“An entire generation of warriors are praying with their feet.” Letitia James
I’ve always been quick to obey orders. Not because I like being told what to do but because I want to be liked. And after all, this was a rally, I was there to be of service. So, when a teen — young enough to be my daughter — told me to get down on the ground, I didn’t hesitate.
The volunteer corralling a group of hundreds in front of the US Federal Courthouse at Foley Square in lower Manhattan was shorter than me. Fair as the porcelain-colored dolls I used to pretend were my daughters when I was a child, even though they looked nothing like me. The volunteer was dressed in all black and puffed a tough exterior though she hung her weight on the straps of her backpack nervously gripping them until her hands appeared bloodless. When she dropped the enormous pack to demonstrate what she wanted us to do, the echo of her stainless-steel canteen against the pavement grabbed our attention more than her commands. The presence of heavily armed police loomed in our nervous systems, but we’d all be damned if we let that show.
“Get on the ground. Kneel or lie down preferably lie down!”
I, of course, wanting to be a model protester, took the “preferable” option.
As I lay my body gently down, it occurred to me I’d never considered what this would feel like. There was no way to make the position more bearable. It hurt. It paralyzed. It dehumanized. And unlike George Floyd, I had put myself there.
The Coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a halt in a matter of weeks. As headlines warned of its dangers, the virus was dubbed “the great equalizer,” able to kill without distinction of race, class, or gender. However, while popular influencers and wealthy celebrities boasted their negative test results online, the virus ravaged Black and Brown communities. Stories of Americans without access to tests surfaced, and the plight of those involved in “essential work” exposed the lethal disparities in the American health and economic systems.
By March most cities had imposed shelter-in-place orders, enforceable by local police departments. Evidence of excessive force and arrests for alleged social-distancing violations in Black neighborhoods juxtaposed besides cheerful images of cops handing white park-goers masks in lower Manhattan became further evidence of our country’s racial inequities.
And, then, a mortar round of Black murder flooded American media.
As the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones commented to CNN, “the collective grieving for the desecration of Black life is a regular daily experience for Black people in this country.” However, within the cauldron of an international pandemic and subsequent economic depression, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, George Floyd, and Tony McDade in rapid succession from February through May caused long-standing tension to boil over.
And while gruesome forms of racial oppression such as police brutality prove endlessly captivating to audiences it can often obfuscate one of the cruelest and most insidiously pervasive functions of white supremacy: the suppression of self.
The right to protest, protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, is an exercise in the unapologetic expression and preservation of self, magnified through mass mobilization. In public, coordinated, and lawful marches that have spread worldwide, the Black liberation movement has demonstrated the potential for great structural reform. Imperative change that would benefit us all.
The symbolic gesture I participated in at the rally lasted nine minutes — the amount of time it took Officer Derek Chauvin to kill George Floyd with his knee. Nine minutes is an eternity. I allowed myself to descend fully into the experiential act of empathy. I was overcome. We shouted names en masse: AHMAUD, BREONNA, GEORGE, NINA, TONY, TRAVIS, ERIC, DAVID, TAMIR, DARIUS, TRAYVON, AIYANNA, CHRISTOPHER, CAMERON, MIKE, AMIR, and on and on. I wept. With my head positioned to the east of the island, I could make out an inscription on the frieze of the neoclassical courthouse. It states, “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of a good government.” Our bodies strewn below it attested to the collapse of the tenet. But I didn’t feel defeated. I felt emboldened.
“I know how you watch, as you grow older, literally, this is not a figure of speech; the corpses of your brothers and your sisters pile up around you. And not for anything they have done. They were too young to have done anything. In any case, too helpless. But what one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face, like you had a right to be here, when you do that, without knowing this is the result of it — you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western World.”
— James Baldwin, London 1968.
We opened our eyes to a SWAT team now surrounding the perimeter of the courthouse. They weren’t there when we began. The organizers, a group of young Black men and women, aware of the change began directing the crowd north up Centre Street when an elder community leader, Jenice C., shouted, “Young people!” parting the sea of bodies as though she were Moses.
“Young people, commend yourselves, you have taken a great stand! You’re changing history! Yes! But you gotta know what you’re fighting,” she told us. The crowd listened intently for over five minutes, reverent as disciples, so deserving of this praise.
The Black Lives Matter movement, considered fringe and radical at its inception in 2013, has become the most relevant battle cry in the modern-day civil rights movement. In ten days organizers have sprung outposts in nearly every state; all four police officers involved in George Floyd’s murder have been arrested and charged; nine members of the Minneapolis City Council have pledged to dismantle their Police Department and create a community-based system for safety.
The desire to be liked is incredibly human. Overcoming it is a matter of maturity. I must grow up in order to be effective in this mission. Taking action to support Black Lives Matter has grounded me in my own understanding of self — my privileges, obstacles, and potential. I’ve marched, donated, and amplified but most importantly I’ve committed to the daily work of self-examination.
Asking myself: Am I being defensive? When am I showing up in a performative way? When am I being driven by insecurity that wants to make a show of solidarity in order to qualify as “not racist?”
As a mixed-race Latina, I have internalized white supremacy — we all have, and I’m actively in the mindset to eradicate it. When I’m doing this work, because it will never stop, I am naturally directed to how I can best support today’s charge. Each day will be different.
“It is not a racial problem. It’s a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and begin to change it.”
— James Baldwin, London 1968.
Change has never felt more possible. The New York Times reported that these are the most diverse demonstrations of support for Black Lives Matter in the movement’s seven-year history, and they show no signs of slowing down. The danger is to remain at a remove, to allow our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing to keep us away, absorbing messages through fluorescent screens, internalizing spin, and emerging in a trance of fear. We must all do our part to engage with clarity and authenticity.
For all non-Black participants, knowledge is power — listen, learn, take action. But don’t retreat.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing.”
— Edmund Burke
To find out about rallies near you visit Black Lives Matter
This essay was originally published @ Sad Girls Club.