On Being Useful: Bearing Witness in a Time of Protest
By Candice Iloh
For the past few days, I have been studying lead poisoning. Like many others out there in the interweb world, my knowledge on a lot of things only stretches as far as my social media feeds, the books I have chosen to read, and what I hear through friends who have experienced or witnessed a thing. So when I learned of the protests and riots that broke out following the unlawful arrest and murder of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, my memory and thoughts surrounding all of this chaos only went back to my life as a resident of Washington, DC. I lived 45 minutes away from Baltimore. I had spent a little time in the city but all I really knew back then was rooted in brief encounters and hearsay. I didn’t know much else. Nor was there any pressure for me to dig deeper.
So when the news of street fires, broken windows, and all-out riot in a city that I knew only by one degree of separation began to flood my timeline, unlike other instances, I decided to do my research. I researched the life of Freddie Gray. I researched his brutal and deadly arrest. I researched the magnitude of the riots. I researched the protests that began before the riots. I researched Baltimore city. In particular, I researched The Avenue. In this short period of time and with my limited research skills, I came across information on lead poisoning and learned that in 1978 paint containing lead was ruled hazardous to those who live in homes where it is found. I learned also that lead poisoning can lead to brain damage. I learned that brain damage easily affects one’s ability to focus, to remember, to hold on to information – to remain alive. And then I found a connection.
For four years of his childhood Freddie Gray lived in one of those homes that was deemed a hazard due to its walls being covered in what? Lead paint. These old houses built before 1978 were housing the poor and black for quite some time after it was determined that these spaces were unsafe to live. To avoid investing the money to make these homes safer for those who lived there, the landlords would switch titles of ownership over the properties so that when they were questioned about it they could technically deny all responsibility for the offenses. So the children who lived there were poisoned simply by living and breathing in their own homes.
Fast forward to now. The children who previously lived amid the toxic fumes of lead-based paint in their childhood homes are now sick adults who have suffered insurmountable brain damage preventing them from being able to perform the simple functions that are required to do things like focus in school, retain memory, process information and ultimately, hold on to jobs. Naturally if you are a human being unable to obtain your basic necessities through one route, you are going to create other routes to take care of yourself. Some people may call these activities illegal but, for you, it is survival.
Say you then get caught and arrested. You are now entered into the system as a criminal. A record that now, under our current laws, legalizes several types of discrimination against you. And even further, under a law that has heightened its penalty on the very things you base your livelihood. You will never be regarded by society without this label again and you will continuously be pushed into the arms of what both feeds you and also what feeds your desperation. This becomes a cycle. And only a piece of a larger cycle of injustice in Baltimore and worldwide in other communities that have undergone the same kind of environmental and systemic injustice with no media coverage or defense.
Freddie Gray is a product of this and so much more and although I am fully aware of systemic oppression, I am just learning specifically of his story and life-long struggle as a resident of Baltimore. The riots. The anger. The confusion. The pain. All justified. Because how many others are there like his that we have never heard of? The thought is heartbreaking.
So then, in seeing this naturally I want/need to do something. But suddenly, my skill, my calling, my purpose – to write – seems miniscule. I am an artist whose work is centered on words. But in this moment that begins to seem less important if my body is not being used directly. This became guilt as I felt like I was just as inactive as any other onlooker – watching and commenting but doing nothing to help. For a few days I sat with this. What can I do? How can I support the protestors? How can I be instrumental in the progress of this movement? How can I be useful?
And I came back to this: my job as a writer does not become less important in times where the body becomes the forefront image of resistance. There, too, is still the job of bearing witness. Of documenting. Of storytelling. Of making sure what is occurring does not die down to mere images and memory but that it continues on in new form by way of sharing information to spark dialogue, creating new works that inform those who are not listening of why they should, and accurately writing ourselves into history in place of biased and white supremacy-serving media outlets who could never do it like we could. This is still my job as a voice. Yes, I will support the work being done strategically on the ground. Because, frankly, being good is not the answer. Yes, I will find ways to support and invest in my community. Because part of burning a thing down is simultaneously working to build. But yes, my main role is to write. Because it is ultimately our duty to use what we already have to do any and everything that we can to break down, build, and bear witness.
Candice Iloh is a creative writer and educator residing in Brooklyn, NY whose writing has appeared in Fjords Review, The Grio, For Harriet, and elsewhere. A VONA fellowship recipient and the Managing Editor of Quiet Lunch Magazine, Candice also contributes to the Lambda Literary and The Black Youth Project. She is a new MFA candidate in Writing for Young People and Poetry at Lesley University and is currently working on her first full-length project in verse. She can be found wandering the sidewalks of New York and at www.becomher.com.
Photo: Baltimore police/Dominique Hazzard