On Monday night, when I got home from work at 7pm, I did what so many informed Americans were doing that night: I tuned into a live report of the Mike Brown case and waited anxiously for the grand jury to return with their decision to indict or not indict Darren Wilson. I have nervous limbs in high stress situations, and to keep myself from fidgeting, I folded my hands together neatly and rested my chin on top of them. I listened as a man with the most condescending kind of sympathy I have ever seen explain how eye-witness testimony on the matter had been troublingly inconsistent. I listened to him explain that there had been autopsy that refuted their claims. I listened to him say that though no one would deny that Darren Wilson had in fact killed that young man, and that no young man should die, ever, there would be no indictment.
When I had finally heard enough to turn the report off, I found that my hands were clenched together so tightly that my nails had left deep indents in my skin. Every fiber of my body cried out with rage and indignation and a deep, deep grief. I stood up, called a very good friend of mine that I usually turn to in these matters. I paced. And then I realized that if I stayed alone in that apartment, I would do something reckless, something dangerous. I put on my coat and rushed out into the Chicago winter, looking for a healthier way to express everything that was at war inside of me.
When I got off the train downtown, I didn’t know where the protest was exactly but my instincts carried me with certainty. I followed the sirens and the flashing blue lights. I followed the sounds of shouts and screams. Though the police were making an effort not to allow anyone else in, I hopped over a planter and dashed into the crowd. I screamed my little heart out. Whose streets? Our streets. Whose streets?
We marched up and down Michigan Avenue, Wabash, State Street, huddled into Daley Plaza. We marched up to the riverfront, stood toe-to-toe with police officers who sneered in our faces, and locked sad eyes with officers you could tell were looking at us and thinking of their own children. We marched from thoroughfare to thoroughfare, but they barricaded us in at every turn. Every time I looked around, I saw people on their cellphones. Not photographing: Tweeting. Facebooking. Checking their email. They looked so goddamn bored, I wondered if they were just pedestrians that had been accidentally herded in like lost sheep.
After a few hours, the main organizers of the protest announced that it was time for us to go home. Some of us in the crowd yelled back at them vehemently. What the fuck? Whose streets? I had watched one of them get into a screaming match with a young white man for advising them not to grab at police officers unless he was prepared to get pepper sprayed and escalate the scene. Now, they were telling us all that it was time to go home. Does police brutality go home at midnight? I yelled back. Does racism go home at midnight?
Eventually, after watching everyone wander back to the subways, I went home too. The rage that I had felt in fleeing my home, the rage that had temporarily ebbed by standing in front of a line of mounted police and screaming “black lives matter” at the top of my lungs for several hours, returned with a fury. On the way home, I slammed my fist into a brick wall. I went home, and called my friend to let him know I was okay, and then sat dejectedly on the floor until a private message shook me from my grief.
Here is the thing about me and protesting. I am brown. I come from a poor family. But I am extremely articulate, fairly well-educated. I have a way with cops, in part because I can talk myself out of anything. I do not need to put my hands in the air and yell “don’t shoot.” I am never going to be Mike Brown, and chances are, neither are many of the people who were protesting in all of the major cities. The Mike Browns of the world do not come to protests, because the Mike Browns of the world are dead, or they’re in prison, or they’re so disheartened to the facts of their life in America that they don’t see the point in changing it. This is not going to be true for many protesters and there is something very beautiful about being an ally and doing your best, but there is a reason why college kids don’t set fire to things. There is a reason why we think if we sing songs and march around and dance in the street like fools that all of the world’s problems will magically go away. We are used to people listening to us and pretending to care about our feelings, because we are privileged enough that some people do. At the end of the night, we can go home. Nothing, for us, is going to change.
Now, I want to say this: Peace is great. Peace is the dream. And you are more than welcome to dance around and chant all you want. But if you don’t look at those fires raging in Missouri and see them as a reaction to a centuries’ long chain of actions, of which Mike Brown’s death and the injustice thereof is just another catalyst, you don’t understand this country. Burning city hall to the ground isn’t about Playing the Activist for a little while when nothing good is on TV. It’s not about getting on the news and using that to get laid. It also isn’t about men wanting to watch the world burn. It’s about people who are sick of being treated like they’re less than human, people who are sick of the whole goddamn world ignoring the fact that the powers that were supposedly put in place to protect us and serve us are murdering them in the street. These are fires that have been raging for generations, fires that have consumed whole populations of marginalized people, fires that a great many of us will never ever understand no matter how many books we read, because imagining those fires soon spreading to us is just too inconceivable. This is one of the most tragic and evil problems in the heart of America trying to get you to put down your fucking smartphone and pay attention. I guess the only question left is this: Is it working? Are you paying attention now?