Jones: How to save the life of the next Michael Brown

Camisha Jones OtherWords

Camisha Jones

Michael Brown. Jordan Davis. Sean Bell. Trayvon Martin. The list of African-American boys and men gunned down at the hands of police officers and vigilantes just gets longer and longer. It makes me numb.

I don’t want to feel the full weight of grief and turmoil from knowing the lives of people I love, who look like me, are often not safe in this country. My hope for moving past this immobility comes from my experience facilitating anti-bias retreats and workshops for over seven years and my creative work as a poet. I’ve witnessed the numerous ways our lives are compromised when racism isn’t confronted. I’ve seen what can happen when we commit to the difficult work of undoing oppression.

Here’s what those experiences have taught me:

It will take more than a conviction to turn things around. We need to address the underlying culture that makes incidents like these so commonplace that black parents feel obligated to give their sons tips on how to avoid being murdered by the police. We need to examine our own hearts, minds and actions for the seeds of bias, including negative thinking about black boys, black men and people of color in general. Being a poet demands this type of continuous introspection. My work as a diversity trainer has shown me that in doing this we, as a community of all races, have the power to dismantle the building blocks that led us here.

We need a common definition of racism. Part of what makes it difficult to talk about race is that there are so many different ways to think about racism. But being a poet means knowing the importance of words and how we use them. Most anti-bias workshops I’ve led began with providing relevant definitions. One of the most common ways people think about racism is as acts of harm, like the use of derogatory language or murder. With this definition, we only take action when something blatant happens. That’s no path to long-term solutions. Racism is systemic. It’s also subtle conditioning that’s been in place for centuries. It teaches everyone who’s normal and who’s not, who’s superior and who’s not, whose life has value and whose does not. It’s a cycle all of us, regardless of our race, decide everyday to interrupt, to actively support or to keep alive by our inactivity.

We need vulnerability and discomfort. The most powerful poets and diversity trainers I know depend on vulnerability to touch people’s hearts. Building a more inclusive society requires telling the naked truth about our experiences. It requires listening to these stories even when it’s uncomfortable to hear them — especially when it’s uncomfortable. Any form of oppression is ultimately about power — who has it and who doesn’t — and becoming aware of which side of that equation we’re on is hard. It often causes defensiveness. But we can see defensiveness instead as a call to listen more deeply. Getting vulnerable is hard because it comes with the risk of being attacked. It also comes, though, with the opportunity to heal from what the legacy of racism has done to us all.

In Danez Smith’s poem “not an elegy for Mike Brown” he laments: “I am sick of writing this poem.” Aren’t we all?

Camisha Jones is the managing director of Split This Rock, a spoken word artist and former retreat facilitator for the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. Her column is distributed by

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  • Justin Randleman

    Does anyone really believe that any of these cases have anything to do with race and that if any one of them do that it is the national consensus? Let’s get real here. This shouldn’t be a debate about race, but rather a debate about justice. The author of this opinion piece has focused solely on the deaths of Black youth’s by “police officers and vigilantes”, without taking into consideration the deaths of any other cultural group or whether or not these deaths were murder or justifiable homicide. Does she suggest that we have a one-sided debate where racism only applies to one cultural group and that no other group can feel the effects of racism in today’s society? If we’re talking about a debate of equality, Shouldn’t it include everyone equally? The first step to equality is looking at the situation as a whole and not dividing it into subcategories. As soon as that division is made, Equality is no longer the intended result, but rather the beginning of a one sided debate over special rights. In any case though, I would rely more heavily on the facts than on the emotional manipulation of the mainstream media who thrive on division.

    • Rita Clewis

      Excellent response Justin!

    • Raymond T.

      Very well said, and completely true. The sad state of affairs our mainstream news media is in, in these ‘tough’ times, is what is reported is what will get you clicks. If we must vilify someone to get people to view our article, that is what we shall do.

      The media has done this with the whole Michael Brown thing, They did it with Trayvon Martin(which I thought was minority on minority violence?), and they do it anywhere they can sensationalize something by making someone, normally a white male, the big bad guy with very little care of the facts of the case. This was proven by countless eyewitnesses in the Michael Brown case, along with a pretty convincing autopsy report that shows the man didn’t have his back turned when he was shot.

      How many facts need to come to light before we realize the truth? “Unarmed White Teen shot in the back by black officer” is a headline you’ll never see in the mainstream news media.

    • Milton

      Thanks Justin. I was looking for civil words and you did that for me. MEN should be acting like MEN. If they did, they wouldn’t be put in positions to where they would be hurt. Officers defend them selves against anyone. When these MEN act like MEN, they will be treated as MEN. Not like the criminals you mentioned in your article…

    • Mark

      So exactly what other cultural groups are we talking about here? The article just said we should have a discussion about racism. She didn’t specifically mention or exclude other ethnic groups. She never suggested a one-sided debate. Also, why exactly is it supposed to matter what the national consensus is? Truth cannot be measured by an opinion poll. And what “special rights” is she supposed to be seeking? Is the right not to be gunned down when you have your hands up supposed to be a “special right?” Come again? You’re obfuscating the issue with clever straw men.

  • Trucker

    @ Ms. Jones. Camisha, racism works both ways. Not only is it white on black but vice versa just as much so. Had it been a black on black incident, the media probably would have never reported it. Just as you are tired of so called racism against your people , I’m tired of it being so against mine. The problem is that if a white writes something negative against a black, then all hell breaks loose. But if a black writes something against a white it’s seems to be jam up and jelly tight with all concerned, white and black. Just calm down Ms. Jones and think of the black on white crime that went unreported, just in the past week.

  • Trucker

    Justin, your comment was very well put. I just hope Ms. Jones and the others have sense enough to decipher what you wrote. I really didn’t see much poetry in what she wrote. However , I did see a tinge of racism on her part. More like the pot calling the kettle black. No pun intended Ms. Jones.

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