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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and we start things on The World today by continuing the much needed conversation about race in America but from the unique perspective of outsiders looking in. Last night was the second night of protests all over the US about the Eric Garner case in New York. Demonstrators have been pouring out to express their anger at the second decision by a grand jury not to indict a police officer involved in the death of an unarmed black man. I went to the protest here in Boston where about 3,000 to 4,000 people marched past a Christmas tree lighting ceremony -- odd contrast here. In New York, bigger protests, and Hannah Giorgis, an Ethiopian-American writer who lives there, was out last night speaking with protesters.
Hannah Giorgis: People were, I would say, a combination of sad, frustrated, energized. There was a lot of discussion of how Ferguson is New York and New York is Ferguson, and this idea that the police state operates without boundaries in the US certainly. I heard a lot of folks saying “We actually have to come together to undo this because it’s not going to undo itself.” So, there was a lot of collective energy, a lot of people holding each other, a lot of grief, and a lot of looking forward as well.
Werman: What people are saying, has it gone from Eric Garner and Michael Brown to a larger conversation, and what is that conversation about right now?
Giorgis: I think it has been a larger conversation. I think that particularly amongst black folks in America there is an understanding that this isn’t about one case, two cases -- this is really about the perpetual anxiety of being black in this country and understanding that the cops can operate with impunity, and that your life is very much disposable to them.
Werman: Did you get the sense that there were other African immigrants protesting last night?
Giorgis: I have seen African immigrants stepping up in a way that I didn’t necessarily see earlier, which is not to say that it wasn’t there at all earlier, but it feels more pronounced now.
Werman: When we spoke during the Ferguson protests, that was something about the fact that African immigrants often feel a little not part of that conversation. What do you think has changed in the last couple of months?
Giorgis: I think that, again, there is just national attention. I think that folks have had to see the way both grand jury announcements kind of fly in the face of what the US would define as justice and there’s something very stark about that. Particularly with Garner, folks saw what happened literally with their own eyes. Then to have to reckon with being told that his death isn’t worthy of investigation I think is a hard blow and a wake-up call in some ways.
Werman: Now with two grand jury verdicts not to try two cops who killed two unarmed black men, are you even more discouraged?
Giorgis: I don’t know that I would use the word discouraged. I think that people are really feeling the weight of what’s happening right now, and that’s certainly sunk in and it’s been there, but I think that people are also really energized and really encouraged and heartened by the way that black people are showing up for each other, by this sort of renewed energy surrounding the work and the organizing that we should be doing. I think for me, as heavy as this moment is, it also feels very encouraging.
Werman: Do you feel that that promise of a black man in the White House, ushering a post-racial America, has not come to pass?
Giorgis: Yes. It’s the idea that we came into our political consciousness, organizing for this man and rallying around him in a way that was about building hope in our communities, and so to see that actually it feels like there’s been a lot of backlash against black folks since he’s been in office. So, sort of the opposite of what people claim. It’s been really hard to grapple with. Also, at the end of the day, he’s the leader of the United States, and that’s where his priorities are. If this nation is fundamentally invested in maintaining a police state, then as its leader, that’s what he’s going to do. There’s always a hope that somebody who came up telling you that he was going to do things for you will actually do that. And yet, sometimes we have to remember he’s a politician, as much as that hurts.
Werman: If it’s not enough, do you feel that the White House ultimately will have your back?
Giorgis: I don’t know that I feel that actually. I think that if you look at Obama’s rhetoric, what he’s said surrounding any sort of issue of unrest that involves black people being targeted, is that we aren’t respectable enough. It’s this whole “Pull up your pants, make sure you’re there as fathers” rhetoric, which doesn’t help anybody. Michael Brown had a father in his life and Eric Garner was a father. You look at these statements that are actually quite insulting in the face of systematic injustice and it doesn’t feel like anywhere in that trajectory is he going to suddenly change and say “Oh, actually you’re being targeted here. Let’s have a conversation about that instead of where you, as a community, aren’t being respectable enough.”
Werman: Ethiopian-American writer Hannah Giorgis speaking with me from New York City. Good to speak with you again.
Giorgis: Thank you so much.