Dying in custody – a most necessary conversation

Oh freedom,
Oh freedom,
Oh freedom over me
And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my lord and be free

Lulled and complacent among a couple of thousand righteous liberals and progressives, what should be seen is often easily hidden. The obvious remains obscured behind conversations about Congressional districts, campaign finance and the buzz surrounding the Left’s favorite 2016 candidate.

Then, in the darkness of a large exhibition hall, where only the two people sitting on the stage are lit, a rumbling begins. A chant goes up…

“What side are you on, my people? What side are you on?”

…and about fifty conference attendees move up the aisles to the front of the room…

“What side are you on, my people? What side are you on?”

…and the veil lifts, revealing something every good liberal should already know:

Black people don’t have a voice.

Even in a progressive gathering,

Black people don’t have a voice.

There’s a mixture of applause and grumbling aimed at the disruptors. Some are joining in the chanting. What are they saying? Why are they interrupting the presidential candidate town hall that was billed as the highlight event of this year’s Netroots Nation gathering in Phoenix? Aren’t they disrespecting the candidates?

truth to power
Truth to power – Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors addresses the crowd in front of Democratic presidential candidate, Gov. Martin O’Malley (far right), Tia Oso of the Arizona Black Alliance for Just Immigration and journalist/activist Juan Antonio Vargas. Phoenix, July 18, 2015

But respect must be mutual, and one candidate, at least, appears to be tone deaf. “All lives matter,” he says, and thinks he’s being understanding in his emphasis. Even after the crowd reacts angrily, he says it again, even more emphatically. Oh my god.

If I die in police custody…

The chanting doesn’t end. The shouting never ebbs. It shouldn’t.

If I die in police custody…

It takes me about three minutes of hearing them to shut the gremlins in my mind and listen to what they’re saying. Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Two young Black women died in police custody, last week.

People are dying and the one audience that should be fighting for that cause, existentially, is giving it short shrift – a panel here, a speaker there. If they cannot be heard here, then where? If not now, then when?

Americans of color are losing their sons and daughters to police and vigilante violence, and people forget their names. They splash across news sites and TV networks and are gone. “Say my name,” they shout. Beyond Trayvon Martin. Beyond Eric Garner. Beyond Michael Brown. Beyond the lives of those Black men, and too many others, are the names of the Black women who you never hear, because they don’t fit the American narrative of threat that society forces on men of color.

Say my name.

Sandra BlandGabriella NaverezTanisha Anderson

Say my name.

Kindra ChapmanAnna BrownKyam Livingston

Say my name.

Sheneque ProctorShereese FrancisNatasha McKennaKimberlee Randall KingAlesia Thomas

At Netroots Nation, the annual convention of progressive bloggers and activists where the demonstration took place, many were angry at the disruption, and felt the event was “hijacked,” as one attendee told me. It’s easy to give in to the anger, to be hooked by it like fish, but we’re progressives. We’re supposed to listen, and then make judgement. Thank goodness, it seems as if the event’s organizers did just that.

In a statement released shortly after the Candidate Town Hall, they wrote:

“Netroots Nation stands in solidarity with all people seeking human rights.

“With today’s Town Hall, our aim was to give presidential candidates a chance to respond to the issues facing the many diverse communities represented here.

“Although we wish the candidates had more time to respond to the issues, what happened today is reflective of an urgent moment that America is facing today.

“In 2016, we’re heading to St. Louis. We plan to work with activists there just as we did in Phoenix with local leaders, including the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to amplify issues like racial profiling and police brutality in a major way.

“It is necessary and vital to continue this conversation. We look forward to doing so in the coming year.”

In solidarity, because even within our liberal echo chamber, there are places we don’t go to, together. This time, we must. Lives depend on it.

No more weeping,
No more weeping,
No more weeping over me.
And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my lord and be free


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