Take the Red Pill: Reflections for People Struggling with the Zimmerman Verdict on How the Rodney King Verdict Changed My Life for the Better

“Let me tell you what this verdict means to me,” he said. He was the only Black person in our circle of mostly white friends, and we had gathered together, enraged confused and in pain. “I know we all believe in social justice, but for me to be here with you, I need to tell you what this night means to me as Black person.” 

I was 18 years old, and the Rodney King verdict clearing four white officers of brutally beating King came out three hours earlier. My colorblind worldview was up in flames along with parts of Los Angeles thirty minutes from my house in the suburbs of Orange County. The tears that ran down my face, and the adrenaline of the anger I felt when the verdict was announced were all still fresh. I had been told in the post-Civil Rights era that seeing race was racist, to speak of racial differences was wrong, and that all of that was rightly in the past. No one consciously told me all those things, it was the logic all around me. The only person I heard speak clearly and forcefully about race was my right-wing Grandfather who blamed Latino immigrants, Blacks on welfare, and Jesse Jackson for the ills of our country. This was about to change, and that night, after the Rodney King verdict, with Terence pacing back and forth as he shared the sadness in his heart, that night changed my life. 

In these days after the George Zimmerman verdict, I know that there are thousands of conversations happening, about the verdict, the justice system, racial profiling, the criminalization of Black and Brown people, about the future of our country. Moments like this, moments of profound injustice, where the painful realities of our country’s past and present racism is laid bare, they are like the movie The Matrix, when Morpheus presents Neo a red pill and a blue pill. Take the blue pill, remain in ignorance and go back to sleep. Take the red pill and learn the truth of what is going on in the world. It won’t be easy and it will be painful at times Morpheus warns, but it is the path that will set you free. Terence was about to offer me the red pill, and I took it.  

Terence told us about his experiences of racial profiling, like the night of his high school graduation. He was on his way to the ceremony of his mostly white middle class school. He was the class valedictorian and would be soon giving his speech, but just before he arrived he was stopped by the police. They wanted to know why he was in that neighborhood, disregarded his word and asked him to show proof that he went to the school. He was searched, let go, and humiliated. “They made it clear that I’m not wanted there, that I can’t be trusted, and that regardless of being the class valedictorian, I needed to remember my place.” He was angry and heart broken as he shared more stories of being racial profiled, of times when white people have been impressed with his intellect, wit, and way with words and complimented by saying, “you’re not like other Black people”. 

I first meet Terence Priester a few months early, at a party at his house. I had a large group of friends who were politically progressive, feminist, pro-LGBTQ rights, against the Gulf war, we were also mostly white and rarely talked about race, except to say we were against racism. There was a poster in Terence's living room that caught my attention. This was the first time I had ever been in a Black person's home and the poster read "Celebrating African American History". I studied it, looking at the faces of all twelve leaders featured. I recognized two of them, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. I had heard part of Martin Luther Kings's "I have a Dream Speech" and knew he was a leader of the Civil Rights movement, but that was it. And Malcolm X hated white people and called them "devils".   

Terence came over and I asked, "Who are all these people?" He told me about Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Langston Hughes, Elijah Muhammad, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Ella Baker and Sojourner Truth. He referenced history that I had vaguely heard of: the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction, the Abolitionists and Women's Suffragists. But he also talked about Black Nationalism and millions of working class Black people in the Garveyite movement and the tensions between different positions in the Black liberation struggle. I had never heard of any of this before. In fact, I'd never heard a Black person explain history and politics before.  

I was committed to social justice politics and beginning to recognize that colorblindness was not a useful framework, but I didn't know what to replace it with. I knew that the people on this poster were important and I set out to memorize their names. I asked Terence at several subsequent parties to tell me their names and backgrounds again. After the third time he was frustrated and said to me, "You need to really learn about these people, not because you want to learn more about Black people and our leaders, but because these people are your leaders too." 

I didn’t really know what he meant, but I felt something shift in me. I felt nervous that I had offended him, that maybe I had been racist. But I chose in that moment to sit with my discomfort, because I could also feel that he was telling me something profound. 

