In the autumn of 2014, I accompanied a close friend and his family on a short trip to St. Louis. This was my first time touring the city, so my hosts graciously waited as I gazed longingly at the Gateway Arch. On our way back home to Kansas City, my friend’s father suggested we take a detour and drive through Ferguson, Missouri. Only a few months earlier Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, which resulted in riots and mass protests that shocked the nation. As the lone Black person in the car, I immediately began to tense up. Questions ran through my mind. Why did this White family want to see Ferguson in the first place? Do I have to act a certain way when we arrive? What would I see? How will I actually feel?
I was nervous that the city would be in ruins like I had seen on the news. I feared the man in the driver’s seat would only see the aftermath of rioting and looting, and destruction would be their lasting impression of Black people. I worried he wouldn’t understand what he was really looking at: the result of a people fed up with a corrupt system.
When we entered Ferguson, I rolled my window down to examine the streets around me. To my surprise, there was little evidence of riots, but rather clear signs of unity. Colorful murals showed reverence to Mike Brown. The words “Black Lives Matter” were plastered throughout neighborhoods giving the impression of power. There were signs of vandalism, but all marks of wreckage were covered with art as if to symbolize the process of healing.
When looking at Ferguson the world saw the disputed testimony of an isolated murder spark outrage through a city, which resulted in an inexcusable reaction of destruction. But what I saw, what we as Black Americans saw, was a community finally combating a system designed to reinforce a status quo that never benefited them. This city was depicted as a cesspool of lawless chaos when, in reality, it was law enforcement that brought chaos to the town. We saw a community conjure the courage to demand freedom in a country that never ceased to remind them how imprisoned they truly were.
When I replay the drive in my mind, I see the side of a white man’s face peeking out his window as if he was watching a movie on a screen. The scene captures his attention from a safe distance, but later, he would go home and continue on with life as if nothing ever happened. Essentially, we all go home to continue with life, then days and years pass by until we move on as if nothing ever happened. We choose to forget.
Today, Americans are mourning the loss of George Floyd. The Minneapolis City Council is working towards defunding its Police Department, and there have been protests across America on a nightly basis. It has been a month since Floyd was killed. As a result, I, along with many other Black Americans, have had to endure the unwanted spotlight as we grieve the loss of another life taken from us at the hands of police.
I can not and will not speak for all Black people because we are not a monolith, but I will share how I and many others feel at this moment in time. Even weeks later, we continue to grieve, not only for Floyd but those lost before him and those who will be taken after him. Grief absorbs our days each time we look into a mirror, we see the reflections of the men, women, and children killed while crying out for their mothers. Another one of us has died. What will prevent me from dying?
We dream of our brothers and sisters being slain, and these nightmares have become a monthly reality. If I go for a jog in broad daylight, I could receive the same fate as Ahmaud Arbery and be killed by White vigilantism. I could run into another Amy Cooper at the park and have to pray to God my phone battery isn’t dead so I could record her use of weaponized racism. I could be asleep in my home and be shot like Breonna Taylor. These deaths are personal losses. Racial equality is not a voting issue, a trend to follow, or a reoccurring controversy. This is our entire life, whether or not your timeline affirms that truth.
Each unnecessary killing is salt poured onto a generational wound. It wasn’t the murder of Trayvon Martin, the killing of Mike Brown, or the manslaughter of 12-year old Tamir Rice that sparked national outrage. It was the video evidence of George Floyd losing his life to an officer for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Anyone operating within reason clearly saw the gross misconduct displayed in that video. Even political affiliation was unable to blind anyone from seeing that Floyd was not posing any threat. The officer did not fear for his life. There was no resisting arrest. There was nothing that even resembled a weapon. Floyd did everything Black people are instructed to do to avoid the same fate he found himself in. Because he was the perfect victim, the country finally reached a consensus that this abuse of power by the police was abhorrent and his actions must be prevented from happening again.
Amidst my grief, I still feel unbelievably conflicted that this newfound national unity came at the cost of an innocent life. The same people who dismissed Black Americans as they exclaimed how racial injustice is still rampant in our country are now the same people receiving praise for publicly condemning racial inequality. To be on the right side of history is easy when everyone is doing it. This is not to say I’m unhappy with growth; I will always celebrate the progress made towards securing a better future for all.
I know every journey begins with a single step. For any collective to improve, the process requires space for individuals to evolve their way of thinking. Especially as they are presented with new information and new ideas. However, in America’s case, no new information has come to light about racism, and there are no new ideas to process. How is this true? Because nothing has changed. Nothing about race in the United States of America transformed on May 26th, the day after Floyd died, that wasn’t already public knowledge on May 25th. The only thing that has changed is the populace’s willingness to accept the truth of our American existence.
With that said, I must direct my attention to those with a whiter skin complexion since this sudden fixation on race has predominantly affected you. I know for many White Americans, your sense of comfort has been displaced, and mass revelations of systemic racism have blindsided you. You may feel angry at the idea of police brutality and all other forms of racial injustice that you feel helpless to fight against. You have the right to be frustrated, but let me first share why I, too, am frustrated.
I am frustrated at what lengths were necessary for everyone to wake up. I feel frustration and fear that this momentum for change will only ever amount to being just a moment. I’m frustrated at how people are confusing, posting a blank black box on Instagram for activism. In a desire to be a good ally, many somehow believe they are immune to the prejudicial inclinations of the rest of White America. So allow me the honor of looting your morally superior safe house. I’m here to tell you that if you think you have not personally contributed to the current disarray within America, you are wrong: I can guarantee that at least one person of color in your life would say otherwise. The truth is that no matter how good you think your intentions are, you are not ready to face a world that’s different from the one that exists right now. To be stripped of your heroes, history, and hubris. One without power structures that place you at the top. One where your commitment to change is not seasonal but permanent. An altogether different reality where Black Americans no longer die at the hands of police officers, at no expense to the white taxpayer. But that’s not the whole story. The truth of the matter is I’m frustrated with you in the same fashion that I am disappointed with myself. Why did you wait until now to listen, and why did I allow you to think that was okay? The whole story is that I’m frustrated at the both of us, I’m grieving for Floyd, and I’m skeptical of any lasting change. But most importantly, I feel all of this while I remain optimistic. Though it might be foolish to continue being hopeful despite the many reasons to harden my heart, I believe there is a brighter future yet to come. I believe that although you might not be ready for a new America, you will be soon because we are working towards that destination every single day. Change sprouts gradually as we all conform to a better version of ourselves.
In the summer of 2020, my friends and I accompanied thousands of others on a short trip around the streets of Brooklyn. At first, I was as anxious to see what these large crowds would do just as that teen boy nervously anticipated the destruction of Ferguson. Only this time, there was no media to shape my perception. I was able to witness a city unite first hand. This was my first time marching through the streets to protest, and I, like many other first-timers, lost my breath at the sight of thousands coming together to combat a system that only worked to reinforce a status quo that never benefited them. Not just in Minneapolis or New York, but cities and towns across the nation possessed the courage to demand freedom and equality. I marched alongside the most diverse, loving, and peaceful body of people I could have imagined. There were allies of every ethnicity, religion, and gender passing out water bottles, distributing first aid, and sharing messages of positivity. Every person affirming an unspoken promise to never again let cries for justice fall on deaf ears as we commit to fighting for justice no matter the length of time. Each one of us a small cog in a giant engine of change. Here lay the same opportunity America had when all eyes were on Ferguson. We all have the opportunity to listen, and this time I think we will.