“Calm Reflection” or Justice?

Against the Current, No. 166, September/October 2013

Meleiza Figueroa

THE FRIDAY NIGHT before George Zimmerman was acquitted, some friends and I went to see the movie “Fruitvale Station.” “Fruitvale Station,” if you don’t already know, is an amazing film that chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man from Oakland, CA — a bit of a screwup like a lot of guys are at that age, but at heart a devoted son and father — who was handcuffed and fatally shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on New Years’ Day 2009.

As the credits rolled on the film, and my friends and I sat there, stunned, crying and heartbroken, I tried, through all the visceral pain and anger, to process what I had just seen.

What struck me most about Ryan Coogler’s remarkable film was the everydayness of it all. Throughout the film, Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Oscar Grant reminded me of so many people I have known in my life; neighbors, friends, past lovers of all colors. Grant’s last day could have been any given day in Oakland; kids, hipsters, blunts, Farmer Joe’s market, the making and breaking of heartfelt promises, the familiar squeal of the BART train as it pulls into a station.

Oscar Grant’s last night, celebrating New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, could have been any fun night out with a bunch of friends. The film also reminded me of the everydayness of police brutality — names called, punches thrown, knees on black bodies pinned to the cement; even the fatal shot, shocking and yet so everyday, the banality of white supremacy. And it happens literally every single day; every 28 hours an African American is killed by police or by vigilantes like Zimmerman.

As the credits rolled on “Fruitvale Station,” I tried to run through a litany in my head of all the other names I knew of young Black men who shared the same story, the same tragic fate: Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Alan Blueford, Kenneth Harding, Raheim Brown, Amadou Diallo, all the way back to Emmett Till. And my heart broke again, when I realized I couldn’t even remember them all.

I could barely sleep that night; my whole body was shaking with indescribable, uncontrollable sadness and rage. My mind, my heart, my conscience were already in a state of unrest a full day before George Zimmerman was declared not guilty of stalking, confronting and murdering an innocent 17-year-old kid, somehow guilty of his own death at the hands of a gun-toting vigilante who identified him as a “fucking punk” at the mere sight of his hooded black face.

The protests, the blockades, the continuing outrage on the streets is about a verdict, about an epidemic of state-sanctioned murders of young Black men; and it is about race and everyday forms of dehumanization. It is about the fact that people are criminalized all day, every day for the color of their skin, and that because of this their lives are deemed to have no value.

It is systemic, and it is deeply personal. It is about Oscar, and Trayvon, and Stand Your Ground laws, and also about the fact that my black and brown ex-boyfriend was pulled over 22 times in a nine-month period, and was issued only one citation in that time; that he was asked what he was doing in a certain neighborhood, and when he replied that he was going shopping, he was ordered to pull out his wallet and prove that he had money to shop there.

It is about the fact that at times I have had to use my Asian-American model-minority privilege to help get friends with more stigmatized skin hues out of unjustified searches and racially charged confrontations, but my own skin is still dark enough that when I’ve worn the wrong clothing in the wrong place, I too have been followed through a store. It is for the fact that my mother still chastises me for being out in the sun and letting my skin “get so dark.”

It is about the fact that at the Occupy Cal protests in 2011, as we linked arms in peaceful protest, my white friend was arrested and asked by a police officer if she was all right; and in the next heartbeat five other officers singled out my other friend, a young Black student, for doing the exact same thing we were doing, and mercilessly beat him into the ground.

It is about the fact that just yesterday, I went to a cafe with a Black friend in a “progressive,” predominantly white neighborhood in Los Angeles and made the mistake of not dressing like we had money; as the only dark-skinned people in the place, we were mad-dogged by white bikers at the entrance, while everyone else looked at us and, consciously or unconsciously, sat up just a little straighter, just a little more alert.

These, and countless other moments, are the “little things” that made the killing of Trayvon Martin and of innumerable young men like him both possible and defensible in a court of law. These are among the daily corrosions through which the micro-degradations of racism and white supremacy eat away at all our lives.

And still, I am not Trayvon; I am not black. Though I see it all around me, and experience it tangentially, Trayvon’s reality and that of his family and community is not the one I must contend with every day. I have the privilege of removing myself from it if and when I choose, of being able to look at it as an academic issue and not one of everyday life and death.

President Obama, you ask for “calm reflection” in the wake of a verdict that legitimizes the ending of a life for the way a person looks. For a verdict that confirms what for centuries has been reinforced in so many ways — that a person with dark skin, especially those coded as “black,” can and should be treated as less than human.

“Calm reflection” in the face of a reality like this is something you can only ask for in the space of those who are privileged enough to reflect calmly. I can only write this, calmly, because right now I am sitting in a nice house, in a peaceful place, days and miles removed from the anger on the streets.

Don’t ask for calm reflection from those who are not allowed that space. Demand justice, by any means necessary, for that is the very least you can do.

September/October 2013, ATC 166