It's never been easy or simple being Black in America
|Jun 1, 2020||8|
To say that these are strange times is an understatement. Being Black in this country is the embodiment of not belonging. When Michelle Obama made the statement during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback," I didn’t just know what she meant; I felt it.
Being raised as a Black child is synonmous with learning about all the ways the deck is stacked against you for survival, much less thriving. You learn that you have to work twice as good to get half as much. So seeing a biracial man hold a job that only 43 men held before him felt hopeful because of how much work and sacrifice that election represented.
American history is steeped in violence against Black people: stolen land, stolen labor, stolen autonomy, stolen culture, and stolen legacy. Racism is systemic violence. And when you are raised as a Black child, you learn that the history still lives in present. You learn about how to interact with police, not if you encounter them, but when you encounter them.
I was 16 when I was first stopped by the police. The officer claimed I ran a stop sign which was impossible because he wasn’t even at the intersection where I had stopped and turned to look both ways like the overly cautious driver I was. I sat there nervously as he studied my license almost as though a teenage Black girl didn’t belong in primarily White suburb in Texas.
I was 20 when I was assaulted by the police. I took the LSAT on February morning and lived to tell the tale. To celebrate, I headed to Toad’s, a bar/club frequented largely by Yale students and some folks who were from New Haven. This was a college bar so not a high class establishment. But they did have a dance floor and that was what I needed after many late nights studying.
About 40-50 minutes before closing time, a fight broke out somewhere. The DJ came on the mic to say they were closing early. I headed to the stairs to walk down to coat check. A man working security wearing gear from the New Haven Police Department and plain clothes was ushering people as the bar was closing. Two people went down the stairs to presumably get their coats and I started down the stairs too until he blocked my path telling me to go home. I told him I needed to get my coat and held out my coat check ticket to show him.
He grabbed my wrist, twisting my arm behind me and shoved me against a wall. As he pinned me in this restraint, he screamed in my ear, “Are you crazy? You must be crazy!” I didn’t fight back because I wanted to survive. Eventually, he stopped yelling and released my arm. The next words I said: “I want your name and badge number.” The next day I went to the station to file a complaint. For the next few months, I would call or visit the station to find out what was happening with the complaint. One time I called and they only told me the complaint was closed.
The department may have wanted to forget about that night, but I couldn’t. I graduated the next year, and proceeded to move 10 times over the next five years. I always kept the carbon copy of the complaint filed. Maybe it was a reminder to myself that it really happened even if the force that swears to protect and serve did neither for me. I threw the complaint paperwork after moving to San Francisco seven years ago. Now the only physical reminder I have is a medical diagnosis of the torn labrum in my left shoulder. Luckily I have nearly full range of motion with the exception of my inability to do backbends.
I tell this history to provide context for the mixture of emotions I feel endlessly scrolling Twitter the last few days. I’m proud of the protestors for standing up and pushing back. I’m sickened by people more dismayed by a burning Target or Walgreens than police public servants outfitted and acting like rogue mercenary forces.
My story is one of the lucky ones. My adult life is marked by a steady stream of names turned hashtags. With every hashtag, the response was largely the same: family members with tear-streaked faces at press conferences, stoic politicians and police officials swearing to uphold the law in public while dismantling justice in private, media outlets eager to re-victimize the dead with unrelated negative stories, and communities coming together to mourn and issue demands for justice that fell on deaf ears. Always a battle to win justice for the person extrajudiciously murdered that ended in a loss. Lather, rinse, repeat: the story and science of police violence toward African Americans.
The emergence of Black Lives Matter aggregated and elevated these battles to a war fought by thousands of protestors: the fight for existence, legitimacy and belonging in the country built with the blood, sweat and tears of every past and present Black resident. And I imagine that police will be more violent and more brutal as they are challenged to give up the power they never should have had in the first place. The political officials and policymakers responsible for legislation and enforcement will have to confront their complicity in maintaining the lack of accountability of the police.
I remember a call I had with my dad last year telling him the precautions I’ve taken to avoid violence from police or the next George Zimmerman. He told me it made him so sad to hear. He had never imagined his adult daughter would have to handle the same fears of violence that he had to growing up. He hoped that I would have a better future because of the sacrifices he made and societal progress we claim to have made as a country.
I can’t say that I’m hopeful necessarily. In so many ways that feels foolish. But I’m coming to accept that, if we are to attain belonging as a people in this country, there will be more sacrifice from us who already carry wounds and scars.
Resources to learn and support
Anti-Racist Reading List (curated by Ibram Kendi)
Donate to bail funds for people arrested for protesting: