Image by Kent Buckley
Last March, I attended a ceremony where DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie, known to many simply as DeRay and Netta, together received the 2015 Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award. They were honored because of their work, on social media and beyond, spreading news and updates from the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter movement, and for giving a voice to BLM on a national level.
During the question and answer period, a well-meaning white man asked the pair if tragedies like those which they’re addressing—namely, the murder and assault of black men and women at the hands of the police—were happening more often these days. It just seems, he said, like there was a time before when he had never heard of this type of thing, and now it seems to be unfolding everywhere. What gives?
For white people like me, it’s been easy to live in relative ignorance about the violence exacted on black bodies on a daily basis. At least it was before the outrage over Mike Brown’s death, and that of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin before him, ignited a movement that brought the names of several other murders to our minds and lips. Malls and airports have been taken over, streets have been blocked, and demands have been made.
A year ago this week, a group of protesters handcuffed themselves across I-93 to show solidarity with the BLM movement. They came to be known as the Somerville 18, and in the past year, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan has moved to throw the book at them. Fourteen have ultimately walked away without jail time after accepting responsibility for trespassing, but all 18 originally faced 90 days in jail and nearly $15,000 in fines—punishments so drastic that the mayor of Somerville was prompted to publish a public letter condemning the DA’s pursuit.
It’s obvious that Ryan is looking for revenge and retribution, not justice, especially considering the fact that two of the remaining defendants were street medics who were not in the road. They still face up to 45 days in jail for their “role,” despite the fact that they weren’t on the highway. Clearly, the DA leveled charges uniformly. She’s prepared to send two street medics to jail for more than a month for standing on public property near a demonstration. That certainly sends a message to dissenters, doesn’t it.
Solidarity actions like these and, moreover, protests fronted by BLM leaders have shattered the peaceful ignorance of the white consciousness. When that bubble is pierced, the most vile slime is exposed. In the wake of the highway action, state Rep. Colleen Garry of Dracut proposed legislation that would see highway-blocking protesters charged with attempted murder. Rumors circulated about a possible pitchfork-and-torch field trip to a protester’s home. Two women even showed up (they left disappointed).
At the Zinn ceremony last March, Elzie looked at the inquisitive man with a touch of bewilderment and a large dose of exhaustion. As a black woman, she cannot escape the threat and reality of racial violence. Remember, she said, that Rodney King was beaten by the LAPD back in 1991.
All these years later, the disruption of the status quo must continue. Those who will not listen will be made to listen, be it by handcuffed chains of people on highways or by way of floods of bodies surrounding the State House. Sometimes speaking up means shutting it down. “Dissent,” as Zinn would say, “is the highest form of patriotism.”