Like many people I know, I’ve been consumed with the news coming out of Ferguson, MO over the past few weeks. It’s hard to look away when a Black child is killed in the streets and all signs point to the police officer responsible for his death getting away with it. Add to that a city under siege for exercising its right to assembly, and this is perhaps the biggest news story of the year on American soil. It demands our attention.
And not just our attention, our outrage. Our support. It demands that we show up and let the family of Michael Brown and the community that held him dear know that they are not alone. It demands that we show other Black children that, yes, their lives do matter. We do care.
But if I can confess something: it’s really hard to keep doing that.
At any given moment, the number of injustices that could similarly demand our attention are too many to count. And for all of us committed to certain ideas around justice/freedom/equality and ensuring we live in a world that reflects those principles, there exists a desire to join the fight wherever it lives. But it’s draining.
I’ve attended a couple rallies/marches in support of Michael Brown, and each time I’ve found I couldn’t fully participate. Every time the chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” overtakes the crowd, I’ve gotten quiet. There’s something unsettling about knowing that won’t save me.
Moreover, we have been here before. Undoubtedly, we will be here again.
“It’s OK to sit one out.”
I emailed someone whose presence during this time had made it possible for me to find some semblance of strength and be able to show up. She thanked me for saying that, but added, “…it’s also ok to be weak. It’s ok to sit one out. It’s ok for it to hurt and to pause before you jump into the fray.”
It’s easy to lose sight of that. The level of injustice we face makes us have to jump from tragedy to tragedy, hoping to finally uncover some truth of our humanity to the people who still refuse to believe us. We want so desperately for each one to be a turning point, the one where the injustice becomes so apparent everyone gets on the same page and is ready for it to end. We have to believe that moment exists somewhere or else it all becomes pointless.
But getting there, walking through so much death and dehumanization, fear and repression, tear gas and armored cars, takes its toll. Particularly when an issue feels so deeply personal.
“Self care” is something so many of us preach but find difficult to practice. I feel guilty tuning out and watching “The Avengers” for the 100th time while people I know are gearing up to ride down to Ferguson and engage in some real community building.
But… it’s OK to sit one out.
Not that I have. I’ve written about this, attended the aforementioned rallies, done radio/TV that has consisted of yelling at people who refuse to see Michael Brown’s humanity. And it took those pauses, those moments of reflection and weakness and tears, to get to the point of feeling up to any of that. This one hurts in a way I’m not sure how to deal with.
So it’s as good of a time as any to remind writers and activists who feel similarly fatigued — it’s OK. You are allowed to take a step back. You’re allowed to catch your breath. You’re allowed to take care of yourself.
Because while we’ll always need people on the front lines, if the same people keep showing up over and over again, never taking any time for their own rejuvenation, they will wither away. It’s a courageous thing to be a martyr for the cause, but who will be the brave souls who survive and build the next world that we want to see?
“I got you. OK?”
That’s how my friend’s email ended. I’ve said that countless times, “I got you.” Here, it was more than reassuring. It reflected a political reality. We have to show up for one another and also allow people their time. We have to care for one another, wholly. I should also note that this message came from a Black woman and served as a reminder that Black woman are constantly and consistently showing up for Black men, and it’s time Black men did the same in return. They need their time to step away from the front lines, too.
We are in for a long fight. The systems of oppression are deeply entrenched and many people are heavily invested in their maintenance. There will always be a fight somewhere that requires our sacrifice.
It’s OK to sit one out.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.