"When do you think the protests will stop?"

Tuesday, June 16, 2020 - 5:58pm

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“When do you think the protests will stop?” 

My mother asked me this when we were both sitting in the kitchen a few days ago. “Didn’t they arrest the cop who killed that guy? I don’t understand why there are all these violent protests still. And how does it benefit anyone to vandalize a building?” 

My mother is the daughter of two Cuban immigrants. My father is the proud son of two Cubans who also came to the United States decades ago. Many older members of my family, including my grandparents, have likewise voiced concerns about the legitimacy of the protests erupting around the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. One of my late relatives was imprisoned in Cuba for more than 20 years for his activities as a political activist. I have been wondering lately what he would have to say about my family’s response, given Cuba’s own history of protest. Likewise, political activism before and during the 90s in Cuba bears notable distinctions from the contemporary protests in the United States, but there are also important parallels. 

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Cuba lost its main trading partner as well as the source of much of its international political support. An economic crisis soon unfolded within Cuba, resulting in strict rationing, rolling blackouts (for up to 20 hours) and severe medicine shortages. In 1994, nearly a thousand Cubans gathered at Havana’s Malecon (a sea wall along the country’s capital known for its tourist appeal) to voice their frustrations. Protesters broke windows and destroyed property as others recorded the events unfolding, desperate for their voices to be heard. The uprising was effectively quelled on the same day it started because police shot, beat or threatened protesters who would not leave the streets. Nobody really writes much about this uprising. But many Cubans solemnly remember it, even if they no longer live on the island. Cuban-American communities should bear those parallels in mind when considering their role and respective privilege in the broader context of police violence against people of color. 

Despite the destructionist tactics used by protestors, the Maleconazo riot is a point of pride for many Cubans who now reside in the U.S. If my own community’s continued willingness to speak out against past injustice at the hands of Fidel Castro’s military and police force is any indication, many Cubans who now reside in the United States would not be so quick to condemn the Maleconazo riot more than 25 years ago. I struggle to imagine any of my grandparents criticizing those protestors who vandalized buildings in a display of their frustration against their country’s deteriorating economic conditions. No Cuban-American I know speaks out against those who stole boats that same year to flee to the United States. In some ways, the lack of understanding that many Cubans in my community have exhibited towards those protesting police brutality and the United States’ long legacy of systemic racism is surprising. In many ways, however, this reaction is predictable.

Despite the history of anti-Latino sentiment in the United States, Latin American communities have not always been compassionate or responsible partners in the fight against racism. Even though people of Hispanic descent have been racially profiled by police or are increasingly the target of hate crimes, racism has been deeply internalized in many immigrant communities. As Karla McKanders, a clinical professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, writes, instead of seeing themselves as natural allies in the fight for social and economic justice, many white and white-passing Cuban-Americans see themselves in competition with Black Americans. Furthermore, George Martinez, a professor of law at Southern Methodist University, writes that some Latinos “often sought to ‘pass’ as white … because they thought that becoming white insured greater economic, political and social security … [which] meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges, and was a way to avoid being the object of others’ domination.” Like many privileged Cuban-Americans, I personally have been guilty of implicit bias and racism — both intentional and not — and am still learning how I can most effectively dismantle the subtle, yet powerful hatred that often exists in my own community. 

Whether these comments are intended to belittle Black activists or not, many of the critiques I have heard of the ongoing protests are nonetheless reflections of that same subtle hatred. Deflecting to concerns about property damage belittles the real and immeasurable pain that police brutality has inflicted upon Black communities. Responding to the international outcry over the irreplaceable loss of lives with reports of damaged vehicles or stores suggests that perhaps, in fact, you might not think Black lives matter as much mass-produced, replaceable objects from Target. (As an aside, it is never a good sign when a multi-million dollar corporation’s response to looting is more charitable than your own). Dismissing these protests as “violent” and thus irredeemable avoids an important discussion about why protests are taking place at all and does not consider the larger history of protests across the world. This response in particular also reflects a choice to be ignorant about the way the police have responded to protests about police brutality with more police brutality.

The protests in the United States today are not about me or my family. I chose to write this article because I thought it was necessary to use my platform as an opinion columnist to purposefully critique the response many of my family members and members of my community have taken toward the protests and this country’s history of anti-Black racism. The way to begin to destruct internalized racism in our own homes and communities is to acknowledge privilege and have conversations about ongoing discrimination and injustice, no matter how painful or uncomfortable. 

Latin American communities should take this time to respectfully listen to Black activists who want their voices to be heard, donate to organizations that will work to dismantle systemic racism and sign petitions for victims of police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We must demand an end to police brutality and actively work to combat racism at the institutional and individual level. 

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.