I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest in chains at the Unite the Right Rally. The world knows of the chaos that dominated the headlines on August 12, but most don’t know the full story of the nightmare that occurred on August 11. That was when I thought that I might die.
St. Paul’s Memorial Church held a multi-religious service with inspirational messages from the likes of Dr. Cornel West and Reverend Tracy Blackmon. We spent the night singing traditional hymns, listening to verses from the Quran in Arabic, we watched a Jewish brother and sister sing a song in Hebrew. Never in my life had I seen a rainbow flag in a church while an activist chanted, “Trans lives matter!” It was the definition of unity, an example of what is possible when we put our differences aside.
At the end of the service, things took a turn for the worse. The pastor announced that there were Klansmen outside of the church with torches. “Is the church fireproof? Is there an escape plan? Did you prepare for a situation like this?” These were a few questions that I asked the ushers.
After a tense moment that felt like an eternity, everyone made it out safely through alternate exits and side streets. I’ll never forget someone saying that this is what our ancestors went through. After some time to reflect, it dawned on me that what we experienced was nothing compared to the overt, unapologetic terrorism that black and brown people have been subjected to for centuries.
But the same system of white supremacy that has killed and enslaved tens of millions of innocent people is thriving in 2017. White supremacy manifests itself in different forms. It emboldens Nazis and the Klan to march our streets with tiki torches, assault weapons and riot shields. It allocates funding and creates laws to harden institutions and facilities that systematically put black and brown bodies in cages. It empowers the police to kill unarmed black civilians as people in similar positions have committed similar acts without any serious consequence.
The only reason Charlottesville triggered a national conversation on race was because the overt bigotry and violence was displayed in a way that made white people feel uncomfortable. Yes, the violence was intense, and yes, it was a tragedy that Heather Heyer lost her life that day. Swastikas make most people feel uncomfortable and so do Confederate flags. And apparently this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Not 12-year-old Tamir Rice being murdered for playing with a toy gun. Not Philando Castile being murdered in front of his family after informing an officer that he had a legally registered gun in his glove compartment. Not the laundry list of black and brown people killed by police, or 14 black girls who disappeared in D.C. in a 24-hour span or the fact of 97 percent of cases ending in plea bargains as a result of fear and poverty. No one seems to care that GEO Group, a company who’s in the business of expanding private prisons, made $4 billion in government contracts over the last 10 years and just held a conference at one of Trump’s resorts.
The Ku Klux Klan is not the sole problem; it is also the white moderate, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated. King memorably “reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
Charlottesville made Dr. King’s quote more relevant than ever. Black and brown people are terrorized by a system that is designed to put us in cages, take away our rights, restrict our opportunities and intimidate us into submission. Our daily lives are governed by a system that is inherently more dangerous than anything that happened in Charlottesville due to its ubiquity. This was the case for centuries before the Unite the Right Rally and will continue as long as whites only choose to be outraged when white supremacy reveals itself in a form that is uncomfortable to them.
Sunday, I ran the New York City marathon in chains as a statement. It was a harsh reminder that although most of us are no longer physically in chains, our “unalienable rights” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not guaranteed. In the case of New York City, it is reinforced by how the rules are written and funds allocated, perpetuated through a Eurocentric version of education, and cemented in the existence of racist monuments designated as landmarks. My experience in Charlottesville made it very clear to me that uncomfortable and intense visual statements are necessary to wake people up.
I started a group called Movers & Shakers to embrace an uncomfortable and viscerally jarring form of activism with the technology of tomorrow. We execute direct action and advocacy campaigns for marginalized communities using virtual reality, augmented reality, and the creative arts. Our ultimate goal is to shift how the history books and museums focus on the financial achievements of the oppressors and focus on the pain of the oppressed. In 2017, it would be absurd to consider learning about World War II and the Holocaust from the perspective of the Nazis. So then why do we continue to perpetuate a “discovery narrative” when we read about Columbus’ voyage in 1492? Why is it not common knowledge that the Spanish government put him in jail for his cruelty as governor of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic)? Why is it not common knowledge that 80 to 100 million indigenous people were killed in the Americas as a result of European colonialism?
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
The history of black and brown people has been deliberately erased/altered to justify generations of savage and brutal treatment to savages and brutes. Enough is enough. It is time to reclaim. The first step is to make everyone uncomfortable with the status quo. To that end, Movers & Shakers will host a Slave Auction on November 18 in New York City. We will also be showcasing some of the artwork from our upcoming Augmented Reality Book, “White Supremacy 101: Columbus the Terrorist.” The book features a series of animations and illustrations, and spoken word poetry backed by academically verifiable evidence from sources like Columbus’ Journal tell the true story. We were fortunate enough to partner with people like former vice presidential candidate Rosa Clemente; Glenn Martin, CEO of Just Leadership USA; Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice; and Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York to provide perspective on how the erasure of our history relates to contemporary issues that black and brown people confront on a daily basis. We are advocating for the removal of the name Columbus in New York City monuments, streets and public institutions; an overhaul on the Eurocentric history taught in our schools; and the recognition of Indigenous People’s Day and Juneteenth as national holidays.
We will also feature 360 virtual reality content from the VR Docuseries We the People. We will feature content from the Trump inauguration, Charlottesville and the story of Angie Kearse, a woman whose husband was killed by Schenectady police in May. She is left with seven children to take care of and is looking for concrete answers on why and how her husband was killed.
As a member of Black Lives Matter Greater NYC, I am helping organize a March against Police Brutality in Harlem on Saturday, December 2. We will be releasing our national agenda and I encourage those who can make it to come out.
And lastly, Mayor De Blasio, city council and New York City courts, I urge you to create laws, allocate funding, and make decisions that will remove our chains. Everything from removing the statue at Columbus Circle, to closing Rikers Island, to mandating more affordable housing, to holding the NYPD accountable to a higher standard.
Fellow New Yorkers and Americans, if we put our differences aside and united as we did in St. Paul’s Memorial Church, we will be equipped to dismantle the institution of white supremacy at its foundation. It starts with a willingness to get uncomfortable for the pursuit of justice.