This past Sunday my family was able to participate in the peaceful march through Richmond against racism and abuse of police power, organized by Brylynn Quisenberry. We affirmed that Black Lives Matter, that we are beyond tired of racist violence against black bodies, that we want serious and sweeping reforms in our nation’s police forces, and that without justice for the black community there can be no true peace for any of us. We walked, we held signs, we shared, we shouted, we listened.
Along the way, some of the police officers blocking traffic and ensuring a safe event were waving to us. One of them even thanked us. I’m sure no one missed the irony of having armed officers and patrol cars escorting a group of people through the streets as we raised questions about their very profession and the behavior of their peers around the country.
Moments like that can mess with your head. It’s not so bad here, right? We don’t have problems with corrupt, violent or racist cops here, do we?
Our challenge as a community right now is not giving in to the temptation to think that because the problems of bigger cities or larger police forces do not play out on our streets in the same way as we’ve seen in the news, that we don’t have any hard work to do around these topics.
Whether it’s from our midwestern politeness or our need to see our city in a positive light or, especially for white people, our reluctance to confront our own racial biases, privileges and power, we have a tendency to try to characterize our city as mostly doing fine in this regard. We are historically not a town that looks particularly favorably on activism, disruption or questioning the status quo, and in the absence of those events that can challenge our perceptions, our perceptions can become our reality.
But it was clear from the sharing before and during the march on Sunday that the people of Richmond have some untold stories about racism and abuse of police power. And for our community to claim any kind of progress in ensuring that all of our residents are treated equitably and justly, we need to make sure those stories are told. Not just within our neighborhoods or within the black community, but loudly and clearly throughout our city so that white people and people in positions of power and leadership can hear those stories, feel them, and act on them.
Yes, there are overt acts of racism here. Just a day after our march, according to posts on Twitter, a man drove around town in a truck shouting racist epithets at people:
But in addition to these kinds of acts that happen out in the open, there are also the more hidden ones that happen throughout our community, the kind that some of the speakers before the march shared with the crowd who attended.
Indeed, the man who cycled up to one of the marchers on Sunday and accused her of racism against white people made it clear that there are people living in our city who still do not understand why all lives can’t matter until Black Lives Matter.
This lack of understanding is reflected in the way we treat people, the places we spend time, the decisions we make, the leaders we elect, the organizations we support. As I wrote about in 2016, we have serious problems with choosing diverse political leadership that truly reflects the interests and needs of our entire city. It was not so long ago that City Council voted to defund the one local government agency that had any teeth to it when it came to protecting against discrimination or civil rights violations. And beyond race, we are not always a welcoming community for everyone who might visit here.
But again, our tendency as a community is to want to believe that everything is mostly okay. I was frustrated with this June 13th article in the Palladium-Item checking in about how we’re doing as a community around racism and in reaction to George Floyd’s murder. No real problems here, according to two white, gun-carrying men in leadership positions with local law enforcement agencies.
If you asked a few folks who had encountered the police as suspects, would they say the same thing? If you asked a person of color, would they say the same thing?
I’m not here to say that Richmond’s racism is any better or worse than anywhere else in the country. But there are stories out there that need to be told. There is pain, there is hatred. There are hundreds of years of wounds that can never be erased, but where some kinds of healing might be possible. There are conversations that need to be had. There is work to be done. And if we think of working on our own racism as anything less than a generations-long, complicated, time-consuming, emotional, difficult, vulnerable process, then we are underestimating what’s involved.
Let the stories come out. Let the complexity and the nuance of understanding systemic racism and white privilege be laid bare. Let our own self-reflection go deeper. Let the conversations continue. Don’t rush toward “everything is fine” or “getting back to normal.”
Lean in to the discomfort so that maybe, eventually, there can be justice for all.