We Built This House, Y'all

My coffeeshop buddy wasn't in his usual place this morning. When I walked in today and looked for him in his usual seat, it was empty. To say this is unusual is an understatement. It's like waking up and looking out your window to discover the Rockies are no longer there. Or that the Statue of Liberty has walked off.

I've been coming to this coffeeshop for going on four years ago. "Mike" was here on the first day I walked in and has been here ever since. He sits at the same table off in a corner, his laptop and phone spread out in front of him, looking industrious, each and every day. As far as I know, he's never missed a day. He was the first person I ever talked to in a coffeeshop that has become like my salon now. I remember I asked him if he was writing a novel because he was always there before work, typing away diligently. Slowly, we became friends.

Mike is an older African American gentleman. He develops curricula for the University of California system. He's whip-smart, and over the years, we've had a number of amazing conversations about race, religion, and politics. He has decided I'm one of the ones who can be trusted, and he speaks freely about race, both nationwide and here in Oakland. He's been around for a while and has seen various movements come and go. He freely recognizes his time has passed, and it's time to pass the torch on to the younger generation, something he worries about because of the way Millennials are built.

Yesterday, in the wake of #PhilandoCastile and #AntonSterling, we had plenty to talk about. It was the first time I saw Mike---a soft-spoken, gentle man---truly furious. And my heart nearly split in two when he said "I have two PhDs. I have multiple degrees from multiple higher-learning institutions. But it doesn't matter how many degrees I have or the fact that I educate their children: my life is worthless to them. They see me as NOTHING. I am NOTHING to them." I said nothing because there was nothing to say. But seeing him ready to burn down the world made me indelibly morose. My god, what are we doing to our citizens?

And today. Today his table is empty. Was he so defeated, he just couldn't get out of bed this morning? Did he just feel like "If I set foot outside today, I'm so angry I'll get myself arrested…or shot"? Did he just not feel like talking to all of white folks who make small talk with him as they wait by his table for their drinks to be ready?

And now Dallas. Dallas is truly awful. And the amount of furious rage I see from people on Facebook and the number of Blue Lives Matter posts I see popping up makes me wonder where all this white rage was when crooked, racist cops were executing black people without so much as a day in jail, let alone a day in court. It makes me see, in sharp focus, just why the #blacklivesmatter movement is so important. The very fact that an All Lives Matter hashtag has cropped up also tells me we need this movement.

Yes, god, of course "all lives matter." Of course "blue lives matter." No one is saying they don't. I saw a tweet that encapsulated this notion perfectly: "Black Lives Matter people aren't saying all lives don't matter. That's like assuming people who say 'Save the Rainforest' are saying 'Fuck All Other Kinds of Forests.'" It's an apt analogy. Black Lives Matter sprung up because black men were systematically being brutalized by corrupt and racist cops who saw them in the simplest terms and who devalued their lives in the blink of an eye. And no one cared. No one was being held accountable. These men who'd been pulled over for broken taillights, selling CDs in front of a store, or just for wearing a hoodie were being killed on the streets. And white people were saying "Yeah, but…" For god's sake, we had more collective outrage for a slain gorilla than we did for a human being.

This is a country with a savage and violent history. Talk about immigrants coming in and destroying a country. Europeans descended upon the New World and systematically wiped out the native population, either with guns or germs. Then, after the land had been secured (stolen), someone needed to work it all. What was to be done? People talk about black people being lazy. The original settlers were so damn unwilling to do backbreaking labor they went to "the dark continent" to find others to tote that barge and lift that bale. They stole millions of people, ripped them from their homes, and dragged them over here in chains to do their bidding. Then, when that was finally outlawed, they made laws to prevent black people from being actual equal citizens. Once those laws were ruled unconstitutional, they got around it by building entire economic, housing, law enforcement, judicial, and educational systems that not only refused to acknowledge black people's needs or rights, but often actively worked to intentionally disadvantage these millions of citizens. They shoved them into housing projects or into jails for minor infractions. Anything to just get them out of the way. Our history is rife with examples where white people made laws to exclude blacks or to give themselves the leg up. To say we don't have an institutional race problem in this country is to be uninformed.

So here we are, 400 years later, full of rage because a rogue black man gunned down officers who were protecting people's right to protest the system. This sniper was at a point where a lot of my black friends are telling me they are now: "We've been nice. We've been calm. We've waited for justice. And still no one cares. Still nothing changes." We have a gunman who decided the only recourse left to him---the only thing that would make people wake up and pay attention to systemic abuse of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement---would be to murder police officers.

We built this house folks; do not be surprised at the state of its disrepair. We have let a culture of marginalizing 40 million of our citizens go on for hundreds of years. We have let a culture of fear consume us. Which has led, like night to day, to a culture of guns and radicalization. Radical Islamic terrorists? Hell, we're breeding terrorists right here at home. And then arming them freely. The number of White Supremacist terrorist groups in America has gone up from 150 to over 1,200 during the Obama years, and last year alone, new white power group membership shot up 14% in just one year, thanks to something statisticians are calling "the Trump Bump." Nice. God help us gals after Hillary gets elected, and the number of Mens' Rights Activists skyrockets thanks to all the paranoid asshats who are worried about someone with ladyparts having her finger on the button. 

