Your first march was in 1999 when you were still a baby. It was in response to the killing of Amadou Diallo, a Guayanese immigrant who was shot 41 times by plain clothes policemen who claimed that they thought he was a rapist still at large. I pushed you in your stroller as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of other protesters mobilized after the cops were acquitted of any charges for killing an innocent unarmed man outside his home.
We marched again this weekend in the response to the murder of George Floyd, and in those twenty years so many names, known and unheard, so much tragedy has transpired. There is so much you have grown to witness and understand in your short life. While it is always a treat to spend the afternoon together, gathering because of tragedies is not the way I’d choose to do it. But I’m so glad you want to be here, that you want to keep protesting, and work to create real change because we need you and millions of others – especially young people, yes, but we need people of all ages and races and backgrounds, from small towns as well as big cities, those personally at risk and those with privilege to feel a shared sense of shame and outrage. Despite only making up 13 percent of the US population, Black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police.
When you were four you came home from Pre-K distraught at what you had learned.”Martin Luther King Jr was a great man and leader. Then why did they shoot him?” It was a hard conversation to have, the end of your innocence and the first of many discussions about racisim. But I didn’t have to have the other talk your classmates would have, especially the boys, about how to deal with police, how to safely face anti-black attitudes and actions. You were the only white kid in your class in what researchers now call an Apartheid school (99% or more children of color), which you happily attended for three years, the local school that did not reflect in any way the diversity of our Brooklyn neighborhood, and which dozens of white neighbors I spoke to over the years refused to consider attending, a disheartening situation that propelled us to move here with its integrated schools, although as we’d discover, many white neighbors had similar attitudes to those we had left behind in Brooklyn, praising the community’s diversity while maintaining a certain separation from those of other backgrounds.
We meet up with our local cousins and walk together with hundreds of others in a peaceful march filled with people eager to connect, to break from the isolation of our home quarantines, to join together and acknowledge injustice and brutality. We walk to the police station where we stand in silence for 8 minutes 46 seconds (the length of time the cop had his knee on Floyd’s neck), hands raised in fists or up in the air. It is a long time on a hot and humid day and our hands get tired and we sweat; our discomfort is petty compared to the violence and fear others face everyday.
The classic Metta (lovingkindness) phases are May you be safe; May you be happy; May you be healthy, and May you live with ease. I used to put less emphasis on the first phase, for whatever struggles I have I feel safe. I worry about V’s security (and here too, if he were a black teen with autism safety would be a much bigger issue – he’d be much more likely to be stopped by the police for what would be seen as disruptive potentially dangerous behavior) but I don’t feel endangered on a daily basis. It is something I’ve since been emphasizing, recognizing safety as the most basic of needs and the foundation for happiness and everything else. I realize prayers and meditation are not enough, but if we acknowledge our shared humanity that is a great starting point for working towards change.
The most compelling writing I’ve read from black activists and journalists emphasizes the need to not just make this about police brutality but to connect to other issues, to systemic, intrinsic inequities: in education, housing, employment and income and access to good healthcare, which has lead to Black people dying of Corona virus at twice the rate of white people. In some states, the disparity is much greater.
In decades of researching and writing about racial and economic inequity, not much has improved. Access to resources and opportunity still vary so much based on race and where you live. The ideal of American mobility that so many believe in and hold with pride, is out of reach for whole segments of the population. More so now than ever.
I want you to keep protesting, to find some way to keep the injustice you see in daily life in your heart and mind as you go through life, to be part of a movement that will not relent until bigger transformations occur. I want you to be happy but also to stay angry about things that are wrong in the world, to be an active listener and engaged citizen, whether out on the street or safe at home. To know that safety and happiness are rights we all are entitled to, and we need to keep fighting until that happens.