The scene at the Kennedy Center last week told one side of a story in progress. Aretha Franklin walked onto the stage, engulfed by a massive fur coat, and sat at a grand piano. She sang “A Natural Woman,” while Carole King, the night’s honoree, exploded with childlike enthusiasm in the president’s box, the president himself sitting right beside her, struggling to hide his tears.
Still, while Aretha sang, and the president and first lady danced along, there was unrest in the streets. Protestors around the country gathered, which they had done so many times before in 2015, to put pressure on a criminal justice system that had failed its people. The newest offense was the system’s acquiescence to the murder, by police, of a twelve-year-old boy in Cleveland. Over a year ago, Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in a park when the police shot him. “To protect and to serve” continues to seem like a privilege reserved for White people, as a prosecutor in Ohio encouraged a grand jury not to indict the killers. Nobody will be held accountable for Tamir’s death, so the protestors continued to protest.
While there is no concrete connection the performance and the grand jury’s decision, the two moments, happening just hours before New Year’s Eve, seemed the perfect coda to a year of stress and struggle. Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis in the 1940s, lived through Jim Crow, and was a symbol of Black excellence in the Civil Rights era. When the mayor of Detroit gave Franklin the key to the Motor City, it was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself who handed her the award and danced on stage next to her at the event.
If you had told Franklin, in 1968, that within fifty years she would be singing “A Natural Woman” to an audience in Washington that included the first Black president, along with his proudly African-American wife and first lady, she might have raised an eyebrow. It would have been more surprising, though, for her to know that in spite of its Black president, the country would still be fighting to protect the rights and lives of its Black children, who die by the hands of the police in extraordinary numbers, while their mothers and fathers are incarcerated at rates higher than in any other country in the world.
Progress is not now, and never has been, linear. The juxtaposition of Aretha and Tamir shows that. In a year in which the murder of Black men and women at the hands of police penetrated, finally, the consciousness of non-Black Americans, the Tamir Rice case has been a source of both dread and hope. Hope, because this was the last chance for 2015 to offer justice. Dread, because we knew too well the signal sent by the steady march of injustice that preceded this time.
July 2013: no conviction for George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin.
November 2014: no indictment for Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown.
December 2015: no indictment for Brian Encinia, who abused Sandra Bland at a traffic stop, leading to her death.
December 2015: no indictment for Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, who killed Tamir Rice.
We may have been wrong to have hope. Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it this way:
… a district attorney in Ohio declined to prosecute the two officers who drove up, and within two seconds of arriving, killed the 12-year-old Tamir Rice. No one should be surprised by this. In America, we have decided that it is permissible, that it is wise, that it is moral for the police to de-escalate through killing … What we have made of our police departments America, what we have ordered them to do, is a direct challenge to any usable definition of democracy. A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule.
Commitment predictably wanes when each failure to indict seems like another loss in a war of attrition against hope itself. My greatest wish for the New Year is that we resist the urge to stop caring. I saw many of my fellow White folks get angry and active in 2015, motivated by a sense of justice and allyship, both of which I perceive to be real. The challenge with being an ally, though, the great privilege of not being targeted oneself by the violence of an unwieldy criminal justice system, is that caring is a choice, not a necessity. Frederick Douglass said that, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” In 2016, my resolution is to remember where both sides of the chain are fastened.