Image by Tak Toyoshima
“It was just selfish!”
He wasn’t yelling, but his face was red and he was leaning towards me, making sure the words hit with maximum impact. It was a cold October evening at a rally for Bernie Sanders, a space that was supposedly filled with liberals. Almost nine months earlier, along with other activists I sat down on I-93 in Milton, arms locked in barrels, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This man, who I only knew as a distant acquaintance, had been berating me for the past 20 minutes for this action, arguing that Boston doesn’t even have much of a race problem, and claiming even if it did, that was not the way to fix it. The man went on about traffic and ambulances and inconvenience. Meanwhile, in the background, Sanders spoke about Black Lives Matter and the 99 percent.
Neither of them mentioned the lives taken by cops in this country—a number that wound up exceeding 1,000 in 2015 alone.
Many times over the past year, I have wondered if what I did mattered. I look at the names of the deceased. Sandra Bland. Mya Hall. Alexia Christian. Bettie Jones. Meagan Hockaday. Thousands of them, disproportionately black, dead at the hands of the police. I considered using this space to list their names, but there are just too many who have lost their lives since I sat down on the highway, so many more brutalized, raped and incarcerated, and all people want to talk about is traffic and inconvenience and the people who didn’t die. How did we get to this point?
For a partial answer, I only need to look at the media response to our action. Earlier this month in Oregon, armed militiamen took over a federal building indefinitely, on land formerly reserved for the Northern Paiute indigenous peoples of the area. These occupying men made it clear that they are willing to kill or be killed for their cause. By comparison, a year ago this week, more than a dozen of us sat on the highway—one group in Medford, another in Milton where I joined 5 other white activists—with the goal of staying there for four hours in honor of Michael Brown, whose body was left on the street in Ferguson, Missouri for that long after he was killed by police. We had no intention of defending ourselves from violence, and given the whole arm-in-barrel situation, we didn’t even have that ability (even while we were physically and verbally attacked by commuters).
For months following our action, the biggest news outlets in Boston questioned whether our protest should be considered attempted murder, lamented the traffic we caused, and even called for us to be treated as domestic terrorists. The threatening comments, which eventually found their way into my personal email and home mailbox, were filled with calls for me to be beaten and executed. But my hometown newspaper of record, the Boston Globe, considers an armed, openly white supremacist takeover of a federal building a “peaceful protest,” and has made at least a cursory effort to understand the politics behind this action.
I’m not surprised to see such hypocrisy in coverage. Prior to the I-93 protest, I had spent time marching in the streets with BLM and working with a host of groups to stop the tidal wave of police violence. During one rally, I stood in front of the South Bay House of Correction, screaming as black organizers were pulled out of the crowd, individuals tackled and beaten by multiple officers. I woke up the next morning to find articles that simply gave the number of arrests, yet left unchallenged the narrative from law enforcement, and gave little mention of what brought us out there or of the violence inflicted on protesters. I watched as those headlines energized and agitated the white people of Boston, motivated them to attack, harass, and even stalk the black people leading this movement. No one, especially in the media, seemed interested in asking why thousands of white people wanted to kill black people for marching in the streets and stating that their lives matter.
This bias is why so many activists now are refusing to speak to the media, and are instead creating alternative outlets for sharing news and analysis. Why would we bother talking to people who have so much more power than us yet are too cowardly to ask real questions? If the Boston media establishment had any guts, they would have put the I-93 blockade into the context of the national Black Lives Matter movement. They would ask why people took to the highways, and we would have gladly told them it’s because the very infrastructure of our city was built to maintain white supremacy, because the roads were built over black communities to allow white people ease-of-access from suburbs to city. Because the Hub and its surrounding suburbs were built through redlining, through white flight, and through busing. Because every day, the daily lives of black and brown people are disrupted by police officers enforcing stop-and-frisk policies. Because we saw disrupting the rush hour commute as a necessary sacrifice for justice. And because mass murder is being committed to keep white people safe.
Instead, journalists keep asking me about my feelings. They want to know how I feel about causing a traffic jam, about causing ambulances to be rerouted, how I feel about my case. It’s like they’re all trying to be my therapist. The fact is that my feelings are complicated, private, and irrelevant to the action. I didn’t sit down on the highway because I felt a certain way. I did what I did because police are shooting black people in my name, and therefore it’s my responsibility to help change things. It’s really that simple.
It’s what my acquaintance at the Sanders rally didn’t understand. It’s what our politicians don’t get. It’s the story that the media is too afraid—or simply unwilling—to tell. They ask about traffic and ambulances and the people who could have died. I know how we got to this point. The question I now ask is: What will we do to stop it?