Steffanie Rivers

Steffanie Rivers

*I was sitting in a hotel van on the way to the airport when two white people were discussing what had become known in the national news as #Baltimore Burning. The woman said, in essence, looters who steal from and destroy their own neighborhoods were criminals whose behaviors prove police are justified to use deadly force against them. The man co-signed her comments, adding that residents in Baltimore had nothing to be upset about, because they had a black mayor, a black police commissioner and a black president.

I avoid debates about politics, religion and race in mixed company, especially with strangers in passing, because most of the time it can do more harm than good. But these two white people weren’t strangers. They were co-workers; people who I know to be conscientious (for the most part). The guy, who is gay, no doubt has experienced his fair share of discrimination too. So it was even more confusing for me that he – of all people – would be so dismissive of someone else’s feelings of mistreatment. His lack of empathy and the ‘black mayor, black police commissioner and black president’ comment were too much to ignore. 

I told them political gains mean nothing if black men disproportionately die at the hands of law officers who have little to no regard for their lives – even when those men pose no immediate threat. Although I agree the destructive behavior of rioting detracts from the bigger issue, I told them I understand the frustrations that had led to rioting.

For the people in the van and many others, all they know about an issue is what they see on the news. They take everything at face value as it is presented to them in a two-minute video package. They never question the source or the contents. It’s from this frame of reference that most people pass judgement and confirm negative stereotypes. Then they express their opinions in mixed company and expect not to be challenged!

I spent nearly fourteen years living and working in Prince George’s and Baltimore counties in Maryland. So I’m always interested in what goes on in and around my old stomping grounds. The intersection where Freddie Gray was chased and arrested, I used to drive through that neighborhood during my commute to and from work. As much as I can identify with Baltimore residents and people of color around the country who feel their lives are worthless in the eyes of many, I have learned a more productive way for me to express my disapproval. I write columns, I produce documentaries and educate others about ways to make a difference in their own lives.

Still, boycotts, protests and disrupting the normal flow of business and traffic to make those who act as if the perils of the minority are of no consequence to the majority have proven to be effective ways to demand acknowledgment and change.

Unfortunately, the extreme behavior some people use to bring attention to their plight, others see that same behavior as an unnecessary means to an end. They don’t equate white-collar criminals – mostly white people who steal million of dollars with the stroke of an ink pen – with the same disdain as angry looters who break into the neighborhood convenience stores to take all he can carry on the way out. Both committed crimes; one gets away with it because he does it under the guise of a college degree and a corner office. Until I made the comparison for my co-workers they might never have considered it.

When many of my (white) colleagues see me, they don’t make the connection that a black man in danger could be my husband, son, brother or father. Unless we engage each other in the discussion and help them connect the dots most people never will develop the empathy to focus on our similarities instead of our differences.

After that conversation in the van, a few more people including those who listened but didn’t speak up, might not be so quick to call all protestors rioters or equate the election of black political leadership as the end of the fight for justice for all.

Steffanie is a freelance journalist living in the Dallas, Texas metroplex. Email her at [email protected] for questions, comments and speaking inquiries.