Earlier this year, I was criticized for my support for free speech, with the suggestion made that my white privilege means that the hateful speech of Milo may not personally jeopardize me as it does more marginalized communities. I pushed back at the time, arguing that my white privilege simply obligated me to act when injustice occurs and stand up for those who lack the voice to defend themselves.
What became clear this past month, and certainly in the last week, is that white supremacy knows no such boundary. The men with torch lights were marching with Swastikas against Jews and with the chant of “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us.”
At the same time, my obligations of white privilege came in handy when a friend of mine was suddenly arrested on trumped up charges and beaten by the police in Sacramento. What I lack in material resources, I make up in experience, and I was able to get her a top-notch attorney, he was able to get bail reduced and she was able to be released from jail and home to her young child.
Last week was a reminder of the good and bad of the community of Davis. In response to Charlottesville – itself a college town very similar to our own community – the residents of Davis, more than 500 came out in a support of “unity.” There were fiery speeches from Mayor Robb Davis, Congressman John Garamendi, and Chancellor Gary May.
While Congressman Garamendi delivered a fiery frontal assault on Donald Trump, I found the words of Robb Davis and Kate Mellon-Anibaba most telling.
A decade ago, when I began this, I grew quickly frustrated at the Davis community for turning a blind eye to complaints of racial profiling and disparate treatment of people of color by the Davis Police Department. Many in the community ignored the pleas of people of color and cheered on as the Davis City Council shut down the city’s Human Relations Commission, which was seen as an irritant by raising the issue of police misconduct and pushing for civilian review.
And yet, there was a the community just two years later supporting proudly and by huge margins the nation’s first black president.
There is a disconnect between the seeming indifference that liberal and progressive Davisites take to local issues of race and their response to more national and distant issues such as Charlottesville.
When the speakers were focused on global issues of race, of pushing back against Donald Trump, of the injustice of neo-Nazis running free with torches – the crowd was enthusiastic and engaged. When the topic turned to more local issues like the Picnic Day 5, many were quiet and indifferent.
Mayor Robb Davis related a story in Virginia from 2009 and called it a wake-up call to the fact that hatred still existed in this nation.
He said, for people of color, “these things have never gone away.”
The mayor was able to articulate in a very real way what white privilege is. He lives a good and comfortable life and white privilege gives him the chance to ignore the problems that people of color face on a regular basis.
He said, “All of those things are the basis of a systemic racism that exists in this country and I had the privilege for many years just to ignore it.” He said he’s lived a good life, “but all around me there are people who were experiencing a different reality and they still are.”
The question, he said, is, now that we have woken up, “now what?” He said, “I believe that if we are going to confront these issues, if we’re going to confront differential impacts of the effects of police, if we’re going to confront inequitable funding of schools, if we’re going to confront the school to prison pipeline, then it’s got to be local efforts.”
Kate Mellon-Anibaba drove home a similar point in a different way.
She said in her speech, “In Charlottesville this week we got to see obvious racism, the kind that is so blatant that it alerts all your senses to its pure evil, and makes us sick to our stomachs. The images of white men holding torches, spewing hate and physically hurting people… this is easy to denounce and separate ourselves from…”
She called us “the good white people.” Those who have diverse friendships, people of color for family members, we don’t care what color people are, etc. But she argued, “saying these kinds of things are problematic, it has to STOP.”
We can’t just be good people, but rather “we have an obligation to do work here in this community and surrounding areas.”
These are the lessons I take home on every day basis. I have personally witnessed massive amounts of injustice in the last year and my obligation is to use the voice that I have, and the privilege of safety that I largely live in, and bear witness to that injustice because I have been blessed enough to be granted a bully-pulpit that people will read and respond to even if they don’t agree with me.
I have seen pain like you would not believe, I have held the hands of those who have lost their family members to police violence and to a system that is indifferent to its own inequities and injustices.
In response to the Imam’s comment, Mayor Davis told us that “we live in brittle times.”
He said, “The hurts are deep. Words were spoken that are harmful and hurtful. One statement cannot be enough.”
In June, in the wake of the sentencing of Lauren Kirk-Coehlo, the mayor talked about the fact that “[t]he brokenness of our punitive system was fully on display in the way this was handled.”
He said, “Our criminal justice system is broken and people are afforded rights and privileges based on not just race, class…people who have few means are not afforded the same privilege as those who have more.”
We have seen this first hand. We have seen this in the handling of the Picnic Day 5 prosecution, the actions of the police in their treatment of people of color. I saw this personally with my friend as I saw that, through my intervention, I could make a difference, but then had to wonder how many others lacked the resources and the wherewithal to escape their predicament.
What I have learned this year is that whiteness is not a privilege but rather than obligation – an obligation to make a difference in the lives of other and to use our privilege not to benefit our own selves or to line our own pockets, but rather to bring up justice and mercy to our communities.
—David M. Greenwald reporting