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Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: #blacklivesmatter

5 min read

Sandra Bland asked what she was being arrested for 14 times, and never received an answer. Days later, she was found dead in her cell. There has, rightly, been an uproar, and in response to protests the police released the officer's dash cam footage. Which appears to have been edited, including what appears to be some repeating footage. Which, in turn, is rightly causing an uproar.

All of this is happening because communities of activists noticed and, through Twitter, spread the word. I have to wonder how many other Sandra Blands there have been that were swept under the carpet, kept under the radar away from us.

People of color have been telling us their experiences since forever. We see it in the statistics we collect to better understand how our society functions, most notably in the widely divergent incarceration rates. And only now - only since Ferguson, really - does it feel to me like it's hitting the public consciousness. Racism is taught and talked about like it's over: like Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement in the sixties made everything better. That it never went away, and that it's an indemic sickness that is in our society, which affects not just overt action but also our unconscious biases, is now more widely understood.

Although her death is an atrocity, it's not just about Sandra Bland. Although its law enforcement was undeniably racist, it's not just about Ferguson.

And I still think people are missing the point.

When Dylann Roof opened fire in a church and murdered nine people in an act of domestic terrorism, we began to have a conversation about the Confederate Flag. Actually it was about the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, a secessionist army that happens to use the same St Andrew's Cross as the Scottish national flag.

That flag is all about slavery, and therefore racism and violence, but a lot of people argued that it was a proud part of their tradition. Maybe so: they argued that it's come to represent defiance of federal authority, but nonetheless, it comes from a place of injustice. It's hard to argue for feeling proud of a symbol of slavery. If racism was "fixed", it would simply be a piece of history, but the injustices that slavery set in motion continue today. It's been argued that the southern armies of the Civil War gave way to genocidal groups like the Ku Klux Klan that continued the work of enforcing racial segregation. In turn, this led to the current association of owning guns with the ability to defy federal authority. It's all about enforcing certain values even when federal law - and the rest of the country, at least to some extent - has long since moved on. I buy it.

The government of South Carolina, as well as anyone who valued equality, was right to take the flag down. But boy, the arguments were fierce. Many people felt that long-held values were being ripped from them.


Even our supposedly liberal politicians don't seem to be able to get it right. Bernie Sanders, who generally is on the right side of things, declared that "all lives matter", before finally making a more nuanced comment on racial injustice on social media. Hillary Clinton said "all lives matter" too, before eventually declaring that "black lives matter" on social media too.

Of course all lives matter, but white lives haven't been systematically persecuted and discriminated against for centuries. It would be easy to argue that both politicians took to social media to issue corrected statements because that's where the backlash was - and because it wouldn't create a soundbite that would put off their older, more traditional voting base.

I don't understand why "traditional" is seen as a positive attribute with regards to cultural values. We heard it earlier this year, over and over again, in the phrase "traditional marriage". It's often a cipher that simply means "bigoted" or "behind the times" - ironic because the underlying principles in the Constitution are mostly egaliterian, as the Supreme Court has demonstrated repeatedly, and what could be more traditional than that? Racism and discrimination don't get to be preserved just because they were how society worked in the olden days. That tradition is inherently good is a harmful idea. Traditional values, like all values, must be questioned and re-assessed.

So, too, is the idea that we have solved our civil rights issues. Clearly we haven't. And unless we keep fighting, unless we stay vigilant, there will be more Sandra Blands, more Fergusons, and more Dylann Roofs. These tragedies are not context-free, or isolated. They are a part of a continuous history that erases the agency of people of color, and sends them to their deaths, either impicitly by denying them equal access to resources and opportunities, or explicitly, with guns and force.

This can't be where any of us want to live.


A note: I'm aware, as a middle class straight white man, that I am shaped by these same unconscious biases, and that my actions are informed by a privilege that has real effects. I'm certain that I've misstepped in the past, and I'm certain that I'll misstep in the future.

This piece, like all my Open Morning Pages pieces, is really for me. Other people have written about these topics much more intelligently. I recommend reading Daily Kos's justice columnist Shaun King for further links, particularly about the Sandra Bland murder right now. I also support the ACLU and invite you to join me.