Black people in general have anxiety around law enforcement. But when youre dark-skinned, Clarissa Brooks writes, it seems to give them a full pass to disrespect you
Im a community organizer. I was one of the nine students who protested Hillary Clinton in 2015. That is the kind of direct action and protest I have been organizing around police brutality, sexual violence and gentrification for the past four years, since in my sophomore year at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.
My work often involves protesting politicians or rallying near government buildings, which means I am often around cops. Lines of them, just for surveillance, usually. Many times, I dont really care that theyre there and vice versa. Especially at marches, they are mostly neutral. Other times, their presence injects more anxiety into an already tense situation. Sometimes, the situation gets especially hot, like when we interrupted that Clinton speech. A federal agent yelled at me: If you dont let go of this barricade, Ill body slam you! I know I will always have to encounter them its just part of doing the work I do.
Black folks in general have anxiety around law enforcement. But when youre dark-skinned like me, it seems to give them a full pass to disrespect you. Ive seen lighter-skinned black organizers be able to talk through a hostile situation with them. That doesnt happen to me. I am keenly aware that my dark skin will lead me to be perceived as especially aggressive, regardless of my actions.
Last year, at a small protest led by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) against Betsy DeVos at Georgia Tech University, I was tackled by sheriffs. I was just there to support the mostly white group of DSA members. They wanted to form a human barricade and block in DeVoss car as she tried to leave, but most of them ended up running away when it came time to do it, leaving just myself and my friend, another dark-skinned woman, among three other lighter-skinned black protesters to try to pull it off.
The cops only tackled me and my friend and threw us across the sidewalk. I was less physically hurt than I was mad. We were the only two the cops really put their hands on; the others were just shoved away from the car.
All organizers like me are responsible for having a plan to diffuse tension with the police some make sure they have a team member who has a good relationship with the police chief stay close to them throughout the action, for instance. We always look for ways to minimize altercations and keep the focus on our message. But I should be able to talk directly to cops if I need to. Instead, another team member has to relay my message for me.
Im aware that my intersectional oppression Im a queer woman with dark skin requires a constant fight out of me, but there are some days I am just too tired to fight back. Being quiet feels safer, though I lose ground that way as an organizer.
Im supposed to be a voice for those who cant be heard. Organizers have to speak on behalf of the group to explain what our protest is for and what change were trying to see, or to speak to crowds of protesters to unite them. But theres an understanding that I am never the first option when it comes to this role. Even when Im saying something true, Im perceived as aggressive or that I dont know what Im talking about.
The legacy of colorism has meant that the work of certain activists has been minimized. I am specifically thinking of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer two dark-skinned black women who built models for decentralized leadership that community leaders like me still practice today (Black Lives Matter is an example). We dont want figureheads for a movement. Were not interested in being celebrities.
In the late 1950s/early 1960s, before Dr Martin Luther King Jr became more prominent, Hamer and Baker created the framework he was able to eventually build his leadership out of. Baker and Hamer helped build out revolutionary organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized the Montgomery bus boycotts and the lunch counter sit-ins, and the Freedom Democratic party, both of which shaped the history of civil rights work in the south. Baker taught King about decentralized leadership and how to galvanize student activists. Hamer continued working with King to organize across the south, and he consulted her to help organize the bus boycotts, which made a name for Rosa Parks, a light-skinned activist.
Yet, both Hamer and Baker have been largely left out of the lexicon of the civil rights history we know today.
I wonder if Hamer and Baker found themselves falling into the mammy tropes a slave woman who is dark and fat and whose main responsibility is to care for others, believed to have no needs of her own and requiring no care. I often do. Activism is hard emotional work, we all need to decompress. But when people I work with, other black people and people of color, pour out emotional stuff expecting me to have a magical answer, they dont ask me how Im doing the relationship isnt reciprocal.
At times, I have enjoyed this role because I finally felt seen, but it was toxic because I was getting comfortable playing into the stereotype my mother and aunts raised me to avoid.
My work has taught me a lot about visibility and who society doesnt show up for, even though Im supposed to show up for them. It is the dark-skinned folks who are left with the burden of proving we are not the stereotypes that are forced upon us.
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