What Have You Learned? One Year Since Mike Brown & Eric Garner

This time last summer Mike Brown and Eric Garner were still alive. That’s pretty shocking when I write that down. Who knows what they were doing–enjoying the summer, making plans for the fall–but their lives were cut short and launched the Black Lives Matter movement fiercely and forcefully into the world. This is a movement that we need as a country; this is a movement that our young people need desperately.

I was listening to one of my favorite WNYC shows this morning, The Brian Lehrer show. Being my birthday week (how lucky I am to have lived the last year), I haven’t been home in the mornings a lot and I missed the other shows in his series #radiotalksrace (right here if you want to listen: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/), but today’s show asked what we had  learned in the year since the deaths of these two men.

I will admit I have struggled this year with anger, sadness, shock, rage and frustration about the senseless deaths of so many Black men and women and children at the hands of police and/or crazy White people. I have read each and every piece of writing about what White people can/should do to help the Black Lives Matter movement, and I have found myself not proud but frustrated when I realize that I already do most of the stuff suggested. This just left me feeling impotent. When I read the headline for the essay “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People” by Brit Bennett I wanted to tell her: Brit–I hear ya. I don’t know what to do with myself, either.

But Brian Lehrer’s question about what you have LEARNED since this time last year resonated with me this morning because I have learned some things. One very bad. One very good.

First, the bad: These public killings of Black men, women, and children and the lack of indictments (in most cases) have left a generation of young people unambiguously feeling that their lives don’t matter.

For example: At my college, I am a member of the Student Faculty Disciplinary Committee. This committee convenes with a student breaks one of CUNY’s Henderson Rules, rules to maintain public order and conduct on campus. This young man had cursed at a professor. Then, when asked by an advisory staff member to come to his/her office to sign a behavioral contract related to the previous cursing, the student lost it: he started screaming and shouting, cursing, and slammed the door open and stormed out of his/her office.

During the hearing of the disciplinary committee about the charges against this young man for first, cursing at the professor and second, cursing at the advisory staff member who was trying to help him, it came out that the second altercation happened the evening the Eric Garner verdict was released. The student was quoted saying things to the adviser such as, “You won’t disrespect me like this! This won’t happen to me! You can’t treat me like this! I have rights!” which were words much stronger than the situation at task (a potential behavioral contract). The student admitted during the hearing that he had been very angry that evening that the cop who killed Garner was not indicted; he was so angry that he couldn’t control himself. He apologized.

To me, it seemed clear as day: the student’s behaviors towards his adviser had nothing to do with the advisory staff member, the behavioral contract, or the past cursing at the professor and they had everything to do with being a young man of color in a City that had just screamed out loud to him: “YOU DON’T MATTER.”

I went downstairs later to debrief with the advisory staff member. As we discussed the student’s situation, s/he said that the day of the cop’s lack of indictment and days afterwards, our college was ablaze with suicide threats. Student after student after student came to her and other advisers reporting they wanted to/were going to kill themselves. Some were more serious than others–some had past histories of mental health problems and some seemed reactionary–but every suicide threat is a serious one, especially during the historical moment we were all experiencing. And those were the students who felt comfortable admitting their thoughts of suicide. We all know there were many more at home, contemplating it, and not saying a word to anyone.

That’s the bad thing I learned. These videos, the news, these killings are affecting and hurting our youth psychologically. If you think they aren’t picking up what the media is putting down, you are grossly underestimating their ability to understand both explicit and implicit messages. They get it. Sadly.

Now, the good news: Young people are doing something about it.

In class, last fall, I taught the Marxist perspective of the term “hidden curriculum” in connection with the late, great Jean Anyon’s work, and the students were on fire. This is when being a professor is the best job ever–even when you’re delivering not-so-great news about the world we live in–because the students realize that their lived experiences are VALID. As they argued, talked, and questioned their past schooling and whether or not the education they had received had prepped them to be working class and/or poor their whole lives, one student exclaimed, “We have to do something about this!”

“I know!” I said.

To which she cautiously but kindly replied, “No offense, Professor, but you’re too old to help. WE have to do something,” she said, gesturing to her classmates.

And she’s 100% right.

And the good news is this:  Many many young people are doing something. From the larger Black Lives Matter movement (read this NY Times Magazine “Our Demand is Simple: Stop Killing Us”profile on the two young people who launched the Black Lives Matter movement via savvy social media use), to the many protests and conferences across the nation, to the individual acts of protest (such as the White kid who videotaped the crazy police man at the McKinney pool party in Texas (what was that roll on the ground all about?), to White kids in Texas protesting: http://www.vox.com/2015/6/9/8747567/mckinney-pool-party-white-teens, to the large acts of courage such as Bree Newsome who scaled the flagpole in South Carolina to personally remove the Confederate flag . . . the list goes on. There are a lot of fires burning around the country right now, and young people are the ones lighting them.

That gives me hope.

I don’t think all this–racism, white supremacy, police brutality–will be solved any time soon, but I do think this generation of young people are making it clear that these are issues we need to address out in the open, and we will need to address them for decades to come as we unravel the fabric of this country in order to weave it into something new and better. I don’t think I’m too old to participate in my own way, but I do think that my own children, now almost 6 and 8, will have bigger roles in this movement than I will. And, with this in mind, I think a lot about how I raise my two White kids, and how to raise them to help make change, to understand that they are needed in this movement, and to figure out what the heck to do with themselves to play a role.

Black Lives Matter.

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