#Baltimore: Let anyone with ears to hear listen!
Written by Marie Campbell, with Judith Clerjeune and Jaime Zito, as one response of many to the events unfolding in Baltimore during late April and early May of 2015. We write because we are committed to racial justice. To learn more about how to connect with racial justice work in Nashville, contact Marie at [email protected]
#Baltimore: Let anyone with ears to hear listen!
I sit here, at my computer, a white, Southern woman staring at the screen. What do I see? News story after news story defending the rights of CVS stores over the rights of black lives, defending the rights of police cars over the rights of black lives. Overwhelmed by white folks’ self-righteous slandering of protesters in Baltimore, echoing months and months of slandering protesters in other cities – New York, Ferguson, Chicago, Nashville, I turn to my rolling news feed on Facebook. Again. Slander, condemnation, white noise (1).
In case you’re new to the story, here’s the deal: rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray, who died from a severed spinal cord and a crushed larynx after allegedly running away from three police officers on bicycles who chased and tackled him. He was murdered in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order.
Asked to write about Baltimore for this blog, I wondered, “Where do I begin?!” Immediately, though, it seemed clear to me: start with me. And so, I’m talking to myself and I am talking to you, my white sisters and brothers.
Hear me. The reality is this: Freddie Gray’s murder is not an isolated event. It did not happen in a vacuum. The lives of black women and men are systematically devalued, exploited, and exterminated in this country every single day. Josh Baltimore writes, “Decades of de-industrialization halted the economy’s attempt to integrate low-income blacks into the workforce, and the exponential expansion of the prison system over the past four decades signals a return to the slave system as a means of managing black America. What we are witnessing in Ferguson, Baltimore, and soon in black neighborhoods across America, is a present-day slave rebellion (2).”
So, listen up: there is no peace. And it’s not because protesters are acting rowdy. There is no peace because for hundreds of years, black lives have not mattered in this country. We cannot claim peace when women and men in our communities cannot feed themselves and their families, by no fault of their own. We cannot claim peace when prisons add beds to their buildings based on how many young black boys populate the fourth grade, when we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, a total of 2.3 million people in our jails. We cannot claim peace when trans* people, especially trans* women of color, are being murdered at an alarming rate while we continue to stay silent. We cannot claim peace when, as our city – yes, Nashville – quickly and proudly gentrifies (forcing poor people out of their homes and profiling “suspicious” people to keep tourists “safe”), our police department takes up residence in a historically black neighborhood, presumably to protect the future investments of the city and developers, i.e. tourism, wealthy white newcomers, and corporate interest (3).
If you know the history of oppression in this country, then you know that asking black people who are fed up with injustice and oppression to “behave properly” or “protest peacefully” is pure evil. Stop. Listen. Benjo Hart writes, “When there is a larger national outcry in defense of plate-glass windows and car doors than for Black young people, a point is being made. When there is more concern for white sports fans in the vicinity of a riot than the Black people facing off with police, there is mounting justification for the rage and pain of Black communities in this country (4).”
Julia Blount, a middle school teacher, wrote a letter to White America. Listen to her.
“Every comment or post I have read today voicing some version of disdain for the people of Baltimore — ‘I can’t understand’ or ‘They’re destroying their own community’ or ‘Destruction of Property!’ or ‘Thugs’ — tells me that many of you are not listening. I am not asking you to condone or agree with violence. I just need you to listen. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but instead of forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion, please let me tell you what I hear:
I hear hopelessness
I hear oppression
I hear pain
I hear internalized oppression
I hear despair
I hear anger
I hear poverty
If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient (5).”
Riot is the language of the unheard.
If the words of Benjo and Julia aren’t enough, let’s talk about Dr. King. In the midst of civil unrest, white people conveniently use Martin Luther King Jr. to prop up the status quo or as a justification for their pleas to “end the violent uprising.” But here’s the thing, you won’t find some of Dr. King’s more compelling words on riots in mainstream media. Here’s a little bit about what Dr. King actually had to say about riots:
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity (6).”
“A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’ The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society (7).”
