Watching While Black
The power every person has—of every race—to make a difference
As I write this, it is still the first week of September in 2019. I live and work in San Francisco, CA, thought to be one of the most tolerant cities in the United States.
I have been a descendant of enslaved Africans in America all my life, and of course I know there has been progress since 1865—even since 1965.
Yet in what is considered one of the most tolerant, enlightened, and liberal cities in the United States, I have twice this week seen police twitching their batons and putting their hands on their guns as they swoop down and corral Black citizens in the city for traffic stops. The average number: four officers for every Black person involved. None of the Black citizens were armed and were supposed to stay calm and remember all the necessary steps to stay alive—keep hands visible, talk in a respectful tone, be compliant—when faced with four guns and batons per person, and nervous officers fiddling around with said weapons.
(Is the average Black person really that scary, that four heavily armed men still can't feel secure without feeling on their weapons?)
I cannot completely describe to you the stress of daily fearing that myself and those I love are going to be on the wrong end of four guns and batons apiece for something minor, something minor that may—or may not—even be a real police matter. In San Francisco, a White woman recently called the police on a little Black girl selling bottled water.
There was a time period, just a few years back, when these kinds of encounters ended in death about once every nine days for the Black person on that wrong end.
Yet I want to write to you that everyone walked away alive from each of these two incidents, and write about what I believe was a major contributing factor: citizens who stopped what they were doing, and kept a watch on what happened. I watched. Others watched. Some watched from when they arrived to the end. Others shared a portion of the watch. Black people took up the load of the watch, and others of every race in the area also stepped up and watched.
Everyone walked away alive, those in custody and those taking custody. Bear in mind: it was not too long ago that, every nine days, the Black person in custody did not survive. In San Francisco this week, two incidents that were well watched ended well in terms of lives not being lost.
Here is my takeaway: there is still something to be said for being present and bearing witness, to give hope to those who, in the face of the potential of deadly violence against them, to know they are not alone, a knowledge that might help in staying calm and doing what can be done on that side of the encounter to stay alive. On the side of those who have the choice to do the deadly violence, it allows them to know that there is and will be accountability for their actions, and encourages the right choice of de-escalating the situation.
I am not someone who has her hands around the levers of institutional power in the United States. I'm just one Black woman, former professional journalist, with two good eyes, a phone, and decent writing ability. I watch, and I report. It is what I can do.
If there is anything I have learned under the present political administration, it is the necessity of watching. As my more conservative friends are fond of saying, government is not the answer on this one. Indeed. The present administration has eviscerated Justice Department oversight of police departments, and takes a very weak view on civil rights enforcement. So, no point in expecting much help from there.
Yet I have two eyes, and my phone. It would be nice to know there is oversight after the fact and also necessary to take the necessary political steps to ensure that day will come again… yet I have my two eyes, and a phone, every day.
I do not expect that being a Black person in the United States will be significantly different in the second week of September 2019 than it is in the first. I wonder what I will observe, and watch, today, and who will watch with me. I hope there is nothing for me to have to watch.
Yet I recognize the power of my presence, bearing witness. A sister has to do what she has to do.
All those that stand watch with me in this country are appreciated, and welcomed, and strongly encouraged to continue.