An Open Letter to ‘Pittsburgh I Can’t Breathe’

Anonymous submission received on 07.14.20


Fred Hampton said that we fight racism with solidarity, and it is in the spirit of solidarity that I write this message. I write this as a person who has been doing organizing and activism for racial and economic justice for nearly 20 years. I write this as someone who will continue to do that work, to fight for marginalized communities against the forces trying to keep us marginalized. I write this as someone who wants to see our movements continue to grow, for struggle to spread, for the racist systems controlling us to fall. I hope that, in this spirit of solidarity and struggle, this message will be taken constructively, as that is how it is meant.

At the various protests happening in Pittsburgh over the past months, I have seen powerful testaments to the anger felt by many in the Black community. This anger is clearly justified, and I am glad there is finally a consistent, public outlet for it. Audre Lorde said, in her brilliant piece The Uses of Anger, “anger between peers births change.” “Between peers,” I will repeat.

In my past years of organizing, one thing that has become clear to me is that, if we want a movement to grow, it can only do so by empowering its participants. It does this by making space for autonomy and solidarity, solidarity between peers, as it is only between peers that solidarity can truly be built.

But too often I have seen a relationship between organizers and participants of these actions that is not one of peerhood. I have seen, rather than the spreading of empowerment, the spreading of shame, of guilt, of people talking down to each other, not as peers at all. I have seen fellow people in the streets talked to as though they are incompetent and ill-meaning, from being corrected on the proper way to raise their fist in solidarity, to a white person being told they are racist simply for wanting to speak, to show their solidarity.

White supremacy is a system which ultimately benefits the powerful by maintaining divides among the powerless, divides based on false narratives and superstitions. Some of us are manipulated with the carrot of privilege, and others with the stick of the police baton. If we do not overcome these manipulations, we will only ever be fighting for table scraps. It is for this reason that when the powerless organize we need to walk the tightrope of neither pretending that differential treatment doesn’t exist (through some “colorblind” approach), or by reproducing those same divisions within our own movements. If we want this to be about more than changing the way corporate PR campaigns are run for a few years, we need to empower people by overcoming the very divisions that keep all of us too weak to be a threat. Being made to feel guilty simply for existing is not a recipe for solidarity. Audre Lorde said in that same essay “All too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness, destructive of communication.” Only empowered people are willing and able to stand up to the police, to take the actions necessary to combat racism, to go on the offensive and to communicate with each other constructively.

People who are ashamed of themselves, who feel guilt and condescension, will not be willing to continue this struggle for the long term, and it is a long struggle we face, and have been facing. Despite my years of doing this, I am well aware that there are people who have been fighting this fight for far longer. I have continued in this fight for this long only because of the empowerment it makes me feel, and the empowerment that has been spread to the communities I care about.

But guilt-tripping participants is anything but empowering. “I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own,” Lorde continued, “Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees.”

Clear choices do indeed need to be made, and I choose to feed the earth and bend the trees together with all of you. My hope is that I will find many other empowered people in the streets with us. Not people cowed by shame and guilt, but ready and willing to lift each other up, as peers, to continue this struggle for as long as necessary.

In solidarity,
a friend


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