7 juni 2020

From Rodney King to #BlackLivesMatter and my own journey

Is there anyone here who still remembers ‘’Rodney King’’? Los Angeles, 1992, riots, mass demonstrations everywhere.

I was a student at UC Berkeley at the time. A white privileged kid from Europe which had arrived to the USA as the land of opportunity.

‘’Rodney King’’ changed me, and my life, it shook me to the core of my foundations. The injustice, the pain in the community. The harsh reality which proves so different for one set of people who essentially co-existed in the USA next to each other in different bubbles according to their background and the color of their skin.

I was in tears, shattered, for days on end, attended every protest from Lafayette Park to Campus to Telegraph Avenue and felt a great sense of shame on behalf of all my white peeps to all my friends of color. But the fact that we went together to these protests and held hands was both a source of great humility and great strength at the same time. A sense that there is a future of ‘’one race’’ somewhere out there… But it surely hasn't arrived yet, as the mass turnouts of BLM today again prove.

Rodney King changed me profoundly. I could never look at America as just the land of opportunity. It took me on a journey, both literally and mentally,

In the literal sense it took me on a physical journey into black America. Oakland California instead of Haight Ashbury San Francisco, and into the deep American south and to the blackest of black neighborhoods of NYC, Washington DC, Philly etc . This was the time that Harlem wasn't gentrified yet but boarded up block after block after block after block.

In my mental journey I read up on many of the basic books every white person should read, Malcom X, James Baldwin, Cornel West, etc. My identification with those who are oppressed reaching back to my formative United World College years. But also the intersectionality of all discrimination in the light of my earlier gay activism before UC Berkeley. Being a ‘’European’’ in the USA proved an advantage to make connections in the communities of color, which connections also in turn very much helped in that mental journey.

Atlanta was especially harsh. Confrontational. My white skin being asked by my black friends to help them get a friend of theirs released who the police had just taken into custody for what essentially was just a traffic offence. But obviously the color of his skin was his real crime. Where even the Atlanta gay community was so divided that after the pride-parade the two communities parted by colorlines and went their own separate ways, living and celebrating apart as in completely separate planets. And then there was the trailerparks, a shootout at ‘’The Marquette’’, and all that. I was on a deep dive into another world.

At the same time Atlanta was warm and enveloping, the strength and fierceness of the underground community almost addictive: The ‘’battles’’ between the ‘’houses’’ - I especially remember the house of Chanel very vividly- catwalks in the clubs, energy and cheerfulness, ecclectic and electric. Vogue is now often seen as a form of ‘’drag’’ or but it was always much more than that. These ‘’houses’’ where just as much communities-of-care for kids in such incredible vulnerable positions, being both black and within the black community often ostracized for being gay. A double whammy with them simply at the receiving end.

And if I asked at these venues ‘’why am I the only white guy here’’ they would answer ’’ I dont know...it's not they are not welcome’’ But I quickly learned: Many white Americans do not want to cross that racial line, fixated in pre-conceived notions ingrained by 400 years of history.

And don't get me wrong, I get it too that sometimes there is simply no place for me to be in the communities of color. In order to gain strength, to reach out, communities need to strengthen themselves, on their own. Without white folks, however well meaning, getting in their way.

And yes, I have many black friends. The funny thing is, it hardly registers nor dawns on me anymore. Because they are not ‘’black’’, they are persons, individuals. They are Dwain, Reggie, Shawn or Patricia. People are like diamonds, made up of so many facets which can shine in so many ways. But I do acknowledge their extra extraordinary obstacles for them to come to the same place that I am at. Which is why the best I can do is to use my white privilege to help turn chances for those who with less privilege.

It is not my pain. But I can surely feel that pain. For it is all our pain. And it is high time we as collective and as individuals do something about it. That time to act is any time and every time. It was in 1992, and it is now. I am simply humbled that here in the Kzone neigborhood, in Amsterdam Southeast, i can at least try to help make a little difference through Hart Voor de Kbuurt.

In this journey I have had the honour, again the privilege, to meet some of the most amazing people who have helped shape this struggle, from Nelson Mandela to Maya Angelou, but just as well working with people in crackhouses in boarded up Brooklyn. It is hard to get more to the bottom of society than that. All are an amazing source of inspiration of much what I do today.

Will these current BLM protests of today now finally prove to be the turning point? I am not sure. Many people felt likewise in 1992. But we are up against such cultural, economically and structurally engrained issues that this will not change with a magic wand overnight. Education, activism, powerstructures, it is all in the mix and will need to stay in the mix with which we address this every day and with every action.We cannot stay silent. Speaking out is a first step, but not enough. Real change must occur. For that we must take action. Any time and every time such opportunity arises.

Even if George Floyd is not THE turning point, it will certainly help seed a whole new generation to carry the torch forward until such time has finally come. Just like ‘’Rodney King’’ changed my life.