On election day James Willingham, 42, was driving home from the polls in Detroit around 3:30 pm on his motorcycle when he was allegedly hit by a police car with such force that he struck and killed a pedestrian, Jeffrey Frazier, and then crashed into a pole and died from the impact.
When Diane Bukowski, a white journalist for the black newspaper Michigan Citizen, heard the news on a black radio station, she rushed to the scene on the corner of Justine and East Davison. The first print reporter to arrive, she showed her credentials and started taking photographs. A female state trooper yelled at her from across the street, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” Bukowski again identified herself as a journalist. “I didn’t cross any police tape,” says Bukowski. “I was just doing my job.” The trooper grabbed the camera, deleted the photos, handcuffed Bukowski, arrested her on a single misdemeanor count of obstructing an investigation and took her to state police headquarters, where she was held for about an hour.
And so it was that as the polls were closing in Michigan and the nation began to bask in the warm glow of a postracial society, a white woman was cuffed and fingerprinted because she tried to tell the world about two black men who had just been killed.
For all the dreamy talk of the journey we are on to transcend race, only a handful like Bukowski are actually paying for the ticket. Not just because she’s a white woman who works for a black newspaper and got arrested, or because the victims she was writing about were black, but because she is a white person who is prepared to take on the mess that white supremacy has built.
Extinguishing race as a meaningful category demands that we first get rid of the racism that gives it meaning. In that respect, the symbolic resonance of election night in Chicago–joyous as it was–can be understood only within the systemic neglect and harassment of that fateful afternoon in Detroit. The two scenes do not contradict but complement each other. A black man in the White House seemed so unlikely precisely because a black man in prison or dead at the hands of the police is so much more likely. What individuals do in the privacy of the polling booth pleasantly surprised some of us; but the outrageous things institutions do in plain sight no longer turn heads. Race describes the protagonists; power shapes the narrative.
“I’m happy that Barack Obama got elected,” says Arnold Reed, Bukowski’s attorney. “It’s a start. But he’s not the savior. He’s not standing on the corner of Justine and Davison. The battle that transcends race in this country is between those who have and those who have not. Diane’s reports have given a voice to those who have not.”