Op-Ed: What I learned at the Charlotte Uprising rally by shutting up and listening

 By Michael Venutolo-Mantovani (Photo: Andy Goh)

August 21, 2017

On Saturday I took the drive from our liberal Southern enclave in Chapel Hill to my wife’s hometown of Charlotte where the civil rights advocacy group Charlotte Uprising would be hosting their rally CLT To Charlottesville: A Call To Action Against White Supremacy. The heat radiated off of Marshall Park’s cement, onto the legs of the several hundred advocates in attendance on a typically hot August day in the Piedmont. Organizers passed out bottled water to attendees of all ages, colors and backgrounds and at the park’s edge was a table where members of Food Not Bombs were passing out free food to hungry activists.

The NASCAR headquarters in the distance glares over the milling group of advocates, juxtaposing these two elements of the South. The old guard and the new converging here as the names of Charlotte’s Keith Lamont Scott and Justin Carr rang out and echoed off of Uptown’s mirrored glass. The Old South standing sentinel above us, the New South’s voices coming together as one at the ground level.

We know what the Old South is but we’re just beginning to learn about the The New South, as it has taken shape and it isn’t straight or white, cisgendered or middle class. To see it in one tiny corner of Charlotte, at the foot of one of the most revered vestiges of the Southern identity was inspiring.

As the sun began to set and Charlotte Uprising’s young, indomitable leaders began to guide us through the night, a tone of quiet reverence shrouded the huddled mass. Candles were lit in paper bags spelling out a giant, glowing “CLT” across the cement in front of Marshall Park’s bubbling fountain.

Speakers began to talk about the ills of the prison industrial complex, the ongoing ramifications of last year’s unrest in the wake of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, the young men who were sitting in jail cells on trumped up charges stemming from that night, and how better to be a white ally in these moments.

They talked about the death of Heather Heyer and what it means to be young and different in a world that reminds regularly that it has little use for you. They talked with a mixture of passion, fear, rage, sadness, ambition, pride, love and hate.

They talked like their lives depended on it.

And rather than take copious notes, conduct a few interviews and approach this coverage from a journalistic “Who What When Where Why” point of view, I sat back and listened.

After all, I wasn’t there to cover the event. I was there to mourn with my brothers and sisters in Charlotte, the city that borne and shaped my wife.

I was there as a friend of the movement, a nascent activist, as a person who believes that all black, brown, queer, gay, trans and fluid people deserve every opportunity that I, as a straight white man, have been afforded in life and every chance to pursue their happiness unencumbered by the threats of a narrow-minded society which feel increasingly emboldened to display their true feelings.

I won the genetic lottery. I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual guy. Cops are going to treat me in a very unique way. The law is going to view me from an unfairly charmed point of view. I have a leg up on tens of millions of Americans because of a small handful of traits I had no part in choosing. So how do I employ that inherent privilege to be an agent of change? How can a straight, white, cisgendered, heterosexual guy from the upper middle class be an ally, an advocate, a friend, a partner, a compatriot?

Luckily, the organizers of the event were more than ready to share their wisdom, to tell the crowd how best to channel their energy into action and lasting momentum. I listened intently and tried to cast asunder any preconceptions I may have had arriving at Marshall Park. I took a detailed mental inventory of the things I was learning from the people who’ve fought the hardest.

First, and most important, we have to shut up.

Just shut up. Shut up and listen. Listen to the people who don’t look like you. Listen to the people who are experiencing life from the margins firsthand. Now is the time for white progressive America to cede the microphone to black and brown, to queer and trans, to those people who this fight is for. Don’t speak unless one of those people hands you the mic and asks for your thoughts.

Take a back seat. Let the people who you are fighting with steer the ship. Let them know that you’re there to help, to advocate, to pick them up when they fall, to stand with them, to stand beside and behind them. But let them drive the conversation. To assume that it’s your place to take charge is white privilege in a nutshell.

Then I learned that anger is normal.

We’ve all seen the signs, “Love Trumps Hate” and we should all know by heart Dr. King’s quote about darkness. But I learned on Saturday that anger is okay. Rage is okay. Vitriol is okay. People who’ve been marginalized should feel hatred, anger and rage that they’re considered by many as second class, as unequal.

So don’t dare ever tell an angry person that love is more important than anger. Don’t dare tell a person that they can overcome the hatred of millions and prevail despite the institutional systems that have been in place for generations in an effort to keep them down simply by exuding love. I learned that, while there will always be a place for love, the time now is for anger. Because anger often begets action. And action is often the only thing that begets change.

I learned that, while white people like me need to shut up and listen, our bodies are still necessary in the streets. I learned that our black, brown, LGBTQ brothers, sisters and people need our faces and our bodies in the crowd beside them–and not just when a white body is killed–because brown bodies, queer bodies and different bodies don’t get the same treatment that white bodies do. I learned that standing beside someone is one of the most important things we can do.

I learned that the white faces came out in force after Heather Heyer’s death. I learned that many of them, myself included, were conspicuously absent in the wake of Keith Lamont Scott’s death and the deaths of so many other African Americans. I learned that we move most swift when one of our own is wronged. I learned that it is imperative that we break this habit, that while we talk a big game, many white Americans only mobilize when other white Americans have been hurt. I learned that we have to be better for our allies. I learned that we have to show up more.

I learned that it is no longer enough to speak out on social media or to wear shirt emblazoned with progressive slogans. I learned that doing so keeps us in safe, comfortable spaces. I learned that we need to move our voices and actions into the streets.

I learned that some of the people working the hardest and risking the most are very, very young.  

As the oldest of the speakers on Saturday evening bellowed into the microphone about their pending felony charges for inciting riots in the wake Keith Lamont Scott’s death, I thought how they were only 24 or 25-years-old and how they’re putting their entire future at risk to be an agent of change.

I learned that, while I may not agree with certain radical notions, such as the one which presumes that all cops are evil, I need to understand that it is the radical notion that often paves the way for the sustainable one. I learned to embrace radicalism, even if I don’t subscribe to it.

I learned that so many of my instincts are wrong and that I have a ways to go if I’m going to be the advocate that I want to be. But I learned that the process of learning is part of my journey and, so long as I stand beside those who need me to stand beside them, learning is a perpetual process. Learning never ends.

I learned that I have the luxury of time. As a straight, white, cisgendered, heterosexual guy, my life is hardly in constant danger. It’s a luxury that so many young, ethical, vibrant people that shared the benches at Marshall Park with us aren’t afforded.

I learned that while my voice and the voices like mine are not the ones that matter most, they are still needed, still necessary, still important. We just need to learn how and when to use them, and, more importantly, how and when to not.

Read next: 

In this article