After work yesterday, I was going to my friend Jason’s event down in Soho. He does this monthly conversation series called “Brothers and Sisters” in which brothers and sisters gather somewhere and over beer and wine have thoughtful discussion about a specific topic. Past topics have included conversations on beauty and dating. This month’s discussion was on protest music, a topic that I’m sure was settled on before Baltimore became #Baltimore.
The irony of that choice was not lost on me as I made my way down Crosby street towards Prince street. Once I hit Prince, I had to walk two blocks west, towards Broadway. When I arrived at the intersection of Broadway and Prince, I had the walk signal, but I couldn’t cross. I had to wait as protesters marching in the name of justice for Freddie Gray marched past me and other pedestrians. I knew where they were headed, because back in December, I marched the exact same route, in the name of justice for another unarmed Black man killed by police, Eric Garner.
I am going to assume that if you’re reading this, you already know the famous James Baldwin quote I am about to write:
“To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Those words were on my mind as I made my way to this monthly event that I have enjoyed going to every previous month. I consider myself a smart Black person and that room was filled with smart Black people who like having heady conversation about things like protest music no matter what’s going on in the world. Before we dug deep into what ended up being a two-hour talk, the moderator asked the room for 10 seconds of silence in solidarity of the protesters. We all did it because we had to. We did it because how could any of us smart brothers and sisters talk about anything (let alone protest music) in a loft one block away from people who were actually protesting?
The answer is, we can’t and it is yet another thing I have tacked onto a list of things we can’t do these days.
We must count our blessings because the names of our friends and our loved ones have yet to become a hashtag, but we can’t live like life is good.
We can’t stop crying and bleeding internally for the families of those lost at the hands of an organization that is supposed to help us not hurt us.
We can’t go to work in peace without worrying if we’re going to have to talk about this with coworkers.
We can’t get a drink after work with friends without talking about this.
We can’t tweet about some silliness without feeling like we also have to tweet out an article about Freddie Gray.
We can’t log onto Facebook without seeing videos and status messages about police brutality.
We can’t go home after work without feeling bad about not choosing to go to yet another rally.
We can’t write about other things without feeling like we should be writing about Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott.
We can’t start listing the names of the people who we know have lost their lives to police brutality without wondering if we forgot any.
We can’t keep up with those names day in and day out.
We can’t listen to some song about being in love or being happy without listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” first.
We can’t let two Black public intellectuals beef without feeling the need to remind everyone that we have more important things to worry about.
We can’t laugh at jokes about the police because no joke about them is funny.
We can’t walk by police without fearing them or hating them.
We can’t live without fear for our ownselves and each other.
We can’t protest in peace because that hasn’t worked.
We can’t riot because that hasn’t worked.
We can’t go to every march.
We can’t do a damn thing, but we also can’t stop trying.
When Eric Garner died, “I can’t breathe” were his last words. Very quickly, they became a rallying cry and a sad slogan to express what it feels like these days to be black in America. Haunting but also hashtaggable, those three words are fitting title for a new Civil Rights Movement, our remix on the older generation’s “We shall overcome.” But the truth is, unlike Eric Garner and unlike Freddie Gray, we can breathe. Breathing is just a lot harder to do these days.