On Thursday, community members gathered beside the Chicago River to honor those who were killed in Wednesday’s act of terrorism at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Amid the bustle of a heavy tourist day, in the heart of downtown Chicago, we stood together, mourned the fallen, and reaffirmed our commitment to building a world where such acts of terrorism are all but unthinkable. But there was another sense of mourning, and resistance, that also bears mentioning.
One of the things that tore at me the most about what happened in Charleston was that the shooting’s Black victims welcomed their killer into their sacred space, and that their act of love and inclusiveness was so cruelly punished. As someone who also strives to create spaces where my beliefs, and the beliefs and hopes of others, can be freely expressed, I was rattled to my very core. As organizers, we strive to create places where love, action and solidarity can blossom. We strive for inclusiveness, and build in celebration of both the history of resistance, and the acts of love and liberation that carry us forward. An attack on a sacred, safe space, at the heart of a Black community, is an attack on Black people everywhere and an affront to the humanity of all decent people, but it is also an attack on the history of those who were killed, and on the very idea of safer spaces.
As a non Black person of color, I do not wish to expound upon what this moment means to the Black community. Others have done so more eloquently than I ever could. But as someone who tries to build spaces for liberation, I want to speak to how we can resist the pervasive racism and oppression that led to this massacre. I will not say the killer’s name, for the record, as he chose to leave a survivor in the hopes that her harrowing account might bring him greater infamous glory. Out of love and respect for her, and with an awareness that his name is already being spoken far more than he deserves, I will not play any part in honoring his wishes.
There are others whose words and actions should be lifted up at this moment, and one of them is a dear friend of mine, whose words and grief hit me hard yesterday. Caira Lee Connor is a bright, young Black organizer and artist in the city of Chicago. She is one of the young people I am blessed to work with who I believe is playing an active role in writing the pages of the history we are all living. Yesterday, I asked for her thoughts on the AME shooting, and she said the following: “I want to know where we are safe. I want to know what it is that we are allowed to do that would garner respect, love, care, protection, and innocence. This act of terrorism, because that is what this was, is another reminder that we as Black people will always be targets regardless of whatever respectability politics people may play into. This isn’t a time to remain calm, or to be easy. This is time to stand up and (continue to) fight in all the ways we know how against white supremacy and demand our right to simply exist.”
So how do we stand up in the face of such harm? We are people who know how to rally, how to march, and how to act against structures of oppression, but how do we specifically respond to the invasion and violent desecration of sacred spaces of love and liberation? I struggled with this question Thursday morning and arrived at only one answer that was true for me, with regard to my life and work: we must continue to create transformative spaces. We must continue to build with love in the face of hate. We must build forward, and defiantly hold space in the name of those who came before us, those we have lost, and those who will change the course of history. We must remember that, in spite of our fears and anger, our spaces, our streets, and our cities are our gardens, and we are the sowers of seeds.
It was with those thoughts in mind that we collectively created a space for healing, remembrance, and resistance beside the river. After a short speak out on Michigan Avenue, we marched across a historic bridge, from one side of the river to the other, and down the cement steps to the riverside. We held that space in the name of those who were lost, and in the name of all we cherish. We held that space in resistance, because the creation of spaces where we can liberate ourselves, and help each other survive is a means of change. We did this because we, collectively, are the builders of liberation spaces and communities. We are the builders of peace, and peace is not the silence between gunshots. It is the song we sang beside the river on Thursday, and we must continue to sing it. We will not allow those who would slaughter Black people for the color of their skin to derail the creation of sacred spaces. Neither the Black community, nor their allies, will be beaten into silence by violence and intimidation. The resilience of the oppressed in the United States is a testament to the greatness of marginalized people, and this is true of no one more so than the Black community.
Working closely with my Black friends, some of whom I consider chosen family, I worry daily for the safety of young people I care about, but such fears only serve to make their resistance more inspiring. They know that this attack was a restatement of the values that inform so much of what they endure. The man who killed the nine victims of the AME shooting was merely a loaded gun. He was one mechanism in a machine – the same machine that killed Rekia Boyd and Mike Brown. I know the young people I love, whose work I try to support daily, as we all should, will not allow the collective reality of Black disposability and social death to be erased. I know that they will fight on, and no single act of violence, however awful, will shake my belief that they will win.
They will continue to say the names of those who are stolen by the wickedness of white supremacy. And with the support of all who believe in them, they will keep grabbing hatred at its roots, and sowing seeds of love in liberation in their streets. They will live on, and so will the names of Rekia, Mike, and Aiyana. But we must all speak the names of those stolen by hatred, because no people should have to fight alone when their oppression is an affront to all of humanity. DePayne Middleton Doctor. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.