To the black students who walked out of schools across the country yesterday: We see you. We watched as you stood there, brown skin shining, braids swinging, voices booming, taking charge and walking in the revolutionary tradition of your ancestors. We saw the fire in your eyes. We felt it burning. Hold on to it. Nurture it—because as Angela Davis teaches us, “Freedom is a constant struggle.”
We are so very proud of you.
“Baby, what would you do if you’re driving or riding in a car and police pull you over?”
Dash, my 9-year-old son, was sitting in the back seat of the car playing Roblox on his iPad. He looked up, adjusted his glasses and said, “Ummm, I’d reach for ... ”
I gripped the steering wheel. Hard. “NO. You do not reach for anything; do you understand me? Do not reach. When you see the lights, turn on your camera phone and press record. When you pull over to a stop, place both of your hands on the steering wheel and wait. Do not reach for anything. Do not make any sudden movements. Do you hear me?”
“But won’t they want to see my ID?” my innocent baby asked.
“They might, but wait until they ask for it,” I responded. “Then tell them that you are about to follow their instructions. Tell them where your ID is located and repeat that you are following their instructions. Your goal is to make it home to me. Do you understand?”
He nodded quietly, eyes darting back to his game.
“No, I need to hear you say it,” I told him as I adjusted the rearview mirror to see his face, anxiety clawing at my throat.
“I won’t reach for anything,” he recited back to me. “I’ll put my hands on the steering wheel and ... ”
On Valentine’s Day, in the wake of Nikolas Cruz, 19, opening fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people and injuring at least 15 more, Dash and I discussed what to do if a shooter opened fire at his school. On Wednesday, after tens of thousands of students walked out of schools across the nation in solidarity with Douglas High students—and to protest negligent and reckless gun laws that place their lives at risk every single day—I sat in the parking lot of a Baskin-Robbins trying to teach my son, who is on spring break, how to survive an encounter with public servants who are sworn to keep him safe.
Some of the white Douglas students have voiced similar, if not identical, thoughts: For the first time, they feel unsafe in supposedly safe places. For the first time, they realize that the U.S. government does not value their lives over guns. For the first time, they feel compelled to stand up, walk out and demand change, because they know their lives depend on it.
Not for the first time, I wondered where in the world is safe for my sons.
It is not in schools where they can be beaten to death and rolled up in a gym mat, their assailants never brought to justice.
It is not in schools where security officers can violently flip them over in their desks.
It is not in schools where white predators can sexually assault them in the locker room and hurl racist slurs at them in the classroom.
It is not in schools where black students face discriminatory punitive action.
They are not safe in parks.
They aren’t safe walking home.
They aren’t safe swimming.
And as we witnessed with the peaceful protests in the wake of Baltimore police officers leaving Freddie Gray’s neck nearly severed from his spine, without the canopy of whiteness, my sons aren’t safe organizing walkouts to protest state-sanctioned violence and injustice, either.
All of the students around the country—including the black and brown students in Broward County, Fla., who walked out Wednesday—are doing something revolutionary. Despite allegedly being mocked and threatened by some so-called educators for walking out, they continued to stand their ground. They continued to demand that their safety be prioritized, and they have taken to the streets to do so.
Still, many people have asked the question: Where was the outpouring of public support when black children were being teargassed in Ferguson, Mo.? We have wondered how Oprah Winfrey dared to call the Douglas students “freedom riders” when she had nothing but criticism for Black Lives Matter. We listened as former President Barack Obama said that these students are whom the nation has been waiting for, that he had their backs. As if black youths have not been risking their lives to protest the state-sanctioned gun violence of police with no unequivocal support from the White House. As if some of the Douglas students have not credited the Black Lives Matter movement as the blueprint for their fight against injustice.
There is a reason that BLM can serve as the blueprint: because whiteness is the monster that stalks us, haunts us, kills us all—just some more than others. Still, there has been no reckoning with white, male violence, slightly more emphasis placed on male. We know that with mass murder, particularly in public places, the shooters are overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual men, some with a history of intimate-partner and family violence. We know that they have been neurodiverse, meaning that neither mental illness nor mental disability has been a determining factor across the board, despite the ableist fearmongering that would warn us otherwise.
As for school shooters specifically, most have been white boys or white men—approximately 90 percent—so if we know one thing, it should be this: We cannot afford to divorce whiteness from any conversation around gun violence. We cannot erase police officers from conversations around school and gun violence.
Deep down, we know that all children don’t matter in this great, white nation of ours, even though our children matter to us. We know that when our children go to school, the violence is already lurking inside the walls.
Yet here we are, rightfully cheering on the beauty of this movement, marveling at the power of it, holding on to what feels like tide-shifting change. Hoping against hope that this time, unlike Sandy Hook, legislators might be so moved by the bodies of slain white children that they pass laws to keep all of our children safe when they walk through doors to learn—doors where, almost 60 years ago, black children had to face white supremacist violence just to enter.
I, as have many people, cried as I saw children of all races and ethnicities take to the streets without militarized police and dogs breathing down their necks. I cried because it felt transformative.
I cried because I know that if the predominant narrative focused on black students who organized walkouts in Broward County, mainstream public support would be reduced to a whisper, and the racist Chicago dog whistle would take center stage.
As I looked at my son, my baby, in the back seat playing his game, unaware of the monsters in our midst, I was left with a burning question.
How do we create a world where proximity to whiteness isn’t the only thing forcing those in positions of power to give a damn—or pretend to give a damn—whether black children live or die?
We must be intentional about naming white male violence—indeed, whiteness itself—as a structural weapon that must be destroyed, because strengthening reckless, flimsy gun laws alone won’t save black children.
If a brutal history that is not yet past has taught us anything, let it be that.