“Whoever apprehends the said Negroes, so that the Subscriber may readily get them, shall have, if taken up in this County, Forty Shillings Reward, beside what the Law allows; and if at any greater Distance, or out of the Colony, a proportionable Recompence paid them, by George Washington.” (emphasis added)
–1761 newspaper ad
Pronunciation: /inˈso͞osēənt/ /inˈso͞oSHənt/
Adjective: Showing a casual lack of concern; indifferent: “an insouciant shrug”
The latter half of last week I was in New Orleans for the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s National Conference. Last year was my first NSCA national conference, and I vowed to continue going every year because of the substantive, professional, and personal development that comes from immersing oneself in substance outside of day-to-day practical considerations. I had been excited for months about the opportunity to both learn in and visit one of the most distinct American cities we’ve ever known.
The strength training conference began on July 6, the day after police shot Alton Sterling. My flight was scheduled for July 7, and as I packed to get ready for the trip that morning (I’m a day of the trip kind of packer) my Twitter feed confused me. I knew about the Sterling shooting, but people seemed to be talking about another name, Philando Castile, whose own killing had begun making news.
I was angry, and I felt guilty for flying to a conference to learn about hip extension while others prepared to march in the streets to demand justice in the aftermath of two disturbing killings. I thought about canceling my plans and diverting to Baton Rouge to participate in the marches. I didn’t. I don’t know how exactly I justified not going, but I somehow did just that and sat through presentations on developing athletic power and changing body composition through nutritional manipulation.
In between sessions I scrolled through my social media feeds, and because of the diversity of people I follow on various platforms, I saw a pattern emerge. Someone would tweet or hashtag a Facebook post with #blacklivesmatter, and then someone else would tweet or hashtag “alllivesmatter,” or–especially after a deranged gunman unleashed hell in Dallas–“bluelivesmatter.”
Although much of the discourse remained civil, I detected an anger in a lot of the #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter folks with which I knew I would have to grapple for this column. It’s a grappling I confess feeling ill-equipped to properly engage given the nature of my work. Most of my days are spent thinking about clients, programming, form, and strength. I don’t have the time to write as sharply as topics like this demand, and yet I knew once again that I wouldn’t be able to write about anything else because I haven’t been able to think about anything else.
I grew up in the Dayton area, and often I was the only black person in my classes. I remember getting into a heated argument with an older student while I was a freshman at Ohio State during a conversation about slavery. To be black and alone in a classroom can be a particularly lonely feeling, and it’s not hyperbole to say that I felt and feel a peculiar sense of responsibility for serving as a witness, especially in cases where the teacher in the classroom has been unable or unwilling to speak uncomfortable truths.
So it is perhaps with that same sense of responsibility that I use a column originally intended for fitness to be a witness to the black struggle for equality. Part of my job as a witness is to tell you that if your response to the violence in this country over the last two weeks has been to use the #alllivesmatter or #bluelivesmatter hashtags then you’re stunningly, cruelly missing the point of #blacklivesmatter.
Black people helped build this country, and yet its first president–widely regarded as a hero–placed newspaper ads to get back his “property” when his slaves showed the temerity, ingenuity, and basic humanity to run away and assert their personhood;
Black people have always served this country during wartime, only to return home to be called nigger, left out of provisions intended to help veterans (like the GI Bill), and marginalized economically;
Black people have been in North America since 1619, yet when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” it was clear he was not talking about Native Americans, black people or women;
Black people weren’t left out of the Constitution as they were the Declaration, but instead were counted as only three-fifths human beings;
Black people ostensibly gained freedom–only after a brutal Civil War–in 1865, yet had to fight for decades in order to secure the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
When students in the Dayton-area schools I attended called me a nigger, or when family members (in the 21st Century!) had nigger scrawled on their property, or when a federal government officer told me I didn’t “sound black” when I was applying for a job, or when a state trooper pulled me over in rural Virginia and warned me about driving in the “wrong place,” or when I was greeted upon moving back home to Ohio with a caravan of Confederate flags at The Greene, or when I watch on the news as person after person after person after person after person is killed in circumstances that strongly suggest that life itself would have been the alternative for someone who wasn’t black, then I am left to wonder: just what in the hell is so offensive about Black Lives Matter?
