Like many others, I am shocked, saddened and angered by the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case. And like many others have noted, the fact that I am white means I can be shocked, saddened, and angered– but I am free from the burden of feeling fear, unlike my friends and colleagues of color.
There are many things to say about what, in my opinion, seems to be a gross miscarriage of justice. Make no mistake, the failure to indict here is not even the same as saying Officer Wilson is not guilty– if the grand jury had chosen to indict, the case would have proceeded to trial, where both sides would have had an opportunity to press their case. To not indict is a statement by this grand jury that a trial isn’t even worth pursuing– which seems even more insulting and crazy to me, not to mention nearly unprecedented, as FiveThirtyEight points out. Regardless of who you believe was at fault, it should make you angry that they didn’t think this case was worthy of a trial.
I will not say most of the things that could be said, largely because I feel they are being said elsewhere with more eloquence than I can muster at the moment. I feel powerless and nearly wordless in this moment, but I also feel like this moment has pushed me to move on a project I’ve been brewing on for some time, a project to commemorate victims of gun violence. More about the project at the end of this post, but first a few personal comments.
Make no mistake, what happened– is happening– in Ferguson is not really about guns. It is about the massive, systemic racism in our society. But guns, and specifically the militarization of our police force, introduce a speed and finality into confrontations that ends lives. Guns wielded– both with intent to harm and without– take loved ones away from us. And although gun violence has the potential to affect all people, regardless of race, creed or background, it predominantly effects people of color.
For the past three years, before moving to Chicago, I lived in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. When I first came to Bed-Stuy, gunshots still rang on a regular basis (though with far less frequency than they had in years before). Over those three years, the neighborhood quieted down, with the occasional exception.
One such exception came about a year ago, as I and my then-boyfriend walked back towards my apartment from the train. We were less than a block away from my apartment when two loud bangs echoed out– we immediately started to argue over whether it was shots or not. There seemed to be no one around.
When we reached my block, however, we found a man lying on the street, legs still partly stretched up the stoop he’d been standing on when he was shot. Blood rushed across the sidewalk, so voluminous and dark in the yellow streetlight that my first thought was actually “someone’s dropped their cup of coffee”. The residents of the house he’d been outside emerged from the front door screaming “nobody touch him, nobody touch him”. I jumped across the pool of blood and ran inside to call the cops.
Renard “Busta” Griffin was 26 years old and lived a few blocks away. Over the next few hours his friends and family– who had also lost his brother to violence a few years prior– filled the street outside. I sat in my bedroom at the front of the house and listened. A cop rang my bell and wanted to know what I’d seen, and as I stood in the front doorway and recounted what I knew, I looked over his shoulder and watched people screaming and crying in the street beyond. He paused, and glanced over his shoulder, following my gaze.
“You see what I have to deal with?” he said, “These people.”
I took a good look at him. Light complexioned, white or maybe Latino? I managed to stammer: “They’ve lost someone they care about. They’re upset.”
“They’re hampering,” he replied.
I closed the door. Somehow I slept. It didn’t really hit me until the next morning, as my train pulled into the station at my work, and I burst into tears.
I felt a lot of things, but the two prominent emotions were anger and guilt. The callousness of the responding officer to the human suffering just beyond him were unthinkable, and he, in making those comments to me, had made me complicit in his casual racism by assuming that– what? Did he really think that as a white person in a predominantly Black neighborhood, I would nod and agree with him? And what about how I had actually responded? I should have screamed at him. I should report him– but who will listen? Don’t the police take care of their own? And who am I to be upset by the death of a man I didn’t really know, as a white woman relatively new to a historically Black neighborhood with both entrenched bonds and entrenched problems?
Over the next week, the blood on the sidewalk slowly washed away. If you think the clean-up crews come and make a crime scene disappear overnight, you are incorrect– blood in the daylight is brighter than you would think. It takes a heavy rain for the sidewalk to look like unassuming concrete again– but it never is just concrete again, not really. I talked about what had happened with friends and family, and I decided not to move– largely because I was not in any more danger then than I ever had been. What had happened to Busta was not equally likely to happen to me, a privilege that I did not ask for but that I have, nonetheless.
As the sidewalk went back to looking like just another patch of sidewalk, I thought about how much violence the neighborhood had seen, about how all streets bear witness to the ghosts of what has come before. Hadn’t Busta’s brother died just a block away? How would anyone know? But his mother, running errands down those same streets– she knew. On the corners in Brooklyn are a hundred memorials painted to lost friends on bodega walls. How many others were there, their faces lost to all but those who knew them best?
I wish I could fix all the wrong I see, but certainly I can’t alone. One thing I can do, however, is to offer some solace and remembrance to those who live on.
Here’s the deal: if you have lost someone to gun violence, I am offering to paint you an image of them on a window screen to be displayed in your home. This idea builds on two existing forms of public art: wall memorials to members of a community who have died, (often found on the sides of bodegas, though they can be anywhere), and window screen painting, a Baltimore folk art originally intended to beautify shopfronts, where pastoral scenes were painting on the screens of the shop’s windows. These paintings would be given at no cost to you, the recipient, only with the understanding that you would please display them where they can be seen by passers-by. My intention is to create a lasting visual record of the personal losses created by guns within a community, to allow the images of those lost to stand watch over those who live on. I’ve created a submission form below if you would like to participate.
Due to time constraints, I will probably only be able to provide paintings to a few people at first… but because everyone’s loss is important, submissions will be posted over at http://everydayisavigil.com (just be sure to opt IN by clicking either “website only” or “both” in the form below). To send an image, please email everydayisavigil AT gmail DOT com