The Inadequacy of Baptism by Tear Gas


August 21, 2014 by rebelwithalabelmaker

FtaapoliceFor the last week, every time I’ve seen a photo of the people protesting in Ferguson, I’ve felt heartsick.  And I’ve thought to myself “I know how you feel.  I know what it’s like to sing quietly, head bent, surrounded by shields and masks.  I know what it’s like to be surrounded tear gas so thick and so random that you are filled with the terror and the need to run and you can’t figure out which direction to move in.  I know what it’s like to be filled so completely with fear that you can’t think.  To have the inside of your skin lit with the vision of raised batons.”

Having been in an over-policed protest in Quebec City in 2001, my mind is etched with a memory of the fear I experienced there.  I also know what it’s like to wonder at my own responses — to see how much I feel like I’m in a war and then to remind myself that this is not a war.  We were afraid of pain.  Not death.

“How bad is the pain?” we asked one another, on the drive down.  “Is tear gas worse than a broken arm?  Can you think when you’re being gassed?”

I never found out.  There was tear gas everywhere, so I guess I technically experienced it… but never full on.  The one time our group faced an actual onslaught, it was without me.  An entire alley full of people sat cross legged, singing peace songs, with their heads bowed.  The riot police told us to move, and for reasons too complex to explain here, the right thing to do was to stay.

I didn’t.  I was the only one who didn’t.

As I painstakingly picked my way through the sea of cross-legged protesters, I saw riot gear masks moving imperceptibly, as if they were looking at one another thinking “Are we really going to do this to these people?  Are we going to obey this order?”.  The entire alleyway — police and protesters alike — waited silently for me to get out of harm’s way.  As if to say “this is a fight to be had by those who choose to be in it”.

As the only mother in my affinity group, I had to keep a promise to my son that I would obey all of the instructions of the police and keep myself safe.

And therein lies the difference.  I chose the extent to be (or not be) in the fight.  I was presented with a suite of options, one of which involved keeping my entire family safe.  I did not have to try to decide to what extent I should explain to my ten year old that I was protesting so that he would not one day be shot on the street.  And I could repeat to myself the mantra “there is only pain at stake — nothing permanent”, because for me, it was true.

I could promise my son I would come home whole and uninjured.

Which means I understand nothing about what it’s like to be a black person on the streets of Ferguson.

This does not make me inadequate.  Enduring hardship is not the ticket to earning a gold star on the good person report card.  Knowing what it’s like to protest in fear of death is not something I should be able to empathize with.  It’s not something that any person should be able to empathize with.

Privilege does not call me to try to switch roles and become like the oppressed.  That doesn’t work, and also it seems to me that the main point of that would be to make myself feel like a better person.  When I say I don’t know what I am talking about, I don’t mean that I should feel bad for that.  I mean that I should recognize it, so that I will channel my rage, guilt, frustration, and sadness in the right ways.  Into learning about the things that I have realized I don’t know.

We are not called to become guilt-ridden.  We are called to become useful.

One thought on “The Inadequacy of Baptism by Tear Gas

  1. […] James admits that she understands “nothing about what it’s like to be a black person on the streets of […]

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