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Grief’s Anatomy

Hope awaits organizers like a trap

I have found myself having a hard time with all of the talk about eras. The ability to rewrite history—to forget the past and pretend that the present is a unique experience, to talk about a particular moment’s violence and upheavals as if they’ve just arrived, floated in out of nowhere to disrupt otherwise calm waters—is foundational to America’s sense of self, something the nation will maintain at all costs. On multiple occasions, for example, I saw and heard pundits try to sell the idea that Donald Trump was America’s first racist president. Attempting to be less charitable to the past, some would say that he was America’s “most” racist president. These statements reflect an American public that can only rally around a problem that seems to have an end date. The present can be reduced to an era, but history is harder to reckon with.

There was a point when I thought I understood what people meant when they referred to “The Black Lives Matter Era.” It seemed to signify a time that began around 2013, when the Black Lives Matter Network was founded by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. Loose in structure and largely decentralized, the group utilized a wide range of protest tactics, and so it made sense, in the moment, to call it the start of a new era of activism and social connection. Today, at the end of 2020, demarcating this era has become messier. Now, vague writings suggest the era is simply “a time of Black people protesting,” or “a time in which Black people are killed by police.” This framing, like that of the “most racist president,” suggests that America is suffering from a recent and unique problem—not a pattern of consistent flare-ups, sometimes escalating in intensity, but always operating with the fire on.

Live Action

Looking back, it was fascinating how freely and constantly Rodney King was shown on television being beaten by the police. Or how the aftermath of his beating, and the acquittal of the officers, was baked into television programming. During news broadcasts, of course, but also commercials flashing brief clips, or sitcoms like A Different World fashioning whole episode arcs around the verdict and the uprisings that followed. Because I grew up in a household with parents and family members who didn’t deem the violence visited upon King or the aftermath of that violence to be surprising, and because I was not even ten years old when it all unfolded, I also imagined these things to be unsurprising. Even as I woke up for school one morning and walked past someone in my house watching the news, buildings on fire. I approached it all with a sense of inevitability. Even as someone too young to fully grasp the necessity of rage coming to life in this manner, I knew I’d seen a man beaten on television over a year earlier. I had a very basic understanding of what acquittal was. I was a small child, sometimes bullied until I put up whatever fight I could, and so I also had a very basic understanding of trying to take back some small bit of power for yourself.

The present can be reduced to an era, but history is harder to reckon with.

In the middle of last summer, I parked my car on an overcrowded residential street tucked away in north Columbus, Ohio, near the neighborhood of Clintonville. The day arrived during what I now look back on as the second phase of protest actions that energized the city, first in the summer’s early moments, when people piled in front of the statehouse in droves, and now spilling into the growing heat of summer’s second half. If anything, the rising humidity had galvanized marchers and protesters, sweat and exhaustion becoming shared markers of progress. The people marched through the city, and then the suburbs, and then the city again. They filled the lawns of the statehouse, and then the lawns of city hall. There was, in hindsight, a sort of simplistic propulsion to it all. We were there because it was necessary that we be there. Because someone we loved was in the streets and they needed protection or care or simply someone else they knew to add to the long braid of someones blocking traffic and holding the line when cops descended with their sprays or their horses or their hands on their weapons.

The longer these types of actions continue to unfold, the more opportunities there are to build coalitions, to see who is really what they say they are, and who is really doing the work because they are actively imagining the future they are exhaustedly pushing toward. After the photo opportunities died down, and after the temporary stars were born and then burned out, there were still people left, organizing as they had been before and as they were going to be long after. One such group was CPD Out Of CCS, a coalition of Columbus City Schools students and alumni working for the removal of police from public schools. In the middle of the summer, there was an action held at the home of the school board’s president. There were speakers, a small circular march, chants, and signs. The board president lingered nervously on her porch; her neighbors peered anxiously out of their windows. Some decried the tactic, concerned with the perceived lack of “decorum” in showing up to someone’s private residence. But it was another example, to me, of people power. If students who are supposed to be safe at school don’t feel safe at school, why should someone in the position to change those conditions feel safe anywhere? The action highlighted the absurd difference in the stakes of these feelings. At school, students are assaulted and harassed by officers who cast long shadows down the hallways. The board president was merely inconvenienced for an hour.

