On Privilege, Struggle, and the Hypocrisy of Calling for Non-Violence

I remind myself every day to check my privilege. I remind myself every day that while I am a woman of color, my struggle is not analogous to the struggle of my people, because of my circumstances and the opportunities I have been afforded. And then, I remind myself that the struggle of my people is not analogous to the struggle of other peoples. The struggle of my community is not the same as the struggle of my Hispanic brethren, fighting for immigration rights and fighting for their basic civil rights and human dignity. I’ll never really know what it’s like to be forced to prove citizenship by entitled border patrol or ICE agents or police officers based on the color of my skin and the racist presumption that my skin color means I must be “illegal.” And they will never know my struggle of not being able to get through a TSA checkpoint without racist presumptions of terrorism leading to extended and personal searches of my body, triggered by my outward appearance — my skin color, my hijab, my beard, my turban, my ancestral clothing — my very “Muslim” appearance.

I will never know the struggle of my Black brethren: hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crowe; hundreds of years of burning crosses and lynching; hundreds of years of state-sanctioned violence and biased sentencing in the criminal “justice” system; hundreds of years of police brutality and reprimanding from the same people who enslaved them in the first place; hundreds of years of dehumanizing, degrading treatment that, in the eyes of the status quo, does not deserve to be fought back against.

I will never know this struggle, but I know the struggle of my colonized ancestors. I know the struggle of brown skin beaten down, land ransacked, and culture appropriated. I know the struggle of — more than a century after independence — still having to peel back the scars of racist and imperialist policies. I know struggle. And my own struggle allows — no, requires — me to be a sister in the struggle of others.

Struggle does not come without a price. Struggle is not overcome without sacrifice. But, for far too long, the price has been human dignity. For far too long, the price has been the spilled blood of Brown, but primarily Black, peoples. So, excuse me if I am not overly concerned with damaged property, a minimal sacrifice in the fight against hundreds of years of injustice. Watching the riots in Baltimore unfold causes me no anger — rather, it causes me to mourn for our broken systems and the thousands of lives lost, either through death or destruction, to a system that is meant to protect them.

Listening to the opinions of those characterizing Baltimore as “chaos” and admonishing protestors for causing property damage, and politicians and city officials hypocritically calling for “non-violence,” — that makes me angry. The people of Baltimore did not wake up one day, senselessly enraged, and just decide to break things because it amuses them. They woke up one day, another member of their community was senselessly killed, and not only could they do nothing about it, but they also knew the system would do nothing about it. Just another Black body sacrificed to keep the system churning. Freddie Gray.

Freddie Gray ran from a police officer for unknown reasons. He was chased and detained by officers, who then found a switchblade on him. They arrested him despite his screams of pain, and then, within an hour when he was pulled out of the police van, his spine had somehow been mostly severed. A week later, Freddie Gray was dead. What happened to him? What did he do? What did the officers who had him in custody do? How did he sustain such unusual and severe injuries? We do not know. Baltimore does not know. But Freddie Gray is certainly not the first life lost to police violence. This is certainly not the first complaint of brutal policing against the Baltimore Police Department, or police departments in general. So why then, when regularly employing violence, do city officials find it nonsensical that Baltimore is rising up in anger?

Where were the calls for peace and non-violence when our supposed protectors murdered Freddie Gray? In Baltimore, there were no calls for peace and non-violence when Herriel Lyles, Starr Brown, and Venus Green were assaulted. There were no calls for peace and non-violence when Dondi Johnson Sr. and Jeffrey Alston were severely and irreversibly injured. Across the country, where were the calls for peace and non-violence before the senseless deaths of Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Amadou Diallo, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, Lamia Beard, Kimani Gray, Shantel Davis, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Eleanor Bumpurs, Pearlie Smith, and hundreds upon thousands of others?

People with privilege, people without context, focus in on the rioting and place blame on the victims. They see damaged property and begin equating the anger and struggle of an oppressed community of color with savagery and animalistic behavior. They begin quoting Dr. King as if saying, “See, even one of your own knew better.” They completely miss the point. Non-violence was never intended to be another instrument with which the status quo could contain the oppressed masses. Even Dr. King said:

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Is it not frightening how true these words still ring?

In Baltimore, city officials are calling for non-violence while the city itself is brutally beating and killing its citizens. This is hypocrisy. Reprimanding the oppressed for reacting “violently” to a violent system is hypocrisy. Reprimanding people whose very lives are at jeopardy for no other reason then the color of their skin, because of some damaged property, is ludicrous. This is not about justifying violence, or justifying riots. It is about understanding that anger and upheaval are results of a system that has shown nothing but malice. It is about understanding the fear of sending your child out to buy groceries, and knowing there is a chance he or she will be slain at the hands of the law itself. It is about understanding the deep-rooted frustration of knowing that the system that is meant to protect you is the very system that has always, and will always, continue to keep you down. It’s about valuing the lives of our brethren over the welfare of property. It is about overturning the status quo. It is about understanding the struggle.

No justice, no peace. Know justice, know peace.

Image by Devin Allen @byDVNLLN