In his legendary 1996 HBO stand-up comedy classic, “Bring the Pain,” Chris Rock gave his comedic commentary on the polarizing O.J. Simpson verdict by saying, “black people are too happy, white people are too mad…black people were like, we won – we won! What exactly did we win? Every day I look in the mail for my O.J. prize and nothing.” I’ve thought about the nation’s reaction to the O. J. verdict a little as I’ve been processing the latest polarizing jury verdict – that of Trayvon Martin.
While I understand the emotion and anger in the wake of George Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict – and make no mistake, I too am sadden and disappointed that a life has been cut short. But I must say that I was not surprised by the verdict. Were you? Most people I spoke to are not. My friends are sad and disappointed, more than a few are angry, but when I challenged them, “Were you surprised?” most of them – no matter their race – leveled with me and said, “No, they were not surprised.” That alone may be a sad reality of being mid-30 and growing up in Richmond, but I will leave that for another discussion.
So, I was not surprised by the verdict. Nor was I surprised by the outpouring of angry status updates and twitter comments expressing anger with the verdict, the judicial system and the country. While, I do raise an eyebrow at some of our celebrity friends calling for revolution – yes Miley Cyrus, I read your, “No Justice, No Peace” tweet. Even in the midst of all of this anger and outrage – I still find myself optimistic – yes – optimistic about the future of my culture, community, and city, and beyond (though it does get tougher at the top end – Virginia and country).
What Cheats? How can you sit at your computer and write any form of positive commentary regarding this event? Again, don’t get me wrong – the fact that Trayvon Martin is dead is horrible and tragic. I can’t begin to imagine what his family and friends are going through. And because of this case, I find myself taking the time to ask, where exactly are we as a country and culture in 2013? Should I consider this verdict a major step backward for justice? For race relations? For America?
Is the Zimmerman verdict more devastating than last month’s Supreme Court’s decision that struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act? Is the decision more important to our culture than the current murder rate and incarceration rate among black males? As a black male, I wonder about these questions often.
Should I be more concern with this verdict than Richmond’s poverty rate, which is nearly double the national average (according to Mayor’s Anti-poverty Commission Report, released earlier this year)? Should I be more outraged by the death of Trayvon Martin than the death of Brendon Mackey, the 7 year old boy killed by the stray bullet of a handgun while he was walking with his father from 4th of July fireworks right here in Midlothian? Don’t get me started on VA’s gun laws (again that’s a discussion for another time). I don’t have the answers to these questions and that disturbs me.
Yet, instead of stewing in my own anger and confusion, I decided to take some time and try to put the knee-jerk reactions of the last 48 hours into some form of perspective in regards to the future. In spite of this entire tragedy, I’m reminded through my friends and family that we live in extraordinary times. We all have the ability to do things that were simply unimagined by my own parents and grandmother (who’s over 80 and still lives on 4th Ave. in Highland Park). And yet, it is up to us, as individuals, as a culture, and as a community, how we write our future.
Saturday afternoon, before the verdict was released, I hosted the 2nd annual Cheats Movement Family photo. The photo is a fun opportunity to bring RVA’s creative community together in one place, to meet each other, visit, and take a photo. Despite the down pouring of rain, for the second year in a row (I’ve really got to pick a better time), this year’s photo nearly doubled the inaugural photo in all ways imaginable. There were more artists, more musicians, more poets, more designers, more writers, more creatives, and more babies (Cheats loves the kids). While there were more people, the underlying theme remained the same: This is Our Richmond and we are all doing our part to make RVA the place we want it to be – the place we know it can be.
As I looked around at my rain-soaked friends, standing in 90 degree heat (I really need to pick a better time), I thought to myself, this is the future of RVA. We may not be able to change everything but we can change our community. And that’s how it starts – make no mistake – that’s how all change starts. There are no homeruns when it comes to this type of change, there are walks, there are singles, we’re really lucky if we get a double – but no homeruns and honestly no closer either…because this particular ballgame never ends. Though it would be cool to see a Mariano Rivera of positive change come out of the bullpen just to let the world know that change is here – the game is over and we’re going to win.
Last week, I was asked about the next generation of Richmond leaders, more directly he asked me if I ever thought I would run for public office. I quickly told him, I can’t see myself doing that any time soon because my friends and I can make more change from the outside without the hassle of being a politician in this day of “gotcha” media and tear down politics. He responded by saying, “Really, well why haven’t you guys started doing that,” I said, “Who’s to say we haven’t.”
I know it’s a Jay-Z line but we really are living in the era of new rules. While wealth, education, gender, and race still play the dominate role in how individuals are defined in America, the definition of words like culture and community are being transformed right before us. In many ways, the internet is the new church. Picnics are being replaced by Meet-Ups – Elk lodges with chat rooms. The Richmond Times dispatch is being replaced by The Cheats Movement (not really but you get the point). I do get more of my news alerts from Facebook and online sources – much more than I do from paying one dollar for the daily newspaper.
I write this to emphasize the point that while we may never live in a country or a city that is 100% fair; we are living in a time where we can directly impact our culture, community, and future through direct action. I know the family photo represents that sentiment for each person that joined us Saturday; and so many that could not make it out.
Whether it’s working for better elementary schools on Richmond’s Southside, or working with great non-profits like Art 180, or the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, or bringing people together for laughter like the Richmond Comedy Coalition, or teaching hip hop to students at Sabot at Stony Point (S/O Black Liq and RT), or hosting amazing community spaces like The Shop, we can make the impact that we want to see throughout RVA and for that I remain hopeful and optimistic.
To wrap this up, I would like to issue a gentleman’s challenge to those who just can’t see my level of optimism. I know that there are many people who are more than angry – they are fed up – and really can’t see what I see when it comes to the future of RVA or America. I challenge you to do something small – something kind – for someone else in your world. You don’t have to make a public ceremony about it – you don’t even have to tell the person you’re doing it for – but do it – complete a random act of kindness and when you do, say a prayer for Trayvon Martin and his family. My good friend P reminds me often that kindness can change world. I believe that and I believe that it’s up to us – little by little – to continue the hard work of positive change in our culture and community.