Protests or no protests, I wake up Black

Tuesday, June 16, 2020 - 11:47pm

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Every morning I wake up and pray,

Pray that my Black life might matter today

Flashing lights came on behind our car and my lunch immediately went straight to my throat. My mother, who is a University of Michigan trained corporate attorney, told my sisters and I to quiet down as she nervously rolled down the window to face a white officer in the wealthy northern suburbs of Detroit. As she tried to explain that my father usually drove the car, he cut her off, “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” “Officer, I live around the corner,” my mother explained. A bead of sweat appeared above her forehead despite the fact that she was telling the truth. The tense exchange continued, “Ma’am, have you been drinking?” If I wasn’t about to cry, I probably would have laughed at the ridiculousness of the question. In my 20 years on this Earth, I have only seen my mom drink three times and, certainly, none of them were at 4 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. After a few more tense minutes of the exchange, the officer let my mom go without ever explaining what she did wrong. As we pulled away, I began to cry.

Every morning I wake up and pray,

Pray that I won’t fear for my safety today

When tragedies like George Floyd’s death occur, the traditional response from white liberals has been to go directly to social media, posting to remind everyone how woke they are while advocating for changes to the systemic disenfranchisement of Black people. Hashtags trend, protests are organized, conflict ensues and escalates and the conversation ultimately becomes more about the violence in these protests than the inequities facing the Black community, fueling the left’s rage. This, in turn, allows Fox News and other conservative media talking heads — who claim not to be explicitly racist but simply support a policeman’s right to kill unarmed Black people — to change the narrative and muddy the waters. Suddenly, the voices are so muddled that most people tune out, Trump or someone else in the Republican Party creates a diversion, then eventually everyone moves on. Nothing changes.

Every morning I wake up and pray,

Pray that I will see my bed at the end of the day

With my brothers and sisters, I watch these movements with hope, believing that this time might be different; This time police might be held accountable and real change might send shockwaves through the system. Together, we cringe when the president sends a tweet. Together, we raise our voices in solidarity as opposition to whoever stands against our movement, but we know that speaking up risks our lives. Knowing this, we speak louder because each word might be our last. Each word might force us to leave this world too early, like our brothers Trayvon and Freddie and our sisters Aiyana and Breonna.

Every morning I wake up and pray,

Pray that my ancestors’ dreams are fulfilled today

My ancestors back in the motherland were ripped from their peaceful villages and forcefully taken to a new country that they were forced to build on their backs. For 200 years, they tilled soil and farmed land with the faint hope that one day we might achieve freedom, that one day, we might get a share of our owners’ wealth. Despite all we gave, these owners bound us with chains, beat us with whips and instilled fear into our hearts. 400 years later, we are still put in chains by Paul Ryan nearly decimating Medicaid, by John Roberts allowing states to gut our voting rights, by Trump emboldening the “very fine people on both sides.” Don’t even get me started on our fallen brother Clarence Thomas discrediting the affirmative action that got him into Yale Law School. Not only are we put down by politicians who don’t believe we belong here, but we are kept down by the police who have internalized their own privilege and hate us even though they do not know us.

Every morning I wake up and pray,

Pray that, upon Officer Chauvin, guilt will weigh

I believe that police have a critical function in the workings of any civil society, but some officers have replaced their mandate of “protect and serve” with “harass and demonize.” I believe that most policemen and women wear their badge with honor, but no American who believes in the freedom that this country purports to offer should be alright with a border patrolman who shoots a Mexican teenager across the border. We should not ignore a man whose hands are up but still gets shot. We absolutely should not be okay with a police officer who kneels on a Black man’s throat for allegedly counterfeiting a $20 bill. See, if you accept these atrocities, you don’t just support the police, you are a racist plain and simple and, if you do not actively oppose it, you implicitly support it.

Every morning, I wake up and pray,

Pray that I can secure the blessings of Liberty today

My grandfather is and will always be my hero. He embodies the kind of heroism that we all should strive for because it’s not written in history books, but it entails waking up every single day and trying to make your corner of the world marginally better. He worked his whole life, being one of the first Black swimmers in Detroit, serving in the military during World War II and working as a public servant back in the city for more than 40 years. After he retired, he worked every day to teach all 16 of his grandchildren what it meant to be a Black person in the United States, and what it could mean. He taught me that being Black means standing up for your community, but it can also mean growing prize-winning hydrangeas. It means lifting up our neighbors, but it can also mean beating people at Bid Whist. In his 96 years on this Earth, he spent every day securing more blessings of liberty for me, my sisters, my mother and my city. To honor his legacy, it is my responsibility to not only further secure the rights that he fought for but also to fight to spread these rights to more of my downtrodden brothers and sisters. The most important of these rights is the right to live without the deadly consequences of police brutality. However, it does not just fall on me, it falls on all of us to battle every day to make our corners of the world, and thus the world itself, better. So, go out and peacefully protest today, but tomorrow, the next day, the next week and the next month, try to improve someone else’s life because large barriers cannot be broken by one protest.

Every morning I wake up and pray,

Pray that my Black life will matter today

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu