Two weeks to the day since police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, an African American man, in the streets of Minneapolis, and after massive nation-wide protests, rioting, hideously aggressive police tactics, and the deployment of the National Guard in more than twenty states, protests against police brutality and in defense of Black lives continue across America and around the world. Here in Austin, Texas, protesters have been in the streets since late May, targeting the Capitol building, the Austin Police Department HQ, and the highly-trafficked Interstate Highway 35, which cuts directly through the center of the city. There has been violence, most notably by police who have critically injured several people,1 yet there has also been a tremendous display of nonviolent outrage against the over-policing of Black communities and the white supremacy that justifies this system.
The largest protest occurred Sunday afternoon, when the Austin Justice Coalition held a nonviolent march from Huston-Tillotson University, Austin’s only HBCU, to the Austin State Capitol, which is currently occupied by the Texas Army National Guard. Billed as the Black Austin Rally and March for Black Lives, this Black centered yet multiracial event drew thousands to the streets to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of systemic racism, especially as it operates in the criminal justice system. I was humbled to march with them, and I came away from the protest deeply moved by what I saw and heard there.
The first thing I should note is that the sheer size of the protest was astonishing. It is difficult to estimate how many people were in attendance, but on two occasions I climbed up small embankments along the side of the road, and I was unable to see the end of the crowd as it stretched both before and behind me. I know crowd sizes can be deceiving when so many people are gathered in such close proximity, and being in the middle of a mass of people makes estimating its size all the more difficult, but my impression was that many thousands were in the streets. After so many days of protests, a crowd of this size is impressive and suggests that this movement has real staying power. I was also encouraged by the demographic makeup of the protest. There were a large number of African American Austinites in attendance, and they took the lead in speaking and marching to the Capitol (as was appropriate), but the crowd was very diverse, both in terms of race/ethnicity and age. It was heartening to see such a diverse cross section of the Austin community come together to demand justice for victims of police brutality and the end of racist police practices.
I should also note that the crowd’s mood was both solemn and positive, odd as that mix may seem. The solemnity came from listening to members of the African American community speak about the pain of living in a racist society, but also from hearing them call on white people to do the hard work of dismantling racism within their own hearts, as well as within the larger culture. It was also difficult to listen to Brenda Ramos, mother of Mike Ramos, who was Black and Latinx, speak about her unarmed son being shot to death by the Austin police.2 Yet despite these heavier moments, people seemed energized and positive—sharing water and snacks, distributing masks and hand sanitizer, playing drums and chanting together—and there was a palpable sense of solidarity as we marched to the Capitol.
But what touched me most deeply about the day’s events were the comments delivered by Chas Moore, founder of Austin Justice Coalition, at Huston-Tillotson University before the march officially began. He spoke directly to Black people, affirming their value and reminding them that they are not the problem. But he also spoke directly to white people such as myself, challenging us to look deep within our hearts and ask: What are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve racial justice in America? Are we willing to be honest with ourselves and recognize that we are the ones who have built and maintained a system of white supremacy that is designed to benefit us while causing so much harm to our neighbors? Do we have the courage to fight from within ourselves and our communities to dismantle this system, even if that means relinquishing power? These are challenging questions that penetrate directly to the root of the problem, questions that carry with them the clear moral imperative to act against racial injustice.
Moore is right when he says that marching for racial justice means very little if we are unwilling to first transform ourselves and then fight for practical measures that will lead to true equality. Better than marching is demanding just redistributive measures, even if those measures come at your own expense. Better than chanting slogans is supporting affordable housing, even if doing so depresses your own property value. Better than posting a black square to Instagram is sending your children to public schools, even if you have the means to pay tuition at a fancy private school. (And perhaps those of us with PhDs who are struggling with the current academic job market should be getting certified to teach in the public schools rather than looking to private academies as an alternative to colleges and universities.) I wish I felt more confident that a majority of white Americans have the courage and love of justice to do these things–and much, much more–but listening to Moore call for such courage was deeply stirring nonetheless.
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2020 Micah Robbins