Journal of the Plague No. 14: Black Lives Matter. Black lives matter, too.

My neighborhood is rife with Black Lives Matter signs—homemade ones, ones made by the local high school and various local churches, premade ones ordered by neighbors and friends—and has been since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

Of course, my neighborhood is also the sort of place where people have only starting grudgingly putting out Biden signs in the last few weeks, and where plenty of people still have their Bernie and Warren signs up (plus a Kamala Harris one that shares space with a Warren sign down the street from me) from the caucuses that happened a lifetime ago. We are Precinct 14, baby, and don’t mess with our voting record, you Precinct 18 Longfellow snobs who are only a couple of points ahead of us.

I say that, and then I think about how none of these signs are up in my yard. Partly that’s just sheer laziness—I’ve got old political signs in the garage that could be repurposed—partly it’s pandemic indecision (is it okay to go to the store to buy sign making materials, or am I needlessly endangering myself and others?), and partly it’s my usual White Liberal (TM) unease.

I know (from seeing the house’s residents) that one of the signs is in the yard of a Black family, but the rest of the signs that I know of (more than half, I’d guess) are in the yards of white people. That’s hardly surprising—I live in a fairly white city in a very white state, and while our school is integrated by local standards, the students of color live primarily in a neighborhood a short bus ride away. Historically, parts of the neighborhood where I live were even designated white, and some conventions die hard.

I don’t—and can’t—speak for Black Lives Matter, the movement, which I believe to be about, among other things, the historic and current state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies: Say Their Names, the signs and marchers say, because so many of their names have been forgotten or were never known. Can you name a person who was lynched? Maybe, if you study the subject, but probably not. But I do think a lot about the ways in which Black lives matter while Black people are still alive.

I still think about the Urban League study done in Chicago (I haven’t yet been able to track down the study itself or the story I wrote about it for Third Coast Press but will provide a link when I can) that found that more qualified Black candidates were passed over for less qualified white ones, repeatedly and consistently. That was true whether they showed up for in-person interviews or whether they merely sent in resumes with “Black” names and addresses.

I still think about the New York Times Magazine story I read about Black maternal mortality rates, which cross economic boundaries, and which, in the absence of any any physical explanation, are thought to be caused by racism itself—“wearing,” they call it in the article—the constant feeling of having to be on guard, of being followed in stores, of having white people cross the street when they see you, of being overlooked—not to mention the very real toll of worrying about your sons and husbands and male friends and family day and night.

I don’t know what, if any, impact putting a sign in your yard has against all of that. I do know that on Saturday when I drove to a small town an hour or so northeast of here, I stopped seeing Black Lives Matter (and, for that matter, “we’re in this together”-type COVID signs) the moment I left the city limits, though I saw signs for both Democratic and Republican candidates in about equal measure.

These days when I walk the dog, I’ve been slowly rewriting the lyrics of Phil Ochs’s classic “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” for the present moment. “I cried when they killed George Floyd/Tears ran down my spine/And I cried when they shot Philandro/As though I’d lost a brother of mine/But you protesters got what was coming/You got what you asked for this time/So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal,” mine starts. Other than updating some references and language, though, I keep realizing it doesn’t need much rewriting. “If you ask me to bus my children, I hope the cops take down your name” could be said just as easily by the white moderate today as it was in 1965, at least to judge by the number of coded conversations I read on school and “mama” discussions groups on Facebook.

I started this post days ago. In the meantime, at least one more Black man has been shot by police.* I just now read reports of multiple Black Lives Matter signs shot full of bullet holes in my town, though none I know of in my neighborhood. I do not know how to count how many Black people have been rejected for jobs or housing, how many have been followed in stores, how many have received subpar medical care, how many junior high girls have been disciplined for dress code infractions (hint: it’s a disproportionately higher number than for white girls, at least in data collected from the school district here a few years back), or how many Black kids have entered the juvenile justice system.

Some of those numbers we can track; others we’ll have no way of ever knowing. I was able to attend a chunk of an implicit bias training my city offered last week before childcare duties took over, and among other things the presenter showed was a non-fatal but still consequential traffic stop wherein two young Black men in a rental car were stopped and arrested on the unfounded suspicion that the car was stolen and that they had drugs in it. It’s appalling, but then so is the story a friend once told me of her workplace (one of those much lauded small local businesses) wherein a Black man came in with resume and, the moment he left, the boss tore it up with a remark I won’t repeat.

I hope we—and by we here I mean white people—can start thinking about the ways Black lives matter in our own lives. Most of us aren’t cops and never will be; most of us don’t carry guns. We don’t carry fountain pens much anymore, either, but Woody Guthrie had it right—“Some’ll rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” That pen (or the trash can where that resume landed, or the Black woman getting followed around the store, are often just as harmful as a bullet.

*That Walter Wallace’s family had called for an ambulance to get him to the hospital for help and then the police showed up instead is particularly horrifying to those of us who have gone through such calls ourselves. The Utah teenager who was shot after his mother called for an ambulance is not a story I should have read on the first days of school, but it’s one that caused many people I know to wonder if he only came out alive because he is white. The Washington Post keeps data on fatal shootings; mental health status is among the leading causes.

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