Remaking the World: Lessons About the Power of Community From a Trip to the South
As a member of the Ella Baker Center, I have helped on campaigns that try to end the cycle of incarceration through policy changes and by engaging members of my community to think about what safety means to them. The work that the Ella Baker Center does is both to stop the machine of incarceration from consuming our family and community members whole, while also preventing them from being locked up in the first place. We have to challenge conventional and ingrained ideas about “law and order” that have been passed down in our society throughout its history - since the era of lynchings, since slavery, since the genocide of Native people. Getting people to take the time and reflect on our roles in our communities is sometimes a daunting task, but a trip to the U.S. South to visit the recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Legacy Museum and other important sites only affirmed for me that building community is the necessary work that we must to do to re-imagine and re-make the world we want to live in.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum were built by the Equal Justice Initiative. Like the Ella Baker Center, EJI works to end incarceration and lift up communities that have been harmed by racial and economic injustice. The Memorial and Museum are spaces that are meant to confront the history of racial terror, fear, and discrimination that our country was founded upon, in the hopes of educating people about their effects on our lives today. I wanted to attend the openings with my partner so that we, as immigrants to this country, could deepen our knowledge of our shared history. I also wanted to experience it in solidarity with people who are working to heal the intergenerational and individual traumas in our society. In doing so, I deepened my connection to the work we do as Ella Baker Center members by seeing our efforts to redefine safety as one that belongs to a long history in the fight for justice, and one that is rooted in love.
The Legacy Museum is packed with information, literally from floor to ceiling. At times, walking through the exhibits felt overwhelming. Immediately after reading about Black people being massacred for simply trying to vote, I was confronted with a wall of jars filled with soil from the sites where someone was lynched. It may be that the building itself is too small to hold all of this information about the evils of slavery, lynchings, incarceration and the many ways they are intertwined in the twisted roots of our country. But, then, what space would be big enough? The interactive and seemingly relentless presentation of facts combined with the compression of time contained in the museum made me feel a sense of urgency to act. I left feeling anxious, desperate for change and justice.
We made our way from the Legacy Museum to the Memorial, which is situated on a hill overlooking the city of Montgomery. It was the site of a former warehouse where enslaved people were imprisoned. As I made my way through the space, the rusted and suspended columns, each representing a county in the South where lynchings have been documented, rose higher and higher overhead. Suddenly, a sad realization occurred to me: these columns do not only symbolize the lives that were lost to lynchings, they also represent the communities that allowed these atrocities to occur. Entire communities would rejoice while they stripped their fellow human beings of their humanity, torturing and killing them. I looked away for a moment to breathe, briefly comforted by the present moment and the distance from that era that it offered. Except...
We still live in a time where communities continue to allow erasures of Black, Brown, Indigenous, immigrant, and other disenfranchised bodies, only now the deaths are from police shootings or the psychological and economic deaths of families and neighborhoods as a result of over-policing, incarceration, and continuous defunding of public services and resources. To this day, people continue to be killed for simply looking “suspicious” -- eating by themselves at a park, sleeping in their car, playing with a toy, wearing a hoodie. Law enforcement agencies are still weaponized by communities just as they have been since the days of Jim Crow to satisfy imagined threats to our safety, perpetuating a cycle of violence and terror that devastates the poor and people of color. As much as the Memorial asks us to remember the past, it also forces us to reckon with the present.
After attending the openings, we drove down to the Florida panhandle to visit a remote, historical site I had read about called Prospect Bluff. During the Antebellum South (late-18th century until the start of the American Civil War in 1861), hundreds of escaped slaves and Indigenous Seminole people went there to build a community together. Sadly, they were massacred by the United States government at the order of President Andrew Jackson as punishment for escaping slavery or not giving up their land. I walked through the space slowly and felt the same waves of wonder, sorrow, and fury that I had felt walking through the Memorial and the Museum in Montgomery, thinking about the systems of power and ways of thinking that are hinged on stoking fears and justify “othering”, criminalization, dehumanization, and, ultimately, destruction of human beings. The antidote, I think, can be found in the legacy that the Prospect Bluff community left behind, which is people finding ways, despite constantly being under siege and threat of destruction, to come together in solidarity and be safe and strong.
The last stop in our trip was Atlanta, GA, where we spent one morning visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. Many Americans are taught, as I was, about Dr. King’s nonviolent strategy for civil rights, and, many times, that is where the education ends. After sitting inside Ebenezer Baptist Church and listening to one of his recorded sermons, I realized that, while non-violence maybe a famous pillar of his work, the foundation, actually, is community - the beloved community:
Looking around at the Sweet Auburn neighborhood where Dr. King grew up, an image of the community that raised Dr. King emerged, giving shape to his words and his fight for human rights. In that community was love - justice made visible.
I am finishing this blog post two months after my journey to the South, and a month before a nationwide celebration of community called Night Out for Safety and Liberation. Lessons about the importance of community and the real meaning of safety continue to resonate, particularly with the recent escalation of ICE snatching up our neighbors and loved ones, separating their families, and detaining them for profit. As we continue to live in the limited and uncreative imaginations of a violent police state and the people who support or are apathetic to it, I urge all of you to join me in re-examining our roles in our communities together. Do we let the atrocities of the past recur in the present? Will we stand idly by as our neighbors and our loved ones are harmed and disappeared by law enforcement into jails? Or will we unite in solidarity to protect one another and heal, and thrive together?