The Lens We See Through in America.
4:44 p.m. An emergency alert flashes on my cell phone stating a 7 p.m. curfew. “I never thought I would see this in Washington,” says a friend who previously lived under an oppressive and authoritative regime. Numerous Washingtonians mention it brings back memories of the 1968 riots. Businesses boarded up, fire in the streets, unrest, but necessary protests.
Why is this decade different? Citizens are able to shed light on the darkness of indignity with a touch of technology whether on a street corner or in a park. While we typically see through a filtered lens based on perceptions and assumptions, there is an opportunity to see humanity from a different angle.
6:05 p.m. I strap on my yellow helmet, tighten the bag holding my camera to my waist, and start peddling my city-worn blue bike. I do not know what I’m going to find. I just know that I need to see it. Witness. I ride past storefronts boarded up with mismatched plywood. A sign of anticipation. The sun shines as if it doesn’t know the darkness our society has faced for more than 400 years. Police vehicles begin to emerge parked in the middle of the streets to block traffic.
Then, I see something stand out — a tan National Guard military Humvee. Peddling my way towards the White House, it seems there are multiple Humvees along the route. I reach into my bag and begin taking photos. I arrive outside of St. John’s Church and Lafayette Square. The crowd is thick — full of many colors, protestors, face masks, news cameras, bystanders, and signs.
6:36 p.m. I feel the tense energy like a pressure cooker engulfing the air. The crowd moves, some folks start to run. I pedal quickly in the opposite direction and ride down another street boarded up and splattered with graffiti. The same thing happens. I find myself outside of the historical Metropolitan AME Church where a sign reminds passersby of voting centers. I have heard sermons from that sanctuary preaching that economics and policy must be reordered to demand real change. It is not enough for an African American to get an education or move up the social hierarchy ladder. A friend says, “Class and education will not save me.” What does that mean? Brown and black people have struggled to simply be identified as human.
Many Americans who increase their socio economic status and wealth can opt-out of their past and shed their mask. A friend confides, “Black folks don’t have that option. We can’t opt-out.” Our society has found a way for it to be acceptable. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw poignantly writes that it’s the unmattering of black lives.
A friend tells me to flip the script to see another perspective. So, I think about that.
I am not fearful when driving that I will be pulled over for no reason. The thought does not enter my mind that a police officer will catapult through my apartment door and shoot me in the middle of the night. My mother never warned me to ride in a car with other white people for my safety. When I walk or run, people do not move to the other side of the street based on how I look. My whiteness does not stop me from getting a job. When a police officer approaches me, the outcome will not end in handcuffs nor being held on the ground to the point of asphyxiation. Not fearing is my privilege.
It is naive that moral appeals alone will change the institutionalized system of racism that we, as Americans, have created. Colonization, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining housing discrimination, weaponized religion, militarization of police, the list goes on. I remember reading the June 2014 piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The article helped me understand the systemic degradation of African Americans through legal policies of discrimination. The law is not the same for everybody.
Peaceful protests, education, and voting need to happen. They go hand-in-hand. As Americans, we decide what is accepted in our culture and country. Money and voting dictate policies. Until the institutions change, the invisible caste system will prevail.
6:38 p.m. A family exits a car. I ride my bike over to ask a few questions. The father tells me, “I brought my two teenage sons down here to witness this moment in history.” I feel the same. We are living in a historical moment fighting two pandemics. Police slide on body armor, shields, and masks while gripping batons. My heart begins beating faster and a slight pressure spreads on my chest. A similar pressure hit me days earlier as I watched the Minneapolis video of man’s inhumanity to man. How do we explain this to our children? A Reverend shares, “If you see someone as opposition, it dictates your actions.”
6:45 p.m. I turn the corner into the alleyway of the quiet street I live on. A woman plants summer flowers in small pots, smoke drifts leisurely as a man grills in the back of his house, and another person happily talks on the phone relaxing on their back deck. It’s another world just blocks away.
The reality is, as citizens, we can transform the small circles that each of us operate in — family, friends, workplace, and local elections. Each circle has the power to create ripple effects in America.
7:00 p.m. The curfew begins. I begin to hear the unmistakable sound of helicopters overhead. The turbulent noise is a reminder of what’s going on in Washington and across the country. Over the next few nights, it continues — the swoosh of helicopters over my house and sirens screeching in the streets like a war zone.
It has been a long time of the temperature of racism rising to a boiling point. It is not enough for us to simply try to lower it, and set it on the back burner once again. The fabric of society depends on our actions to change.
Susan Sloan lives in Washington, D.C. and is the author of A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World. www.susansloan.com Twitter @realSusanSloan