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'Unity before justice is insulting'

An opinion on the 'Am I Next? 4Unity' rally held at Rosa Parks Circle on Saturday, July 16, 2016.
Black Lives Matters: Grand Rapids silent protest

Black Lives Matters: Grand Rapids silent protest /John Rothwell

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Black Lives Matter: Grand Rapids silent protest

Black Lives Matter: Grand Rapids silent protest /John Rothwell

The idyllic portrayal of a nation in racial unity is one of America's most pervasive mythos. But when exactly was America united racially? From slavery, to Jim Crow and segregation in the Reconstruction Era, to the current age of mass incarceration; the United States has not been in unity with its Black citizenry.

In this current moment, when racial tension is thrust to the fore, too many resort to simplistic rhetoric about coming together and being united. This is done without the necessary work of addressing what exactly disunited us in the first place. This is something Black Lives Matter: Grand Rapids felt they needed to address at last Saturday’s assembly dubbed '#AmINext? #4Unity'.


These were the words on one of the signs held up by a member of Black Lives Matter: Grand Rapids as we protested a call to unity without the very pertinent issue of state violence being addressed. There were moments at the assembly of affirming that Black lives do indeed matter, moments when we stayed silent to remember the most recent victims; Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, moments when the black teens who organized it lamented at their fear of being victims themselves. But that was it, these were just moments before the conversation shifted to reinforcing our unity mythology.

The Chief of Grand Rapids Police was invited to speak and he talked proudly of his department, not once mentioning the cases of police brutality leveled against them. A lawyer with the ACLU gave us lessons on police compliance, even though we've seen case after case where compliance did not matter on the side of the victims. There was this white woman who told us to just be nice to each other before Black pastors led us in prayer for unity and peace. There was no critical discourse on state violence, zero talk of local victims of police brutality in Grand Rapids like Donovan Brasswell.

The ongoing killings of Black persons at the hands of the police has thrust us into a moment where we need to grapple with this unity mythos. We see #blacklivesmatter labeled as divisive and therefore countered by #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter for the purposes of unity. We see this being used as a tactic to silence Black protest against police violence. Local media outlets praised the #AmINext rally’s peacefulness in juxtaposition to rallies in other cities where Black protests that did not peddle this unity mythos were met with police violence.

Black Lives Matter:Grand Rapids chapter members showed up at the rally to share our concern about this empty rhetoric of unity. This picture that all races in America are seamlessly integrated into one harmonious whole is a necessary lie to deflect the state’s responsibility in historical anti-black violence. We understand that unity will not just happen upon us and these surface level attempts at presenting a united racial front, only serve to reinforce our current white supremacist stats quo. We will continue to use our voice and platform to speak out against this empty rhetoric of unity and peace until no more Black bodies are being subjected to state violence.

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