on unhearing.


cred: Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images via NPR

Milwaukee holds elements of home. I grew up 20 minutes south of the city, and lived on Brewer’s Hill for a while as an adult. On Saturday night, I stayed awake – nervously stuck on TMJ4’s live feed until it finally abruptly devolved into audio of a random studio conversation, sans video [and minutes more – still chewing fingernails and wondering if I might get another glimpse of Sherman Park]. As I watched, thoughts vacillated between needing to see what was happening and wanting to see nothing happen, hating what was happening and hoping that perhaps this might be a happening that ignites a change.

Yesterday as we watched our littles play in the lake, a friend of mine asked what I thought Milwaukee was really like for African Americans, if I had seen or experienced the racial tension in any way, how living there compares to living in Metro Detroit. I had to pause for a moment. As a white woman, it is difficult to speak to the experience of being black in any place. Anything I can offer in this regard is secondhand and filtered through privilege.

Growing up, I was always aware that racial tension existed. It was sensed in off-handed jokes/comments made by those around me, in understanding why some of my peers were being transported out of the city proper for high school, even in well-meaning cautions to avoid driving in certain parts of the city. However, I was not on the receiving end of the jokes, the comments, the fear, the hate. As an adult, I lived in, worked in and frequented inclusive spaces. My scene was diverse. Racial tension was often a topic of conversation, but not something I ever felt like I could really speak to.

But I have been thinking about the Milwaukee that I know. Thinking about objects and spaces of nostalgia, hoping for safety of family and friends. Also thinking about the uncountables [and the countables] of living in a city that has a history of being the worst place to be black. Considering attitudes and dispositions in particular.

Been seeing this quote everywhere over the past day and a half:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Understanding riots as the violent bodily screams that evolve as a last, desperate act of communication following generations of unhearing is powerfully clarifying. While I certainly favor a nonviolent approach and do not consider rioting as solution-oriented, the violent bodily expression that we are witnessing in Milwaukee is not a disproportionate response by an unheard community. Systemic unhearing reaches beyond spoken/written language. It is a silencing by way of physical [dis]placement – out of schools and into incarceration and poverty. Those who think this riot is simply about Sylville Smith are missing the point – Saturday’s incident only ushered in a tipping point. The inferno rages for Dontre Hamilton and Corey Stingley and Jay Anderson and for victims of illegal strip searches, et alii. It doesn’t matter if Smith was armed or what his rap sheet looks like or if the officer who shot him was black.

Large swaths of the Northside black community live their lives in a veritable hellscape from which there is no reprieve, no justice, no hope, and no one coming to save the day. Don’t be surprised when hell catches fire, be surprised that it is not constantly in flames. – Michael Danahey, MKE artist

In looking across my social media accounts since Saturday night, I see a definite division in messages received via “language of the unheard.” Many of my friends seem to receive the message clearly and have begun asking the important questions – some variation of “Where do we go/grow from here?” They are genuinely open to and craving answers. They are active participants in change and willing to try on another’s perspective, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

But a handful of folks are stuck on us vs. them. “Why didn’t they react to the 5 shootings the night before?” [The community did, in fact, gather to pray and seek solutions on Saturday.] “Why are they destroying their own neighborhood?” “What are they really trying to accomplish?” And worse still, rather than hearing/seeing the desperation in such violent acts of disconnection from the community, others are lazily and publicly slurring “animals,” “thugs,” “monsters,” “seeds of evil” – writing off an entire group of human beings without making any effort to understand the framework of the events.

The most compelling thing that I have heard as these events have unfolded [and something that I’ve been unable to substantiate in any media account – this came from an acquaintance who was present] is that it was estimated that a greater number of community members came out to participate in clean-up efforts, peaceful prayer vigils/demonstrations and solution-oriented community meetings on Sunday than did to express rage on Saturday. Violence may be louder and more salacious a story, but we cannot forget how much love is present in that city.

I wish I had all the answers. I truly do. But I don’t. The one piece that I would implore anyone to carry with them, particularly those who find themselves in disbelief over the “how come,” is this: just listen. Listen with empathy. Not the empathic reasoning that allows us to assume that we can possibly inhabit the thought/life experience of another, but empathy that forces us to step out of our own experience-bias to make room for the absorption of another’s lifeworld as they communicate it to us.

The bodily capacity to listen comes with the agency and responsibility to choose that response.




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