Checking My White Privilege

(above: Night lights, Joseph Gruber)

I’ve been trying to find the right words to string together that would give others an idea of my experience on Thursday night. I don’t know if there will ever be the right words to describe such a tragic yet beautiful event. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate topic to make me return to my blog. What follows is my experience alone, and I make no attempt to present any perspective than my own. That is far from my place. Also, the pictures I have included are not my own. As it turns out, being five foot tall is not conducive to documentation at a protest. People have been very generous to share their photos from the evening, and I’ve included their names to give them credit.

 

I’d been keeping an eye on the event page all day Thursday. There was no real lead organizer for the protest. Rather, a group of friends got together and invited what felt like half the city. There were concerns about permits, details, etc. but everyone was set on attending. By the time I left to go, there were 2.9k people confirmed to go and 4.3k interested. When I checked after the fact, it said 3.3k went to the event, but who knows how many were really able to attend. Like I said, it felt like half the city was there.

The photo above is mine when we all stood outside the White House. There had been inquiries on the Facebook event throughout the day as to whether non-black supporters were welcome and the answers were overwhelmingly yes. The diversity in the crowd was beautiful. I saw people of every race, from kids in strollers to seasoned adults with canes. Standing there, I caught a glimpse of the pain my black neighbors were feeling. With tears in their eyes and rolling down their faces, I finally understood that I absolutely cannot understand their pain.

(above: by Alex Edelman)

(above: by Eleanor Goldfield)

The plan was to gather at the White House from 8-9pm. After about 15 minutes, a chunk of the crowd decided to move. No questions asked, everyone fell in line and we were off to the Capitol. People were commenting that this was the most spontaneous protest they’d ever been part of. While some roads were shut down, others were not and we found ourselves marching down Pennsylvania Avenue between cars with passengers who either looked on in amazement or honked their horns with the rhythm of our chants.

(above: by Eleanor Goldfield)

(above: Faces of a Movement, Phil)

There were many chants on the way to the Capitol from the White House. By far the one that got to me the most was the call and response of “Hands up” – “Don’t shoot”. Those words struck me. More than words, more than a chant. It was a plea. All I could think about was how I will never be able to relate to that prayer. I’m never going to have to walk on eggshells while begging for my life. My participation in the chants began timidly, unsure of my presence in the crowd. But the further we walked the louder my voice rose.

I walked with a friend, Michelle. I was incredibly thankful for her presence and an opportunity to learn from her during the experience. An incredibly bright woman, ordained in the AME Church, Michelle was full of insight that gave me new things to think about. She shared a sign with me, educated me on the different pieces in play, and was a great walking buddy. I caught an image of the two of us in the crowd with our unmistakable neon signs.

(above: by Edward Kimmel)

Michelle and I were toward the middle of the crowd and it wouldn’t be until the next day that I learned of what was happening up front through a video. As we approached the Capitol, the crowd walked around the Capitol Police, very peacefully, and marched on.

(above: Dusk March by Joseph Gruber)

(above: Can’t You See by Jarrett Hendrix)

(above: by Philli Fan)

We were all stopped for a moment of silence, people raising their phones with their flashlights on. Throughout, the crowd was intentional to mention the names. Not just Alton and Philando, but all the names to date. Looking around in that moment of silence was tragic and beautiful all at the same time. With that many people, all with emotions high, and for it to be the definition of peaceful… It was incredible. But to see people of every ethnicity coming together to fight for our black brothers and sisters.. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

After the moment of silence, there was a move to push beyond the barricades at the Capitol and continue further up the steps. Women all around us were warning others not to do so. I’m not sure of what she was referring to, but spoke of a woman that had been killed near that very spot during a peaceful demonstration. The fear on her face while she urged people to stay back.. It was heart breaking. I knew that as we moved forward, stepping around the fallen barricade, that I wouldn’t have to worry about that violence. I didn’t understand the fear of being shot because of where I chose to walk.

(above: Signs by Albert Ting)

By this time, our colleague Jessie had joined us (she got separated during the march). She began pointing out all the snipers ahead of us. I’ve seen many armed police officers in my time in DC, but snipers was a new one for me. As the crowd moved in, the snipers either pulled back or hid out of sight. There was a great deal of police presence keeping us from moving up the steps. After a few moments, a herd of people walked down the steps toward us. Congressional leaders coming to join us. John Lewis and Maxine Waters are the only two names I caught. They tried to speak but it was impossible for the whole crowd to hear. I did catch the applauded comment from Rep. Waters… “I’m sick of this shit!” Then John Lewis said they wanted to march with us.

(above: Rep. Maxine Waters by Alex Edelman)

(above: Rep. John Lewis and others by Alex Edelman)

The few people around me, and others to be fair but for certain those around me, were not excited about the idea of marching back to the White House. We’d all gone to the Capitol intentionally – to make our presence known to Congress. But marching back to the White House seemed counter to what the spontaneous plan had been. But here’s the thing, and Michelle pointed this out beautifully, this wasn’t our march. We could be there for support, we could fight with them. But this wasn’t ours to dictate. I did notice several white men leading the chants throughout and felt conflicted about it. Taking charge, however, making decisions… It was completely counter to the message we were shouting. That black lives matter.

Something that shocked me the most was watching the police officers. There was a point where things shifted. A moment where they went from scattered and disorganized to lined up in a solid formation behind the representatives. And every one of them with a hand on their weapon. Things were peaceful, exceedingly so. But as we saw happen in Dallas and at other protests across the county, things could have easily been very different.

Michelle and I walked back to the White House, as did a good portion of the crowd. There was a definite change in attitude on the way back, however. With John Lewis and other representatives leading the way, it was a very different atmosphere. It was during this time that Michelle and I were able to talk the most and she was able to give me more insight into her knowledge on the issue.

It feels strange to even blog about, honestly. It feels wrong to claim any kind of ownership that I could write about it. I feel like a different person after Thursday night, though. I’d been struggling for months to acknowledge my white privilege, and the struggle is by no means over. But I feel like Thursday gave me an opportunity to confront it head on.. It was shown to me in ways I hadn’t comprehended before.

I have a great deal to learn, but I understand more now than before the meaning behind learning about the issue.

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