Once, in high school, I was hanging out with two poet friends of mine I had only recently made, both of whom are black. We were eating at a Panera Bread in downtown Chicago, when right outside the window, a police vehicle pulled over an SUV. All the police officers were white, whereas the driver of the SUV and all the passengers were black. The officers made all of the civilians sit down on the curb as they combed the car for at least ten, fifteen minutes. Although we could not hear them from our vantage point, nor could we presume the initial reason for pulling this particular car over (a glimpse of the color of the driver, perhaps?), the police certainly appeared to use an unnecessary amount of effort to get to the bottom of something that was quite possibly founded entirely on conjecture and prejudice.
One of my friends began to record the incident on his phone, prompting one of the police officers—who was not only white, but also a man—to enter the establishment and demand that he erase the video. My friend refused, and my other friend joined in the argument, which escalated quickly, as things often do when white cops get mad at black people. It's been a few years now since this occurrence, so I don't remember everything too clearly at this point, but I do seem to recall the police officer trying to take my friend's phone and another officer coming into the Panera to back up the first guy. I don't remember how the issue resolved itself in the end but it eventually did, probably with my friend deleting the file from his device, or at least pretending to do. I also remember my friends stopping a black cop on the street a few minutes later to ask if it was, in fact, illegal to record police business, thinking the answer might be different coming from him instead. At the time, it was illegal to do so, but that law has since been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Throughout the whole, suddenly intense episode, I sat quietly. I kept to myself. I didn't really know why my friends were so upset over some SUV but from their fervor I believed that they were in the right and I supported them—but only so far, of course, that it didn't put me at risk. When the cop was on our side of the glass, I shut up.
Last week, during the Chicago protests against the dehumanizing decision reached in Ferguson regarding the murderer of Michael Brown, my same friend, Malcolm London, was roughly detained by Chicago Police while he was simply jogging across a street. I should mention that Malcolm has enjoyed widespread success on account of his socially conscious poetry in the years since I've known him: he's performed internationally and has even done his own TED Talk. But when his dark skin streaked across a street at night, the police were blind to any of his accomplishments, to any of the wonderful and mundane things that make him a charismatic, passionate, flawed human being. Instead, they threw him against a car, they twisted his arms painfully behind his back, they went through his things, they took a photo of his identification, they laughed at his carefully articulated evocations of his rights, and they told him they did not care about black lives.
Politically speaking, as a white person, I benefit from the subjugation of people of color. This is what privilege is. Privilege is having grown up feeling comforted by the presence of law enforcement, is people telling me that I am worthy and should follow my dreams, is getting a job, is going to college, is coming from a family that loves me. Although I suffered a significant drop in privilege with the advent of my transgender identity, my whiteness nevertheless renders me safer and more capable in many arenas in my life than a person of color would be, especially a transgender person of color.
However, having seen the utter disregard for the transgender community on behalf of nearly everyone else, even (particularly?) the same gay community that shares our acronym, and having felt that deep rage when other human beings have refused to recognize me or my community as human beings, only aberrations, I could not in good conscience sit idly while a minority group—even if it is not my own—endured an atrocity of a “trial” that emblematized the systematic oppressions they face every day.
Therefore, following both the grave injustice wrought in Ferguson as well as the one that slammed my friend hard into a police car, I felt a determination to act, to not only advocate with my blog, but also with my body. I did not want to be left behind as a bystander once more, which is why when I saw Malcolm's tweet about a protest the following morning, I decided to go to City Hall.