Holding Faith With the Sun

I don’t worry, I’ll tell you. I’m a man who believed that I died 20 years ago, and I live like a man who is dead already.”

Young Black woman and police officer standing face to face. Source: Patience Zalanga

The moment where if becomes when is difficult to locate. The change is only noticeable to you, at first, settling deep inside of your body; a certainty that should weigh you down. Maybe it does. You don’t notice. You sit around tables watching newsfeed, absorbed in live streams and updates from states away, and you are aware, slowly but distinctly, that this will kill you. The realization would change something about you, if your friends weren’t already planning their funerals before.

“If this work kills me” becomes “when this work kills me” and none of it is a joke. This is not hyperbole or paranoia to sweep away, but an integral sort of knowledge that you share with friends who are hardly more than teenagers. Someone emails you a document detailing how they want their funeral to go. Someone else says, “Don’t let those fake niggas in,” and you laugh, but you take notes, too.

The world has a continued fascination with zombies as a modern horror invention. The Walking Dead and theories about the zombie apocalypse lead to people rushing to prove, scientifically, how zombies could be real. You come to realize that, at some point, someone put constraints around what constitutes “human” and “alive”. Where lines like that fall, there is always someone standing outside of it. The living dead exists in your own mirror. Your body is rotting, even if no one else can see it, and some fundamental part of you has shattered in on itself.

Inside of you, there is an expanse smelling of campfire smoke. The expanse is hungry. The expanse is impatient. The expanse taps its fingers on a watch it wears on a nonexistent wrist, reminding you that time is not a given. Time does not exist. The breath inside of your lungs means nothing, because the world you live in has already drawn you outside the lines. So, you begin counting. Not in the time that someone else says you have been alive, but in the weeks and months that you know you have been gone. You live and you are dead, already.

Three police officers standing in front of precinct. Source: Black Liberation Project
You organize for liberation; you organize to be alive; and the fight for that consideration may ultimately kill you.

Lil’ Bobby was the first treasurer and recruit of the Black Panther Party. About a year later, on April 6, 1968, Bobby Hutton became the first member of the Party killed by police. He was shot multiple times after surrendering, at just 17 years old. In a 1969 annual report, then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, reported that the increased activity of “violence-prone black extremists groups” had put more investigative responsibilities on the FBI. “Of these,” Hoover said, “the Black Panther party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.

On December 4, 1969, twelve police officers raided the Black Panther Party headquarters at 2337 W. Monroe street. The raid was the results of efforts to neutralize the Chicago Black Panther Party, by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Chicago Police Department. The officers opened fire, killing 21 year old Fred Hampton and 21 year old Mark Clark. Hampton’s death was ruled a justifiable homicide.

In 2016, 23-year-old Black Lives Matter organizer MarShawn McCarrel took his own life in Ohio. “My demons won today,” McCarrel wrote on Facebook, “I’m sorry.”

In May of 2017, Edward Crawford, Ferguson protester, was found dead in his car from a gunshot wound. He was the subject of an iconic photo from the Ferguson uprising. Police called the gunshot wound self inflicted.

In December of 2017, Erica Garner, activist and daughter of Eric Garner, died of a heart attack at only 27 years old. “We are angry because we suspect Erica was forced to carry burdens too heavy for her to bear,” Melissa Harris-Perry wrote in Elle, “If she had moments when the political work seemed like too much to bear, then surely Erica was like so many other young black folk whose activism exacts an enormous cost.”

In November of 2018, Ferguson protester and live streamer Bassem Masri died of a massive heart attack at only 31 years old.

This is not a comprehensive list of activists who have died, past or present. But it reminds you how deaths of those involved in recent uprisings should not be regarded as phenomenons that exist by themselves. It is easy to pretend there is no link between the clear murders of Bobby Hutton and Fred Hampton or the prolonged death of Erica Garner and the suicide of MarShawn McCarrel, but a slow death should not be confused as an accident.

