Learning from the death of Derrion Albert


Advisory: The video above contains scenes of very real, very graphic violence.

We can never fly so high that we forget that there are those on our community who are very much stuck on the ground.  You see a video like this that there's a lot of work to be done.  Yes, there's still racism and injustice from outside our community.  But this video shows us what we're capable of doing to our own.  And it's especially easy when those bonds of community fail, when we no longer see people who look like us as ourselves, but as the enemy.

A quick recap: Derrion Albert was killed during what people believe to be a fight between students at the high school he was attending and a rival gang.  Someone struck him from behind with a board and a number of other students beat and kicked him while he was down. He was an honors student at the school.  More background info here.

I certainly think about these things.  My son is approaching 10 and is already pushing for the freedom to go places on his own.  And as a parent, I'm not sure when I'll be comfortable letting him walk out into a world where people who look like him might hate him because he may represent opportunities that they feel are not within their own reach.

We call it "black-on-black" violence, but it could also be latino-on-latino, as was the case last week when a young mother in the Bronx died while protecting her son when a gun-battle broke out.  Turns out that all took place on the block on which one of my co-workers lives.  But both this incident and Derrion's death could've happened in almost any black or latino neighborhood where economic opportunities are limited, city services are few or far between and the recession's effects hit seemingly extra hard.  And I don't fool myself into thinking everything's hunky dory because I live in "relatively" safe Park Slope.  Mine is a neighborhood in transition.  Hell, until a few weeks ago, there was a weed spot at the end of my block, right next to the upscale apartment building.  So I try hard not to get it twisted.

Former VIBE editor Jozen Cummings offers a powerful piece on young Derrion's death.  He writes:

So let the video of Derrion Albert’s life-ending beating get as many
views as the video of Kanye West jumping on stage in the middle of
Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech (as I write this, this one currently has 1,959,026 views). Let #derrionalbert be a trending topic on Twitter and make sure it stays there as long as #musicmonday or #jayz. Blog about Derrion Albert like you would your own relationship woes, remix the video of his beating by layering it over Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”
to drive the weight of Albert’s loss home, or get a camera, record your
own thoughts about this horrific tragedy and in the words of YouTube,
“broadcast yourself.” But most importantly, watch the video. It hurts,
it’s disgusting, but it might be the first step we need to avoid seeing
a sequel anytime soon.

At the same time, activist DaveyD shares an open letter from Nas to the young men in Chicago who killed Derrion.  He writes:

We chose the dumbest things to go the hardest for.  I remember
seeing deaths over 8 ball jackets, Fila sneakers, and name plate
chains. Deaths over “he say, she say”!!!!! “I’m from this block or I’m
from that block”, or “my moms n pops is f*cked up now the whole world
gotta pay”!!!

I remember feeling like I was the hardest “n*gga” breathing.  And I
couldn’t wait to prove it. But let’s think. What are we really
proving?? And proving what to who?? Everybody knows Chicago breeds the
strongest of the strong but I just feel, me, being ya brother from
another state feels your pain as if I grew up with you in ya very own
household.

Part of the promise of black rock, particularly for African Americans, is that it offers a whole new framework around black authenticity and ways to be.  But that promise will remain unfulfilled if those of us in the black rock, Afro-punk and URB Alt communities forget that we're also part of larger communities, ones that need our examples, our inspiration and our presence.

How do we make this more than just about art, and turn it into an engine that powers a progressive agenda that can improve lives on a grand scale?

Your thoughts?

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  • http://yesterdayspoem.blogspot.com vizionheiry

    I really like how you tied it back into Black rock. It’s a startling connection.

    “Part of the promise of black rock, particularly for African Americans, is that it offers a whole new framework around black authenticity and ways to be.”

    The artist uses a medium to make connections. In this particular instance, I would like to see musicians:

    1. Collaborate to release a suite (4-5 songs) that relate to this particular issue of violence.

    2.Partner with CopWatch and Stop the Violence (two organizations that do great work).

    3. Give the opportunity for the orgs to speak during the performance.

    4. Split the proceeds at live performances of this suite with these two organizations (or similiar like minded organizations).

    An artist is implicitly an organizer.

    Listen to my poem Strike Straight about the death of Derrion Albert. http://yesterdayspoem.blogspot.com/2009/09/strike-straight-for-derrion-albert.html

  • http://liberatormagazine.com achali

    we gotta stop treating these as separate incidents and pay more attention to the folks already twittering and youtubing on more foundational topics like parenting and community building around health (food, spirit, social, educational, inspirational, mental, etc)

    this should not be compared to kanye jumping on stage as a “media moment”, otherwise just like that kanye video it will die in 2 weeks. like katrina, like sean bell, like oscar grant.

    @vizionheiry: if we’re gonna tie in black rock, why do yet another compilation on ONE media moment?

    why not do one around the more foundational topics that keep staring us in the face THROUGH these media moments?

    the media moments are supposed to awaken us to the deeper problems, not themselves be the things we become enthralled with — happy or sad. otherwise we’re just being programmed to think, whether we’re being programmed to react to kanye’s fits by shaking out collective heads, or being programmed to react to another black man being shot by “twittering” about it.

    let’s stop reacting and start being disciplined about a sustained communal agenda.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robfields Rob Fields

    Thank you both, Achali and Vizionheiry, for your comments.

    You both raise some good points. @Vizionheiry, I hear your desire to DO SOMETHING. Music can be a great way to highlight an issue, a la “We Are The World” or “Stop The Violence.”

    I think Achali also rightly sums up our challenge today, nearly a decade into the 21st century. That is, we’ve got to start thinking bigger if we’re going to fashion solution to what have really grown into systemic problems. In that regard, we need big ideas.

    However, I do think that the black rock, Afro-punk and URB Alt communities should now, more than ever, be on the lookout for opportunities to build alliances with folks in other communities and across lines the are demarcated by race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. It’s not going to be our little island of progressive music lovers that moves things forward. Because the issues that affect us affect everyone else. Look at the healthcare debate.

    So the question that I’ll ask is this: How do we effectively move progressive culture into the marketplace in a way that makes it viable long enough to impact things on a broad scale? The marketplace viability issue is huge, since the overarching framework is capitalism. Ideas have to matter in the marketplace in order to survive within such a framework.

    They say all politics is local, so I’m guessing that a bunch of people/organizations have to start things in their local areas, grow and then link in the middle. It make the elephant edible, that is, it takes something that looks daunting and breaks it down into a more manageable chunk. That’s a long way of saying that we have to link with likeminded folks, and they may not all be in black rock.

    That might be what we need.