“So has anyone heard about what’s going on in Baltimore?”
A couple of my classmates twiddled their thumbs and bobbed their hands up and down, unsure as to whether or not they could firmly answer yes. Others sat still and quiet, hands at their sides or folded on their laps. I felt the walls of silence compress me as my hand rose higher, and it was far too late to pull it down. I felt a pulse in my back and I wondered if I was too eager to answer—if I came across as some condescending know-it-all with my body language screaming, “Well of course I know! Who doesn’t?”
There were very little, if any, hands raised. And I sat back and thought:
“How can future journalists not know what’s happening in Baltimore?”
My instructor put on a video to fill them in—a montage of scenes and images the media neglected to promote. Stories of teamwork and community built for sensationalist consumption: Black gang members protesting with black church members, black bodies guarding stores from looters. And praise to the peaceful protest ignored weeks before when nobody knew who Freddie Gray was.
— AJ+ (@ajplus) April 29, 2015
I appreciated the video but it wasn’t perfect. It did not serve to amplify the entire issue, but it offered an exciting minute that, for better, could give light to underrepresented positive action, but, for worse, help people sleep well at night and forget all about it. And I worry if that video is as good as it’s going to get.
But then there’s all of the other, substantially worse, media. A large segment of it has neglected to connect the riot itself to the issues it stems from. They minimized the cause and motivation—declaring Baltimore an excuse for thugs (code for the N-word) to run around and commit crimes. They show B-Roll of a few fires and smashed cars, exploit the experience of a distraught mother smacking her son, then they actively seek the most incoherent people they can find to stick in front of the camera and top off their profitable media cake. All of this to create a misguided caricature of Black America: Savage, irrational and self-destructive.
I used to sympathize with my friends when they described the feeling of being the only black person in the room during discussions on race—the pressure of wanting to speak or stand up for their people, but the simultaneous resistance not to.
To be clear I am very happy that my instructor brought Baltimore up, especially because she wasn’t required to do so on the syllabus. But after that class I began to empathize with the experiences I heard about time and time again from upperclassmen. And I was, and still am, scared at how upset the experience made me.
In retrospect we always recognize that we don’t have to speak for our entire race, but in the fervor of the moment we feel like we have no other alternative.
We may sense the eyes on our faces, feel heat on our cheeks and the pace of our hearts, see the bridges burning. And we have to make a choice: Should we speak up, or should we stay silent as our dialogues, circumstances and histories are mishandled and our black rage is bastardized into an insultingly simple synopsis?
Yet so many of the media’s consumers think of the Baltimore riots and assume the tension pouring through it was sudden and unwarranted despite the bigger picture. And what about those damn baseball games people love to riot over? How can a riot for sport be more justified than a riot for life and basic human to human respect?
I joined a group of powerful, big-hearted individuals on Tuesday to represent Northwestern University at Chicago’s solidarity rally and march for Baltimore. That was my first event of its sort and I felt scared, and empowered, and selfish for feeling empowered because there was probably someone in Baltimore doing the same thing. And maybe only one of us would be waking up in a warm bed the next day.
And it was a dreamy moment having to walk back to my dorm though my sickeningly peaceful campus. I wondered if the group of girls laughing and tripping over their heels as they entered Burger King knew about Baltimore. Or Ferguson. Or that blacklivesmatter isn’t just some hashtag used to exclude their already validated lives.
I wondered if I really even represented Northwestern at the march. For the past couple of days my friends have been checking our emails, wondering when the school will recognize the tension. The first slice of false hope was in an email about the natural disaster in Nepal that was issued days and days after the disaster happened, just as Baltimore was at its hottest.
The administration has still not acknowledged the issue despite the fact that Chicago, a city they love to flaunt on their pamphlets and propaganda, harbors a tremendous amount of police brutality and abuse on black bodies. This year’s events influencing the black community have been snubbed by my school and the most acknowledgement we’ve received from administration has been at least one lazy referral to our psychological services program.
And this snubbing has been defended by people I call my friends. They excuse the administration’s choice to ignore an ongoing issue that makes black students feel like they don’t belong in the classroom. They say that the issue is too controversial to broadcast on the campus. They conform to the silence that has excused so much backward behavior and allow the ignorant to stay ignorant for the sake of artificial peace.
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