Say Their Names

Robbie White Died at 2:30 PM on Monday, June 11th, 2018

Robbie White died at 2:30 pm on Monday, June 11th, 2018.

It’s still unclear what happened. Montgomery County officer Anand Badgujar responded to a 911 call concerning a “suspicious person” on Three Oaks Drive, and eventually requested backup. Police claimed the two-year veteran drew his firearm only after White attacked him, unprovoked; the filed police report details several unsuccessful attempts to pepper spray and contain White before shots were fired. The Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) subsequently placed Badgujar on paid administrative leave.

I’m not convinced. The MCPD only released body-cam footage after public protest, and though it’s not explicitly damning, it’s far from exonerating, either. Badgujar at no point seems to employ any deescalation techniques and instead is clearly shown chasing White with his gun drawn. Moreover, it’s evident that White did virtually nothing to warrant this attention. If the officer “understood and was a part of the community,” protestor Sophia Marjanovic told reporters, “he would know not to bother Robbie White…that this was a normal occurrence, for Robbie White to walk in his own neighborhood.” It seems unlikely, especially given the personal accounts of friends, family, and members of the broader community, that White showed any pronounced aggression interacting with Badgujar.

“This was a normal occurrence, for Robbie White to walk in his own neighborhood.”

Sophia Marjanovic

I attended a candlelight vigil that same night, organized by White’s friends. I learned a lot about him. I learned that he cameoed in “The Wire,” that he played basketball regularly at a local court, and that he walked everywhere he went. I learned that he often wore trademark purple basketball shorts. I learned that he suffered from mental illness and that he lived alone, just blocks from my house. I learned that members of my community were planning more protests, some involving the Silver Spring Justice Coalition.

I’m still unsure why White’s death failed to attract broader national attention. It might be because the man responsible for his death isn’t white, and it’s harder to make a case for racial profiling against a non-white officer. It might be because journalists uncovered White’s criminal history, ultimately insignificant as it is, including several minor charges (e.g., theft or trespassing). It might be because White struggled with mental illness, and it’s often difficult to explain or justify the behavior of those who can’t always think rationally.

I want to be very clear: MCPD Officer Anand Badgujar murdered Robbie White. Badgujar shot White several times from point-blank range, after detaining the Silver Spring local for the “crime” of walking through his own neighborhood. I’d also like to explicitly condemn the individuals who ignited this chain of events by calling 911 on their neighbor. White’s blood is, and will always be, as much on their hands as it is on Badgujar’s.

I first drafted this article two years ago, in response to White’s death. I never shared it. It didn’t feel like my place, and it still doesn’t. But I’m learning to accept that “my place” isn’t always a comfortable one — that it shouldn’t always be a comfortable one. I recognize that this isn’t my story, but I also recognize that we all need to do more.

I’m writing this piece both to process my own reaction to the protests currently sweeping our nation and to, hopefully, help others navigate this moment with me. Institutionalized racism is an intensely layered issue, encompassing almost infinite quotidian inequities and injustices, and it sometimes helps to break it down into more manageable pieces.‍

Protesting Through COVID-19

If you’re planning on attending a protest of any kind, there are always important considerations. But now, as we face a deadly global pandemic without a vaccine, it’s even more important that we’re intentional about our behavior.

Here’s your baseline: If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If possible, learn as much as you can about the event organizers before you go. Find at least one other person to attend with. Don’t be afraid of confrontation, but trust your gut — we’re seeing several reports of white supremacists attending these protests with the intent of provoking violence, so if you see someone you suspect is an agitator, do your best to contact organizers or authorities.

It should go without saying, but always wear your face mask. Six feet of social distance is the goal, but it can become difficult at larger events. Cover your nose and mouth; the yelling and chanting common at protests means a higher contagion factor, so don’t cut corners. If you want to make yourself heard, consider bringing a noisemaker.

Ultimately, use common sense. If you can protest safely, do so — but don’t feel bad if you can’t, either. I’ve struggled with this myself; I feel guilty that I’m not physically participating, but I also know that the exposure that comes with protesting would put my family at risk. If this is your situation, just know that it’s not an excuse for complacency, and that there are other ways to engage and support the movement.‍

Other Ways To Engage

If you can’t take to the streets in protest, don’t worry. It’s relatively easy to find other ways to contribute your time, energy, and money. You can begin by reading antiracist materialwatching antiracist films, and talking to those in your community experiencing inequity.

If possible, you can (and should) donate to the movement. Myriad organizations are creating bail funds both locally and nationally to support protesters; contributing to these collections is fairly straightforward. Several YouTubers have also launched “stream to donate” efforts, so if you can’t spend your own money, you can harness the power of streaming monetization to contribute. Here are a few organizations you might consider supporting:

If you’re donating to this movement, you’re probably also signing petitions. Even if you can’t donate, though, you should still sign petitions. Follow this hyperlink to a guide of those you can support immediately with little to no effort.

Call your elected officials. Write letters. Vote. Support local Black-owned businesses, especially those affected by protests. Just don’t cut yourself any slack — you can never do enough.‍

Performative Allyship

I’d like to take a moment to discuss performative allyship, as it digitally manifests around us. If you publicly support racial justice without substantively contributing, you’re just posturing. If this is you, you need to reflect on your behavior and stop capitalizing on widespread suffering to augment your own personal social status.

