Watching the Righteous Win

Where hope and grief collide

Just a cute Anchovy

This is the first week, in a long time, that I’ve felt hopeful.

Watching people the country over — the world over — gather on the streets and demand not just an end to police violence, but a radical reimagining of how we organize and understand policing, crime, and law enforcement, is one of the more spectacular things I’ve seen in my life. Yes, these questions are complicated, and no, not every person out on the streets or cheering from home agrees on how exactly to solve some of America’s most formative issues, particularly the long-standing use of law enforcement as a tool to enforce white supremacy and black subjugation. Not everyone agrees that we should defund the police, or even on what “defund the police” means. This is ok. No activist movement has ever had all of the answers on hand immediately, and been united in minutiae of the specific policy solution. These movements are always messy, always a push-pull, always multi-faceted. It’s ok to let it be complicated. It’s ok to not have all the answers. It’s ok to read and watch and listen and try to sort through it all, and still wind up at “this is complicated.”

It’s also ok — better than ok — to pause for a second and recognize progress as it happens.

I know many of us are cynical and afraid of investing too much hope in progressive movements, having seen those hopes dashed so many times. But progress is always a zigzag. There are lessons when we lose. But there are also lessons when progressive movements press in the right direction. There is space for satisfaction, for optimism.

Today, commentators on CNN are discussing what it would mean to defund the police. Politicians are having to tell the public what they’ll do to fix this problem. Democrats are being asked about cutting police funding (they nearly all say that they want to scale back bad policing, but virtually none say they want to get rid of police entirely). Still, the middle has moved so rapidly left that “reform the police” is now the conservative position.

The public views Black Lives Matter more positively than ever, with Democratic voters overwhelmingly supportive. The younger an adult is, the more likely they are to support the movement. Even white people, who are always shamefully if predictably behind on issues of racial justice, view BLM favorably. The only group with unfavorable views? Republicans, which is increasingly the party of old white men. This kind of contemporaneous support is truly incredible, especially when you realize that contrary to our rewritten history, the American civil rights movement was definitely not widely supported by whites in the 1960s. Sixty percent of white people in 1963 had an unfavorable view of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Nor are the shifts only in public opinion and rhetoric. Mara Gay outlined several of the tangible political changes we’ve seen in just a few short days: The Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the police and rebuild their system of law enforcement; what that looks like remains to be seen, but it’s a fascinating, radical experiment. The NYPD technically banned chokeholds years ago, but there was no enforcement mechanism; New York legislators just moved to criminalize chokeholds. Los Angeles, among other cities, has committed to diverting money for policing into community investments. And in a huge step, New York repealed 50-a, which allowed police to keep records of abuses and brutality secret and hidden from the public.

As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the Times this week, it feels a lot like the #MeToo movement: All of these issues had been percolating, and finally, the dam broke wide open.

Will this last? I don’t know. If #MeToo is any guide — if just about every movement toward equality is any guide — there will be a backlash, or at least backsliding. The hope, though, is that we get a little further up the hill each time.

But even in the midst of feeling hopeful (and how odd it still feels), I also keep coming back to grief. I’ve been re-reading this Carvell Wallace essay, which is ostensibly a review of the movie Queen & Slim, but is so much more than that. As Queen and Slim run from the authorities, Wallace writes, “Their task, then, is to learn how to live a life, a full and loving life, wedged in the narrow space between captivity and death — a spiritual state of being that many black people in America understand in our souls, because those circumstances lie in wait around every corner and have for centuries.”

And:

Lately I have come to the conclusion, and you may disagree, that pretty much every experience we have moves us either toward life or away from it. There are some things that suck the life out of you, that make you feel smaller and less human, that alienate you from yourself; they calcify your fear and carve a monument out of your emptiness. Then there are those that bring you closer to life, that grow in you the desire to create, to nurture, to see beautiful things and become them. This is the love that increases your attachment to people and animals, makes you smile at children or go outside to see the moon. Every experience is either life-affirming or life-denying.

There is just one trick. It sometimes happens that to move toward love — true, active, life-affirming love — means to move toward death.

During the summer of 2018, I attended a protest. A black 18-year-old, Nia Wilson, had been killed in an attack on a BART-train platform in my hometown, Oakland. She had gotten off a train with her sisters when a white man charged at them with a knife and cut her throat. Many people feared the attack was racially motivated; there was a rumored gathering of the neofascist group the Proud Boys scheduled in the city that afternoon. A protest that had been planned in response quickly morphed into a vigil for Nia.

The gathering was markedly different from the climate marches and large-scale national rallies I had been to. This one was small. It was local. It was led by black people — not just black people but black folks, regular folks, not public figures or activist stars. It was as much an expression of grief as one of anger, though there was plenty of anger, too. I joined the group near the BART station where Nia was killed, and we marched downtown, stopping to rally where my son’s school meets with the gentrifying bars and ramen shops. Violence erupted in the back of the crowd when some white guys thought it would be a good idea to yell “White Lives Matter” at the crowd while Nia’s classmate was crying on the makeshift stage organizers had arranged on the back of a pickup. The response was quick and complete, a controlled unleashing of rage, mostly by men who knew enough about street life to finish the beat-down almost as soon as it began. Later I ran into a friend with a history of direct action and asked her if she had participated in the violence. “No,” she said gravely, quietly. “I’m here to witness.”

To witness was in fact one reason I was there. Cementing something in memory is one way of cementing it in the world. But I had another reason for going, too. My daughter was 12 on the day of Nia’s murder. She caught the train to school from the same BART station where Nia was killed. She called me that day in a panic, terrified and bereft and full of questions that I could not answer. Why did this happen to Nia? Why did this happen to black women? Why wouldn’t this happen to her? I had no answers. I could do only what parents do: promise to protect my child. So I told her that I would go into the streets — that hundreds, maybe thousands of us would go into the streets, and that we would be doing it for her. We would be doing it to show her that we would not let this happen.

It was tremendously important to me that my daughter stay home that evening, safe in her room, in her pajamas and slippers, watching Netflix, eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, texting with friends while we put our flesh on the hot downtown asphalt. No child should have to protect herself. It is our job to protect one another. And this is why I protested — not to make noise, or make change, but in order for the person who could not, should not be in the streets to see me, to see us all, as proof that she is not alone in caring for her life. To attend that protest was an act of love, an experience that brought me closer to life. But it was set against a backdrop of death.

For black people,Lena Waithe told me, death is always present. We were sitting in her home in Los Angeles, discussing her screenplay for “Queen & Slim.” “Black death is very interesting in that it is devastating, but at the same time, it illuminates us,” she said. She named Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Emmett Till, Fred Hampton and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Tupac Shakur and Nipsey Hussle — black figures whose deaths turned them into symbols, added tragic weight to their legacies. “Four little black girls minding their own business playing in the basement of a church shook the world,” she said, referring to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. “You don’t want those little black girls to die, because who would want that? But if they didn’t, would we be as free as we are right now? There are so many sacrificial lambs in our past. It’s almost like black death is necessary to set us free. And I grapple with that. All the time. That’s why I think I had to write this.”

I hope you’ll read the whole thing, which feels very resonant in this moment. “In blackness, hope is often complicated by the intrusion of death, bloodshed, depression, incarceration, grief, brutality,” Wallace writes. “You cannot — for the good of your family, your kids, your loved ones, yourself — keep your face fully toward the sun when you know the darkness is chasing you.”

There is no progress without hope, and without the sincere belief that things can be better. That’s its own kind of optimism. But there is also no progress without a clear-eyed sense of what’s at stake. Without getting to work. Without staying in the fight.

xx Jill