For those of us who continue to condemn riots, demand the sanctity of private property, and remain silent about the ruthless murder of black women and men, silent in the face of overt oppression and injustice, then we are the moderates who disappointed Dr. King (8. See his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963). We are supporters of corrupt state power. We are conspirators and complicit in white supremacy. William DuBose writes, “When we, as white folks, seem more eager to speak up in defense of property than we are to speak up in defense of another slain black man, we demonstrate that the righteous anger of those doing the rioting is justified. We show that our unwillingness to invest resources in their future is not a coincidence, but rather, the intentional workmanship of our decrepit value system, which tosses away young black men [and women] as readily today as it did 200 years ago (9).”
White sisters and brothers, we might well describe ourselves this way:
‘Their throats are opened graves;
they use their tongues to deceive.’
‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’
‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’
‘Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery are in their paths,
and the way of peace they have not known.’
‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’
— Romans 3:13-18
If you are reading, if you have been silent or quick to condemn, I am speaking to you. I am speaking to myself. May we spit out the venom in our mouths, now. May we be swift to listen to the voices of those who demand justice. Swift to listen… not to condemn. Brother James speaks to me now: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless (10).”
Or, as Julia puts it, “I don’t need you to validate anyone’s actions, but I need you to validate what black America is feeling. If you cannot understand how experiences like mine or my students’ would lead to hopelessness, pain, anger, and internalized oppression, you are still not listening. So listen. Listen with your heart (11).”
Which Side Are You On?
There’s an old organizing song that comes to mind. “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” This song was written by Florence Reece, a radical poor white woman. It calls to mind Harlan County, Kentucky in the 1930s. There were two sides in the midst of coal mining-related skirmishes, executions, bombings, and strikes; coal miners and union organizers on one side and coal firms and law enforcement officials on the other. The demand was clear: they were fighting for the rights of Harlan County coal miners to organize their workplaces and better their wages and working conditions. Even now, the picture is eerily similar. There are two sides: oppressed people fighting to get free and corrupt, state power.
Someone I am deeply glad to call friend, Chris Crass, writes, “We must not let the white supremacist power structure rob us further of the lessons of our people’s movements. We must do all we can to further unleash discontent, rage, pain, and yearning for liberation and stay focused on what the ruling class truly fears – poor and working class people asserting their human dignity and fighting back against a system built on extracting wealth and power from those/our communities – they use violence and devastating cultural assaults against communities of color, and do everything they can to cultivate and celebrate resentment, anger, and fear in white poor and working class communities towards communities of color. For white racial justice activists, let us do all we can to aid and abet, and join with communities of color in liberation struggle, and do all we can to direct white resentment towards the powerful, while cultivating white solidarity with Black liberation and people of color-led struggles (12).”
My people, where do our loyalties lie? With a hollow law and failed order that rips apart the dignity of communities, or with communities demanding to be heard? The state will always choose to protect itself over the lives of oppressed peoples – countless historical moments teach us this. We must make a choice – to see and to listen with hearts pulsing for liberation, or to hide as cowards from the truth to which we are called.
As black women and men fight for the right to live, to live period, and to live in communities that are safe and secure, with access to good paying jobs, affordable housing, education, healthcare, freedom from police brutality, etc… which side are you on? As oppressed peoples cry, “No justice, no peace.” Are you listening? Am I? Did we think this was all talk? What matters – property, or lives? Which side are you on?
Re-membering the lives of black women and men slain to uphold white supremacy, the death-dealing domination of capitalism, and the subjugation of black lives all over the world: Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Shelly Frey, Eric Garner, Yvette Smith, Trayvon Martin, Miriam Carey, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray… and all those unnamed here.
 White noise (slang), a meaningless or distracting commotion or chatter
 “The Other America,” 1968
 American Psychology Association, Annual Convention in Washington, DC, in September 1967.
 Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963
 James 1:19-27
Marie Campbell is Assistant Director of Education, Programs, & Connections at Scarritt Bennett Center. Marie coordinates the Belle H. Bennett House, a 10-month fellowship program for young women discerning vocation at the intersection of radical social justice and spirituality. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a B.A. in Sociology from Belmont University. Marie is passionate about environmental justice, cultural organizing, and intersectional feminism. Contact Marie at [email protected].