Moving Beyond ‘I Feel So Helpless’

Mike Brown, Ferguson and Injustice

Moments away from addressing the crowd of two hundred, I panicked. Who could I draw upon for inspiration? My mind turned briefly to MLK–which made me feel even worse. Wow, Kenny, I thought to myself. You tweet a few times, co-organize a couple vigils and rallies and now you’re Dr. King. Real humble there, buddy.

Okay, so that wouldn’t work. I went over names and faces in my head. Fannie Lou Hamer. John Lewis. Ella Baker. Bayard Rustin. Dorothy Day.

Names flew by faster and faster. Two hundred-ish of my fellow Denver residents had joined together to honor Mike Brown and other victims of police violence, and to rally for justice and racial equality. I had volunteered to co-organize and to emcee the vigil itself.

Why had I done that again?

I’m just some guy who works at a Unitarian Universalist church. I’m not an ordained minister. I’m not a pastor. I’m not a professional organizer. I have no clerical collar or stoll or robe on—just jeans and a shirt that says “DENVER.”

Many of us, at least in childhood and adolescence, learned narratives about the civil rights movement that went something like this:

There was slavery. Then there was Jim Crow. Thurgood Marshall and Linda Brown challenged school segregation and Rosa Parks stayed seated on a bus. Dr. King led a boycott. Then Dr. King had a dream and led marches in Alabama. He wrote a letter in jail. He was killed for his dream, but segregation died, too.

 Too often we credit a handful of people—Dr. King and Rosa Parks in particular—for the work and sacrifice of untold thousands, even millions, who strived for equality.

This has terrible consequences.

We watch the news or our Twitter feeds and feel horror—horror that another unarmed black person was killed, horror that the deplorable actions of some black youth were used as justification to essentially create a police occupation of a St. Louis suburb, horror that too many of our colleagues and former classmates and even family members seem more interested in focusing on what Mike Brown might have done to ‘deserve’ being murdered than in the killing itself.

We watch yet another slander of a dead person of color and we are filled with frustration, filled with anger, filled with rage.

And then that vicious thought bubbles up, the thought that sends us back to the other room, back into our seats, back onto our Netflix queue:

There’s nothing I can do. I feel so helpless.

We think this because somewhere along the way we internalized the notion that a few people make history happen while everyone else watches. And so we scroll through social media and flip through newspapers, waiting for official statements from our ministers, from our elected officials. We wait for someone to ‘fix it.’

We don’t have to wait.

While many around the country waited for President Obama and Governor Nixon to make statements on the situation in Ferguson, local leaders like Alderman Antonio French spoke out and documented events on the ground. A hundred years from now, schoolchildren will know Obama’s name. They probably won’t know French’s name.

But this week, to that community and to those following the developments around the world, who has been more important? Whose actions have mattered more?

And so moments before the Denver vigil began, as my legs shook and the media members’ cameras prepared to roll, it was on Antonio French—and the protestors and mourners in Ferguson, Denver and nationwide—that my mind landed to glean inspiration. Antonio French cared about his community and did what he could—document and witness the events on the ground. The people who showed up at #NMOS14 vigils in Denver and all over the country, we did what we could: we showed up. We made signs. We answered questions and spoke our truths into the cameras.

I told my terrified, pre-vigil self: I’m not Dr. King. I’m not Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m not an ordained pastor and I don’t organize for a living. My co-organizers and I can sing okay (or okayish, in my case) and give decent TV interviews and take down emails.

And that’s okay. I’m somebody, and I care. 

Not all of us can plan or attend rallies. Not all of us want to chant. A good close friend said to me after the vigil, “I care about inequality too, but fighting racism isn’t my leading cause. Mine is battling stigma around mental illness.”

Everyone—everyone—can do something about racial injustice, in their own ways. My friend, when he becomes a therapist, can understand that the black woman who schedules an appointment with him may be battling not just depression, but also sexism, racism and the damaging stereotype that all black women can handle anything and don’t have problems.

We can challenge our friends. We can practice empathy. We can pay attention. We can educate ourselves about inequality. We can learn that ending racism is not black Americans’ fight or Latino/a Americans’ fight or Asian Americans’ fight but must become America’s fight—especially white Americans’ fight. We can review hiring practices and seek out different information sources. We can challenge our own notions.

And we can keep our gaze on the situation in Ferguson and connect it to a broader system of injustice. We can channel the anonymous elderly woman who, when a car driver during the Montgomery bus boycott offered her a ride, declined, saying “I’m not walking for me. I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.”

She did what she could.

So can we.

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