I started reading W.E.B. Do Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks. I finished it the morning the Rodney King verdict was announced. Du Bois wrote about the double consciousness of Black people and a lived experience of not being fully a part of this country. I sat in front of the television as the verdict was announced. I felt so much anger, rage and sadness and while it felt absolutely right to feel this way, I couldn't explain it besides saying, "this is so fucked up." I wanted to join the growing rally at the Parker Center Police Station in Los Angeles, where thousands were gathering to protest the verdict, but I didn't have a ride. I realized in that moment that I needed knowledge and history that I wasn’t suppose to have as a white person. 18 years old and the Do Bois book was the first I read consciously knowing it was written by a person of color.{C}[1]{C}  

As Terence spoke that night and we all shared what we thought about the verdict, the mass rebellion and rioting taking place nearby, I was beginning to make the connections, from the police thinking he was suspicious because he is Black to my lack of knowledge about African American history to the rage in Los Angeles after the verdict. While I knew almost nothing about Black history, I was inundated by images of Black criminals from the media. 

Shortly after the L.A. rebellion and riots, Terence gave me Simple's Uncle Sam, a book of short stories about a Black working class family by Langston Hughes. In his inscription he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., "If you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving." Terence encouraged me to study Black history and the history of other people of color. He helped me understand that I needed to take responsibility for this learning and that while he was helping me, it was not his job to educate me about white supremacy. 

Terence pushed me to realize not only that I had a lot to learn, but that there were sources of knowledge I had not known existed. He was telling me that I needed to learn about the Black liberation struggle in the United States. He was telling me that there was a radical democratic tradition of struggle in this country that had a history I could learn from. Furthermore, that history and these leaders put forward visions, strategies and tactics that could help me understand the society we live in and imagine the world I wanted to live in. From then on, when I looked at the faces of those leaders, I felt a connection to them. I felt that somehow, in order to help understand who I am, I needed to learn who they were. 

Months after the Rodney King verdict, I met up with Terence at a bar. He was there with some of his co-workers, two white guys. They were drinking shots and telling jokes. One of the white guys brought the verdict up. Terence said the verdict was racist and this was met with, "Come on, that was a long time ago, let's move on." But the other white guy asked Terence to explain himself. Terence presented a summary of U.S. history with a focus on the genocide of indigenous people and slavery. He followed that up with some examples of institutionalized racism today. The white co-workers came back with "Look, I'm not responsible for what happened in the past, but what I am responsible for is what happens now and we have equal opportunity and, yeah, things aren't perfect, but it doesn't help anyone to keep talking about the legacy of slavery." When Terence brought it back to how racism exists today, he was told, "You think everything is about race."    

I had that nervous feeling in my body knowing that I needed to jump in and I was really scared to say anything. I basically made the same points that Terence did. But I also added in occasional comments about why this was important to me as a white person. The response was incredible. "Well, I can see what your saying with that," the co-worker said. "That's exactly what I told you ten minutes ago," Terence said, exasperated. "Yeah, but I just think that you see racism everywhere, whereas this guy is more neutral."

I stepped up and said that I learned all this from Terence and that none of us are neutral, it’s just that racism tells white people that what we think is normal whereas people of color are playing the race card. 

Terence and I talked about it afterwards. He said, “white people are going to listen to other white people, and so it’s important for you to speak to other white people.” And I could feel what he was about to say next, so I jumped in, “and it’s critical that I acknowledge and bring in the leadership of people of color as I’m talking with other white people, so it doesn’t just further marginalize people of color and normalize white intelligence.” He smiled, and in that moment, I knew that I needed to keep moving, by all means, not just because of how racism negatively impacted Terence and people of color, but also because racism was robbing me of vision, strategy, history, tradition, literature, culture, and relationships essential to my own liberation and our collective future. 

To white people who are in pain, confused, enraged, and mourning after the Zimmerman verdict, searching for what to do next. Take the red pill and know that challenging racism is also a struggle for your own liberation. Strengthen or create relationships with like-minded people to study, take action, reflect with, and create celebratory liberation culture with. Get involved in campaigns and organizations that further goals of racial, economic, gender, and social justice for all people. Read about the histories of organizing in communities of color as well as white anti-racist organizing. Know there will be uncomfortable and difficult moments, but remember that breaking free of white supremacy and reclaiming our humanity, our shared humanity, is worth it. By all means, keep moving. 

For an excellent resource on next steps check out the Justice for Trayvon Action Kit put out by the Showing Up for Racial Justice network: http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/archives/1765

Chris Crass is a longtime social justice organizer and author of Towards Collective Liberation: anti-racist organizing, feminist praxis, and movement building strategy.

[1] I found out later that I had read books, mostly children’s books written by people of color, but I assumed they were all white, as being colorblind generally means, “everything is white”. 

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