On Aug. 23, 2020, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in front of his kids as he walked away from the police. While Jacob survived the shooting, he is paralyzed, and his life will never be the same. Two days later, a 17-year-old white supremacist drove over state lines and shot two people, murdering two of them. All three were protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake.
After a summer of national protests, this racial reckoning was brought to our doorstep in Wisconsin. Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber both died the evening of Aug. 25, 2021. They could have easily been any of us who have been to protests against police brutality. Our state was shaken and enraged. We searched for answers and demanded real criminal justice reform. Shortly after the tragic events in Kenosha, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) launched a task force on racial disparities. We were skeptical for obvious reasons, but also, a small part of us hoped that this would be the catalyst to finally get some real change. That didn’t happen.
Flash forward to now, as the Kyle Rittenhouse trial wraps up. The trial has retraumatized a lot of us. I know that’s true for me, and I don’t even live in Kenosha like our BLOC organizer there. We talked about the people he shot in the office, and someone said, “That could have been my brother” or “He looks like my friend.” Anthony, JoJo, and Jacob could have been any one of us. It’s a sobering reminder that we are not safe in our bodies and in this skin. Organizers and activists are grieving, and our organizing can make the wounds deeper. Wounds and scars go unhealed while we try to heal others.
Before the trial got underway, Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder said that the prosecution couldn’t use the word “victim” to describe the two people whose lives were stolen because victim was a “loaded term.” “Looters” and “rioters” were acceptable, though. It was important for us to make space to talk about this trial.
Given the judge’s behavior, some of us lost hope in a fair trial before it even started. Every time a trial like this happens, some of us spend weeks mentally preparing for a scenario where there is no conviction. It’s become an instant reflex my mind and body does to protect me from the future heartbreak in this system.
So what do we do with all of this? What does this all mean? It means we’re in for a long fight for justice. Our liberations and futures depend on how we show up for this moment. It also means that there needs to be an unequivocal groundswell rejection of white supremacy in all its forms. There should be no openings for far-right extremist violence in our country. Our lack of robust conversations and true change creates an opening for these violent attacks to continue.
The failure to move our country forward is pouring gasoline on a fire. People like Rittenhouse are emboldened. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s been proven time and time again that there will be no real consequences for their violent acts. Police and elected officials donated to his GoFundMe page. He is being painted as a martyr. With that type of narrative, there is an opening for these violent acts to proliferate. We need to actively disrupt these actions. Can we at least try to make racism unpopular again?
This can’t solely rest on the shoulders of the traumatized and grieving. White supremacists are not just people wearing white pointy hoods. They’ve infiltrated our institutions. Those racist jokes at Thanksgiving: Shut them down. Nothing about the fight for our lives is funny. This is not the time to be passive. We need to be aggressive and act like our lives are on the line.
Our lives and dignity are always on trial, even now. We aren’t on trial, a white supremacist is, but the decision, in this case, will inevitably send a message about how valuable our lives are.
I’m afraid that there is no good outcome from this trial. If Rittenhouse walks out a free person, it’s a giant injustice (one we are both used to and honestly expecting). If the system shocks us and he is convicted, all those who made him a martyr will be angry. Frankly speaking, a bunch of white men with guns are going to be upset. There are already calls for massive protests if he isn’t acquitted. No matter the outcome of this trial, we will continue to be divided over what is right and what is wrong.
Racism, at the end of the day, in the simplest of terms, is wrong. That sounds obvious, but due to our collective inaction, it doesn’t feel obvious. This trial will continue to signal the lack of urgency to protect our lives and disrupt a white supremacist system that has been in place for generations.
Who are we in this moment? We are doing the best we can to sound the alarm to local elected officials all the way to the White House that we must draw a line in the sand. White supremacy is so pervasive that sometimes we don’t even recognize when it needs to be disrupted, but allies need to continue to do the work.
Everyone needs to show up in the way that they can. We didn’t get here overnight, and we for sure won’t fix this in a day. We can’t be flexible in how we allow racism in some forms but not others. Unchecked privilege leads to things like the election of Donald Trump and Rittenhouse being hailed as a hero. It breaks my heart that we have strayed so far that racist dog whistles have become bull horns.
Where were you last summer? Did you do the Instagram blackout? Did you take a selfie at the protests to post on Facebook? Did you buy all the popular books everyone was talking about? Are those books collecting dust? Did you read them just to say you read them, and people assume you are an ally? Trainings and books without actual implementation or interventions are just a pat on the back. It’s great you can rattle off the definition of privilege, yet when Black organizations ask you to stand with them, you find an excuse. You have more work to do.
Despite the way Black folks are treated in this country, we extend a lot of grace, more than we should. We’re asking you to be an ally by being an accomplice. Stand shoulder to shoulder with us. It’s honestly the only way we right this course, save democracy and make racism unpopular again.
Angela Lang is the Founder and Executive Director of BLOC (Black Leaders Organizing for Communities), an organization dedicated to organizing and building political power in the African American Community. Before that, she served in senior organizing roles for SEIU and For our Future.