I was 18 years old when Michael Brown was murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, in 2014. So was Michael Brown. A month earlier in New York, 44-year-old Eric Garner died from a police chokehold after he repeated 11 times to the multiple officers who had him pinned down that he could not breathe. In 2020 the world watched in horror as another police officer held his knee on the neck of 46-year-old George Floyd who eerily repeated the now unforgettable phrase, the same words uttered by Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe.” Floyd’s encounter went on for eight minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd cried out for his deceased mother while three other police officers stood and watched his breath exit his body for the last time.
Being black in America should not be a death sentence. Protests across the country are occurring and Black Lives Matter has evolved because for centuries police and other systems of racial oppression never made it appear that they do. If Black lives truly mattered to our justice system, then Michael Brown, Eric Garner, George Floyd and so many others would have received equal due process under the constitution of the United States of America. Instead, they were murdered on the streets by unlawful police.
Since August 1619 when the first documented enslaved Africans landed on the shores of Jamestown, America has operated as a racial caste system of oppression that has perpetually and intentionally orchestrated the destruction and suppression of black people and other minorities. Among these systems of subjugation were slave catching vigilantes whose purpose was to capture enslaved blacks that had escaped and return them to their owners. These patrols were made legal under federal law by the Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed by U.S. Congress in September 1850. The United States government mandated responsibility for finding, returning and trying these enslaved blacks. While the actions of these slave patrols seem despicable, perhaps what is even more disturbing is the fact that these same patrols evolved into the same contemporary policing system practiced under federal, state and local laws.
The American police system receives an annual budget of $100 billion. The recent calls for defunding police are as loud as they are necessary mainly because this money should be going to operations that would improve the lives of Americans including affordable housing, education, infrastructure, health and overall social and economic mobility. Unfortunately, an influx of taxpayer money and financial power goes to a proven prejudiced system when it needs to be reallocated to areas in need.
It is no wonder there are implicit biases when it comes to the arrest, incarceration and deaths of black people from this policing and judicial system, that was never its intended preamble. Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. In 2014, black Americans made up 34 percent or 2.3 million of the total 6.8 million people incarcerated in America. According to the NAACP, if African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, the prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent.
I cannot recall the exact moment police officers and violence became synonymous to me, but one of my earliest and most dreaded memories about police violence and those operating under a police-like surveillance was the killing of Trayvon Martin. He was just 17 years old when he was killed by a vigilante playing cop. Trayvon Martin would have been 25 years old this year, but instead, his life was permanently cut short on February 26, 2012, which was weeks after his birthday on February 5. His killer was formally acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in July 2013. Justice still has not been served for this young man or his family, and like so many other Black men, women, boys, and girls who have been victims of police brutality. Each of them deserved absolute justice but like their lives, that too was stolen. Trayvon deserved to live his life. Trayvon deserved to have more than 17 birthdays.
People have a valid right to be angry and project that anger and frustration onto a system that for centuries has not worked for them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often said that a “riot is the language of the unheard” and for so long, not only have those in the American policing system not been listening to marginalized groups, they have physically and metaphorically had their knees on the necks of black people everywhere.
Considering the recent protests following the deaths of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor and 46-year-old George Floyd, I have witnessed firsthand in Richmond just how violent police officers have been to those they are supposed to protect. People who have been practicing their First Amendment Constitutional right of assembly and petition have been tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten with batons and sticks, thrown and shoved, shot with rubber bullets, hit with fireworks and nearly run over by police vehicles. I cannot tell you how many times I have been hit with tear gas or pepper-sprayed to the point where I thought my lungs, nose and eyes would never operate again. And these incidents are not just occurring in Richmond, in Virginia or even this nation. This movement has become an international fight for freedom as people in Europe, Africa and other continents are protesting the acts of police violence they have been able to see through social medial. This is not a fight of black versus white, or black versus police, this is a fight against those who exhibit racist behavior.
Ironically, while people combat a system of perpetual violence, the police are exercising police brutality in the fight against police brutality. We know this because we can see it each time, we log in to one of our many social media platforms. The police commonly used violence to get what they want. We saw this during the civil rights era, but the difference this time is accessible recording devices. The police have acted unjustly in violation of the U.S. Constitution for generations, but now these violations are being exposed and civil accountability is keeping good pressure applied. If the violence from sworn officers is being seen on this massive scale, imagine all that has happened that was not recorded.
Black Lives Matter should not be a controversial statement. What is the issue with black lives mattering? We know that others’ lives matter. In fact, it was black civil rights movements that paved the way for other movements, including equality for women, migrants, LBGTQ community. The fight for black lives is a fight against all forms of supremacy in the United States. And as they fight with us in this upheaval, we are also fighting for them, because none of us are free until all of us are. It is precisely within that blueprint that the counter phrase “All Lives Matter” is grossly erroneous because all lives cannot matter until black lives matter. The American policing system has shown itself ineffective over the last centuries and the citizens of this nation have a duty to hold this institution accountable for its malpractices. We are amid an uprising that will be remembered forever in history books. While a global pandemic was happening, black people were fighting two viruses: COVID-19 and racism. There are those who are fighting for America as it would be, and there are those fighting for America as it should be. Enough was enough 400 years ago. ′