As most people know by now, on May 25th, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite him begging for help, and saying “I can’t breathe.” It was one more brutal death in a seemingly never-ending series of deaths inflicted on African-American men and women by police brutality enforcing systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States.
Because of the courageous video taken by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, people all over the world actually witnessed the horror of this murder. Thousands of people, in every state, and all around the world have taken to the streets to protest, day after day, night after night, to demand a change. The four officers involved at the scene have been fired from the force and charged with his murder, or the aiding and abetting of his murder. A first step.
It has been difficult for me to write during this. I asked myself–was there anything I could add to the condemnations of white supremacy that have already been said by so many others? And as a white woman–should I be speaking at all? This is a time to center the voices of people of color. But also, how can any of us remain silent? On a very personal level, initially I also felt very discouraged. I have been an activist for my entire adult life. I am not taking credit for anything, this has been my calling in the world. But these days, I have wondered, did anything change? How could we have struggled so long with so little progress?
Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote a song, released in 1988, about activist Ella Baker, using her words to express deep truths about the long journey of activism for racial justice. These excerpts especially move me:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes…
Until the killing of Black men, Black mother’s sons/ Is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail/ and if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale.
The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on/ Is when the reins are in the hands of the young who dare to run against the storm.
These days, the irony of Baker’s words–we cannot rest–is not lost on me as I deal with a chronic illness that demands that I rest every day, that robs me of my capacity to show up to protest in the streets, or do very much of any other kind of activism. But her words also helped me to articulate one thing I could do. On Wednesday, I lit a red candle at 4 p.m., as a protest at Portland (Maine) City Hall was beginning, led by young activists of color. I offered my prayers and watched a live video feed for the two hour protest, and bore witness to the young people with such courage who dare to run against the storm. Maybe today, all I can do is bear witness in support of these young people, and in that way, “to be one in the number, as we stand against tyranny.”
As the protests began to multiply, in big cities and small towns, in countries all around the world, I felt a glimmer of hope. Sometimes, something breaks open. Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, reminds us that the future is unknowable – and that’s a good thing. Why? Because it creates space for creative intervention. The lessons of history teach us that change happens in unexpected ways, and often in seemingly sudden, non-linear ways.
May the words of George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gigi prove to be prophetic: “My daddy changed the world.” #blacklivesmatter