By Garrett S. Griffin
THREE WEEKS AFTER the election, I found myself sitting between two men: a black man on my right, a white man on my left.
We sat together at the Shoal Creek Police Station in north Kansas City. The black man and I were under arrest for participating in a peaceful act of civil disobedience in support of a higher minimum wage and union rights for Kansas City workers. We’d known each other for a few hours. The white man was a drunk stranger, I believe hauled in for domestic violence.
My companion and I were forced to listen for an extended time to this man’s thoughts, some incoherent, others insensitive, a few overtly racist. We tried to counter some of this, but the man was in no condition to be reasoned with.
Civil disobedience “won’t do anything,” he said, a smug smile on his lips as he readied the punchline. “All you’re doing is disrupting the crack flow in the inner city.”
He explained that Somalis are foolish because they choose to drive taxis instead of finding better work, and how poor Americans in general need to work harder (as hard as he) and get off welfare.
He spoke of how native Africans are poor “because they’re just so stupid,” and how if I ever started a business I should take on my black comrade as a partner because “he looks like he could use a helping hand, if you know what I mean.”
This angered me, but as a white man my indignation was only against attacks on others; it’s not the hotter anger of one who is personally demeaned and defamed. I wondered what my companion was feeling at that moment. When I was able to put aside for a second my embarrassment that a fellow white person, intoxicated or not, would say such things in the presence of a black man, or at all, I saw my companion was stone-faced, eyes observing something far away, something I couldn’t see.
Perhaps it was memories. He’d seen and heard such things before. Perhaps he was simply trying to quell the anger toward this slander against where he lived, his work ethic, his ancestors from another continent, who he was.
I didn’t speak to him about it after our release. But I imagine he didn’t feel like he belonged.
Like the nation as a whole, Kansas City struggles to be a place where all people feel like they belong. That our city should be such a home is not the unrealistic demand of “sensitive, entitled snowflakes” who “get offended by everything.” It is the basic ideal of the American experiment, that all people are created equal, worthy of the same dignity, respect, and human rights. In a decent American society, that lived up to its principles, every person would feel like he or she belonged.
Clearly, this is not yet the case. The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded nearly 900 hate incidents in the ten days following Donald Trump’s election. Trump supporters were emboldened, validated, and set about verbally and physically attacking the people Trump demeaned and vilified. Women were grabbed by the genitals, homosexuals beaten, hijabs ripped off Muslim girls, blacks called "niggers," Jews called “kikes,” Hispanics mocked and told to leave the country. Vandalism featured swastikas, nooses, and racial slurs.
Whites and Trump supporters were victims also, to a small degree. 23 incidents, or 2.6%, were anti-Trump, and some included physical violence. All hate crimes are wrong and must be condemned, and all hate crimes make someone feel like he or she does not belong. But we cannot pretend all groups experience hate crimes equally. As The Star noted on January 6, only 10.5% of all hate crimes in 2015 were directed against whites (a typical percentage), even though the U.S. is still nearly 70% white. We also must not pretend hate crimes against one group cannot be a reaction to hate crimes against another. Such things do not always come from the same place.
What was the Kansas City experience? A black Kansas Citian found a swastika and noose spray-painted on his car. Alongside “Hail President Trump,” racial slurs, misogynistic slurs, and swastikas were left inside the Kansas City Public Library downtown. A Muslim business owner received threatening phone calls, and “white power!” was shouted at him in person. A student drew a Klansman saying “Kill all blacks!” at Piper High School. A gay man was beat, had a gun put to his head, and had “fag” spray-painted on his car. "Alt-Right" advertisements appeared saying "America was 90% white in 1950. It is now 60%. Make America Great Again." A white man shot three people, killing one, while hunting down Arabs -- he yelled "Get out of my country!" (The victim's grieving wife, in a public statement, asked, "Do we belong here? Is this the same country we dreamed of?") Further, a group of teenagers assaulted a white man they thought was a Trump supporter. Anti-white statements like “Kill Whitey” were scribbled on walls of a UMKC building.
Even before election day, things were getting bad. In 2015, religious hate crimes in KC rose 60%, most against Muslims, while general hate crimes rose 35%.
While there has been a great amount of progress in Kansas City since its Jim Crow era, since the heyday of its anti-immigrant and anti-religious minority hysteria, since its very beginning as a slave society in the early 1800s, there is still much work to do to make this city a place where everyone feels like they belong. But how can this be accomplished?
One way is to ensure local and national laws protect the freedom and equality of all people. Many will ask: if the law does not offer all the same respect, why should the individual? We must push for moral and fair public policy. That must be Kansas City’s response to proposals like mass deportations, the registration of Muslims, the repeal of same-sex marriage, the return of stop-and-frisk, and so on.
This is done through people’s movements, when ordinary people come together to force the government to yield to their demands. Progress always comes on the backs of troublemakers: those who organize, agitate, petition, protest, march, strike, sit-in, and engage in civil disobedience. When the powerful realize the trouble will not stop -- only grow -- until demands are met, they surrender. If enough people unite, they can shut down a city, a state, or an entire country. From Kansas City’s Valentine’s Day strike of 1918, in which 15,000 workers brought the city to a halt, to India’s 2016 strike of 180 million workers that did the same to a nation, the people have the power to take whatever they want — by simply leaving their workplaces and flooding the streets. This will occur in Kansas City whenever injustice rears its ugly head. We saw it at the inauguration day march from Union Station to City Hall, the Women’s March in Kansas City, and the protest at MCI against the immigration ban.
A second way is to help change the way others think. Make no mistake, the activism described above can make bystanders think differently. But in general, Kansas Citians must encourage each other to hold one another to the same standards -- that is, you must offer the same rights, respect, kindness, and dignity to others that you expect. That simple maxim, which almost all profess to believe in, could transform society if actually followed.
Under such a rule, one would think registering Muslims as ludicrous as registering Christians. Immigration bans would be a thing of the past, because ethical societies don’t punish the many for the crimes of the few. Tearing apart families by deporting good men and women who came to the U.S. illegally to escape poverty and violence would be unthinkable, because no one would want that done to their family. Homosexuality would be accepted as a natural human trait, like heterosexuality, with marriage rights protected for all. Discriminatory policing against black folk would be under constant attack by all white Americans, who would not want to be subjected to such mistreatment. All men would likewise be up in arms against the constant sexual harassment against women, light sentences for rapists, and other trademarks of rape culture. Hate crimes and everyday racist comments, no matter who against, would be found only in the history books.
That would be a much better society, a Kansas City where all people lived without fear and with a sense of belonging. Such a society is ours to create.
When my black comrade and I were released, we sat in a warm van with many others who were trickling out of the police station.
“You think we made a difference?” he asked, to no one in particular.
I thought of all the ordinary troublemakers before us who had protested and been arrested: those who fought for decent wages and the 40 hour workweek, the end of child labor, equal rights for women, people of color, religious minorities, and LGBT people, and the end of bloody wars like Vietnam. Those men and women rose up against exploitation, injustice, and bigotry. Surely they asked themselves the same question, and surely there was only one correct answer.
Garrett S. Griffin is an activist, political writer, and the author of Racism in Kansas City: A Short History. He is the communications coordinator at CCO.