I’m a 20-Year-Old Black Kid Who Covered the Kenosha Uprisings. Here’s What I Learned.
When the video of Jacob Blake getting shot seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, reached my timeline, I did what I usually do when Black trauma becomes a matter of mass consumption. I got angry.
I shared a Twitter post and an Instagram story, then deleted both. What made Blake’s shooting different from the last time an unarmed Black man was shot, or the time before? My cycle of grief continued; I tried to distance myself from it all by deactivating all of my social media.
The torched Department of Corrections building was a new sight, but the abandoned super K-Mart lot and empty foreclosed homes could cosplay as any other forgotten Midwestern city.
But the next morning, I woke up to a call from an editor asking me if I wanted to go to Kenosha to cover the subsequent uprisings. After a day of going back and forth with my morals, I agreed. I have a love-hate relationship with journalism. It has forced me to reckon with the inherent commodification of Black pain — my pain — for the “story.” But it has also opened doors to countless working relationships and conversations that have brought me some of the most joyful times in my life. I thought, if not me, then who? A 40-year-old White man?
For six days, I walked the desolate streets of an obviously divested city. I had never heard of Kenosha before it became the latest location for the futile debate over equity in America at the expense of Black life. But it looked like a city I had driven through a dozen times before. While the torched Department of Corrections building was a new sight, the abandoned Super K-Mart lot and empty foreclosed homes could cosplay as any other forgotten Midwestern city.
The Black trauma toll was the same, too. While in Kenosha, a Black teen told me local police had pulled assault rifles on him as he sat unarmed in a parked car. A middle-aged Black woman explained how the state uses the prison system to maintain a White-dominated workforce; we spoke mere yards away from where the local police had let her nephew bleed out and die on the sidewalk in front of their family home years before. And a young mother described how members of an armed militia ran up and down her street while she tried to figure out where she was going to get baby food — all stores in the city were boarded up and closed.
In a “post-George Floyd” world, mainstream media has pushed the idea that Blackness can expunge commodification and exploitation, especially in times of hyperintense violence — that, as a Black journalist, these stories are mine to write and the world’s to read. But my Blackness does not absolve the trauma and pain of another Black life. The physical reality for these folks won’t change wildly for the better by sharing their stories, but it will continue to fuel the White gaze.
It was apparent when talking to Black Kenosha residents that they never had an opportunity to tell their authentic stories. They appreciated the chance to share them with a Black journalist. But what did I give them in return? There’s real value in telling and documenting our stories. Still, under capitalism, “the story” can be turned into a product meant to be neatly packaged in the wrong hands, pacified and sold, and not the tool of freedom that it was intended to be by the early great Black journalists such as Ida B. Wells.
And in return, journalists, especially those in mainstream media, have the power to frame these movements for Black life. We saw the Kenosha uprisings framed as the result of Blake’s shooting, or even the officer who needlessly placed bullets in the 29-year-old’s back, but not due to the continued terrorization of poor people trapped by intentional, insidious violence. Violence so insidious that even when folks rebelled to sustain their lives, they were susceptible to terror from other angles, whether it be from neighboring White supremacists who had the power to kill protestors or from the exacerbation of poverty that, of course, disproportionately affected Black and Brown people.
I learned that this violence exists for the average White Trump supporter, like the middle-aged woman who called Black people savages to my face, then offered me water to make sure I didn’t get dehydrated in the heat. Or the houseless and shirtless White man who roamed the streets yelling, “White lives matter. Seven shots justified.” Like many Democrats, these Trump supporters are blinded by the false dichotomy and binary maintained by our two-party system, a way of politics that continues to let them down socially, politically, and economically.
Beyond the electoral divide, the Kenosha rebellions served as a microcosm for the country’s response to a summer of racial reckoning with the dozens of intersections of a failed American state. In Kenosha, the uprising has been very neo-liberal in action. Local organizers have called for the arrest and charging of the officers involved in Blake’s shooting, without acknowledging that these calls for “justice” can reinscribe the same modes of harm that prompted them.
For me, that has been hard to come to terms with. The reinvestment into a fundamentally racist and classist system allows it to continue harming the most vulnerable. Surely those in power are fine with a few “bad” cops in jail if it enables them to maintain the system that wields their power, especially if it was never set up to provide justice in the first place.
How can we say Black Lives Matter and then invest our energy into a system that is sustained by Black death? That’s why I cringe every time I hear the defining chants of “Black Lives Matter” at protests when I know those chanting aren’t ready to change the material conditions that would necessitate Black lives finally mattering.
The late South African revolutionary Steve Biko once said, “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” This means everything as I continue to come to consciousness and make sure that my voice can never be co-opted to fit a narrative. I’ll use my voice to understand the battle waged against our people — and to uplift our power.