When I first heard about the brutal killing of George Floyd, I was heartbroken, but my attention faded into the noise of the news cycle. I’d heard so many stories like his. I was desensitized. The police felt like an untouchable entity, there was nothing I could do.
When the protests started, I saw the story as the news told it: rioters and looters antagonizing police. The peaceful protests were footnotes to the violence, a sensationalized retelling with more clickable headlines. The losses of corporations, here the Apple Store and Louis Vuitton and our malls, were stated as if they were true losses, losses toward which we should redirect our attention.
The one central point we could all gather around was George Floyd’s murder. But the police system that killed him sought to cheapen even that, citing an “underlying medical conditions” and “potential intoxicants in his system” (potential!) It took a private autopsy to rule his cause of death unequivocally a homicide. He was crushed to death by an officer with a history of lethal force toward POC.
There has been a consistent effort to water down our outrage. From my bedroom reading the news and watching live streams, my own resolve felt distracted, conflicted.
Is this the time? I wondered. What about the careful quarantine we’ve maintained for months? Are the people who stay after the marches to face the police just unemployed and restless and looking for a fight?
Then I kneeled with 10,000 people in front of a police station, just feet away from the line of officers in riot gear gripping batons across their chests, while others held tear gas and pepper spray and guns at the ready. “Kneel with us!” we shouted in unison. I thought they might. I was staring in the eyes of a young cop, barely over twenty, and I thought I saw him on the edge of tears. But maybe I was projecting, maybe I needed to see humanity in these soldiers facing us as if we were the enemy, as if our cause could never be theirs. They didn’t kneel. My heart broke – I had been so naive. We changed our chant: “I can’t breathe!” Thousands of voices, thousands of bodies on their knees. “I can’t breathe!”
Someone tried to start the cry, “Fuck Trump!” Another voice shouted: “I agree, but that’s not what we’re here for!” The chant fell as quickly as it had been taken up. Because this is not a liberal issue. This is not a conservative issue. This is a civil rights movement, and more and more voices from every side are joining to declare it together.
I knew then I was standing on the right side of history. As a sign in the crowd ahead of me read, to stay neutral is to side with the oppressors.
Still, I questioned the violence. People were buying out goggles as quickly as toilet paper, was this good cause becoming an excuse for chaos?
I returned the next night.
Downtown had changed. There were chain link fences blocking off half the streets, police car lights flashing behind them. Already businesses were dark from the covid-19 lockdown, now they were boarded up. Helicopters and drones hovered above us – a sound now ubiquitous with the protests.
We stood at the fence marking off the Justice Center, where the police were waiting. This message is for them. They are the ones who have to listen.
Our chant “Peaceful protest!” was exchanged with “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Then George Floyd’s name. Then Breonna Taylor’s. “I can’t breathe!”
Someone shook the fence. The police intercom crackled, then a heavy dystopic voice said: “This is now an unlawful assembly. If you do not disperse, we will respond with force.”
They gave us three minutes before the tear gas hit. They occupied the city, there was nowhere to run. Any group over ten was surrounded and gassed, flash bombs hit every few feet, people were choking and pouring milk over their eyes, calling for our medics, but still chanting “Stay together, stay tight!”
I wanted to run, but the smaller the group, the more danger for each individual. They needed bodies. I had to stay. Even as we faced the line of cops marching toward us with our hands up, standing still, they launched attack after attack. They drove us back, we drove them back. We had the right to be heard.
There was no question in my mind: that night, the police started the riot.
As I stood witness, the last of my reservations fell away. For perhaps no reason more than this one: this is not about me. It’s not about my opinions, my experience, or my politics. This is about the people of color who are standing up against the onslaught of injustice they experience every day of their lives for the color of their skin. This is their stand. This is their fight. So I have no choice but to stand with them. I take the violence with my own body, because it is only a small measure of what they’ve taken with theirs.
As Reverend E.D. Mondainé said to the thousands on the grass of the waterfront last night, our fists raised in solidarity: “There is no safer place to be than in the company of hope.”
Here’s youtube playlist of black voices, because what they are saying matters so much more than anything I can write from my own privileged perspective. In this powerful video in particular, a couple has “the talk” with their two boys. You can watch the innocence leave their eyes.