Will there ever be a right way for black people to protest in America?


It happened again on Tuesday.

Yet another black life was lost at the hands of police. This time, it was Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man with mental disabilities who police killed in California. Not to be confused with Oscar Grant. Or Rekia Boyd. Or Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Or Sandra Bland. Or Tamir Rice. Or Jonathan Ferrell. Or Walter Scott. Or Eric Garner. Or Alton Sterling.

The El Cajon Police Department received reports that Olango was acting unusual while walking into traffic. In a statement that included a photo to validate their claims, police said he pulled out an object from his pocket, clasped his hands together, and approached an officer while in a shooting stance.

Olango was reportedly the 217th black American to be killed by police in 2016.

To call incidents like this “frequent” would be downplaying their significance; two other recent police-involved killings of people of color underscore how dangerous it is to be black in America. Police fatally shot Keith Lamott Scott last week, and several days before that, Terence Crutcher. Both were unarmed.

To call incidents like this “frequent” would be downplaying their significance.

Rarely is justice served in such incidents. This is what San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is protesting when he refuses to stand for the national anthem before games: America sees black life as disposable, and shrugs when it’s taken for no good reason. Although many people applauded Kaepernick’s fearlessness, many also condemned him (the athlete said he’s even received death threats). Such outrage over Kaepernick’s protests—his constitutional right—is a symptom of a larger problem: Black people are criticized for protesting inequality, no matter the nature of their protests.

This has been the reality for us ever since we were brought to America four centuries ago, against our will, to build this country from the ground up. We endured torture, abuse, rape, and murder in a place where our destruction was not only expected and normalized, but institutionalized. So in order to survive, we act; we rebel; we mobilize; we protest. But our methods are always met with resistance and condemnation from a society that’s still ruled by white supremacy.

For instance, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 to fight racism and protect the rights of African Americans, has been widely criticized for only focusing on the oppression of black people and not other marginalized groups.

Later, the Civil Rights Movement aimed to end segregation and discrimination in America through nonviolent methods, such as protests, sit-ins, and marches. Although it used peaceful strategies to advocate for equality (much like Kaepernick’s protests), the movement was countered with violence: Schools and churches were bombed, protesters were arrested, and its most vocal leaders were assassinated.

Today, there’s similar hostility towards the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Founded in 2012 by three black womenAlicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse CullorsBLM also uses peaceful tactics to combat racism. But despite its nonviolent approach, Black Lives Matter is often portrayed as a hate group, and protesters have been confronted by SWAT teams and tear gas. Detractors also try to distract from BLM’s message by asking why it “ignores” black-on-black violence, and insisting that “all lives matter.”

We push through each day, haunted by the fact that the next one could be our last.

We’re not allowed to kneel like Kaepernick, they say. We can’t wear t-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter like WNBA players did before games, they say. We shouldn’t protest after one of our own is shot dead in the streets, they say.

Instead, we’re punished for speaking out, told to stay quiet about our suffering, and responsible for dismantling a system that brutalizes our bodies while simultaneously profiting from them. And so, we push through each day, haunted by the fact that the next one could be our last.

There will never be a correct way for black people to contest our deplorable treatment in America, but we must do so to find justice for Renisha McBride. And Amadou Diallo. And Eric Harris. And Akai Gurley. And Mike Brown. And Trayvon Martin. And Korryn Gaines. And all of the other lives that will be lost if we remain silent.

Candace McDuffie’s work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Metro, The Huffington Post, Revelist, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, a nonprofit writing center in Downtown Boston.

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