Two Ears and One Mouth

02 June 2020

Osborne President & CEO Elizabeth Gaynes reflects on the importance of listening and speaking out in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

 

It was close to a half-century ago that I entered a New York prison for the first time. I was a law student called to find some way to confront the injustice of the massacre of incarcerated men in Attica’s D-yard, mostly men of color shot by an all-white police force with weapons and bullets outlawed by the Geneva convention. The Attica Prison Rebellion was called a riot by police and press, but what we saw was an uprising. “We are men, we are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”

The very first man I interviewed in the aftermath of the Attica Uprising taught me a lesson that has been with me has been with me ever since: “Allah gave us two ears and one mouth, so we would listen twice as much as we speak.” 

In these past few days of virtual meetings with my colleagues at Osborne, I have listened — hopefully, more than I have spoken. Unsurprisingly, I heard stories that were unacceptably familiar from past repetition: of men and women who have been illegally stopped and searched, unlawfully detained on a traffic stop, or beaten by an arresting officer or corrections officer. I heard from those who live in fear that they or their children will die at the hands of law enforcement. 

As a white leader, I know that white silence is white violence. It is my responsibility, and that of my white colleagues on the staff and board of the Osborne Association, to engage with the issue of systemic racism and all that it has wrought. This is especially true after a weekend of the most dramatic civil unrest in the lifetime of most of those who found their way to the protests. And while some bemoan the “looting” and “violence” of social unrest, as Davey D said, “the worst looting I’ve ever seen take place happened a few weeks ago when corporations collected over $500 billion in stimulus money while everyone else was left with a check for $1,200 and having to decide whether to pay for food or rent.”

A little perspective. When we consider the aggressive and often brutal police response to people protesting the murder of George Floyd, let’s pause to recall the very different state response we witnessed only a few weeks ago. As white people wearing fatigues and flak jackets and armed with sawed-off shotguns and rifles bombarded a capitol building to protest stay-at-home orders, police managed to remain solicitous, respectful, and hands-off. The belated worship of “peaceful protest” was not so much in evidence when a protest against police brutality involved a football player kneeling for the national anthem. 

While it is our responsibility to speak up and speak out, it is just as important for us to make space and listen twice as much as we talk — within our organizations and within our communities — and to let the people speak. And mourn. For organizations like the Osborne Association, working at the intersection of communities and the institutions that seek to control them, we have a special need and opportunity to use our voice now. Especially as we once again see the narrative shift to blaming and criminalizing the victim, starting with the medical examiner suggesting that if George Floyd were healthier, a knee on his neck for nine minutes wouldn’t have killed him. 
 
As James Baldwin said decades ago:
“When Israelis pick up guns, or when Poles, or the Irish or any white man in the world pick up guns and says, 'Give Me Liberty or Give me Death,' the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad n-----, to make sure there won’t be any more like him.”

But the “unrest” that leads to “uprising” goes beyond racist policing. When Malcolm X said, “that’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck,” he wasn’t just talking about the knee on George Floyd’s neck, but the systemic racism in our systems of food, shelter, and education. And as we confront a pandemic, we have laid bare the systemic racism of health care in this country. There is no shortage of opportunity to speak, to listen, and above all, to act.

Black people, people of color, have spoken long and with more grace and poetry than I ever could.
“Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

                                          – “Ella's Song,” Sweet Honey in the Rock
 
 

Liz Gaynes
President & CEO