The counter hashtags make me angry. When friends use them they make me feel as I did in high school, when I had friends tell me that we could hang out, but only if their dad wasn’t around because “he doesn’t like blacks.” I was never quite sure of who really loved me for all of who I was or who thought that I wasn’t “like the rest of them” because I happened to listen to Led Zeppelin and the Black Crowes.
The very idea that black lives actually matter has been in doubt from the very beginning of this country. And the years that unsung heroes like Sherrilyn Ifill have been fighting for justice and screaming from the tops of their lungs about police brutality that have felt Sysiphean in nature only have served to reinforce that doubt. The only difference between what we’re seeing in the news now and what has been going on is technology.
How many reports of off-the-books interrogation rooms in major American cities must we ignore? How many times must the plaintive wail about stop and frisk procedures go unanswered? How large must the gap grow between how white people and black people view the police before people acknowledge that the black experience with policing is dramatically different?
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) July 11, 2016
We’ve always assumed in this country that “all lives matter,” only it has taken us many years and not a few lost lives to ensure the truth of that universality.
You might be wondering about black-on-black crime and why more black people aren’t crying out about it. First, the very idea of black-on-black crime has been so thoroughly dismantled that it’s not worth more than a passing mention here. What you might call “black-on-black” violence actually is nothing more than neighbor-on-neighbor violence, as Michael Eric Dyson recently called it.
But there’s a more important point to be made. If you’re under the illusion that black people aren’t concerned about violence in their communities other than at the hands of police, then quite simply you don’t know many black people intimately. It has been the topic of conversation (and iconic rap videos) for decades now. You just haven’t noticed.
And isn’t that the crux of the problem? Maybe you just haven’t noticed. The truths revealed by recent events have been there all along. You’re just noticing now because Apple learned how to integrate a video camera into a phone.
I don’t know how many more times I can write about empathy. For rape victims. For gay people. For black people. I know how difficult it must be for the families of police officers to hear the national conversation right now. Fathers and sons and mothers and daughters put on a badge and a uniform and do incredibly difficult and dangerous work. And yet everyone seems to be talking about police brutality. I honor the work of good police officers alongside you, I appreciate their public service along with you, and I’m sickened by the murders of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa as the entire country is.
That your father honorably serves his community as a police officer does not obviate the need for a frank discussion about the policing of black America, however, and it certainly doesn’t obviate the need for sweeping change. We’re saying Black Lives Matter because it has never been obvious in this country. We’re saying Black Lives Matter because people have been ignoring large swaths of the population and their concerns. We’re saying Black Lives Matter because before the advent of cell phones even the most infamous cases of police brutality of the black body were easily forgotten.
I’m old enough to know this column has little chance of changing an #alllivesmatter person’s mind. But many of you out there reading this know me. I might even be your “black friend” by virtue of the fact that I too am a Mad Men fan who can quote old David Letterman bits ad nauseum. What I’m asking you to do is listen to me and imagine if you saw video of a police officer shooting me as I tried to follow his instructions.
Did that work?
If it did, now ask yourself: Why could you not summon the human empathy for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile?
And Laquan McDonald.
And Christian Taylor.
And Samuel Dubose.
And Sandra Bland.
And Freddie Gray.
And Walter Scott.
And Tamir Rice.
And Michael Brown.
And Eric Garner.
Is their skin darker than mine? When they
speak spoke, do did they sound blacker than me? For whom exactly do you reserve your empathy?
I support Black Lives Matter. I’ll stake the reputation of my business on that. If that offends you but George Washington’s newspaper ad does not, or worse, you were unaware of its existence, then your All Lives Matter rejoinder is nothing more than insouciance sprung out of a one-sided, incomplete, infantile storybook version of American history.