On the walls of the bathroom stalls in my school hangs the Stall Street Journal. It is two pages. One educates students on the amount of sugar in a glass of orange juice. The other is a page titled "How to Interact With Police Officers." The flyer is divided into sections like "If an officer wants to chat and you don't," "If an officer asks you questions," and "Know what not to do in an officer's presence."
Underneath the last section is advice like "Don't run," "Don't physically resist," and "Don't make sudden movements." The truth is that we no longer feel safe in the presence of law enforcement. We feel so unsafe as a society that we hurriedly have tried to educate people in my age group about how to act around police. We are teaching survival skills in a day and age where we thought "survival of the fittest" no longer applied.
Ithaca College is a largely white school. The student body is known for its lack of racial diversity. However, it was alarming for me to see this article hung upon my own wall, not because I don't understand that police brutality is real but because I understand that I am often free to ignore its reality because of my skin color.
As a white woman, I am not constantly required to evaluate what an interaction with a police officer could mean for me. I am not required to consider that it could be a potentially life-threatening situation. In fact, I am taught that they are here to protect me. I have the luxury of having a group of people who are trained and paid to keep me safe.
However, Michael Brown did not have that same luxury. Though he was a year younger than I am, his skin color posed a greater perceived threat than I ever could have. Our society has come to see young black men like Brown as a threat. Their success threatens a system of oppression that has spanned centuries. They are a threat to how white people understand our realities.
After Mike's death, the white world tried to look for things that would somehow warrant his untimely death. They tried to justify his killing to avoid having to think about what the implications of a white officer killing an unarmed black boy could be. The media offered a slanted portrayal of Brown; directly after his death, they chose to show a photo of him flashing an alleged "gang sign" rather than a normal portrait. They talked about his petty theft, how he "dabbled with drugs and alcohol," and how he wrote rap lyrics mentioning "violence."
Ultimately, this description is not out of line with normal teenage behavior. These activities are not uncommon. In fact, it doesn't seem all that different from many high-school students' narratives. The only thing that seems truly different between me and Mike is the body I am in and the body Mike was in. I have no doubt that in a confrontation with a police officer, I, as a white woman, would have to be aiming a weapon at the officer before that officer would so much as think about shooting me.
It is this alternate scenario that forces us to ask questions past police-collected evidence and even past Michael Brown. We must ask why our country still seems to value the lives of white people more than those of people of color. We must ask how we are part of this system of oppression. And, most importantly, we must ask about ways in which we can we be allies to marginalized groups in order to change an unjust system. It is time white people stood up and said, "No, this is not justice. This is not liberty. We do not live in a country of equality. What I see is not freedom." And then it is time we turn our words into action.