White People: Stop Saying We Need Dialogue
Politicians: Stop saying we need dialogue. We don’t need dialogue. We need the state to stop murdering people.
— Bree Newsome (@BreeNewsome) September 24, 2016
The tweet by Bree Newsome came as people around the country, but especially Black people, were struggling to come to terms with the recent shootings of Black men in Tulsa and Charlotte.
The tweet brought me up short. I’ve always thought dialogue was a good thing.
Newsome is an artist and musician best known for climbing the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse to take down the Confederate battle flag, days after nine people were gunned down at a Charleston church in June 2015. She was arrested, but just two weeks later, the flag was permanently removed by vote of the state Legislature. Actions sometimes speak louder than words.
I thought about what she said. If Newsome doesn’t want dialogue, then what does she want?
Her answer was clear: Stop killing us.
Which raises a more difficult question: Who has the power to do that?
Police in the United States work for us; they are accountable to the government officials we elect, and our taxes pay their salaries. So we have the power. It’s our job to stop the killing.
Maybe calling for dialogue is a cop-out. We White folks can nod sympathetically as Black and Brown neighbors share their pain (again) and relive the trauma, violence, and humiliations that are part of everyday life in a White-majority society. Then we can go back to life as usual—life that is less prone to violence and trauma because of our relative wealth and because we often live in safer neighborhoods. And we can conveniently ignore the historic reasons White people have, on average, more wealth and live in safer neighborhoods.
What if we stopped being so easy on ourselves? What if, instead of categorizing police violence against Black people as their issue, we recognize that it is ours?
It sounds daunting. What are the right policy solutions?
What if, instead of categorizing police violence against Black people as their issue, we recognize that it is ours?
Fortunately, a collaboration of 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people has already laid out a policy agenda. The Movement for Black Lives’ agenda was released earlier this year after months of work. The agenda sets high-level aspirations, like “end the war on Black people” and “community control.” But it also includes specific policies, examples of successful actions, links to articles, and model legislation.
The good news is that many of these policies can be enacted where we live, via our state and local governments and local school systems.
Sure, there are federal policies that need to change. As the agenda points out, for example, the federal government should not be supplying military equipment to police departments.
Still, many of the laws, policies, and practices that contribute to the brutalization of Black people, including Black youth, are established locally. Among the proposals in the Movement for Black Lives’ agenda: Stop mass surveillance in Black neighborhoods. End school policies that emphasize suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, and instead institute restorative justice practices. Discourage arrests of youth for misdemeanors. These policies would reduce the number of people behind bars, according to the vision statement, and especially help those made most vulnerable by incarceration: undocumented and LGBTQ people.
At the local level these changes are within reach. A good starting point is to read and share the Movement for Black Lives platform and check in with communities of color where you live. Eventually, as we have local successes, we embolden national politicians to follow our example.
Those who work with trauma survivors often speak of the importance of respecting their right to set boundaries and to determine what they need to be safe and to move forward. After centuries of trauma, it’s time for more than dialogue. It’s time for White people not only to listen to Black people, but also to be part of the solutions as Black people define them.
So let’s take Newsome’s advice and quit calling for dialogue (or “understanding” or even “forgiveness”). White folks need to join in with more than retweets and silent complicity. We need to act to stop the killing.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.