In 1955, the year I was born, the killers of Emmett Till — a 14-year-old African American boy accused of whistling at a white woman — were acquitted. Now, 65 years later, the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor while she slept in her bed were not indicted on a charge of taking her life. Unjust laws and unjust practices are not new. The system was built this way, and it is working as it was intended to. The Taylor grand jury decision is not surprising, but it still hurts.
This is deeply personal — as a Black woman and as a mother. Breonna was just a year older than my own daughter. She had hopes and dreams like any other young woman. As reported, Breonna said she wanted to be the one “who finally breaks the cycle of my family’s educational history.
“I want to be the one to finally make a difference. I want to be the one that everybody can look up to with smiles on their faces telling me how proud of me they are.”
But instead, we are marching in the streets of this nation screaming for justice. We are tired. I am tired. America, why won’t you let us live? Why do you silence us, showing us repeatedly that Black lives don’t matter?
I could not sleep after the lack of criminal charges in Breonna’s death, and I had a similar response after seeing the horrible video of a police officer in August shooting Jacob Blake. This tells me that these awful images and events are traumatic for me. His three children were in the car as they watched in horror as their dad was shot seven times in the back.
Again, the racial violence hits close to home. I lived in Chicago, and I have a friend who lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Another friend used to attend the same church as Jacob’s mother. She is a Christian, and so am I. Jacob, who is only one year younger than my son, is paralyzed, and now his life and his family will never be the same. The police officer who shot Jacob Blake killed the dreams of many lives that day.
There will be those who try to justify the shootings of Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake. But they are silent about the armed white assailants roaming the streets of Kenosha and elsewhere, taking matters into their own hands. They will not acknowledge the blatant discrepancy of police seeing these white vigilantes with assault rifles in Kenosha and saying over the loudspeaker, “WE APPRECIATE YOU GUYS, WE REALLY DO.” They even handed them bottles of water.
Later, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two. As the white shooter approached police, the crowd screamed that he was the one with the gun, but the police did nothing and let him walk past. When white men with high-powered rifles and tactical gear protest, they are called patriots. But Black people, like Jacob and Breonna, are vilified and seen as a threat and are shot and killed on sight. Some white Americans view such violence as justifiable because they “fear for their lives.” However, it is Black, indigenous and people of color who must fear for our lives and who have every right to be angry.
Many white people explain this away by saying that they support protests against racism, but they just want them to be peaceful. However, they neglect to acknowledge that there were peaceful protests for more than a year done quietly with a knee taken during NFL games. Instead, these peaceful protesters for Black lives were demonized. They were not called patriots, and in the case of Colin Kaepernick, his football career was destroyed. This illustrates that the real concern for some white people is not about violence, but about racist fears of Black people who speak out and demand justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was nonviolent, but he was vilified for marching peacefully and ultimately assassinated for demanding justice and equality for all. This inflicted trauma is not about violence and looting. Instead, white dominant culture does not want Black people to protest at all. So, whenever we resist being dominated, we’re automatically perceived as a threat that must be subdued.
I felt the reality of this when I recently visited an outdoor meditative space created by Rainier Avenue Church in Seattle for people to lament, reflect, pray and hope for racial justice. Much to my surprise, I saw postcards hanging from a tree with quotes from my books on them. I saw hearts hanging that bore the names of Black people killed by racial injustice and police brutality. I read each name in silence and felt sadness for so many innocent lives tragically lost. There was a sign instructing people to look in the mirror and pay attention to your feelings. As I stared at my reflection, I realized that when white America looks at me, they just see a Black woman. They don’t see my doctorate degrees or the books I have written. None of this guarantees that my name could not also appear on one of those hearts. This fear of knowing that racial injustice or deadly violence can happen to me or my family and friends is traumatizing.
The only thing that Breonna Taylor or Jacob Blake did wrong was to be Black in America. It is so painfully ironic that Jacob’s grandfather was an activist who fought for justice and racial equality more than 60 years ago. Rev. Jacob Blake, after whom his grandson is named, was the pastor of the historic Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois. Pastor Blake was a tireless fighter in the local civil rights struggle. After Dr. King was killed, Rev. Blake and Charles Eddis — a white Unitarian from Canada — cofounded a group called NOW. This was not an acronym. Instead, it was a demand that the city pass an open housing ordinance — now. Who would have thought that more than 50 years later, we’d still be battling the same fight, and that his grandson would be fighting to regain his life because of America’s ongoing state sanctioned racial violence.
Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman, spoke out and said that above all the other labels given to her brother, he is human. Then she ended by saying, “I don’t want your pity; I want change.”
Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain — all Black lives still in need of justice. When are we going to speak with one voice, as human beings, and demand change? Racial injustice and violence will not stop until we all come together and demand quantifiable and substantive change. We must tell the truth in one collective voice and as one people, demanding an end to the brutality happening before our eyes. Then, and only then, will things change.
We must put ourselves in the position of other people and identify with them in our common humanity. All parents must say, “If that was my son or my daughter, I’d demand justice for them.” It is time for all of us to say, “I will raise my voice, I will use my influence, I will invest my energy and join with others to let all of our religious, political and civic leaders know that we’re ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired,’ and that we demand change — now.