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Commentary: Giving activism a good name

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 17, 2009 - On Monday night, the Missouri History Museum hosted a panel discussion about policing black activism. Despite gloomy weather conditions, the program brought in a crowd of people, ranging from the seasoned activist to the uninitiated-but-curious. I was interested in the topic, as I am interested in most things, but I really wasn't sure what the evening would offer me.

I am a white child of the '80s. Although my parents taught me about treating everyone fairly and not judging people based on skin color, I certainly didn't receive any kind of education about the history of the Black Panthers, much less the issues going on just 10 minutes from my comfortable home in Webster Groves.

Until my middle school years, I bought wholly into the notion that the police exist to defend and protect all people. I trusted their authority, and it never occurred to me that some people might not have this luxury.

This illusion was shattered in 1991 with the beating of Rodney King; and from then on, especially as I moved into high school, it became a given that the police treat black people unfairly. But it was still a subject that was far removed from my day-to-day existence. What did it have to do with me? And what power did I have to change the system anyway?

I entered the museum auditorium on Monday night with those same questions running through my head, and there is nothing like a panel of old-school activists to get you thinking about the answers.

After watching a portion of "Eyes on the Prize II: A Nation of Law?," which gave some context to the conversation, I listened to Norman Seay, Jamala Rogers and Percy Green discuss their experiences with civil disobedience.

I suppose I shouldn't be shocked by much anymore, but somehow I still am, and hearing about the 1969 police massacre of Fred Hampton and others in Chicago left me stunned, especially as I learned about police brutality right here in St. Louis. As the discussion progressed and more issues arose, both past and current, I became increasingly cognizant of my own ignorance. One audience member said that he felt he had "the education of a 6-year old" when it comes to local black history. I'm not sure I have even reached first grade yet.

During the course of the evening, I began considering what activism really means. That term has become marginalized, even villainized, synonymous with "radical." On the one hand, as a person who generally avoids conflict and seeks common ground, I can sympathize with the fear of anything too far to the left or the right.

In my mind, I have always thought of a "radical" as a person unwilling to engage in conversation and understand other perspectives, and I don't believe that this narrow-mindedness is productive. On the other hand, I thoroughly endorse taking action for your beliefs, and I know that sometimes a louder voice is necessary. What good does it do to stand up for what you believe in if no one hears you?

I also began thinking about who creates and defines the labels "radical" or "activist." Are activists truly scary, or are we just made to believe that they are by the established power structure? I like to think of myself as a person who can see through much of the media rhetoric, but perhaps I have been naive about the degree to which the voice of authority has infiltrated my mind.

Percy Green stressed the value of pushing people to operate outside their comfort zone and getting people to think beyond the status quo. What I realized that night was that the first person I needed to push was myself.

In the end, I came back to those questions I started with. What does this have to do with me? And what can I do about it anyway?

The first question was easy to answer. Black activism is relevant to me because my community is my problem. In St. Louis, we sometimes limit our sense of community to a particular neighborhood, forgetting that we belong to a larger village that encompasses the metropolitan area. It is so easy to ignore what is happening just a short car ride from your own front door. And yet the things that go on while our eyes are closed affect the overall quality of life for the city and county as a whole.

Improving the day-to-day well-being of some people ultimately creates a better living environment for all people. Equitable schooling, health care, housing and treatment result in superior conditions, less flight from the city, increased tourism and a more economically sound city.

But what about that second question? What can I do? Can I change the system? Well, no. Not directly, at least. But there are lots of things I can do.

Of course, I can take the initiative to research local organizations and get involved with them. But first I can give myself the local history education I didn't receive growing up. I can develop an even healthier sense of skepticism about authority figures -- journalists, ministers, law enforcement, etc. I can probe and question.

Then, armed with information, I can use the power that comes with my white privilege to flip the script. I can become an ally. I can talk, something I already do in abundance. I can start a conversation with my friends and be a conduit for information.

Is that activism? Well, I'm not sure, but it is a good place for me to start, and I'm ready to go.

Emily Underwood is special events coordinator at the Missouri History Museum.