Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion column written by Daniel Lisbe, a rapper in Ithaca’s beloved Gunpoets band.
As always, The Voice is willing to print alternative or dissenting viewpoints. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
— Jeff Stein
Why I shop downtown — Marty
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Written by Daniel Lisbe, AKA “Rising Sun” of The Gunpoets:
This column was first published on 12/09/14 by PositivePressAgency.com.
It’s crazy how a thought can be crystal clear when it’s in our head. Images are sharp and ideas are so real we can touch them. Then as soon as we try to articulate them, to translate them into sentences that properly convey the message we’re trying to deliver, the perfect words evaporate, never quite making it past the tip of our tongue, out of our mouth, and into the ears and head of whoever it is we’re attempting to communicate with.
7,000,000,000+ people living on planet Earth, each of us with our own story and unique perspective on things, each with a collection of experiences that color and shape the way we perceive the world around us as we fly through time and space together, trying desperately to make sense of it all. It’s crazy if you stop to think about it. Add to all that borders between countries, barriers between languages, differences in religions and cultures, and don’t forget the wide range of emotions we all experience on a daily basis and things start to get really interesting.
The only thing that’s clear is that accurately articulating what’s in our heart to another human being can be a challenge, even if the human we’re talking to is our family member or friend, let alone a stranger who comes from a completely different background. And what if that person has a shade of skin that is different from our own? How do we get below the surface to show someone what the world looks like through our eyes? We tend to forget that we’re all wearing uniquely fitted lenses and the world shows up differently to each and every one of us depending on when and where we happened to be born.
To be sure, I’m not pretending to be some kind of expert on race relations or the minority experience in America. My only authority comes from being human and witnessing the world around me with open eyes, an open mind, an open heart. But I’ve got a pretty good head on my shoulders, and after hearing the news that another grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer for stealing the life of an unarmed black man,I’d like to toss my two cents into the ring.
I’m sitting here, as a White man, born into a middle class family in Upstate New York, thinking about what that means as I try to find the words that will explain how I feel about officer Darren Wilson shooting and killing Mike Brown in Ferguson, or more recently, officer Daniel Pantaleo (along with a gang of cops) choking Eric Garner to death in New York City, and neither being charged with so much as a misdemeanor for their actions despite the fact that both men were unarmed and anything but an immediate threat to the officers who killed them.
I’m grappling with the fact that so many people seem to be stuck on the aftermath of Ferguson and the fact that people are rioting and destroying property, instead of exploring the source of the outrage and pain that sparked the riots in the first place. From L.A. to Ferguson, a great man once said, “riots are the language of the unheard.” These people are rioting because no one is listening. They’re tired and they’re in pain. Their loved ones are being murdered in the streets by the very men that have sworn to protect and serve them. It’s happening with alarming frequency, and the lack of empathy that mainstream America has shown in the midst of it all is stunning.
What many people somehow fail to realize is that these tensions have been building up over a long period of time. The people of Ferguson didn’t riot because Mike Brown was killed. They exploded in outrage because these things happen every day, year after year, decade after decade, as the government and vast majority of our population stand idly by and watch it happen, time and time again, without so much as lifting a finger to stop it. The list of unarmed black men beaten or killed by police is a long one. The list of police set free after said beatings and killings is almost just as long. Something is dreadfully wrong here, and all the bright, blinking, neon signs are pointing to systemic racism, a pervading feeling of White supremacy so deep rooted in the fabric of our country that it can be traced back to before our first flag was stitched together. My point?
To get mad at the rioters for their unruly behavior is missing the boat completely. And it’s disgusting.
Let’s start by putting things in their proper historical perspective. Our system is broken, and one could make the argument that it’s always been broken. Our glorious nation is a beautifully painted skyscraper built on and supported by a rotten foundation of lies and deception. 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus and his men set sail for India. They eventually reached the America’s and it only took a couple centuries to exterminate nearly all of the hundreds of millions of native people that were living here. It was genocide in the truest sense of the word. We infected them with disease, burned down their villages, committed murder on the largest scale mankind has ever seen. We did it all for profit and progress, and we did it in the name of God. To this day, we celebrate the man that lit the first match as a hero. So those are our origins, the birth of our country. And this was just the beginning.
