On Saturday, March 9, New York City police officers shot and killed 16-year-old Kimani Gray in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. After those seven bullets hit him, he lay on the ground and cried out, “Please don’t let me die.”
Please don’t let me die.
It may be one of the most human things I’ve ever heard, and it makes me want to cry. When I read it I felt like I had said it myself a thousand times before, and had heard the same vulnerability in the words and actions of other people in my life time and time again. It was also the most obvious thing for him to say. The officers shot him seven times — three times in the back. And then, yes, they let him die.
It reminds me of what I felt after the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis in September of 2011. I remember that day well. I remember the rally held at Union Square, and the feeling that it was one of the most real political moments I’ve ever experienced — with the deepest hurt and the rawest anger mingling together in a beautiful and tragic human knot. I remember the fury of the speakers that day, and I also remember the hundreds of supporters who stood in deafening silence when the speakers’ fury gave way to tears. I remember following people into the streets, and I remember marching to Occupy Wall Street, which was only being born at the time. I remember that as I marched, and as we were struck with batons by cops, there was almost nothing strategic going on in my head; I wasn’t an organizer at that moment, I was just there — part of a tangled mass of rage and mourning and fear and purpose. If things had escalated even further I would have followed in that too.
As I write this and think of Kimani Gray and his last words, I remember, with my body and not my brain, what I felt then. This is a different situation, obviously, and it’s complicated — especially for those of us from other communities trying to connect, and particularly for those of us who are white.
People have referred to the protests taking place each night in Brooklyn as “riots,” and maybe they are; at the same time, we know that word is racialized, used to divide us and marginalize groups that fight back in a way deemed unacceptable by the status quo. On so many questions, it’s not easy to decide where to stand, especially for those of us coming from the outside. Maybe Gray pointed a gun, or maybe he didn’t, or maybe it doesn’t really matter because this isn’t about one individual, it’s about fighting a system that perpetuates police violence toward black men. Maybe the local political leadership calling for the protests to stop has the family’s desire for peace and quiet at heart, or maybe it is out of touch with a generation unwilling to stand down against a police department that routinely kills young black men with impunity. On one hand, there is an issue with white radicals from other communities streaming in and taking up space, and at the same time maybe these are exactly the types of situations when it is most important for those of us with relative privilege to lay it on the line and stand in solidarity.
I guess I don’t know the answers. I don’t know where this will go, and I don’t know exactly what my place is.
But what I do know is that the blurring of lines and the indulgence in an endless circle of complexity can be a way to justify inactivity, to stay stuck, to indirectly protect the status quo. I know that behind the complexity of the situation also lies something perfectly simple: another black youth has been shot and killed by cops in a society where that is not an aberration but the norm, where mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, where the crises of today are part of a brutal history of white supremacy inextricably bound with patriarchy and capitalism. I know that most white people stayed home when Newark was put down by tanks and Black Panthers were murdered by cops as they slept. I know that wasn’t so long ago, and I know it can happen again.
And I know that the most defining mark of privilege is the ability to walk away. Not all of us can walk away, and for those of us who can, confronting our privilege — to the extent that it is possible — means deciding to stay in the struggle.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we all have to drop what we’re doing and run to protest in East Flatbush. It’s not only about going or not going; it’s about engaging and finding points of solidarity. It’s about connecting struggles and taking leadership from people on the front lines of crisis. It’s about challenging ourselves and one another to find some of the simplicity beneath the complexity, to discover some of the patterns underlying the details, to create space for nuance and debate without failing to stand firmly alongside people fighting for freedom — fighting for their lives.
Today, it isn’t a theoretical understanding of solidarity that challenges my impulse to walk away — it’s Kimani Gray himself. It’s his final plea, so simple and clear: “Please don’t let me die.” Maybe there is still a way for us to honor that request.