Newbury Street shutdown
Starting a discussion on race at MIT
Where Newbury Street becomes the Boston Public Gardens, a large crowd of people of various ethnicities, genders, nationalities, colors, and ages began to march. To the brunch-eaters who paused mid-bite of quiche to try to make out what we were chanting; to the annoyed trio of girls whose path to Urban Outfitters we blocked with the incessant stream of bodies; to the tourists trapped between a fence and our anger with no choice but to hear our message: I do not apologize.
Since August 9, when a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri killed an unarmed teenager, I have argued with people who use the marijuana in his system, the angle of the bullets in his body, and the bagginess of his pants as justifications for why Michael Brown deserved to die. I have no idea how to convey what seems like an obvious point to me: regardless of the picayune details, a child was murdered. Eventually, I stopped trying to have conversations about this issue, because having to constantly prove that his life matters only says to me that by default his life does not matter. To know that the dehumanization of Michael Brown in the media may cause people to think that his killer was justified in his actions makes me want to cry. To avoid tears of frustration, I kept silent.
Until Saturday. On Saturday, I was able to scream until my voice was hoarse. On signs thrust into the air by the crowd surrounding and supporting me were words that I had previously only been able to say to my journal: “WHITE SILENCE = POLICE VIOLENCE. DON’T FIRE BULLETS, FIRE DARREN WILSON. STOP KILLING US.”
The organizers of the Newbury Street Shutdown, from a group called Black Lives Matter Boston, planted the seeds of inspiring chants among the group. I shouted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!” I roared, “They think it’s a game; they think it’s a joke.” I declared, “We want freedom!” Because in this system, where a Black life can be lost, besmirched, then forgotten, we do not have freedom. With me were a hundred other voices in agreement that what happened in Ferguson is indicative of a society that does not care about Black lives.
This narrative of police brutality against innocent Black lives is not new. A little over two years ago, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was chased through the streets by a neighborhood watchman. He did not make it home. On August 5 of this year, police officers, called to the scene by shoppers, shot 22-year-old John Crawford in a Wal-Mart. He looked threatening because he was carrying a gun, which turned out to be just a toy. His last words were “It’s not real.”
Last year, 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell sought help at a nearby home after a car accident. The police were called and immediately began firing. Ten bullet wounds killed him. His hands were up, but he was still seen as a threat. In a similar situation, Renisha McBride, 19, knocked on the door of a home in Detroit after an accident only to be killed by a single shot through the screen door. The judge who sentenced McBride’s killer said, “I do not believe… that this case had anything to do with race. I do believe that you acted out of fear, but an unjustified fear has never been an excuse for taking someone’s life.”
The problem with that statement is that the “fear” the judge mentioned has everything to do with race. In this segregated country where the majority can go decades without interacting with people of color except through media caricatures, Black people are not individuals. We are an over-sexualized, less intelligent, lazy, and dangerous stereotype. When Black people, feared and suspicious, are seen by reflex as the enemy, it is very easy for defense to become offense.
And when a Black life is taken, the media makes sure its audience understands that a Black life was taken. A thug who earlier in the day stole from a convenience store, who had marijuana in his system, who was physically abusive to the police officer, who could have just allowed the police officer to stop him and avoided this whole mess if he had been smart and cooperative enough, who may have been going to college next year, but it was only a community college.
By slanting their portrayal of the facts this way, the media and the police force in Ferguson, Missouri want you to get lost in irrelevant details so that you are assuaged into thinking that a child’s life was a life worth losing. When you hear “Black male,” you think “Black stereotype,” you think, “He was probably doing something wrong,” and the status quo can continue. When I hear “Black male,” I think, “my brothers,” and I’m scared because I can’t protect them from those who dehumanize them.
My frustration comes from the fact that I don’t know how to convey what seems so intuitively obvious. I can see the humanity of people regardless of the statistical truths of their situation, but others use their statistical truths to explain why they deserved to die. I don’t know what makes a life worthy, if it is not that they are human.
So I withdraw to places and groups where I do not have to prove my and Michael Brown’s worth as an individual. On Saturday, a large group of members of the MIT community, including students, professors, and alumni, gathered in the Black Students’ Union (BSU) Lounge to travel to the march together. There, we were able to have a healthy discussion about the role that race plays in our lives. Our experiences ranged from micro-aggressions, to blatant racial slurs, to subtle systematic and institutional racism.
In the BSU Lounge, I can talk about race both with people of color and with White people without our being in opposition with each other. MIT as a whole, however, is not a safe place for this discussion. MIT is silent about race because we like to perceive ourselves as a complete meritocracy that is above discrimination.
This ignorance suffocates me when I can’t talk about how it feels to be Black because very few people are comfortable having this conversation. My feelings are dismissed as being as outdated as the Emancipation Proclamation, and my experiences are chalked up to “always making things about race.” These injustices build up within me, until I find outlets in BSU events or public demonstrations held by people who are just as fed up.
So on Saturday morning, I unapologetically pressed my sign against the windows of restaurants. I chanted to the rhythm of the band that accompanied us. And I will continue to make noise until I am no longer afraid of seeking help because an ingrained fear of my race prevents empathy for me as an individual.
As we held hands in a circle at the end of the march, we cried out: “It is our duty to fight for freedom. It is our duty to win. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”