The Smell of Smoke: Are We Burning or Rising from the Ashes?

March 19, 2021 Leave a comment
Photo credit: Mark McDermott, webinar for United for a Fair Economy

A friend said that as the snow melted in her Minneapolis neighborhood last week, the smell of smoke from the fires after Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd last summer was released anew into the air. This, as the trial of Derek Chauvin begins in Minneapolis.

This month is a cacophony of anniversaries and markings. It is a year since Louisville Police killed Breonna Taylor, about that since two men killed Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, a 25-year old unarmed Black man, and the start of the trials of Derek Chauvin and Kyle Rittenhouse.

Note that I am trying here to use an active voice after listening to a powerful podcast with Baratunde Thurston and Yahdon Israel talking about how racism and anti-Blackness is built into our use of the passive voice and tendency to make those impact the actors of a sentence[1]. [In other words] George Floyd was not killed by Derek Chauvin; Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.

This is an important time in our country. While our courts are a far cry from sources of healing or justice, it is critical that we use this system for positive change as much as possible, while we create better systems.

What will happen? We must:

  • Use this moment to make the courts an instrument of justice.
  • Work from outside the courthouse to say that we are ready to be a society with real accountability for wrongs that we have committed, both historically and recently.
  • Shift how we use language to ensure we are attributing actions to the perpetrators of the harm, in this case the death of another human.
  • Ask, each day, “what can I do differently in my organization to dismantle anti-Blackness and the destructive myth and perpetuation of white supremacy?” and then act on it.

Let’s be active now. In our language[2] and our actions.

In our organization and many others, people are tired and grieving. We have lost loved ones and we have lost access to aspects of our lives that we hold dear. And yet, we need to save energy for the important work and rebuilding ahead. We have to maintain energy in organizations so that the commitment and work does not end after a workshop, or after a team is set up, or after we hire a director of equity. These are just the first steps…

We have to decide, particularly white Americans, if we are willing to step into a real period of reckoning and not just a temporary increase in awareness that is evidenced by the formation of committees and our participation in  r marches. The smoke could be the signal of us all going down in flames or it could be the olfactory symbol of rising from the ashes and rebuilding our country.


[1] Baratunde called the podcast: “a meditation and conversation on analyzing the structure of headlines to reframe/revert the gaze away from the victims as racial objects back to the racial subjects perpetuating the problem….[in other words] George Floyd was not killed by Derek Chauvin; Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.” (We’re Having a Moment” Podcast, Episode 4, 2020).  

[2] In the same Podcast, Yahdon Israel (@yahdon on Instagram) reminds us that even well-intentioned campaigns like “Say her name” which helps us to hold up people who were killed and to focus on women as well as men; it doesn’t name the subject or actor and doesn’t name what we are doing or why. Don’t put those impacted in the passive action role: “Black people earn less than…”; “women are killed by men”; “George Floyd was killed”. Who did the killing and why?

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