by Lamar Gibson
On occasion, I come across things that bring me closer to the acute fear many young black people have learned to circumnavigate in order to try and lead productive, meaningful lives. It’s a fear that takes hold of you even when you are in the safety of your home, away from harm. It can be in the form of a newspaper story or the latest shooting video making the rounds on the internet.
Today, it was the video of Hillary Clinton defending the tough-on-crime legislation her husband championed and passed during his tenure as president that has helped contribute to the alarming mass incarceration of African Americans. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” Hillary Clinton said at the time. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended [up] that way, but first we have bring them to heel.”
The video ends. The all too familiar goosebumps spread like a flame over my arms, back and neck. The slight tightening of my chest and the uneasiness in my stomach arrive in milliseconds. My hands grow cold and I thrust them into my pockets as if I am trying to avoid frostbite. Both legs shake. I cannot move from where I am standing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, at a speech at Wake Forest University last year, recalled the video of a South Carolina police officer violently dragging a young girl from her desk for “non-compliance.” The images, which had dominated the news cycles in the weeks after its release, sparked widespread discussion on the roles of school resource officers and their role in the larger conversation around policing in communities of color. Coates said something to the effect of, “If you watched the video and thought, ‘Well, what did she do wrong?’ then that’s messed up.” Coates then argued that no one would ask that question if it was their child being body-slammed and that it is only in a society where we grant unchecked power to those who police us that we can blame victims in this way.
Joshua Adams, in a piece on fatal police encounters for the Huffington Post wrote: “These officers’ testimonies often read like petrified men shooting at monsters in the abyss. But unlike boogeyman nightmares, this fear will destroy the lives [of] more black men, women, and children if we don’t deal with it.”
Hillary Clinton’s words serve as a poignant reminder of the deeply rooted biases that inform the thoughts and actions of so many in our amnesiac nation.
In dog training, our pets are taught to assume the “heel” position in relationship to their owners. It is a key indicator to both the dog as well as other people that the dog is obedient. In suggesting that we must first “bring them to heel,” Clinton gives us a crystal clear view into the rationale that has informed decades of racist policies and practices against marginalized communities. The animals must be trained.
In response to the video, the calls for apologies and explanations are already spreading. Clinton has responded to these calls and did in fact apologize for her words, for her insensitivity only after being very publicly called out by Ashley Williams, an activist from Charlotte. Sadly, the callousness of her original words and the fact that she was a fierce advocate for the policies they represented may have no impact on her standing (or poll numbers) in the African-American community. We are too inundated with media messages that focus more on her coronation than the policies and practices that are a part of her record, built over decades in public life.
My concern is for what must be done to address the very real fears we experience daily, built on years of the black struggle in this country. I draw inspiration from the new generation of organizers, artists and thinkers who dare to remind us that black is beautiful. I gain hope from the fearless foot soldiers and allies who refuse to live in despair. I take note of the wisdom that self-care is essential and while experiencing fear is real, being paralyzed by it cannot be an option. As I write these final words, my feet are moving again — the goosebumps are nearly gone. A song I learned at a gathering of elders, Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, starts to play in my head and I smile: “Freedom, freedom, freedom come and it won’t be long.”
Lamar Gibson is a development manager for Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC and a sales executive at Triad City Beat.