Why I Wrote "This Is Not For You": An Essay by Richard Brown

February 24th, 2021 , Posted by Marty Brown

This is Not For You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience is the memoir of activist and photographer Richard Brown, an eighty-year-old Black Portlander who has worked to bridge the divide between police and the Black community.Originally from Harlem, Brown served in the Air Force for twenty years before landing in Portland. As he recalls his childhood in the 1940s, his radicalization in the newly desegregated Air Force, and his decades of activism in one of America’s whitest cities, he questions whether he's got the strength to continue doing this work, and he wonders who, if anyone, will take his place.  

It’s hard to say exactly when I began to write my book. But if I had to choose one moment, I think I’d point to the day, four or five years ago, when a teenager who’d just seen me give a speech to families of new police—a speech about cops’ work, their well-being, and their responsibility to take care of themselves so they can do right by us civilians—came up and asked me, “How do I do what you do?” 

I don’t remember what I said. All I know is, I didn’t answer his question. I couldn’t and that bothered me. It bothered me because I loved that he’d asked and I wanted nothing more than to help him learn to walk the path I’ve walked—I just didn’t know how to tell him.

My first thought when I sat down to think about this was that I should probably make a checklist— a how-to. I figured thanks to twenty years of military training, that I ought to create some sort of structured learning. When I tried to do that, I couldn’t make it work because I couldn’t fit my life into checkboxes. So before long, I scrapped the how-to and I started thinking bigger.

For years people who knew me had been saying I ought to write a book. Whenever I told people stories about my life—and I did often—they’d say, Richard, you really ought to write that down. I’d always taken that as mere flattery because I was no writer, never had been. But the more I thought about a book, the more I liked the idea. So, I decided I’d try and find someone to help me write this book.

I looked for a while, asked around, brought up my plans as often as I could. Finally, after about a year, a conversation I was having brought Brian Benson into my life. At that point, all I knew about Brian was that he was a writer and he worked with other writers. I invited him to lunch. On a Friday in January, we met up at a Jordanian restaurant, and we talked—for three hours. I don’t think either of us knew it yet, but on that day, at that table, a journey and a friendship began.

We met again the following Fridays and I’d talk and Brian would listen and ask questions. Though some of his questions felt like more—way more—than what was needed for the thing I thought I wanted to write, I liked answering them. In doing so, I got to sort of relive my life. The more I did this the more I came to see how my past shaped what I’d done and who I’d become—and at some point, it became clear to me that I couldn’t just write a how-to or a checklist because that wasn’t how I’d learned. I’d learned from listening to others, from seeing what they’d done, and making my own meaning. I wanted to give other people—people like that teenager—the chance to do the same. So, I wrote a book. I wrote a memoir.          

I wrote this memoir because I want to answer that teenager’s question. I wrote it because I want to show him, and anyone else who cares to listen, what it looks like when a person decides that something is important and then decides to do something about it. I wrote it because activism—especially activism around police, and extra-especially activism around the rift between police and Black people—is slow, painful, mostly thankless work, and it’s difficult to get folks to want to sign up. The only way I’ve ever succeeded in doing so is by telling stories about the work I do, stories about the things I’ve lost, gained, and learned.    

I wasn’t born an activist. Not even close. I was a loudmouthed kid and a loudmouthed adult and I never wanted to get too involved in much besides my own life until one day, a switch just flipped. From then on, what I tried to do was listen. I listened to the activists before me, the community around me. In time, I even learned to listen to some police, and they listened to me. We grew together, all of us who stuck with it, though way too few of us did. Nowadays when I run into a community member or cop and I tell them what I’m up to, they’ll say, “You’re still doing this?” And I’ll say, If I don’t, who will?

It’s not a rhetorical question.

As I write this, we’re in the midst of a mass movement against police brutality and in support of Black lives. People are out in the streets. Young Black leaders are getting long-overdue attention. White folks are suddenly talking about race, police, and power. On the one hand, I’m so energized by all of this, but I’m wary too. Because I have seen this before. Maybe not this exactly, but I’ve seen so many mushroom clouds of popular energy bloom over the land and I’ve seen every one of them dissipate slowly until the skies are so blue and clear you’d never know something had exploded.

I don’t know how the world will look once my book comes out. What I do know is, someday, if not now then soon, the headlines will change and most people will step away from the work and back into their day-to-day. I really hope that you, reader, will not do that. I hope you won’t step away. If we want lasting change for Black folks, we need legions of us doing the work, day after day after day, even—especially—when that work isn’t making headlines.

I won’t lie either because sticking with the work isn’t easy. It is life-and-death crucial, but it is not easy. It can often feel overwhelming and lonely. It can feel like walking through a dark tunnel with no light in sight. I’ll tell you this, though, you can make your own light and you’ll need to.

I’ve made my own light, mostly by finding all sorts of things to be passionate about. I’ve made light by taking pictures, a few dozen of which you’ll find scattered throughout my book. I’ve made it by building relationships with young people and helping them. I’ve made it by turning my life into a story I enjoy telling, and then telling it, and telling it, and telling.

No matter who you are, I ask you this: if you read my book, please hear my story. Please try to suspend your judgment and let go of whatever you think you know and come in ready to listen and grow. Please read my words and take all you can from them. Use them to make your own how-to.

One last thing: I have tried hard to tell my story right. But if you disagree with my recollections or opinions—if you think this sort of story should be told differently or lived differently—I implore you to tell it better. Live it better. When it comes to stories like this one, we will always need more.

Richard Brown is a community activist and photographer. He works tirelessly to empower Black people and to bridge the gap between the police and the Black community. This is his first book.


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This Is Not For You

This Is Not For You tells the story of activist and photographer Richard Brown, a Black Portlander who has spent decades working to bridge the...

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