That is no way to say those policemen deserved to be slaughtered; I'm simply saying that the shooter was a man who'd clearly given up all hope and just didn't care anymore. He didn't get there on his own, y'all. We built this house. 

And now that white cops have been killed, plenty of people are taking notice. In one 20-minute burst of gunfire, a vigilante got the world's attention. And frankly, though I might try and understand his motivations, I still offer him a hale and hearty FUCK YOU. How dare you sabotage what has largely been a peaceful movement and turn it into something to be feared and loathed, something for racists to rally around, something for the gun nuts to use to justify open carry and arming themselves to the tits? How dare you be no better than your enemies? 

If you were aiming for a tipping point, Sir, I fear you might have brought it about in the most awful way. I fear this will polarize an already weary nation even more. I fear it will make otherwise rational people turn out in droves to vote for a racist maniac who is preying upon fear and hatred and counting on us to eat ourselves. I fear it will make moderates who once had sympathy for what BLM was trying to accomplish turn away from the central message, which is simply: HEY, WE MATTER TOO. I fear it will take kind and gentle African Americans, like Mike, and turn them into angry and violent revolutionaries.

Not since pre-Civil War days have we been a nation so divided. Race, politics, religion seem to be all the categories we use to define ourselves anymore. And if you're not with me, you're against me. We no longer have the oft-berated "gray areas" of yore---everything is now black or white, literally and figuratively. There are relatives I want to disown because I know they're voting for Trump, so I'm just as guilty. I look at them and think "If you can't see how horrific the repercussions will be if this supremely unqualified, bumbling, bloviating colostomy bag who hates women, immigrants, and minorities and who is at least partly responsible for stoking this hatred and creating this current environment gets elected, then I don't even want to talk to you because you clearly are incapable of critical thinking." Your candidate now speaks for who you are as a human being.

And the thing is, I don't want to be living with this kind of reductionist thinking. It's harmful to the people in my life; it's harmful to me; it's harmful to this country; it's harmful to humanity. I try extremely hard, daily as a matter of fact, not to make assumptions about a person based on the color of their skin or what religion they practice, so why should I make these short-sighted assumptions about people based on their political alignments?

It's hard not to be reductionist, y'all. I know it is. I'm so very guilty of it. Daily. So I try to read as much as a can, get my news from a variety of sources, stay informed, talk to people different than I, etc. But most of all, I just try and have empathy. I have empathy for the mother of Alton Sterling's child as she stood in front of a bank of cameras and recorders just hours after he was slain and spoke clearly and eloquently about the need for justice and accountability as her son sobbed inconsolably and as she carried the knowledge that his death wouldn't make any more of a difference than the countless others. I try and have empathy for Philando Castile's girlfriend as she sat handcuffed in the back of a police car after she'd just watched her boyfriend get executed, and her four-year-old daughter sat next to her and said "Don't worry, Mommy. I'm right here." I try and have empathy for that four-year-old and how she will have to process seeing a police officer execute her friend in front of her and how that moment---the moment her childhood was stolen---will affect who she will become as an adult. I try to have empathy for the City of Dallas, its police department, and the families of the slain police officers as they wake up this morning and come to grips with the siege that happened to them last night. And I'm even working on trying to have empathy for Trump supporters, the NRA, the neocons, and the one-percenters who are benefitting from watching us plebes destroy ourselves. But lord, it's hard.

I will leave you with this to put it in perspective: my friend who is an African American mom with a five-year-old son has been a mess as the result of this, and her Facebook posts reflect her fear, her sadness, her sheer terror at being the mother to a black son who will grow up and be seen as nothing but a nigger to a large part of society, no matter what his achievements will eventually be (see: Obama). And I'm watching her friends---other black mothers---weigh in on her posts. I'm reading about their fears for their sons, fear not only that society sees them as criminals and nothing else, but also fear of what all of this is doing to their developing brains. These young black sons are absorbing all of this too. They're watching right along with us. They pick up on their parents' fear.

One of her friends wrote something so heartbreaking that I burst into tears when I read it. She wrote: "My boys like to walk to the little store near our house. This is the beginning and I really worry. We haven't had a bad experience yet, but my gosh we've been having the conversations and we talk about each of these murders that hit the news. I am constantly asking myself if I'm preparing them enough or too much? My boys know they could get killed if someone just thinks they are doing something wrong; that alone...knowing that and having these conversations, is already an outrageous violation to their dignity." 

Yes, dear mother, you have hit the nail on the head. It is a violation to their dignity, heaped upon centuries of indignities. And it has made us all ignoble. I understand why black people are ready to take up arms. I understand why white people are scared. And I don't see how, on the grand scale, this is going to resolve itself any time soon.

So I'm going to go out and keep doing what I'm doing: reaching out to my African American friends and telling them that they DO matter. They matter greatly to me. I'm going to keep reaching out to people of different skin colors and different religious customs and different income levels. I am going to resist the urge to see things in black-or-white terms. It may not count for much because it's just little ol' me, but I'm striving every minute of every day for personal connection, for getting a chance to hear others tell their stories, for telling the people around me how much they mean to me, for refusing to stoke hatred. I'm just one person, but it's what I'm gonna do.

I invite everyone who reads this to adopt this approach too.

We are a nation divided right now, and these are a few of the victims.