Up to Our Necks

When I opened my door yesterday morning, there were dozens of police cars and fire engines with lights and sirens blazing. Stunned, I walked out into my sleepy Minneaopolis neighborhood to find clumps of neighbors talking in quiet voices. It appears that one of my neighbors, digging a trench to fix a pipe that leaked last winter when the ground froze very deeply, was sucked into a sinkhole. He was, literally, buried up to his neck in dirt. As we watched, careful digging and eventually a truck with huge suction hoses made it possible for him to be safely and carefully evacuated. It was several hours before the man was taken out on a gurney, conscious and awake. Alive, thanks to the hard work of first responders.

First responders. So often we thank them for the brave work that they do, caring for those who need help. I thanked some folks this morning. Some of you are first responders, and I thank you now. And yet, if I lived in a different neighborhood, one where primarily African American people lived, I might not have walked out sleepily to find out why police were congregated near my house. Rather, I might have chosen to stay inside, fearful not of dangerous criminals on the loose but rather of the police themselves.

Someone I know here in South Minneapolis, an African American woman, attempted to help the police in her neighborhood. They were shouting with bullhorns at the house next door to her. A black youth was inside gazing in terror out the window; they were calling a name and demanding that he come out. This woman, seeing that the name they were calling was not in fact the name of the youth they were yelling at, attempted to tell the police that they had the wrong person, to tell them the name of the youth in the house. Before she knew it, she was arrested for interfering with the law, and spent the night in jail. She sat next to me at church the next morning, still in shock and trauma.

Generally, as a white woman, I expect police to believe me and support me. However, when the Republican Convention took place in St. Paul in 2004, the police terrified me. In full riot gear, they attacked dozens of law-abiding protestors. Mothers of young children. Journalists. Bystanders. I witnessed some of this. I found the riot gear, behind which actual officers were completely invisible, terrifying. Lawsuits are still being settled. People are still healing.

This week, a young African American man, Michael Brown, was walking with friends, unarmed, in Ferguson, Missouri. Stories diverge wildly between the police and the witnesses about what happened next, and the police did not wear cameras, but what we do know is this: Brown was shot with multiple bullets by a reportedly white police officer, and killed. As I write this, Ferguson is still reeling, not only from that shooting, but from the arrival of police in riot gear -- just the kind that terrified me in St. Paul -- to disrupt a peaceful memorial vigil for Brown. Tanks, curfews, and tear gas are now overrunning the small town, intimidating and brutalizing residents. Journalists are not allowed to document it. People are being told they can't be in their own yards.

Where do you locate yourself in these stories? Who do you see as dangerous, and who is trustworthy? Where do you locate safety? What would safety look like for the people of Ferguson now, for instance? As a white person in the U.S., I am conditioned from birth to see whiteness as safety -- white neighborhoods, white people, white authority figures. My lived experience, my conversations with people of color, and my study of history have shown me over and over that this is a wild and cruel perversion of the truth. But the cultural conditioning is strong. Unless I fight it every day, white superiority seeps into my brain in slow, almost undetectable ways.

As a nation of diverse races striving to be one people, we are buried up to our necks no less than my neighbor, with histories that won't quit, of violence and brutality against people of color. Where do we look for safety, for help, as we try to excavate ourselves from this sinkhole?

I'm struggling with this. Right now I would locate myself as one of the mostly silent, but increasingly alarmed, white folks, one who has the class and race privilege to be on the sidelines, struggling to discern how to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Even as I know that standing silently, trying to figure things out, and not taking action, is a life-threatening course of action when you and your neighbors are buried to your neck.

I don't know everything, but I do know this: This is a problem for our whole nation, not just for people of color. We are in this together. And riot gear, intimidation, and more brutality from police are not the way forward towards healing. They are, in fact, yet another giant step backwards. As for me, I'm looking on the local level for practical actions I can take. And I refuse to be silent or still any more.