12 Things White People Can <em>Actually</em> Do After the Ferguson Decision

So many of us feel so powerless, unable to affect substantive change, unable to do anything other than hurt. Powerless does not mean there isn't work to be done. It is silence, inactivity, complacency and disconnect that are the enemies of justice, not rage.
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By Joseph Osmundson and David J. Leonard

In the wake of the decision in Ferguson, and the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio and Akai Gurley in New York, righteous anger is boiling over on the streets, on social media and within our everyday lives. So many of us feel so powerless, unable to affect substantive change, unable to do anything other than hurt. Powerless does not mean there isn't work to be done. It is silence, inactivity, complacency and disconnect that are the enemies of justice, not rage.

White people of good conscious, too, want to act in solidarity in the fight for racial justice, but may feel cut off from the communities or resources necessary to do so. The feelings of disconnect from these movements, from the rage, from tears and from injustice warrant interrogation. So does the cycle of injustice, followed by shock, silence, articles on "we can do," and a return to our everyday lives.

This cannot simply be about performing change and solidarity; it cannot be about doing without accountability and sacrifice.

We were struck by a recent piece that suggested 12 things white people can do in the wake of the Ferguson; all but one of the suggestions involved only thinking, reading, contemplating, reframing. While these personal acts are absolutely necessary, they are insufficient. They are not enough, and especially not today. They fall short because they don't facilitate change, because they don't hold whiteness accountable, and because they aren't sufficiently tied into movements of racial justice. And so, we would like to offer a list of 12 actual things white people can do to act today, tomorrow, next week, next year.

1. Listen. What are activists of color and organizations on the ground in your community asking for? What do they need? If you don't know any organizations locally, the internet is a great resource. Activists in Ferguson have been vocal about their needs. Listen, and then do. Look into the work of Black Youth Project, Dream Defenders, Blackout for Human Rights, Ferguson Action, Organization of Black Struggle and Black Life Matters. It's not about our needs and our desires, but about listening, and then as @prisonculture reminds us, actually doing the work.

2. Protest. There have been calls in major cities for protest. A list of protests is available online. Go. It is time to put our (white) bodies on the line in solidarity for racial justice. Bring a friend. Make a sign. Say #enough. Be accountable because there is no justice without racial justice. There is no movement forward without standing up against racial terror. There is no change without protest, without agitation, without sacrifice and without a challenge the very fabric of the nation.

3. Take Action Beyond Ferguson. This is not an isolated incident and does not call for an isolated response. Demand justice for Mike Brown; for Marissa Alexander. Demand justice for the all too many people who were killed at the hands of police. Take action that changes how we think about policing, safety and security. Give money, time and resources to individuals and organizations doing work to fight police repression (stop-and-frisk; racial profiling the school-to-prison pipeline), and not just today. Invest in alternative media outlets such as the Feminist Wire, Race Forward and Colorlines, which challenge the widespread criminalization of black bodies.

4. Do Not Police Others' Reactions. It is not really our place to call for peaceful responses, or to call out looting as irresponsible or counterproductive. Loss of life is tragic, anger is justified, not all protests by black bodies are riots. The same state forces that violently end black life every 28 hours are condemning theft as irresponsible. The same system that denies justice, that kills with impunity, that denies the innocence of black men and women, young and old, isn't the basis of justice. Stay woke.

5. If You Belong to a Faith Community, Take Action There. Simply reading scriptures with a social justice lens is necessary but not sufficient. Organize fundraisers in your communities to fight for justice. Bring your communities to actions, protests. Make sure that race (and gender, and class and sexuality) is not silent and invisible in your faith communities, even if they are predominantly white. Speak up, even and maybe especially if you are met with discomfort or resistance.

6. Know History. To understand the stakes requires understanding the history of racial violence, and the failures of the criminal (in)justice system to hold America accountable throughout America's short history. To understand rage, to understand white supremacy and the patterns of violence, and steps forward means knowing the history of lynchings and the Scottsboro boys; of Emmett Till and 4 Little Girls, of Sean Bell and Renisha McBride. The history of change, of organizing, or "ceaseless agitation" offers us a blueprint for action.

7. If You Can, Give Money to Organizations That Are Doing Work on the Ground Locally or Nationally. Organizations doing truly radical and transformative work may have a hard time securing adequate funding from within the often-conservative philanthropic world. Do your research, and give. Here are a few of our favorite orgs: Ferguson Defense Fund; Youth Justice Coalition; DRUM NYC; Color of Change; Showing up for Racial Justice.

8. If You See Injustice Occurring, Do Not Stand Silently or Walk on By. Do you see police officers engaging in a stop-and-frisk interaction? It turns out that it is entirely legal to film police interactions without interfering. Hold police accountable. Watch them. They may be less likely to engage in outright violence if they are being filmed. If not, the video can be critical evidence as police can claim that they were being assaulted, or charge disorderly conduct, when video evidence clearly refutes these claims. There are apps and organizations that accumulate these videos and data. Use them.

9. When You Hear Racism From Your Community, Silence Is No Longer a Possibility. We know that it can be uncomfortable to speak up, but it is necessary. We know how white people can speak when no one else is in the room. We know how blatant racism can still be. We choose to speak, even if it is uncomfortable.

10. Dream Big. Imagining a future without racism is damn near impossible given the ways in which discrimination are built into our institutions. Seeing systemic racism is step one. Do that reading, thinking, self-reflection. Imaging a future without it is the necessary step two. What alternative models are there of policing? What might a just criminal justice system look like? Really consider breaking down institutions and building them anew, and then connect with organizations whose visions you love.

11. Do Something Beyond This Week. Action has never come about through silence; change has not come through the process but instead via movements that have demanded it. That requires more than reading and responding during this initial swell of outrage. It requires action here and now, tomorrow and into the future. It requires change to laws, to our institutions and how we carry ourselves each and every day.

12. Be Accountable. This week, many families will gather together to give thanks. That this holiday also marks the beginning of the American war against indigenous populations is something we must also reflect upon; it is a reminder of how deeply white supremacy is engrained in our history and culture. It is also an opportunity to hold our family and friends accountable, to ask what they are doing to foster change, and to challenge the lies and misinformation that are being spread in the name of racial injustice. Every year, at my family's Thanksgiving, we read a poem to remember the genocide against the American Indians. It is a small step, but it breaks the silence. This work is not easy, but the stakes are too high. Just ask the families of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Ezel Ford, Kajieme Powell, Vonderitt D. Meyers, Jr., John Crawford III, Cary Ball Jr. Aura Rain Rosser, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin and so many more whose names we might not even know, whose hopes and dreams were cut short, whose families are, even now, gathering not to celebrate but to mourn.


Joseph Osmundson is a scientist, writer and educator born and raised in the rural Pacific Northwest. His research focuses on protein structure and function while his writing explores identity and place and sexuality and class and race and all sorts of messy, complicated stuff. His work has been published on Gawker, and he will have an essay included in the upcoming anthology The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press) due out in the Fall of 2014. He has taught at The New School and Vassar College and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Systems Biology at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter at @reluctantlyjoe and read his writings at www.josephosmundson.com.

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. Leonard's latest books include After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press), African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press) co-edited with Lisa Guerrero and Beyond Hate: White Power and Popular Culture with C. Richard King. He is currently working on a book Presumed Innocence: White Mass Shooters in the Era of Trayvon about gun violence in America. You can follow him on Twitter at @drdavidjleonard.

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