You have seen the legal struggles, the financial struggles, the poverty, the mental health issues, all exacerbated by the state as it fights to stifle movements and punish those involved. Organizing is a constant interaction with death, the dying, and the dead. You organize for liberation; you organize to be alive; and the fight for that consideration may ultimately kill you.

After McCarrel’s death, fellow organizer Rashida Davison said of activism’s toll, according to The Washington Post, “This is really getting to us. And if MarShawn’s death does not show that…I don’t know what else we need to tell or show to say that this is really going on.”

If activism is terminal, why do it?

Shallow focus on chain link fence. Photo by Sean DuBois on Unsplash
You will remember everything as a disassembled photo album…

You are twenty years old standing outside of a police precinct. An officer holds a less-than-lethal weapon less than a foot from your face. Maybe you should hope that he doesn’t have a shaky finger; that he isn’t itching to see firsthand how skulls can explode. You do not. You demand a livestream nearby films you, because you at least want proof.

In the middle of the same Minnesota winter, you are in an alley of pepper spray and smoke. The pavement and poles around you bear streaks of green paint from marking rounds shot by police. What you will remember of this night exists in snapshots. Ducking a swing from a grown man who has every excuse to hit you due to a badge on his chest. Watching your friend get dragged to the ground by their scarf, concussed. You will remember everything as a disassembled photo album, unreal, until clips are played back as you testify in a trial you never asked to be apart of, and you will think, that is not me.

Before that, you will get sick for months. Throwing up transforms into a hacking cough that has friends cornering you at an event you helped organize. A promise to beat your ass if they see you out or working again that is the only type of love you’ll accept for yourself at the time.

You grew up camping or having fires in your backyard and never minded them until you begin to smell so strongly of smoke, you wonder if you’ll be able to float away. A year after it all ends, the occupation cleared away by machinery in the night, you find the scarf you wore to protect your face. You’ll smell it once and your stomach will churn. Someone you loved gave it to you. You throw it out, anyway.

Sunrise in the Twin Cities. Credit: warbux2000 / Instagram, via City Pages.
“We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters, and our community, which allows us to continue our struggle and work.”
The Combahee River Collective Statement

The friends who forwards you funeral plans posts up with you late at night. You sit inside of a police van with strangers and bang out Kanye’s “Gold Digger” on the walls despite your zip ties until an officer comes to yell. None of you could remember a damn protest song. In a jail somewhere outside of St. Louis, you eat stale chips and drank liquid dyed neon orange masquerading as juice, and you laugh with strangers you only met the night before.

Around the wood fires that will come to make your stomach turn, you sit on collapsing camp chairs, shoulder to shoulder with the same youth who stood shoulder to shoulder with you on a highway. You stand in a line and roast police, for the culture. When five protesters are shot, you realize just how many people you were racing to find safe that night.

“How do I hold faith with sun in a sunless place? It is so hard not to counter this despair with a refusal to see,” Audre Lorde wrote of her navigations of survival. For some time, you, quite literally, are unable and refuse to let yourself see. Your glasses break at a protest. You are the person who needed patches and eye therapy in your childhood. You know that you can order a pair to arrive in a week, but, for over a year, you don’t bother because you never believe a next week will come.

Besides, when people ask where you are going, you prefer the ease of burden. The ability to squint at neon signs, letters refusing to stay in place, and murmur, “I don’t know.”

“We gon party ’til the sun or the guns come out,” Vince Staples raps on “Feels Like Summertime.” And you did.

Maybe it was a sun of our own creation. Sometimes shitty, sometimes sagging in on itself, sometimes not nearly bright enough for us to see two steps ahead. But God, in the middle of those winters, in the parts of yourself that were disassembling, didn’t it feel like summer?

“There it is, man / I told y’all, feels like summer no matter when it is, man / It always feels like summer in the neighborhood / And being that it feels like summer, let’s do this man / Let’s go outside.”
“Feels Like Summertime”