Over the weekend, I was combing through articles, pushing beyond my boundaries for social media consumption, and frantically scribbling notes, scrambling to find a way to channel my grief, anger, and frustration. I wanted to construct the perfect essay with a perfect argument, supported by so much irrefutable evidence that anyone who read it could, and would not be distracted by anything else. They would have to face the fact that there is racism in this country, often excused and overlooked, that comes in deadly forms. Then I asked myself, “why?” Why must I use rhetoric and go above and beyond in order to convince someone of my humanity; to prove that black people should be treated as equals and not be discriminated against due to the color of our skin? My life is not a research paper. My life is not an intellectual exercise and when I navigate the world I cannot treat it as such.
I recognize that there are worlds that I will never experience; lives that people live on a daily basis, the aspects of which I will only come to know through others’ anecdotes. The life I’ve lived is one where, as a black man, I anticipate danger from an encounter with the police. The life I’ve lived is one where, from a young age, my parents constantly told my sister and I, “If the police ever approach you, don’t run.” When I was abroad, the police entered a building my friend and I were studying in. Instinctively, I got my ID out of my pocket, and told my friend to do the same, well before the officers headed our way, so we wouldn’t have to reach for anything and trigger an incident. In this life I live, I am hyper-aware of how I operate so I do not appear as threatening, yet, simultaneously, it has simply become who I am. But there is only so much I can control. Walking in the Paris Métro with another friend, who is white, she pointed out a stop and frisk in progress, and how all the men being frisked were men of color. As we walked through the busy lunchtime crowd, observing the blatant discrimination, one of the officers pointed at me, singling me out, and called me over to stand alongside the other men.
While my experiences are specific to me, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. I am standing alongside other black people and we are standing on the shoulders of many black people who have been fighting against racial injustice for centuries. Yes, the murder of George Floyd sparked this wave of worldwide protests. However, this tsunami we are all experiencing has been generated by the earthquake of chattel slavery, and its subsequent, perpetual, and timeless aftershocks, one of which being police brutality. We are protesting for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery. But we are also marching for Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Rekiya Boyd, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Emmett Till and all those who were killed by vigilante violence and the police—individuals who have sworn to protect the public and hold themselves accountable. We are continuing these protests and calls for justice that so far have gone unanswered.
Our current voices of protest cannot be another unanswered cry for justice. Oftentimes when we raise our voices, we are met with denial and deflection or we are ignored entirely. I hear the arguments and see them in the news and social media: Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest was dismissed as being disrespectful to the flag—even though kneeling arose as a compromise so he would not sit out of the anthem entirely—without engaging with the reason why he was protesting. Those who try to amplify their cries of pain are met with comments equipped with statistics and percentages taken out of context, that are meant to deny the experiences of the victimized. A smokescreen of numbers and excuses is thrown when confronted with blatant injustice that is part of the daily experience of black and other oppressed communities. All of this is procrastination: finding another errand or assignment to preoccupy oneself with, instead of dealing with the one that is long overdue. Why is that? Why are people so willing to ignore other peoples’ suffering? Why is there a refusal to listen? A refusal to acknowledge?
One of the largest refusals comes with the phrase “All Lives Matter,” a frequent response to “Black Lives Matter.” The phrase “All Lives Matter,” is dismissive, rendering our pain invisible. This pain is caused by how people treat us due to the color of our skin. When we say “Black Lives Matter,” we are not denying anyone else’s life the right to “matter.” We are saying that black lives matter, too. The fact that there is a need to emphasize this, is why we are emphasizing it. The fact that I felt a need to present a well-substantiated case to advocate for my humanity, is why we are emphasizing it. The fact that George Floyd was repeating “I can’t breathe,” and Derek Chauvin refused to remove himself from Floyd’s neck, is why we are emphasizing it.
But to those who use “All Lives Matter” or other equivalents as deflection, I offer this: a large group of people within this “all” feel like our lives do not matter. We are treated differently and disparagingly due to the color of our skin. We are hurting, we are communicating our pain, and we have been doing so for lifetimes. Do not keep your backs turned and pretend that you do not see. Recognize that knees have been on our necks for far too long.