The Rapidian

I wish my life mattered

I pen this for my people of color whose pain is more often than not erased by indifference. I pen this for every black body that carries the pain of existence on their shoulders – our lives should matter and this is me penning the pain that says “it feels like ours don’t.”
Breannah Alexander (center) at Partners for a Racism Free Community's "Race Together" event

Breannah Alexander (center) at Partners for a Racism Free Community's "Race Together" event /Courtesy of Partners for a Racism Free Community

I find myself writing variations of the same idea and telling very different stories that lead to the same theme. The first version of this story is about how I feel like a fish trying to breathe on the sand with those who could choose to throw me back in the water watching me slowly suffocate. The second version is how I wish the world cared about black people as much as they care about preventing puppy mills from selling dogs bred in destructive conditions in Grand Rapids malls. The third version is how I wish I lived in a community that valued my heart, my soul and my life.

That’s the version I stop at because the story I’m writing is one about how I feel the need to constantly qualify my oppression.

My story is an interesting one to some and an ordinary narrative for others. I was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan. I was engaged in the philanthropic world at the age of 14. My first mentors were a black female CEO of a community foundation and a 60-year-old white stay-at-home dad. I went to camps with the children of farmers to discuss democracy in practice. I wanted to be a lawyer and focus on addressing the causes of disenfranchised populations. I wanted to make sure no one's rights were violated and everyone’s lives were protected.

I was 18 when my world views began to shift.

It was at 18 when I was pulled over for the first time by campus police as I walked to my car from the university library. It was at 18 when an officer responding to a domestic violence call in which I was the victim would harass me rather than interrogating the reported assailant. It was at 18 when I realized that what felt like the paranoia of a father sending his daughter to college was actually a warning about the realities outside the safety of what had been a privileged space of existence. Ignorance was a bliss I was stripped of when confronted with the realities of my race. 18 was the first time I began to fear police.

As I pen this piece, I am fully aware of how my context affects my perception of the space I occupy. I am a 26-year-old black woman doing racial equity work in Greater Grand Rapids. My partner is white. My friends are diverse. I don’t view the world with rose-colored glasses, but I believe people can change the ways of this world. I whole-heartedly believe that young people will be the architects of transformative change. I also believe that the apathy of adults at large is dangerous in creating more inclusive spaces and communities where the statement “all lives matter” is not a compulsory rebuttal because we’ve created spaces that systemically destroy black lives.

If fear were a form of social control – the world is doing an effective job of making examples of black bodies. We add two more names to the ongoing list of state sanctioned killings of black bodies: Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and Philando Castile (Falcon Heights, Minnesota). And yes, it is state sanctioned when your tax dollars make it possible and the actions of the perpetrator are never met with justice on behalf of the victim.

I was made aware of the latest round of officer-involved murders while wrapping up a nearly month-long stay in Spain. Sadly, I was not surprised. As a matter of fact, it reminds me of a story my partner told me. He was telling me about a man who was without nerve endings. The man once dislocated a bone and had no idea. He could severely cut himself and have no idea he was bleeding out. Sadly, this is what it feels like at this point to hear about lives lost in seemingly endless acts of indifference perpetrated by fearful trigger-quick officers.

I’m also wary to remove the culpability of officer actions from the communities that create them. Let me rephrase that: I believe the community is just as responsible for the destruction of black bodies as the system that empowers individuals to be their judge, jury and executioner. Officers are people. Erasing the aforementioned idea is the reason we fall short in functionally addressing cause and effect. In officers being people, their socialization matters. From the time of birth people receive messages from those that surround them on the value of people, they are inundated by images that show certain people committing crimes and certain people being victims in the media they consume, they are taught ideas about groups of people they have never met. So one need not be surprised that when you couple unchecked bias and a desire to “go home at night” with a gun and “the power of the badge and the authority vested in you by the state,” that the results are problematic. And racially disparate.  

Which brings us to the question of who, in particular, is killing black bodies? There are the easy answers: reckless individuals empowered to be the judge, jury and executioner, the nature of policing and supremacy. However, there are the lesser known accomplices to what seems to be an ongoing problem. Who is responsible for the only Purge movie to play out without consequence? Politicians who create laws that shield certain people from being culpable for their actions. People who profit off of respectability politics that push harmful narratives, essentially framing acceptable victims (think Steve Harvey types and then insert people you cross paths with daily who push narratives like “dress for success,” “clean up your hair,” etc.). Voters who reelect mayors that stand silent in rhetoric and action when citizens are targeted and/or murdered on their watch. People whose activism ends when the hashtag stops trending.

I do sympathize with the concerns of families of officers who want to see their loved one come home at night. I am the daughter of a firefighter. In the way I hoped and prayed that my dad would come home at the end of his multi-day shifts I can identify with those who wish the same for their loved ones who serve as cops. I say this to say, however, that fear of people is not an excuse for law enforcement personnel to “accidentally” shoot those with whom they interact. In the way I didn’t expect my dad to stop in front of a house because he was afraid of the fire, I don’t expect cops to immediately dislodge bullets because they have a fear of people. Serve and protect means accepting the risk of diligence in contentious situations. My dad ran into every fire because his job was to save the people inside; the jobs of cops are to protect all people at risk – and they manage to do that, it just depends on the color of the assailant.  

As I return to West Michigan with the looming question of “will I stay or will I go,” I am reminded that what makes a community home is knowing that your life is valuable to those around you. In returning with unrelaxed hair, even less of a willingness to sit in silence so I can see my day in court (as once advised by a father sending his headstrong daughter off to college) and a numbness to the inevitable bullet – am I willing to call a community home that I am uncertain will do anything more than watch me walk and bleed?

Then again, life has continuously taught me that home is wherever love is more prevalent than hate. Which means no place may ever suffice – unless we intentionally address hate. Not Spain. Not America. Not a single space on this earth.

My life matters. And the reason I need to say that is because I’m black.

What makes me hopeful is being reminded of the youth grantmakers at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation who see injustice and speak up in their communities and through their grantmaking. What makes me hopeful are the Harrison Park students whose friendship are not shaded by the destructive narratives of prejudicial social learning. What makes me hopeful are the high school students I worked with as an AmeriCorps member, who are now college students, addressing injustice in the spaces they occupy – doing better and being an example to those that follow them.

I pen this piece for the adults in this space – the adults who underestimate the power of what kids see them doing and saying. I pen this piece for the officers whose humanity has been forgotten in the discourse around why violent outcomes sometimes happen in those spaces. I pen this piece for the community leader who looks at someone like me and erases the trauma I carry in their perception of my success. I pen this for my allies to remind them I see you and I thank you. I pen this for my people of color whose pain is more often than not erased by indifference. I pen this for every black body that carries the pain of existence on their shoulders – our lives should matter and this is me penning the pain that says “it feels like ours don’t.”

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