Restricted to our homes and already exhausted by the effects of COVID-19 on our lives, many of us watched as Black Americans demanded recognition of their humanity and justice for the lives that have been stolen by law enforcement. It raised questions about race and racism in The Bahamas — a topic we do not often discuss and people try to quickly shut down.
Young people on social media discussed racism in The Bahamas last weekend. Some said they do not believe racism exists here. Others argued it does exist and gave examples from recent history. There were some who took offence to the history lesson and the helpful context brought to the conversation, likely thinking they were being painted as complicit.
In some ways, we can be complicit in the oppression of other people, including those who are a part of our own communities. This happens quite easily because racism is institutionalized, much like gender, homophobia, xenophobia and many other forms of oppression are built into systems and organizations and become a requirement of participants. It is the reason a school, in a majority black country, can be majority white. It is the reason police brutality, vile in any instance, disproportionately affects black people. It is the reason resorts make it uncomfortable for Black Bahamians to be on property unless they are there to work.
The protests taking place in the US are necessary. People have been murdered at the hands of police at an alarming rate, many on camera. These police officers are rarely stripped of their badges. They are shuffled around like lousy ministers in a cabinet. They do not spend time in prison for the heinous acts of violence they perpetrate against innocent black people. They act with impunity, knowing there is no consequence for them to face because their power is greater.
Racism in Central Park
The video of Amy Cooper threatening a black man in Central Park in New York has gone viral and forced the world to look at the power one white woman has against a black man who has done nothing to her. We heard her tell him that she would specifically tell the police he was African American. We saw her call the police and tell them exactly that. When, presumably, they did not respond the way she expected, she went into performance mode and forced her dog to signal distress by strangling it with the leash. She suddenly sounded hysterical, repeating that an African American was present and she needed help. She knew it was that simple. She could have that man executed on the spot because she is white and he is black, and the police have no difficulty deciding he was guilty of something and not worthy of the opportunity for a fair trial.
Christian Cooper could have been a hashtag and he knew it. That is why he recorded it and that is why we have evidence of white privilege, racism and the difference in policing for white people and black people.
Last week Monday, George Floyd was brutally murdered by a police officer with the assistance of three others. He was pinned down and a police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The officer asphyxiated Floyd. This sparked outrage in Minneapolis and across the US where people are protesting.
Breonna Taylor was killed by police in Kentucky on March 13. Officers entered her home without identifying themselves. Her boyfriend, in fear for his life, fired shots from a licenced firearm. The police shot Taylor at least eight times. The murder of Floyd has reminded people of the murder of Taylor which was overshadowed by the COVID-19 crisis, but is also indicative of the disparity in attention to the murders of men and women at the hands of police.
Grief, anger and instigators
There is reason to be enraged. There is reason to protest. There is no reason to be silent. Some have said they are seen as dead or expendable anyway, so they would rather be in the street, agitating for change, than doing nothing at all. There is unfair criticism of the ongoing protests, largely from people who have never experienced racism, are not black, do not live in the US and have very little understanding of racism or, more specifically institutionalized racism which builds bias based on race into systems and the people operating them like law enforcement.
There have been numerous calls for peaceful protest. This is absurd for many reasons. The two (disparate) reasons that come to mind are:
1 The protests are peaceful.
2 It is ludicrous to call for a peaceful response to continuous murder of black people. It is not that violence is the answer, but that black people are regularly asked to exercise a restraint that is not required of people in positions of power. Calls for peaceful protest should not come without calls to end the senseless murder of black people.
You may see images of burning buildings, people looting and even people throwing objects at police officers. The protesters are being harshly judged without consideration to the context and the missing information. People on the ground are reporting that the destruction of property is being done by people who are being paid to create chaos. There are multiple videos showing black people telling white people to stop damaging property. In one video, a black woman gives a brick back to a group of white people in a car. She angrily tells them they should not be driving around giving bricks to young black people because they know what would happen if they are even seen carrying a brick.
These actions are meant to incite violence and the put lives in danger. Some see through it and refuse to participate or call them out, but some people take the bait. It is difficult to see what you would do when you are grieving lives stolen by murders, expressing rage at the callous response to those murders and fearing for your own life as you do what is necessary — naming the acts of violence and the systems that support it and calling for justice and changes to law enforcements systems, equipment and officers.
Even as black people work to make the change that would save their lives, people are trying to get them killed. They are giving out bricks, vandalizing buildings, looting businesses and getting into crowds and throwing things at police. They are creating dangerous environments for people who are protesting. They are giving people something to talk about when they call for “peaceful protests”. The people out there are fighting a difficult battle and it is an insult to insist they are peaceful in the face of danger. It is even more insulting to quote and misquote people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a way to control people. King talked about peace, but he talked about riots too. He talked about when they are used. To be clear, we are not seeing black-led riots. Not yet. We are seeing chaos around a protest that has been infiltrated by people with different motives.
Preparing children for hate
If you know black people living in the US you probably know they have to have conversations about race with their children at an early age. They tell them some people will hate them because of their race and some people will treat them differently or automatically suspect them of wrongdoing. They have to make sure their children know how to behave when they are addressed by a police officer. They teach them to not only be respectful, but to be reverent, to acquiesce, to be slow in their movements, to keep their hands away from bags or pockets and to speak loudly enough to be heard, but not to be confrontational.
Pro-black anti-racist white people are having conversations with their children about race too. They tell them they have privilege and they need to use it to protect black people. They show them the importance of pulling over when a black person is pulled over by police, to watch and make sure the person is not harmed. They tell them what to say when they are walking with a black friend and they are stopped by police. They tell them their role at a protest is amplify, protect and deescalate.
By now, you are probably wondering what this has to do with us in The Bahamas. Aside from the fact that many of us are raising children to become citizens of other countries where they will be minorities, we face issues of race every day. We like to pretend racism does not exist here and that is a lie and a useless — even harmful — narrative. It shows up in various ways. Look at the way young black men are treated by police. I have heard police talk about their duty to chase them out of the downtown area because they believe they do not belong there. Look at the way neighbourhoods are formed. Who lives in them? Who is kept out?
Security guards do not have to be white to uphold racist policies. They are trained to see certain people as threats, not only to people’s safety, but to their comfort. Many of us have learned to see the world in the same way and it is up to us to change that.
Pay attention to what is happening in the US. Ask yourself why this is the action being taken — by black people, by white people, by police officers, by the state, by the White House. People are coming together in different cities and all over the world to protest police brutality, murder, racism and militarization of police. Think about what you can do to help. Imagine getting to the place where Bahamians are able to organize ourselves to protest in large numbers, across islands, to achieve a common goal. How would you show up? In the street? On social media to amplify the voices of people out there? Volunteering as a medic, donating water, or recording videos as evidence of what is actually taking place? Donating to mutual aid funds? Giving someone a brick?
Think about where you would stand and why. The Burma Road Riot was not so long ago that we can’t talk to people who were there. It started with rage, addressed an issue of unequal pay and racism and saw success beyond the immediate issue.
Yes, rage can turn a protest into a riot, but people are more important than property. Black lives matter.