Critical Mass of Grief

Grief lasts a lot longer than anger. Anger burns itself out, but grief comes in steady waves.

When I look around at the tremendous outpouring of #BlackLivesMatter activism of these past weeks, of I Can’t Breathe marches, of schoolchildren and congressional aides walking out and dying in, athletes speaking up, and beautiful acts of bravery and solidarity, I see a movement fueled by grief first. The anger is there too, of course, as it damn well should be, and it is powerful and articulate. But I see the staying power of this as being driven by a deep well of grief, and I think that’s likely part of its power.

These police murders and non-indictments are not new, just like lynching was not new when Emmett Till was murdered. Till’s mother had the bravery to have an open casket funeral for her son, to demand that the country not look away from what was going on.

I feel a little like we as a country are having a collective open casket funeral for Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others.

And like a funeral, different people are affected differently, depending how close they are to those who have been and are being lost. For some it is a mostly abstract horror and sadness. For others it is the embodiment of daily, very real fears for themselves and their loved ones, and for others a reminder of times when those fears were realized.

It is painful. Deeply so. It is horrible to reckon with how far we are from the very basic ideals of human rights, freedom, equal protection, due process.

For some people this is news. For others it is a reminder. For others it seems to involve taking grief that had been hidden behind bitten tongues but never once forgotten and making it public.

As I read and listen to the stories from the black community about their experiences with incessant and unabashed police harassment, humiliation, and violence—and I keep making myself read them because clearly this is a time when we are called upon to not look away—I am amazed by the courage of the people sharing. This is absolutely not an easy thing.

That they need to is in a way another injustice, an insult to injury. No one should be forced to mourn in front of TV cameras. No one should be forced to explain or defend their grief or humiliation in Twitter sound bites or personal essays or in the streets. But the whole country is better off for everyone who is finding a way to do those things, spelling out the horrible pattern in stunning clarity.

None of us are totally removed from the danger of a police state, but I believe those of us on whom it falls exponentially more lightly are really called upon to step up in solidarity right now in a big way. Take on the responsibility of talking to people who don’t understand what’s going on. Show up at the marches, but don’t take the spotlight. Take risks where our fellow Americans can’t. Recognize where systems are giving us unearned benefit of the doubt, and look for ways to reject that, or use it for good. Listen.

Mixed in with the rage and nausea, I have been feeling some hope along these lines. For all its ups and downs, I have been seeing more real conversations about race, more subtlety, more resistance against distractions like the tactic of trying to discredit protests by talking about “rioters” than I can recall seeing before. I’m sure what I see is not representative; I’ve seen the maps of how little “red” and “blue” tweeters are actually interacting with each other. And it’s by no means perfect, or enough. But when it comes to race in this country, having a better and more honest conversation that reaches and challenges a wider range of white people, including many who consider themselves “liberal,” “colorblind,” etc., is more important than engaging with explicit racists.

As we head into the December holiday season, a time of joy and renewed hope for many, a time to focus on light in the darkness for many, and a difficult time when grief gets more acute for many as well, I encourage everyone to set aside a little time for grieving, to set aside some time to act for justice.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Dec. 18, 2014.)

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