I want to say something. It’s been said over and over, but like the power of a pew-filled church raising the roof with “Amens”, I want to add my voice to the chorus of people saying it:

America’s police must stop killing America’s black men.

See this man here? His name was Alton Sterling. A father of five, he was pinned down and shot multiple times by Baton Rouge police yesterday morning.

It is past time, as in 240 years past time, for America to stop making knee-jerk excuses and blatant assumptions about why black men die at a higher rate and black citizens succeed at a lower rate than the rest of us. We must admit that racism remains a national crisis in America. A crisis, in the case of Mr. Sterling, where the people we pay to protect us are hunting down and murdering an entire segment of our population.

Finally, we have to demand that this utter failing in our country’s core promise is talked and acted upon with the same kind of fervor and blanket attention that all of us just gave to gay marriage. Now, look, I’m a gay man. I worked on gay marriage in the early days. I am proud of that work and I agree that full equality for my lgbt brothers and sisters remains a civil rights priority.

But, c’mon now. We can all flood our Facebook feeds when some clerk won’t issue a marriage license or some baker won’t bake a cake and we can sustain that flood for weeks, months, years, BUT we can’t devote the same energies to calling attention and demanding action on the outright murder of our black brothers?

WTF people?




As to specifics of the actions needed, I look to the policy experts, community leaders and black men, women and children to talk about the specifics of the change we need. And I hope those of us who are not black listen.

In fact, I hope “listening” is the #1 action each and every person who reads this and who is not black takes.

Listening is not always easy, especially on matters of race and especially in a culture that feeds on divisive, personal, hateful and, yeah, I’m going to say it, uninformed rhetoric.

I know this from personal experience, because, for a lotta years, I thought I knew how to listen to people talk about race because, hey, I’m a liberal. I give money to civil rights organizations. I understand what black people must go through given our country’s racist past, present and future.

Then I moved to New Orleans. For three years, I lived in the Treme. Now, depending on who you talk to, Treme is either the first or the second oldest black neighborhood in America (as with all things in New Orleans, the actual facts are blurry). It’s history is deep. It is long. And it is alive. The ghosts of the past walk its streets, right along side the residents of its future.

Treme can be pretty tough. About a month after I moved in, someone was murdered on the corner. I once opened my front door to find two people having a gun fight on either side of my car. But, it can also be wonderful. A place where, if you’re a neighbor, you’re family. Where second lines and coming home funeral celebrations regularly pass your home. A place where you can dance and get the best 4 a.m. gas station fried chicken of your life.

The entire time I lived in Treme, my white friends from elsewhere in the country would introduce me to their white friends by saying, “This is Brett Will. He lives in Treme. He’s really walking the talk” or “He’s out there on the frontlines.”

To which I always called “bullsh^t.”

Because what I was really doing while living in the Treme was learning how to listen. Now, I don’t want to give the idea that I was some eager student, walking around saying “Black people, please teach me.”


There were a lot of times when I was a real asshole, times when the realities of black life in Treme butted heads with my white expectations of right and wrong. Fortunately, I had black friends who would slap me upside my privileged head and tell me to sit down, shut up…and listen.

Listen, as they they talked about living in a place where people are always coming in and wanting to steal your culture. Because they think they can make it even better.

Listen, as they talked about knowing families where generation after generation of black men have been killed by police. Police who left their bodies on the streets for hours, to “send a message”, all the while forgetting the mothers who stood behind the yellow police tape and watched the blood drain out of their child.

Listen, as they talked about how 1 in 14 black men in New Orleans are behind bars and 1 in 7 are on some form of parole.

Listen, to their anger, their rage, their determination to change things.

It was in listening to my neighbors that I came to understand a fundamental truth. Maybe it’s one you got long ago, but I can be an impatient and arrogant learner, so it took me awhile.

The truth is this: When we talk about listening to someone whose experience is different than ours, the goal is not about understanding the experience.The goal is to simply understand that the experience is different…and that you will never, ever understand that difference. Because you do not live it.

Which is why we need to listen to our black brothers and sisters (and, yes, we should listen to our police, too, but listen in way that expects accountability and transparency, not blame-shifting and sham trials).

Which is why we need to leave our assumptions, each and every one of them, behind and ask, “What can I do?”

Which is why we need to, we have to, act.