The scene was surreal on Nov. 27 when I showed up at Westlake Park. Black Lives Matter activists and allies circled up next to the holiday carousel, their calls and responses — “Whose lives matter?” “Black Lives Matter” — difficult to hear over loudspeakers blaring “Feliz Navidad” and “Frosty the Snowman.” The demonstration brought the twin towers of class and race front and center. The message of the protesters was simple: Black lives matter more than Black Friday. One sign captured it even more eloquently: “Black lives matter; Buying shit doesn’t.”
Last year, when protesters took to the streets in the aftermath of the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the common mantra was “White Silence = Compliance.” But at this year’s protest, a sign that struck a particular chord with me read: “White Silence = Violence.” In the span of a year, the change in mottos reflects a growing impatience and call for action.
As a white person, mere awareness that I am complicit in institutional racism does not, in itself, do anything to change it. I still get to choose when to examine my life, take action and escape into the comforts of holiday movies, shopping sprees and family celebrations. But if I think about my silence as not just passively enabling racism, but actually causing and contributing to it, there is more urgency to act.
I recently met with a colleague, a person of color, at a Grand Central Bakery. He remarked that “while all these people around us are sitting here having coffee, my people are fighting for their lives on the streets.” In this holiday season, many of those same coffee-lovers are going to spend countless hours and dollars buying gifts for friends and families. We’ll set aside activism to enjoy the season’s bounty. Having feasted on turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pies over Thanksgiving, we’re already thinking ahead to what will be on the menu for Christmas. And making checklists of presents to buy for loved ones.
It’s a seductive distraction and not without worth; but let’s not get so caught up in our own privilege that we lose touch with what’s going on around us. The Paris attacks are prompting renewed waves of Islamophobia, much of it directed at persecuted refugees; Donald Trump is riding the wave of racist, divisive hate speech to record popularity; and the African-American community in Chicago is grieving the murder of yet another of its young men, Laquan MacDonald, at the hands of police.
The activists at Westlake urged white protesters to “show up.” While we’re all familiar with why it is important to confront the racist relative who spews ignorant rhetoric at the holiday dinner table, these activists are calling on us to do more. They want us to show up for racial equity on the streets, at community meetings, at Seattle City Council hearings, in our workplaces. They are, in fact, reminding us that collective action in public is at least as important as — if not more than — individual action in private.
The media has an important role to play in challenging the structures that support racism, yet far too often, it remains silent. In the last year, we’ve made racial equity an explicit priority of our organization and the newspaper. We’ve diversified the voices in the paper and expanded coverage of issues that face communities of color.
When local Black Lives Matters’ activists Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford gave Real Change an exclusive interview after interrupting Bernie Sanders at a rally this past summer, they did so because they trusted us. They “just felt like other local media outlets and nationally are really invested in the state apparatus and are really invested in spinning this story in a negative light [RC, Oct. 7, “Silence is Broken”].
We need your help to sustain and expand our voice for racial equity in the coming year with a gift to our Winter Fund Drive. You can donate on line at main.realchangenews.org or send a check through the mail. Thank you.