Context: Collapse

The grief of this moment, this life, is torrential. More for some than others, of course. But in the midst of it, one small, distinct grief that I have been focused on is the grief that sits alongside the immense pride and excitement I feel watching young activists step fully into themselves and realize they are entirely unmoved by and unafraid of power. I had that inside of me when I was a teenager, and a lot of the people I lived with and hung around did too. But so few of us actually knew what to do with it. We knew we hated that cops were in our schools and in our neighborhoods—their primary function to inject fear into the day-to-day movements of largely marginalized kids from largely marginalized communities. But it didn’t seem like there was much to do with that rage except funnel it back into our own ecosystems, our own selves. We knew our anger but not our capacity to organize. And so, yes, it is thrilling to see a generation that has harnessed their firsthand knowledge, their resources, their steadfast care for each other, and their rage, and channeled it into multilayered action. But I am also someone who spends time in the schools here. I teach writing workshops, or I drop in on classes. I know some of the students, and I know some of their lives. Black students and brown students who get talked about by white administrators as if they are all potential and not already excelling—sometimes in ways that don’t feed into the machinery and the confines of a school building.

We’re driven by the desire to be among people who can at least try to confirm for you that you have not lost your mind.

When I think about the grief I’ve been most weighed down by the past year, the thought I return to is what everyone, all of us organizing and fighting, would be doing with ourselves if we had more time or even just a small corner of desired liberation. It is true that so many of the fights being undertaken now are long ones, braided into many fought before and into many that will be fought in the future. I do feel pride when I see high school students on the frontlines of a movement they started, that ultimately serves their safety. But I also think about the institutional failures that have forced them to rise to this occasion, failures proliferated by adults in positions to disrupt systems and structures in the name of caring for these students but who choose not to. What pushes people out into the street and what pushes them to organize might be sparked in a single moment, but before that moment, and often stretching on long after, is a series of small collapses caused by continual neglect. When Columbus City Schools students excel or simply succeed in showing up to school to do their work, some of them do it in buildings that are falling apart. Some of them do it in buildings that don’t have heating systems, or air conditioning in the summer months. And they do it while watching police officers treat their peers poorly, with suspicion, sometimes with violence. A series of small collapses is how they come to be radicalized.

No Sense of an Ending

There is still the question of time. The people I see organizing and the people I organize alongside are resourceful, brilliant, caring, funny, creative, and motivated. If not for using those tools to consistently push toward and then through the walls built up by the state, I imagine they would use them in ways that would make for unfathomably bright futures for themselves. A world without police or prisons is an expansive concept requiring concrete work to realize—work that may not ever be “finished” in my lifetime. What I’m thinking about instead, though, are the smaller steps, the smaller bricks being loosened in that wall. And how, with the loosening of those bricks, people are freed up not only for other fights but for other endeavors that make newer uses of their time. I dream of what it might mean for the time and emotional lives of these students if Columbus City Schools were to completely end their contract with the police and instead channel that money into resources like counselors, building upgrades, meals, and supplies—and I grieve the world that is not yet here.

What I didn’t understand when I was young, watching Los Angeles in flames on television before going off to school, was that I was being introduced to a very specific condition that I would later become accustomed to, that most Black folks I know have become accustomed to: witnessing some jarring violence in one moment, and the next moment being asked to carry on with something that resembles your normal life. There have been a few times in my life where that carrying has forced me—has caused many people I know—to snap into action. We’re driven by the desire to be among people who can at least try to confirm for you that you have not lost your mind. That a bad thing has happened, that it wasn’t a unique incident but part of the fabric of the country.

That weighed on me this year more than others, and it weighed on the people around me. I’m not simply concerned about time, as even this time spent with the people I love and am fighting for strikes me as quality, worthwhile time. And besides, at the rate many of us are operating at, linear time feels more elastic than ever, slowing and accelerating without warning, to the point that it has begun to feel almost inconsequential. What I worry about more is an accumulation of this never-ending feeling—the rage, sadness, and desolation that propels many of us toward each other in hopes for something better. I worry about myself, mostly, even more than I worry about the young organizers who, on a good day, pull me closer toward hope. I worry about the lasting effects of the past year, which I’ve spent steeped in the heavy fog of those emotions so that it has been hard for me to see the better path I imagine forging. But that is part of it, too, I suppose, part of what so many of us ask of our communities—to lift us beyond our immediate feelings, to point us back to the horizons we’ve lost sight of.