The Tenor of Our Protest: A Work of Public Mourning
Since August, I have started again and again to write a response to Ferguson, to #Ferguson, to Mike Brown’s murder, to my shaking city, to our shaken nation. I began to type again this week, the words barely out in the open when I heard that someone had set Mike’s memorial in Canfield on fire. The informal memorial had by that time ashed over, a rubble of remembrance. All of my thoughts lodged in my throat, again.
One more burned memorial. One more buried black man. And I wail inside my comfortable life – a white male from Mississippi, living in St. Louis for the last decade. I will never be shot by a cop with my hands up. I will not smolder in the streets. This is not abstract. It is not a speculation, a political stance to be discussed and argued. It is a brutalism of bodies and space, of language and vision, that we have not advanced past. That we are not advancing past. This is not a new civil rights movement, it is a rekindling of a fire that never ended. We pretend for a time, frame the topic, but the frame has been loosened and we’re out here dangling with the loose ends of history.
Racism is alive and well, erupting at the edges. Hate overtakes the airwaves, the Facebook feed, the sports stadium, the family meal. It ashes over our statements of care. Our neighborhoods are filled with racial conflicts that quickly become tragedies and sometimes a shudder is necessary for change. Mike Brown is a bellwhether, the one that brought us out of our houses. It has exposed us – not just the St. Louis “us”, the American us, the unexceptional us. The violent slouch our time takes. The shrugs we typically respond with. The political platforms we defend until they become gallows, a trap door just below us.
When protest erupts, our gates contain us. When a body politic appears, our politics demean us. This can’t and won’t end until there is some justice that lasts. What is this for if the world isn’t radically different now and next week and next year? Our hashtags won’t trend then and we are left with our lives, our structures, our neighbors and our cities. Our collective conscience needs to be wrenched until we say we’ve seen enough.
We need forms of protest as diverse as the forms of injustice. Hashtag activism, hands-up activism. Voiceless activism. Home alone at night, heaving with tears activism. Out on the streets activism, yelling until our hoarse protests are heard activism. Educational activism, dropout and head start activism. Lived-in, durational activism. Collective and individual activism, advancing. Private grief alongside public mourning. This, too, is protest.
Hold up your hands as long as you can to feel the exhaustion of it. Ten minutes up, then down, then up. Find a blank wall and stare back. Find a mirror and stare back. Find a roadside memorial and care. Drive to Canfield and care. Open a newspaper and scream, wordless, for thirty seconds. Turn on a TV and talk back. Read Ferguson’s city council minutes over and over and over until America makes sense again.
A modest goal: to be naive enough to advance. To forget the past paths of protest, for a time, to continue. To forget our fragile hold on justice or the crushing systems of contrition. This is the tenor of our protest: our bodies sent out, our bursts of outrage thrown back. Up, then down. Ten minutes, then quiet. A month, a year, then quiet. But our hands go back up and out and forward and our minds are never quiet. They can’t, shouldn’t be quiet.
By the time I started writing this again, the memorial was already being rebuilt by people emerging out of their houses, out of their cars, out of the fog of past failures. The fire had subsided, but the ashes will remain there. To move forward together, we must carry these burned words with us.
Headline photo courtesy of Brea McAnally.
Powerful sentences, James. Thanks for putting this into the world and our time.