It’s easy to point to corporations that perpetrate performative allyship — companies like Target or Amazon regularly share messages of support for racial justice even as they continue to profit from the status quo — but it’s a little more complicated to recognize the phenomenon among individuals, especially since can be conscious or unconscious.

Earlier this week, many participated in a national social media blackout. Blackouts are often employed to clear space for valuable discussion; those on the periphery of an issue refrain from action to allow the voices of those suffering injustice to be heard. Instead, however, I watched black squares pop up across my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, as my friends and acquaintances showed their support for those protesting. In theory, noble, but in practice, disastrous. Many of those participating tagged their solid color graphics with hashtags, thus clogging the spaces meant to be reserved for those on the front lines to share evidence of police brutality and misconduct at protests. This is performative allyship, whether those who shared black square images intended it or not — it’s not productive to inundate precious spaces with idle symbolism at the expense of obscuring real, lived experiences.

It’s also important to note that performative allyship manifests in physical behavior, as well. If you’re going to protests, listen to the voices of those around you leading the charge. Ultimately, your job isn’t to center yourself, but to protect and support those around you who don’t share your privilege. If you feel like looting, spray-painting slogans on businesses, or destroying property, be smart about it. I’m not explicitly against looting — you can read a fairly intelligent defense of it as a protest tactic here — but only engage if you’re confident it will help those you’re attempting to support.‍

Racism Is Nonpartisan

I live in Maryland, one of the most liberal states in our country. I live in Montgomery County, nationally recognized for one of the best public school systems in the country. I live in Silver Spring, a city that, just last year, WalletHub ranked the sixth most diverse city in the country.

Still, Robbie White died.

Here’s the thing: Nobody cares about your political affiliation right now. Sure, right-wing extremism is inarguably more dangerous than the left-wing racism-but big picture, that functionally means very little. Remember Amy Cooper, the white woman who called 911 and feigned distress after Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper (no relation) asked her to leash her dog? She’s liberal. Remember the Clinton administration’s crime bill? Disastrous for minority communities. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden? He fought against integrated school busing programs for years.

Prejudice transcends political borders. It’s complex, politically, to address racist behavior within our own parties — doing so leaves you vulnerable to counter-partisan critique, even despite the inherent nobility of acknowledging your faults. Still, it’s important to recognize that even the most liberal person can operate under subconscious racial biases.

I could write an entire piece on this, and probably will eventually, but I’ll contain myself here. Just remember that nobody — from Keith Ellison to Bernie Sanders — is immune to systemic, institutionalized racism.‍

Defund the Police

If you’ve been following the news at all, you’ve probably seen a radical new demand go mainstream: to defund the police. Truthfully, of course, this isn’t that new an idea — left-wingers have been advocating for it for years, right alongside demilitarization.

Bias training doesn’t always work. Body cams don’t always work. Community dialogue doesn’t always work. Minneapolis police tried them all — they even went out of their way to hire Center for Policing Equity co-founder Phillip Atiba Goff — and George Floyd still died.

“Procedural justice,” writes Guardian contributor Alex S. Vitale, “Has nothing to say about the mission or function of policing. It assumes that the police are neutrally enforcing a set of laws that are automatically beneficial to everyone. Instead of questioning the validity of using police to wage an inherently racist war on drugs, advocates of procedural justice politely suggest that police get anti-bias training, which they will happily deliver for no small fee.”

Over just the last few decades, we have enormously expanded and intensified policing. We have collectively allowed police to adjudicate social problems in non-white neighborhoods, as final arbiters of justice and law. Schools are failing — bring in the police. Mental health services are lagging — send police. Drug overdose is rampant — criminalize anyone who shares drugs. Our youth are struggling to break cyclical violence and generational hopelessness — call them “superpredators” and incarcerate them.

Moreover, even as we invited the police into our daily lives, we armed them. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice’s “Cops Office,” and the Federal 1033 program all continue to channel billions of taxpayer dollars into military hardware for police distribution. Simultaneously, we trained an entire generation of police in the “warrior mentality,” teaching them to enter every encounter with their community members as if it could be their last.

So now seeing the real-world consequences of that funding and training. Officers maneuver with hostile intent, primed for swift and lethal action at the slightest perceived inconvenience. It doesn’t matter who the target is, as long as they’re Black. We’re watching now as those supposedly sworn to protect us teargas protesters (a tactic explicitly banned in global warfare), fire rubber bullets into crowds, and use military helicopters in blatant intimidation tactics.

The time for reform is over. It’s time to defund our police. It’s time to shrink their function, to demand that politicians locally and nationally develop non-police solutions to the problems facing our minority communities. We desperately need to invest in social welfare programs, to create housing, employment, and healthcare services that directly address public safety concerns.

I’d like to end this piece by addressing the inevitable moral fatigue we’ll all eventually face as we undertake this work. I recognize that the ability to “press pause,” as it were, stems from a place of intense privilege, and that those facing daily injustice and oppression don’t often have that option — but I also recognize the immensity of the energy reserve required to power such an intensely emotional movement.

Earlier this year, I got the chance to ask Pulitzer-winning journalist Connie Schultz about activist burnout. I wanted to know how we can protect our own emotional and mental health, without compromising our values or letting others down. In her response, she analogized advocacy to staggered breathing. “If you need to take a breath,” she told me, “Do it. Others will hold that note for you until you can pick it up again.”

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