Aside from essential trips for groceries, an occasional waltz through a nearby cemetery, or some long drives here and there, my self-imposed quarantine has been spent mostly in the same two-bedroom apartment. Three months ago, today, I made the decision to stay-at-home as the world around me changed due to a pandemic.
Today, for the first time since March 6, I returned to New York City.
I did not make this decision lightly. Living with someone who is immunocompromised, knowing the hotbed New York and North Jersey were for coronavirus, I had been hesitant to go into the City in the week’s prior for any reason at all, but as I watched with horror what was happening to protesters in New York, my heart broke and I felt I had to do something beyond sitting day-after-day on my couch.
To be clear, there were several factors that went into making my decision, and I won’t go into detail on all of them, but it boiled down to realizing I could mitigate the risk–knowing protesters were wearing masks, knowing I would wear mine, knowing I would be outside most of the time, knowing I could pull myself away from crowds if, at any point, I felt uncomfortable, etc.
But the biggest factor was the plain reailty that black lives are “essential,” and there is a crucial need to recognize that black lives not only and not merely “matter” but are sacred and precious and made of the same broken, beautiful mess as you and me. So, it wasn’t that I was putting myself at risk for them–it was that in a world where the threat they face is constant, the least I can do is take on the threat with them, standing side-by-side in solidarity among this pandemic of racism.
And so I marched.
The empty streets, the boarded-up windows, the closed businesses, the large halls of the subway stations void and sterile–I can say New York City was an eerie place to be. You had this sense that the big empty towers all around you had lost their purpose. The only thing that mattered was what was happening in the streets.
And what was happening in the streets was raw and emotional and important. Cars honked in support. People walking by in the opposite direction joined in briefly on the chants, “No justice, no peace, fuck these racist-ass police.” People passed out water, masks, eye wear and offered Advil or phone chargers if they were needed.
People communicated more with their eyes, in some ways. A mask hides half your expressions and it makes you feel invisible, almost as if peering into a Ralph Ellison novel.
At one point during the march, we knelt in the middle of Fifth Avenue. I took off my hat, and someone began to pray. A young man I couldn’t see told us he’d been assaulted two nights before by the NYPD. I had trouble hearing him, even though he was using a megaphone, but I caught him making the point that the civil rights movement was as much about white people showing up as it was about Dr. King’s marches. He reminded me that some of the first people murdered during the civil rights movement were Jewish lawyers helping to register new voters in Mississippi.
It occurs to me in the wake of the march, the line “white silence is violence” should burrow its way deep within you, if it hasn’t already, for this movement, this declaration that #BlackLivesMatter, is not a movement for black people. It’s a movement to wake up whites, and if we are white and we are not speaking plainly, openly, clearly, prophetically, to other whites, we may as well have joined the Klan.
Today’s protest was peaceful, lively, filled with a pain and suffering that was unmatched from any other protest I’ve been a part of. I’m grateful for having gone. But the work is only just beginning–and it will not be easy.
Back at home, now, I am exhausted. Going from couch potato for three months to walking five miles in one day will do that to you. Doing it with a mask on adds an extra layer of complexity. Doing it surrounded by a painful energy is just as draining.
And yet, in my cushy little white boy “work from home” life, my exhaustion seems laughable by comparison. I don’t understand how people have had to do this daily. I can’t fathom how much more exhausting it must be when the risk of the pandemic and the risk of police brutality all culminate under one roof. I have a fierce admiration for those who have endured–and survived this. I have a broken heart and endless compassion for those for whom the exhaustion overcame them or lead them to voice the violence they had endured with their own violent response.
I can take these risks, even the risk of death from a dangerous virus, because to put myself and my loved ones on the line is the best way I can say, “The daily struggles you face, you will not have to face them alone anymore.” We will carry the risks where and when you need us to do so.