Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.

— James A. Baldwin

Last night’s announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown left few if any black folks surprised. We knew better. We’ve seen this play out time and time again. If only that meant it would hurt less.

Let’s be clear: It will never be an easy thing to hear that no one will be held accountable for the shooting death of an unarmed person. It will especially not be easy when the unarmed person is young and black and his shooter is an officer of the law. If you need any understanding of why that is, a cursory look into U.S. history should give you some ideas. These incidents happen far more frequently than you realize, and their specters continue to linger in the psyches of black Americans. It’s disconcerting to know that it simply won’t matter to some people how many degrees you have, how many people respect you, or whether or not you have a family who loves you. To some,  you’re a threat — and despite the fact that your pants are pulled up and your diction is perfect, there is nothing you can do to change that.

Credit: Luvvie Ajaye
Credit: Luvvie Ajaye

With that said, I have a request for those who never have to think about these things, but are now all too quick to call for “calm,” particularly in the name of Jesus: Shut up.

Just. Stop. Talking.

I share with you the concern that no more people are hurt or harmed in the wake of this announcement. I, too, want nothing more than for the cries for justice to not have to share airtime with hurling bricks and incinerated cars. But calling for “calm” and “peace” is a cop-out. Why? Because those are things that are to be worked for. Those are things that cannot come about unless they are pursued. They don’t just magically appear out of thin air. You can’t expect that people will be free of their own personal psychological hell just because you said so.

When you call for “peace,” what you may actually be saying is, “Ignore how angry this makes you. Ignore how injurious this is to your psyche. Ignore how this makes you feel.” Where is the space for both you and them to acknowledge the pain and the re-opened wounds that are results of this? Why offer words when you could offer a shoulder? The community of Ferguson has been over-policed for months, so the last thing they need from any of us is the policing of their feelings.

I want Christians to [re]discover the art of sitting shiva. I want you to take, if not a week, some significant time to just sit with your brothers and sisters who mourn. Don’t preach at them. Don’t condescend to them. Don’t say much of anything. Do listen. Do be with them in their grief. Don’t try to talk them out of it, or cowardly avoid it. Be in it.

Especially if, after last night’s announcement, you didn’t find yourself lingering over your children as you put them to bed, wondering what you need to teach them so that they’re not killed for being threatening.

Especially if, after the announcement, you couldn’t play back in your mind the times you were stopped unjustly by law enforcement.

Especially if last night’s announcement didn’t open up old wounds for you.

Just sit down and shut up.

Then get up and maybe flip a few tables, à la the Prince of Peace himself. Make the peace  you so desperately want to appear.

14 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down

  1. I understand that my limited exposure to American police violence makes me less credible in your eyes, although I do have plenty of exposure to African American violence from my time as a resident of Jackson, MS. For the record, I am white, since race seems to matter a lot.
    To that extent I wonder what those who protest this decision not to indict have against the verdict. Look at the evidence. What is there to prove that mr. Brown was a poor innocent bystander who got shot for being black? What exactly should a jury do when faced with consistent eye-witness and forensic evidence?

    Come now. Get off the race talk and simply come to terms with the evidence. Mr. Brown was killed because, according to the evidence, he threatened and attacked a police officer. That should be the real outrage here. It is a tragedy that he died but, according to the evidence, he brought it on himself.

  2. No, I got your point. I just didn’t agree with it.

    Like you asked, I am not calling for “peace”, especially on the name of Jesus…although I think that would work. I am not

    I just don’t understand how anything is helped by people feeling outrage and anger and despair over something that is clearly not about race but about evidence. My message is not one of “peace” or “calm down” but “What is there to be angry about when the evidence is clear that Mr. Brown did this to himself?” My message is that the truth will set people free. There is no need to be up in arms about this when the evidence points in another direction.
    It makes those who are angry now look ridiculous and simply looting thugs.

    You wrote “You can’t expect that people will be free of their own personal psychological hell just because you said so.”…but isn’t that exactly what the truth does? Doesn’t it liberate people from the hate and anger to hear that the police officer didn’t shoot mr. Brown because he was black? Shouldn’t it encourage people to stop looting and torching buildings?
    I can understand anger and rage in the face of gross injustice. However, at this point I don’t see any injustice (except perhaps the image of hyper-militarized police and those cases of over-reactions by the police in the face of an angry mob, but the mob is angry over the non-indictment, as far as I know).

    Why are people angry and experiencing the own personal hell because of mr. Brown assaulting a police officer?
    Unfortunately, I can’t “sit and offer a shoulder” due to distance but to be honest I would be too afraid to do so now since I am of the wrong color and race seems to be more important than the truth.

    1. Since you want to talk about truth, the truth remains that, despite the fact that he wasn’t armed he was still a perceived threat, which legally gave Officer Wilson the right to use deadly force. The truth is, if he did land a punch, which the more credible eye witness accounts refute, that police have taken down people who have assaulted them with much less force and made arrests, which raises questions among many about Officer Wilson’s resorts. The truth also remains that black and brown people are policed very differently across the country, which has been validated by a number of studies.

      Of course this is not about race to you. I wouldn’t expect it to be. And I believe that the grand jury made the only available assessment it could based on what they had. But you need to understand that you and I live in completely different worlds, and that for many of us this is indicative of a system that has shaped what is truth for us. The truth of being regularly stopped by cops for no apparent reason. The truth of being handed down harsher punishments in schools than our white classmates. The truth of not receiving medical treatment that is as comprehensive as our white brethren. These things exist. They have been studied. They have been documented. They are our truth.

      What I offer to you is an understanding of that truth and an admonition to not try to wash it away simply because you don’t share it. You have two options: sit with me (even if you disagree), or quiet yourself. If you’re “too afraid” to sit, the latter option is available to you.

  3. I will sit with you. I will call out for peace. This one incident is a tragedy and he is someone’s baby and always will be. There’s so much more though. There’s so much division and hate. It’s 2014 and as a society it shouldn’t be this way; we should be better. I fear the dark hearts of many men and women from every race will continue to spread hatred and violence. I will sit with you for peace. Peace for all.

    1. Amanda, you are right. There is so much more. But your sitting brings about healing in such a more powerful way than even talking can sometimes. We’ll continue the work of peace-building together!

  4. Thank you so much Sis for your grace (even under fire and ignorance..!)

    I feel akin to you because as a Muslim woman, human rights advocate, I wrote almost the exact blog, posted today on FeminismandReligion.com

    The spirit to both address injustice and advocate for peace and love will surely be challenged, because the privilege of ignoring injustice leads some to pretend it does not exist. Or if it exist it is some how appropriate.

    I just wanted to give a shout out to you in the struggle.

    Well done!

    Dr. amina wadud

  5. This was convicting for me — thank you for speaking this truth. I hear you, and I want to keep listening. I sit with you, and my heart cries for justice and for a very different world.

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