Just a few weeks ago, my partner came home from work in South San Francisco to tell me some horrifying news. A cop had killed a boy she knew, a Black eighth grader named Derrick Gaines. We looked at each other in the way we do when there is too much to say, our eyes wet, our hearts racing, our rage too big for words. We held our son extra tight that night.
Ayoka went to the funeral last Thursday, and was finally able to shed a few of what felt like a mountain of tears inside of her. She supported family and friends who were overwhelmed with grief, and listened to people’s efforts to make sense of this madness. But for anyone who can see the humanity of this young Black man, there is no way for his murder to make any damn sense at all.
I don’t know and I don’t care if Derrick was what the news calls “a good kid” or a “troubled kid,” a “gangbanger” or a straight-A student. What I do know, what matters to my heavy heart, and what is at the source of my rage, is that Derrick was a human being, that he was a kid, that a cop killed him needlessly and that he will most likely get away with it. There will be no apologies, no accountability, no recognition that the cop had many other options than to shoot and kill. And the absence of all this will be another silent attack on our psyche, an unstated affirmation of Black inferiority, of the lesser value of Black lives.
Derrick’s tragic murder has captured less attention than that of Trayvon Martin, but they both have weighed especially heavily on my heart. Both young, Black and male, they were supposedly “looking suspicious” in a non-Black neighborhood. Both Derrick and Trayvon were teenagers minding their business. Neither was in the midst of committing a crime – which would not in any case justify their murder but does draw attention to the degree to which their Blackness itself was apparently the crime being committed.
Both Derrick and Trayvon are dead, no one is safer, and Derrick’s four-year-old brother is left to struggle with the reality that his big brother will never be coming home again. I’ve been to more than my fair share of police accountability protests. But today, on this 4th of July, something is rising up in me that is new. It has to do with the place for rage.
Anybody Black in America has a strategy, conscious or not, for dealing with rage. Some of us are lucky and stumble upon socially productive paths – we serve, we organize for change, we become leaders in our church. Others are less lucky and make choices that lead to violence and self-destruction. Some of us stay permanently in a place of rage, and become one kind of crazy or another.
I confess to having been, for all these years, a fairly reasonable sister, reticent to fully voice my heartbreak, pain and rage about the state of my people. But I’m reconsidering this path.
The moment clearly calls for a new way. We may have a Black president, but these are dark times. It’s Trayvon and Derrick. It’s the Supreme Court’s racist ruling on SB1070, allowing the blatant racial profiling of the “papers please” provision to move forward. All the talk about government agents stopping black and brown people in the street takes me back to slave times, when we needed papers to leave the plantation, when white men were paid to hunt for fugitive slaves, and why my great great great grandfather took his family to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It was time to protect his family and leave the madness of the United States of America.
The Black Community faces Depression-level unemployment, a resurgence racist Right and a level of state violence in our everyday lives that is largely invisible to most non-Black people. We have the greatest number of Black people incarcerated of any time in American history; there are more Black men under the control of the criminal justice system today than there were in slavery in 1850. In supposedly progressive San Francisco, Mayor Lee is openly considering New York’s notoriously racist “stop and frisk” policing policy. And even without such a draconian measure, the data already tell us that the majority of Black boys in San Francisco have been stopped, harassed, or arrested by the local cops by the time they become adults.
In the face of what can only be considered extreme conditions, extreme violence and extreme disenfranchisement amongst my people, I confess that I have failed to take the extraordinary measures that are plainly necessary.
See, the thing is, I had good home training and was socialized to be a nice Black girl. I can code-switch and communicate with nearly anyone with a passion that generally gains respect. Even when in the midst of political battle I don’t scream and holler, and have allowed any number of white people to do and say racist things and get away unharmed. Like so many of us, I try to be a Black person with dignity, without losing my shit. As Michael Jackson would say, I’m a lover not a fighter. This strategy has helped me gain social status, an elite education, and some middle class comforts of American life.
So what to do with this rage? What’s the path beyond reasonableness that does not lead to self-destruction? On this 4th of July, I’m remembering our freedom fighters Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and asking them for wisdom. In my own way and in these times, I want to walk with faith and fearlessness as they did, and not be afraid to put my body on the line for freedom. What sacrifices will we all need to make? What creature comforts or career plans will we need to put aside? What will it take to build a movement that lifts up the value of Black life and our place in a better, more just society?
In Michelle Alexander’s stunning book The New Jim Crow, she makes a clear case that since we won the formal battle against Jim Crow in the 1960s, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” This contemporary, supposedly colorblind, system of mass incarceration and social control of Black people makes our work more complicated, our moral outrage less understandable and our courage ever more necessary.
Let’s build a movement for racial justice, honor our rage, and find a way to be the Frederick Douglass’ and Harriet Tubmans of the 21st century that these times require.
To support Derrick Gaines' family, donations can be made at any Wells Fargo to the 'Derrick Gaines Memorial Fund' account #: 1636477653.