Editor's note: We've republished this piece in light of the first anniversary of George Floyd's death. This piece was originally published on June 19, 2020.
March 26, 2020 was a day like any other.
Wake up, brew coffee, grab phone, hit the Instagram timeline for updates. Scrollllll…
George Floyd. George Floyd. George Floyd.
What had otherwise been an uneventful, four-day Memorial Day quarantine “weekend” was now another painful and exhausting reminder that police brutality and systemic oppression have a viciously tight control on the “laws” and “policies” that “govern” America. Cynicism, skepticism, anger and sadness sank in as I fuelled my body with caffeine while the story went viral.
The tragic death of George Floyd is a reminder that nothing has changed. Today we march for George — but before Floyd it was Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Bettie Jones, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, Akai Gurley, and so many others. We’ve demanded justice for their deaths. We’ve received zero convictions, and their murderers are not held accountable. For all the names recognized, there’s an infinite amount of names we never learned, and whose stories have not been told.
I’m a 28-year old Black man. I’m a brother, son, partner, uncle, nephew, and I am no different than any other Black man in America. I have a story about “walking while Black.” I’ve been stopped by police and harassed for no reason at all. I’ve been told I “fit a description.” I remember calling my white mother, confused as to why these things happened to me but didn’t happen to her. I’ve had run-ins with police officers who, surrounding my vehicle, attempting to get me to admit to crimes I’d never committed. Growing up, I’d call my older brother to talk about this, and he’d recount the same ugly stories from his own childhood, confirming for me the worst about the world. The reality is every single Black man you know has a story like mine. The only difference between us and them is that we haven’t been killed — yet.
The disgusting truth is that Black people have been targets of police brutality and systemic oppression to keep us poor, powerless and in our place for as long as we’ve been in this country. Think about the timeline. We were “freed” by Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, 156 years ago. That’s what — three or four generations of people? Then, in 1870, “Free Black Males” were given the right to vote. In 1916, women — mostly white — joined men through the women’s suffrage movement, which largely excluded Black women. That’s only about 100 years of women and Black men having any form of choice. It’s also worth noting the years of voter suppression and discriminatory tactics used to keep those people from actually voting even after legally being awarded the “right.” Even if the power structure was fair — and it most certainly is not — we have barely been at the table making decisions for 100 years. Barely.
When you unplug yourself from the matrix of White Supremacy and oppression, you might find yourself asking, “how can I help?” For many people, the fight is marching. The frontlines always need bodies. Like all movements, these sometimes become violent.
I can speak to both the strength and the trauma I felt, marching in New York City for Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and helping to organize other acts of civil disobedience. There’s a fear and acceptance that comes with knowing you might get shot or beat down while fighting for your freedom. As I marched through Times Square with thousands of other local activists in a protest organized after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, I remember the numbness that seemed to transform into positivity. There’s a power that comes from standing on a bridge in solidarity with thousands of other voices watching cars stop in their tracks and drivers leaning out of their windows to throw up fists in solidarity as a city that otherwise “never sleeps” was forced to stop — at least for a moment. These are the things that make the world pay attention. There’s a small comfort in that global solidarity, to know that someone in another part of the world is also fighting for the same mission of equality.
But for every feeling of victory there are just as many moments of getting knocked down. You’re a boxer who has one arm tied behind their back. Your opponents are the police and they’re fighting dirty. There’s a numbness that comes from regrouping with your allies at 1 a.m., after the cops, after the huddles, after the hours of walking turned running to avoid arrest, only to count a list of those who did not make it home safe and who need bail money.
I think back to attending organized protests in Union Square or Harlem that would end badly. I’d walk into work the next day to have a white coworker say to me “Marshall, I saw your face on the local news yesterday! Are you OK? Why were you out there? ” As a Black man, I was often turned into the face of a movement by the media, for clicks. There were times when I would actively do my best to avoid cameras and news crews. Still, they’d find me and edit one clip of me speaking, chanting or marching into the larger TV coverage. There’s a paranoia that sets in when you walk home through your neighbourhood and you think to yourself, do these neighbourhood cops recognize me?
For everyone who is out marching in the streets, please understand that there is an extreme double standard between white and Black protestors. I have watched an angry white female version of me walk right up to a cop, shout in their face and scream “PIG” until she was blue in the face only to be ignored. I’ve seen my own brother do the same thing and end up arrested or tackled — usually both.
If you’re white in America, and you feel like you want to help, in my opinion, the frontline is a good place for you to be. I’ve had many white allies act as human shields between me and the police, knowing that the force they might receive would pale in comparison to what I might suffer in their place. The world needs to see your allyship and solidarity with us at this time.
For those of you who feel that the streets aren’t for you, there are other ways to help. Put your money where your mouth is and donate. If you have the means, there are families of victims who need your support and people who need your help with bail funds. Vote at every level, especially the small elections where local leaders are chosen. Do not stop here. Educate yourself. Educate those around you who still have doubts and force your leaders to take a stand against anti-black racism and intolerance.