With the natives out of the way we were finally ready to start building, expanding, growing, thriving, all at a faster rate. Here’s the catch, though. We didn’t actually want to do the work ourselves so we imported tens of millions of African men and women. Yes, we ripped them from their crying, screaming families, stuffed them into slave ships, and brought them here against their will to do our bidding. We beat them, humiliated them, tortured them, and lynched them. We owned them, and for hundreds of years, they were our slaves – our property. Legally speaking, Black people were nothing more than farm equipment. White people ran the world and everything looked great from where we stood. Had you asked a slave how everything looked from their point of view, however, you would have been told a different story, altogether. Obviously.
Fast-forward quite a bit and things finally began to change, very slowly at first. Slavery was eventually abolished, almost destroying our country in the process. Many people refused to let go, however, and the Jim Crow era quickly sprang into being. Beatings and lynching continued, black churches were bombed, black women were raped, black men were tied to the backs of trucks and dragged along dirt roads as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the night. And police were at the center of it all. If they weren’t committing the atrocities, they were looking the other way. Fire hoses sprayed. Dogs bit. Black leaders rose from the ranks to lead movements and were assassinated for disturbing the peace.
Decades of protests, marches, riots, violence, murder. Despite everything, somehow, some way, there was growth, however painstaking it was. Finally a few years ago we evolved to the point of having a black President, and at first glance, it might even look to an outsider like racism has all but disappeared in our country. We’ve come a long way, there’s no denying that. Yet here we are, a couple generations removed from some of the most inhumane, despicable acts anyone could imagine, and the truth is, it’s all still very fresh in our collective psyche.
I say this to any White person who might have trouble understanding why Black people would riot in the streets after a cop kills an unarmed Black teenager and goes free, unpunished by the laws that are supposed to be here protect them. Imagine 150 years ago, living in a world where you were a slave, able to be bought, sold, beaten and killed without anyone batting an eyelash or coming to your defense. Imagine 50 years ago, living in a world where you had to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms, and if you didn’t, you’d be beaten and arrested, or worse. Imagine today, living in a world where a police officer can choke you to death for selling cigarettes illegally and resisting arrest, and the only person to get charged with a crime after the incident is another Black man who captured the entire thing as it played out on video. After all the talk of equality and freedom, after all the elegant rhetoric that spews from our lips, imagine this is still the world you live in. Today. Try to imagine it. Really try. Because if your skin is brown, this IS the world you live in.
Every time you go outside. Every time you walk down the street. Every time you go to the store. Every time you take a breath. This is the world you live in.
As a White person, I don’t have to worry about going into a department store and having people follow me around because they think I’m going to steal something. As a White person, I don’t have to worry about people feeling like they should cross the street if they see me walking toward them on the sidewalk for fear of being robbed. As a White person, I don’t have to worry about the police looking at me as a threat and in turn being that much more likely to reach for their gun.
That’s what White privilege looks like privilege.
That’s what systemic racism looks like. It’s real, and it’s time we acknowledge it.
We insist on hiding our stained history with heroic tales of soldiers winning wars and hoisting flags. We say pretty things like, “This is America, the land of the free and home of the brave, where all men are created equal.” But all the pretty talk is a facade, a mask designed to sell a dream and create the illusion of purity and honor. The truth is we’ve got some ugly demons hiding in our closet. They’ve been here since day one, and until we’re willing to confront them, we’ll always be stuck in the past, reliving them in different shapes and forms.
Maybe it wasn’t enough for an unarmed Michael Brown to get gunned down in the street. Maybe there were too many conflicting stories about what happened, too many excuses for people to turn to to help them explain it away. He stole the cigars; He bullied the storeowner; He attacked the police officer; He was a ‘thug.’ Maybe the video of an unarmed Eric Garner yelling, “I can’t breathe!” eleven times while a police officer chokes him to death will start to open some eyes and people will begin to see that we still have a real problem here in our great country – a systemic problem that didn’t disappear when we elected Barack Obama to be our President.
By Daniel Lisbe A.K.A Rising Sun of The Gunpoets