truth — that of being a Black man.

The Pain

But the most difficult thing, the most painful of things, is that my own Black Brothers and Sisters often don’t see my Blackness. My Blackness is invisible to them too.

Growing up, it was that I “talked White” or I “acted White” or I “dressed White”. Because of my light skin I was an “Oreo”.

Lately, it’s been when on a Zoom call full of white folks and there is one other Black person there and they make a comment about being the only one because they can’t see my Blackness, because on a call of more than 5 people my image is reduced to a postage stamp. Which I suppose is a metaphor for how I feel as well. Small. Not fully seen by my own Sister. My own Brother. My own race. My own people.

So, especially lately, I have to speak up about my Blackness. I have to make people see it. I have to make it visible to to everyone, especially other Black folks, in the way it is so very visible to me.

It’s painful and frustrating. Even though I’ve experienced this my whole life each time is like a stab in the heart.

Conclusion

I don’t have a tidy answer to wrap this all up. This is just a rant for now. A way to express a lifetime of frustration, pain, and a deep sense of feeling unseen. Always feeling both a part and apart.

But, ultimately, of asking to be seen and longing for a future where everyone is seen for who they are and it does not make any difference in how they are treated.

To Be Considered Equal

“If you are going for a job, and all the white people applying for that job have a high school diploma, you better have a college one. And if all the white folks have a college diploma, you better have a Masters. And, if they all have Masters, you better have a PhD.”

This is what my Grandmother told me. Growing up, I heard it over and over again.

In order to be considered equal (not “assumed” — because we never are and never have been — “considered”), we had to be better. For us, equal did not mean “the same”. It meant “better”. Because of the color of our skin, we had to be better just to be allowed in the room. To even have a chance. Just to keep our application from going straight into the trash bin.

I will note that my Grandmother had a PhD. As did each of her siblings.

She insited everybody outside of her family call her Dr. Southall. She never let them forget.

A Place To Be

Yesterday, my family and I finally mustered up the emotional strength to visit the intersection of 38th and Chicago — my old neighborhood and the site of the Murder of George Floyd.

Here’s what you need to understand about that place; because there’s no way to get a sense of it unless you’ve been there. It is not only a sacred space — with several bouquet and street art filled memorials constructed to honor his memory. It is so much more…

  • It is a community gathering spot.

  • It is a place of ongoing peaceful protest.

  • It is a place to give speeches that call for change.

  • It is a community free market where personal care supplies, clothing, fresh produce, and fresh cooked BBQ is available for anyone who needs it.

  • It is a place for Native healing dances, because he died on stolen land.

  • It is a place to be amongst shared grief and collective pain. To feel it together, To know that your anger is one with all anger. That all tears flow from the same source.

  • It is a block party. With neighbors talking to neighbors. Connecting with friends. Reconnecting with people you haven’t seen in years.

But, more importantly for those coming from outside the community, its is a place where you can witness that whole of what the community is going through. A place to be a present part of what we as a larger community are working through together.

A place to be.

What I’ve Seen

I’ve seen almost every single business across two cities boarded up. We drove from central Saint Paul to South Minneapolis. We had property in Minneapolis we needed to check up on. It took us through two mostly commercial areas. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to it, the boarding. So much so that the ones that weren’t boarded, were almost shocking. You think, “How could someone be so unconcerned and irresponsible?” The same way just days ago you were thinking about those who were unmasked.

I’ve seen seed fluff from the dogwood trees floating aimlessly under a partly cloudy sky. Directionless. No plan besides landing somewhere eventually and hoping it is fertile enough ground to plant roots and grow.

I’ve seen something painted on almost every board. Black Lives Matter! ACAB! BIPOC Owned! Justice for George Floyd! Please don’t burn! Kids Upstairs! “Roses are red. Violets are blue. Peace didn’t work. What else could we do?”

I’ve seen people who believe that words can save them.

I’ve seen far too many out of town plates. You try to catch a glance at the driver. What is an SUV from Utah doing here?  Male or Female driver? Is he Black or white? Note the plate number. Note the direction they’re going. Do they look OK? Because, we know. Then I feel guilty for profiling. Then, just as suddenly, the guilt fades as I realize it happens to Black folks every day. It’s happened to me.  It’s what the daily is for us. I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen the lilacs blooming and filling the air with fragrance when the wind shifts direction and the smoke from the ruins of smoldering buildings is blowing the other way.

I’ve seen neighbors helping businesses board up. I’ve been helping too. As we were boarding up a row of businesses in the neighborhood three pickup trucks with beds full of 2x4s and plywood sheets pull up. A burly young White guy jumps out of each one. They saw a post on social media about us asking for some help from anyone who could come. They were driving around trying to answer any call. Just good guys looking to do good things for good people they said. Those businesses were boarded in minutes. Beers and waters were shared (they had plenty). Elbows were bumped (were still in a pandemic). And four more businesses were (hopefully) saved.

I saw a beautiful mural of flowers on the boards of the wine shop I passed on the way home from the business I was boarding. It hadn’t been there on the way to there. From blank to beautiful in the same time it took to board up.

I’ve seen the press stifled, beat up, shot at, detained, and arrested. I’m reporting this from the United States.

I’ve seen neighbors collecting food and supplies from other neighbors to go help still more neighbors. Because here all strangers are neighbors in times like these.

I’ve seen people with brooms and mops and shovels and crowbars and garbage bags heading to clean up their neighborhood wherever there is cleaning up to do.

I’ve seen parents trying to help their children understand what’s going on. Trying to make sense of the senseless. Trying to explain the unexplainable.

I’ve seen people doing their best and failing and trying again.

I’ve seen the best of who we are. I’ve seen the worst of who we are. I’ve seen everyone in between.

This is what I’ve seen.