White privilege, black lives and the lessons of a protest
Recently, I participated in a protest in Mount Greenwood, Illinois. Black, brown and white people marched in the street, shouting "Black Lives Matter" and "George Floyd" and "Breonna Taylor." We were led by five young black men with drums and horns, conjuring a fife and drum corps leading the troops into battle.
I am an older white woman who has always said that protesting in the streets is just not my thing. And, to be honest, I have always doubted that protesting really changes anything. But this was not a big downtown rally with all the inconvenience and tear gas and billy clubs. This was a nice safe way to be an ally, almost in my own neighborhood. However, somewhere in the chaos of the march, I suddenly was in danger of physical harm at the hands of the police, something that (in my white privilege) I had never thought possible.
Before we started to march, there was a prayer and a sermon. We chanted "Black Lives Matter" to get warmed up. And the leaders asked that the allies (white people) walk on the outside, forming a barrier between the police and the black protesters. And then the march was on.
As we moved forward, the police moved forward. Hundreds of police lined up on both sides of the street, armed with guns and batons, but on the faces of many was, inexplicably, a sense of fear. And then, in a split second, everything changed.
The police sprang from both sides of the street and were suddenly among the protesters. Someone pushed me hard from behind with both hands, into the crowd in front of me, shouting insistently, frantically, "Move, get to moving!" My head spun around to yell at this person to stop shoving me.
I locked eyes with the white policeman. The look on his face was angry. I knew he was human, but he didn't see me in the same light----not as a fellow human, or as a woman, a grandmother, his elder. He saw the enemy.
I have always presumed certain things from a civil society, including that a policeman would not lay hands on me to do violence. In the midst of a protest against police killings of black men and women, it shook me to the core to realize that my naive expectation that I would be safe in the presence of police "protection," was partly based on my white privilege. Though black men and women have always known that danger.
The crowd began to surge again, but still stunned that my expectations were violated, I yelled back over my shoulder indignantly, "He pushed me!" A young black policeman touched my shoulder and asked in a kind voice, "Who touched you, sweetie?" When I pointed to the officer who had pushed me, the policeman simply moved me over a bit and said, "It'll be safer on this side."
I later reflected on the impossible position he was in, walking a tightrope between two worlds -- of "police protection" and black lives mattering. I wonder where his heart was during the protest. And how often he has to turn his head in order to keep his job? And given all the contradictions how he sleeps at night?
One of the chants we repeated was "No justice, no peace. No racist police." I was uncomfortable saying it as we walked past the double line of blue uniforms. I didn't want these police getting their feelings hurt. They weren't the ones who had abused so many of those black lives. But the undeniable reality is that every policeman who turns their head and keeps a code of silence and does not join the cries of protest is complicit.
Someone said to me today, "Protests are good ... but what are we going to DO?" It turns out participating in the protest did do something -- to my spirit and conscience. But I get the question. Protest is about disruption and calls for the destruction of injustice. The next step is construction, which is more difficult.
Our country was founded on racism. We built a white economy by stealing land from indigenous peoples and labor from enslaved Africans. How do you begin to untangle that? Can we imagine a society without a militarized police force, but rather the social support that will provide the means and safety to take care of each other?
I am not sure I will go to another protest, but I learned a lot. No one is safe in the presence of police with that much fear and hatred and power. I never want to see that police officer again. At the same time, sitting at home seems like another form of white privilege and black lives matter too much to keep quiet.
• Marsha Sumner, of Oak Lawn, is manager of the Spiritual Care Department at University of Chicago Medicine and adjunct faculty member for religious studies at Elmhurst University.