When It Happens Where You Live
This essay from Hanif Abdurraqib was first published by Alive in September 2016, but it's worth revisiting amid current events
In the dark hours of the past three summer mornings, well before the sun comes up, I have been in front of a computer screen. I have, from a blurry stream in the quiet of my apartment, watched cities and the people within them resist, fight back against whatever systems or bodies they felt oppressed by. Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge. It is always death that ignites this, a police officer killing a black person, or a black person dying in the care of police, and the repetition of this in places across the country.
I am from a neighborhood in Columbus that is close to the one where Tyre King was killed. It is a part of Columbus that doesn’t get talked about when some national magazine names Columbus one of America’s “hot new cities” and shows off its glistening skyline reflecting on the Scioto River. It is an area I champion relentlessly, even from miles away. I have run those streets as a boy who was once Tyre’s age, and I think of the people who live on them.
What happens when we think about police violence and the responses to it as things that only happen in “other cities” is that we can sometimes place our (often needed) rhetoric above the actual people immersed in the geography of that violence. We can, often, forget to talk about borders. About gentrification. About how a single city can sometimes be two or three different cities. So much of our talk funnels to a binary vision of what a life is worth, or what a “good” life is worth versus a “bad” life.
In all of this, I want to say that I grew up black on the East Side of Columbus. I grew up black on the East Side of Columbus and have run from police before. I have not always been good, but I have always been worthy of living and fighting to become better. I have touched that community and been touched by it, and the people who live in it are all worthy of life, even as their lives are ignored or seen as less worthy by the city that surrounds them. The city that swallows poor neighborhoods in favor of high-rise apartments. And, still, the city I love deeply.
Tyre King was murdered on a visit home to Columbus from New Haven, Connecticut, where I live now. I stood at the outskirts of a vigil and didn’t know what to say, or how to speak of the death this time. I scrolled the internet and saw an outpouring of grief, anger and frustration from people far away, and felt both comfort and a bit of shame at how I, once, from far away, spoke and wrote on cities that I didn’t understand as well as the one I am from.This is what it is like when it happens where you live, I thought to myself all day. To see a name as a hashtag and understand that it was once attached to a person who is from where you are from, who died on a block where you were once young and reckless.
I have no answers anymore beyond this very human element that keeps me returning to the work of protest, the work of resistance, and also the work of empathy. Tyre King had people who loved him. When the conversation becomes about the “failure” of those who loved him, it distracts from the fact that Tyre King was a whole, growing person, who is now not growing anymore, and cannot be held close by anyone who had love for him before he was gone.
I am thinking, instead, about the people in this city I love. I watch them, in the dark hours of morning, protesting at City Hall, leading marches in the streets. The killing of Tyre King is not unique in the machinery of American policing, as it has been constructed for decades. But, here, we have work, Columbus. I am thankful for the young people, the black women on the front lines, making space for the heavy lifting that needs to be done.
This is, more than anything, a fight to be seen as human. Violence and fear is what moves borders, what makes the marginalized even more marginalized in a city that is just as much theirs as it is anyone else’s. For Tyre King, for Henry Green, for the activists like Marshawn McCarrell who are no longer with us, let’s take to the work of resistance, let’s take to the work of empathy. Let’s try that, and see what happens.