I sat in an airport awaiting a plane that would take me to Jamaica, a family choice for summer vacation. It was August of 2014, and the airport TVs were fixated on Ferguson as protestors grew in number and tensions ran high. Michael Brown had just been shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, sparking existing tensions between the predominantly black populace and the white community leaders and law enforcement. Communities of color around America rose up in solidarity, while the rest of the world looked on in disbelief, either disgusted at the reaction of the protestors, or shocked by the response of a heavily militarized police force.
Not a stranger to police brutality, I found myself both surprised by the scale of the events happening and unsurprised by the police response. I could have chalked up the issue to an overpowered police force in a country with an out of control police state, but something else was bothering me. I found less and less awareness or concern for police brutality amongst my white circle of friends and an increased awareness and concern amongst people of color. Black folk seemed to be the driving force of response against problematic officers and policies within the police force. It was then that I started to realize a disturbing truth. People of color receive the brunt of brutality and the negative consequences of policing policies. This isn’t just a problem black folk happen to be passionate about. For them, this has been a lived experience. For many, a daily experience.
I began to realize that the world in which I lived was very different from the world in which people of color lived. This realization changed everything for me. Listening and learning about the experiences and lives of black folk began to take priority over inserting my own (inexperienced) opinion (about the lives of black folk) into the public sphere. I began to be more vocal about police brutality and attempted to highlight the difference in the lived experiences of white and black folk in conversations surrounding race.
I learned all the statistics. I’d been shown more than enough evidence to convince me that black folk were more likely to be shot or arrested by police than white folk. To know that America’s problem with police brutality was indeed a racial issue. Yet the gravity and severity of what was happening still had not set in. That fuller sense of realization came to me at a Black Lives Matter protest in NYC, back in October of 2015.
We had gathered on a side street near a local park, where a makeshift stadium had been erected for the several speakers that would be raising their voices that day. Park sidewalks and pavement was littered with chalk drawings in artistic forms of protest. As more and more people arrived, markers were passed around along with a hotline number. We sharpied the number onto our forearms; a precautionary measure in case of arrest and confiscation of personal belongings.
This specific protest, dubbed #RiseUpOctober, was a march against police terror, not exclusive to the problems of black folk, encompassing other people of color and people with varying sexual preferences and gender identities, all of whom had experienced harsh treatment by police. Once enough people had gathered, the speeches began. We listened as prominent leaders spoke for their communities. Black folk, trans folk, indigenous peoples; many were present and unified against the common problems that plagued them.
After a round of speeches, we departed en masse to march to a square deeper within the city. Organizers of the event had gotten a parade permit in order to march “legally” and minimize the possibility for arrests. As we marched we made ourselves noticeable by chanting, sign waving, drumming, and occasionally singing. The police presence grew into an organized flurry of officers, just as noticeable in number with their bright colored uniforms and vehicles with flashing lights and sirens. They lined the streets with barriers, placing officers up and down the street along the entirety of our scheduled march path.
When we arrived at our destination, we crowded around a truck turned makeshift stage; where a different form of speech-making took place. Instead of grandiose proclamations and inspirational words of justice and peace, speaking time was given to those in attendance who had lost a relative or close friend. Given a truck and a megaphone, these people told their stories.
We listened as fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters told the stories of their family members, victims of police brutality. Through tears of grief, anger, and despair, they shared their struggles with all of us, and gave voice to the forgotten dead. Story after story after story was told, each with equal passion and emotion, words drifting beyond our crowd and reaching the ears of the common bystander. No eye was left dry, no heart untouched, no soul unmoved. I am ashamed to say it was only then that I truly began the emotional process of understanding the scope of the problem at hand.
As I heard those stories and saw the crowd, I realized that the cries of the mothers who had spoken were echoed by the emotions of the people standing out there that day, emotions echoed by communities all around the U.S. I was not just standing before a handful of grieving family members. I was standing amongst a crowd of grieving peoples, from communities of grieving peoples, in a nation of grieving peoples.
Gone was the notion of the "rare bad apple." This was a problem much bigger than I had anticipated. I became motivated to learn all I could about police brutality and racial inequality. I familiarized myself with larger, systemic problems, like mass incarceration. The things I discovered revealed a profoundly disturbing reality, but it is a reality I see confirmed by people of color who talk about their experiences.
I grew angry as I noticed dehumanizing rhetoric used to justify and detach our emotions from the shootings of black folk. Words like “thug” and “criminal” were thrown around mercilessly towards the victims, as if to say, “you don’t have to feel bad for them.” Even more disturbing was the realization that this rhetoric is reserved almost exclusively for people of color.
This double standard reeked of a racially prejudiced heritage of a society that views the black body as dangerous and criminal. The way I discovered this operating in cooperation with mass incarceration troubled me all the more, and showed me such an ugly reality that can only be characterized as oppression.
I realized that as a Christian, I couldn’t just ignore this. I had to care because Jesus cared. I had to care because I knew that all people are made in the image of God. I had to care because I knew that to do nothing about injustice was a sin against God himself. I had to care because I knew that a Christianity unconcerned for the oppressed is not Christianity at all (see Mathew 25:31-46).
I knew that I needed to do as Jesus did and "proclaim good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I encourage everyone to do as I did then, and as I do now.
Then lift up the voices of the mothers crying in the streets, so that others may weep.
May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people
so that you may work for
justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer pain,
rejection, hunger, and war
so that you may reach out your hand
to comfort them and
turn their pain into joy.
May God bless you with foolishness
to believe that you can
make a difference in the world,
so that you can do
what others claim cannot be done,
to bring justice and kindness
to all our children and the poor.
- A Franciscan Blessing
28 Days is a project about perspectives of people whose lives intertwine with the black struggle either personally or through others close to them. Along with their perspective they entrust us with what they hope for moving forward.
We hope this helps drive conversation, breaks down barriers and incites change.
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