Illustrated by Minji Reem
It is 9:50PM on Monday, November 24, 2014, and the Mike Brown indictment has just been released. Three student leaders of color face a shared google document. They are tasked with orchestrating a community-wide response to what feels like a devastating outcome. 24 hours later, these are their reflections.
“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
I kneel from time to time. As black kids growing up, we’re taught to pick our battles. Some aggressions are worth actively fighting against, others we learn to bear. When someone confuses me with the only other black female in a room, I politely correct him, and kneel. When a potential employer stresses his commitment to diversity and in the same breath defends his firm’s lack of diversity, I nod, feigning understanding, and kneel. When a Columbia “Public Safety” Officer is dubious about my status as a student when I’m walking on campus and asks me for identification, I roll my eyes, and kneel.
But when a police officer fires twelve shots at an unarmed black teenager and then calls him a “demon” in grand jury testimony, don’t ask me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t ask me not to bring race into the analysis when the person who is paid to prosecute him defends him instead. Don’t enter a space where I am expressing my frustration and accuse me of jumping to conclusions and not listening to “evidence.” Do not ask me to kneel.
In advance of the Ferguson grand jury announcement on November 24, the Governor of Missouri called in the National Guard, as if he expected it would incur a violent reaction. The prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, waited until 8:00 pm to deliver the decision, and spent the majority of the announcement reciting selective evidence as if it were fact. He completely discredited any evidentiary testimony that would have been damaging to Darren Wilson, going so far as to say that witnesses who testified that Michael Brown had his hands up were wrong. He showed more empathy towards the grand jurors who “poured their hearts and souls” and “gave up their lives” to reach this decision than towards Michael Brown and his family.
Gave up their lives? Gave up their lives?! Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, and Tamir Rice had their lives stolen.
But the white moderate and the black moderate urge black citizens to be peaceful. They ask us to have faith in a criminal justice system that is unabashedly racist from arrest to sentencing. We’re implored to respect a police force that prioritizes property over the lives of its black citizens; to submit to the “rule of law,” which, as it currently stands, allows police to kill black people without consequences. What they’re really asking us to do is to kneel at the feet of our oppressors.
This struggle has become about survival. Every 28 hours, a black man is extrajudicially executed by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante. We don’t have the luxury of the post-racial, colorblind fantasy here. Our lives, our friends’ lives, our family members’ lives are deeply affected—and severely threatened—by police practices. Police are dangerous to people who look like me. We have to stand up; or we will die, even as we face them on our knees.
Tuesday morning, and many mornings before and since, I had to take a deep breath and steel myself before I left my apartment building to step onto the streets of New York City and face another day of hyper vigilance, fear, and trauma. I had to. The bullet may come regardless; whether I’m a law student, a “gangbanger,” mentally ill, a 12-year old child, or just walking through the stairwell of my own home. I had to be prepared to stand tall with my fists raised, to stand for justice (#Handsupdontshoot). Degrees will not save us, money will not save us, kneeling will not save us. It will not save any of us. Our only hope is to stand and fight.