Safety, love, and respect are not pies to be apportioned

Dear President Biden,

I’m pretty sure it was Saturday, but it could have been Friday, and I was sitting in our living room looking out the window when the 73 bus passed by heading south on the arterial out front. This is not a remarkable thing in and of itself – buses go up and down our street many, many times a day. The reason I’m telling you about this particular bus-siting is that this bus had a placard on the side that says “BLACK LIVES MATTER” complete with a raised fist. How cool is that? And, even cooler is that the placard is sponsored by King County.

And it gets better. When I searched to find out more about the signs, I found that late last year King County Metro put out a call for BLM-oriented visual art from its employees and has since wrapped two buses in Robert L. Horton’s work while 200 buses have posters by Sandra Padilla with images of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Aiyana Jones. Padilla included a red fist behind the three and nearly all of the available spaces (inside the fist, George’s sweatshirt, Breonna’s hair, Aiyana’s t-shirt), and the contour lines of their faces, are comprised of the names of other victims of police violence. It’s as gorgeous as it is heartbreaking. Even though Padilla chose to feature the faces of people who were killed by police in other cities, I’m sure she’s got Charleena Lyles and the other 40+ people who have been killed by police in King County over the last several years in among the names.

Then there are the two pieces by Juan G. Hood, III – his work focuses on Black families and copies of them are now up at every Metro worksite. The thing about his work that’s especially interesting is that these pieces radiate a mix of passionate anger (images of people with clenched fists), sweetness (parents talking with or holding little children), and whether it was conscious or not, a figure/ground deal where the man whose clenched fist is held strongly down his center looks like he’s holding a large knife. He isn’t, it’s just the steely gray space between his legs, but the shape is definitely knife-like. Plus, the woman standing atop the central gnarled stump with her fist raised is clearly yelling as yellow highlights radiate from behind her. These works of art were not safe choices. And that’s a very good thing.

I do feel the need, though, to confess something I don’t feel very good about vis a vie the bus BLM signs and BLM signs generally. I was wondering what routes the Horton and Padilla buses travel and who is likely to see them regularly and thinking about what it might be like to be a young Black person seeing those signs. The confession part of this is that in wondering about this, I realized that almost all of the times when I’ve considered BLM signs, I’ve only thought about what they’re communicating to White people, which is pretty messed up. Yes, in my exceedingly White, formerly red-lined, neighborhood, BLM signs are mostly posted in White people’s yards and almost certainly intended to message other White people, so there’s that. But the message is clearly important to Black people and I feel ill at the realization that I’d slipped right by their point of view on this up until earlier today.

When I did stop to think what a young Black person might think and feel seeing one of the two Horton buses or one of the Padilla placards, I imagined a whole swirl of reactions from ‘damn right, my life matters’ to ‘damn it, are we ever going to be at the point where we don’t need these signs, that’ll it’ll just be a given that we’re all precious beings?’

And here we are, in a place and time when, on balance, it’s radically positive that powerful Black Lives Matter art is showing up on county buses and in metro bus workplaces. Hopefully this action by King County will hasten the time when it’s truly a given that Black lives matter to safety officers, to healthcare workers, to politicians – to everyone.

May we all be safe and get to feel safe.
May we all see one another as precious beings.
May we recognize that safety, love, and respect are not pies to be apportioned.
May we accept that for now, many of us need to be reminded daily of all of the above.

Tracy Simpson

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