This week was very tough for me. With the senseless murder of 6-month old Jonylah Watkins still stinging the city of Chicago and the nation, as well as the murder of 16-year old Kimani Gray in Brooklyn, New York, every day met me with intense conversations about the bleak path Black America is heading if our communities do not climb out of this despair of violence. I am currently feeling the most militant I have ever felt regarding these issues, and I have not censored myself from my peers. I do not care if people believe I am being overly serious, militant, passionate, etc. I cannot stomach these tragedies happening to my people across the nation.
Speaking from the vantage point of a Chicagoan, “Chiraq” in its glamorized form needs to be rejected within our nation. In the beginning, it was a powerful tool to stir emotion and extract concern from the nation regarding the atrocious amount of murders in Chicago in recent years, but now it has become a term that people outside of Chicago jokingly throw around as well as a term that people from Chicago have tried to reclaim and boast shamelessly about regarding their own love for Chicago. This is just one symptom of the sickness of territorial empathy plaguing Black America. Outside of the deaths of youth that we conceptualize as tragic because of their life prospect (which I dig into later), often we neglect to empathize on a national level, stepping back like it is not our issue if we do not have a personal connection. For those within these cities and communities, the lack of strong, continual support from our own people has caused people to fight this issue on their own or just accept it as normal (cue the “I <3 Chiraq” T-shirts). This vicious cycle is getting us nowhere, and if we do not begin to band together as one movement pressed to save our communities, I do not even want to fathom our future.
During this week, I witnessed a flurry of emotions from my hometown peers: many of grief, some of defense, and some of retreat. We are all embittered and heart-broken that the barrel of the gun has swallowed up the most precious, innocent, and seen-to-be immune of lives: our babies. And when I say “babies”, I do not mean the term of endearment, but literally our infants. While we may have predicted this was the course of the violence swirling our neighborhoods, none of us could have fathomed this to occur. But some of us were met with challenge. Some of us were forced to defend our city in the midst of our peers, and frankly, we are tired of doing so. The simple fact is this: Chicago as a whole is not suffering from this issue, but Black and Brown communities are. One pocket in Chicago can have an atrocious crime and murder rate, while the pocket directly adjacent to the former community has a rate that is slim to none (see homicide rate map here). We are suffering on our own, and this city could not frankly give less than a damn about it. And the same is true in other cities. Gentrification has done a powerful job of structurally encouraging poverty and encapsulating crime and violence in certain areas, the media of dehumanizing the slain, the government of skirting around the issue. When all of this trickles down to the “common person”, the fear is instilled and the empathy stripped away, and it becomes nearly impossible to rally concern. There are times when we feel national support (i.e. most recently the deaths of Jonylah Watkins and Hadiya Pendleton), but often, Black and Brown Chicagoans can end up feeling like the hopeless town crier in the middle of the town square. These are not issues that are contained to Chicago. Cities across the nation are suffering from violence, and we know this. We see the tweets. We watch the news. We talk about it. But often we shrug it off. That needs to end.
I do not want to make this post without addressing the death of Kimani Gray, which I have noticed has not been discussed as often regionally, and that is not surprising nor shameful because Jonylah’s death has ripped the Midwest in a manner I have not experienced before. Nonetheless, Kimani’s story is something that requires our attention. Kimani was shot seven times by New York Police Department officers (three in his back), and while the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg himself defend the actions of the officers without a full investigation complete, many witness accounts and family testimonies deny the possibility of Kimani having a gun, pulling said gun out, or even appearing like a threat to the police. He was even reported by a witness screaming “please don’t shoot me.” While this is a situation that has similarities to Trayvon Martin (which also swept the nation), it is the progression of the vigil (which there is dissension on whether a “riot” broke out), protests in the days following, and the police action that followed that is stunning. The attempts to smother the voices of the people are astonishing. Protests in East Flatbush, the community where Kimani was from, have resulted in 46 arrests. Young black men are being forcefully contained by police, reminiscent of Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing. People are standing up for their community, speaking out on the injustices in an overwhelmingly peaceful manner (as Michael Skolnik notes on a HuffPost Live segment), and are subsequently being forcefully silenced right in front of our eyes. It is as if I am being thrust back into the Civil Rights Era the more I investigate the story of Kimani Gray. Not much has changed, and best believe, this does affect communities across the nation just as much as it affects East Flatbush.
If you have not already noticed, this is a post to Black America specifically. I understand that for broader America, they need a moral connection to ever conceptualize that African-Americans being slain is a terrible thing. We needed stories like Hadiya or Jonylah or Kimani or Trayvon to receive our soapboxes and speak about the despair in our communities, about police brutality, about sanctioned silence. But for Black America, we need to realize that the prospect of Black excellence (as noted in this podcast) or the sanctity of infancy should not be prerequisites for us to get publicly outraged on a national scale. I am tired of hearing “oh that’s just Chiraq” or “oh that’s just Brooklyn” or “oh that’s just Philly” whenever we hear of murders of youth that’s stories are not so beautiful from Black people, but when we hear of an infant being murdered, we get publicly and unashamedly outraged. Apathy needs to be thrown away. You think this does not happen often, but I hear this so often in Minneapolis. I see this on the Internet. I hear this out of the mouths of young Black Chicagoans. It has got to stop. Because by doing this, we indirectly allow the rest of this nation to do the same thing, which further dehumanizes our struggles in their eyes.
This goes out my Black sisters and brothers whose upward mobility enabled them to flee the neighborhoods that need them the most. This goes out my Black sisters and brothers who mistakenly walk around with a “force field” that disables them from being fully concerned. This goes out to my Black sisters and brothers who are ride-or-die for their own ‘hoods but could care less about anyone else’s. Please here this plea: we must cause a riot over the “Bigger Thomas” figures who lose their lives just as much as the Hadiya Pendleton and the Jonylah Watkins figures if we ever want our communities to be saved. We must cause a riot of young Black boys being killed in South Central Los Angeles and Detroit and Cleveland and Chicago and New York just as quickly as we do in our own hometowns. We must cause a riot over the presumed “thug” or “gangsta” just as much as the honor student. We must cause a riot over the deaths on the West Side as quickly as we do for the South Side. I have faith in us. I really do. My Black brothers and sisters do not just extend my city limits; they are across this nation and across the globe. If we take agency not just for those in our proximity, but those afar, we could then begin to mobilize in a manner that will be revolutionary. I am not saying we have to be perfect. Lord KNOWS I have fallen into apathy, especially in my high-school years. I am not saying that we cannot hold anyone accountable in our communities and not instill some elements of personal responsibility in our youth. But we have to eradicate these territorial notions of safety, security, and who receives our empathy the most.
I leave you all with the song Lupe Fiasco just released in honor of the life of Jonylah Watkins. Stay strong Queens and Kings.