An Open Letter:
Yes, the world needs love but we also need truth and this is both.
Ever since the public lynching of George Floyd, people in Portland, like so many other cities across the nation, followed Minneapolis’ lead and took to the streets in protest against police brutality on Black people. Black Lives Matter hashtags saturated the internet spilling onto signs emotionally waved by every ethnicity. In fact, there has been a myriad of catchphrases at every scene.
Given we’re in the middle of COVID-19 without a vaccine, I have had no desire to be around large groups of people. All this time, the entire world has been on lockdown, and now all of a sudden a greater, more deadly pandemic that has taken far more lives over the course of four hundred plus years, forces us out of hiding.
Initially, the crowds were small but quickly grew by the third day. I watched the news as the Burnside bridge burst with bodies on the ground in protest to have all officers involved in the murder of George Floyd arrested. It was hot, the day was long, and for the most part, it was peaceful.
“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
My oldest child also joined the protest. I was apprehensive as most Black mothers are. I did not want him fighting for the cause only to become a victim of police brutality. I was reminded of The Greensboro sit-ins, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, and The Freedom Rides. You see, as a performing arts educator with a focus on Black history, I realized the stories my pupils re-enacted on stage were now coming to life before their eyes and they could not sit in the wings.
However, I convinced myself, I’d continue to use my art as a way to raise awareness and resist. We are still in the middle of a health crisis that not everyone takes seriously. I didn’t want to fall prey to either. Then, it happened. The protest came to our small borough. I no longer had to worry about driving thirty to forty minutes to get downtown, try to park, and hope my car didn’t get tagged by police. It was a five-minute walk from home. There was no excuse so I went.
We met in the parking lot of the high school where all three of my children graduated, where all three of my children were treated unfairly, where all three of my children had to learn how to navigate in an ocean of racist students, staff, parents, and administrators. This was the group we were joining in the protest against police brutality, in support of Black lives.
Skeptical but willing to try, to be a part of the solution, be a part of a community we’d been trying to be a part of for ten years, thinking this could be therapeutic. We hit the busy street and was taken aback by the number of people in the parking lot. Surely all of those people weren’t there for us (Black Lives). As we approached the crosswalk, a white family with signs stepped up behind us in silence. We were going to the same event for the same cause (Black Lives).
Determined not to let that stray us, we walked to the edge of the crowd with our masks on surrounded by people who held signs in support of us but never acknowledged us. They stared then quickly turned away. They spoke to one another as if we were invisible. The look from their peering eyes questioned our very presence.
Naturally, our goal was to then find any familiar faces, other Black people we could connect and feel safe with. Three young people grabbed the bullhorn giving instructions we could hardly hear. Avoiding all eye contact, she came to the back of the group to let us know what was going on making sure to walk a few feet beyond where myself, two other mothers, and our children stood. Nevertheless, we marched alongside one another while a handful of white people smiled, shyly said hello, and shouted Black Lives Matter, Say his/her name and we said their names but they only named a few so we had to add the others. We all yelled, No justice, no peace, no racist police. They left out the curse word.
The police marched with us. Surely they weren’t policing us, making sure we ‘behaved’. No, they were showing solidarity like the other white people. These police officers, some who were resource officers at the high school, who suspended, expelled and harassed Black students on a regular? Nah, maybe they had an immediate change of heart. Perhaps the video of George Floyd’s execution made them sick to their stomachs too.
We were on repeat in the pouring rain until we reached our gathering spot. The young people leading the protest did the absolute best they could. I am extremely proud of them for taking the initiative. They opened the mic for anyone who wanted to have a word, share insight. Some young adults gave a list of demands, others spoke about Quanice Hayes who was murdered by police at the age of seventeen. He was also on my caseload as a freshman.
My work as an involved parent, parent coordinator, and advocate for Black families in East County gave me even more insight into the systemic racism the school district practices. Youth after youth, one adult male speaker and they all thanked the predominantly white crowd for being there, praised them for their commitment to Black lives. One little boy was so sincere and passionate, he ended with, and not all cops are bad. They cheered.
In one of my plays, there is a line that says, “Just because I’m Black doesn’t mean I don’t like white people because most of the time they’re nice.” The young people begged me to change the last part to “most of the time they alright” because they felt very strongly based on their experiences that white people were not nice most of the time so we changed it and audience members got it.
As the protest continued, one Black girl said, “Before today, I was afraid but because of you I feel safe now.” Another cried as she expressed shock and gratitude to see so many people she knew from school there, how she always felt invisible, didn’t know they cared but somehow them being there made her feel as if they did. This was becoming a motivational speech for white people which I completely understood to be the “white savior” or the “white supremacy” mentality many Black people have. And, that it is more common where the white to Black ratio is small. Not one person challenged them. Instead, they told them how wonderful they were while simultaneously expressing their fear of being Black.
Finally, a white girl got up to speak. She said, “It’s disgusting that Black people don’t feel safe. They shouldn’t have to feel this way.” She also mentioned she is the mother of a mixed child and is afraid for the child and the child’s father. After she finished and everyone applauded her, she walks off the platform pass my son and the rest of us as we’re laughing about something that has nothing to do with her and asks him, “What,” in a snarky way? My son lets her know that wasn’t geared toward her and she responds with, “That’s what I thought.”
Now, the Black mama in me wanted to set her straight but she dipped too fast. The people around us kind of gave her a disapproving expression but said nothing to her. Instead, they fixed their eyes on us to see what our next actions would be. But they were in no way defending us. Anyone who knows my family knows we’ve literally spent the past fourteen years educating youth and communities on Black history, racial systems through the arts.
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Originally, I wasn’t going to say anything. I was proud to watch the young people use their voice. However, the young lady’s inexcusable actions caused an unavoidable, intellectual reaction. George Floyd cried out for his dead mother. That summoned all Black mothers and at that moment, three Black mothers were propelled to speak. Two were African. They both shared how they fled their country in hopes of safety, protection, and freedom from war zones but were met with the same hostility against their Black skin in America, how they feared for their children, their sons. Black of African descent so far removed, lineage data ends with my maternal great-great-grandmother, I spoke about our families experience within the community, that we are not invisible and the need for immediate police reform, for the district to follow suit and remove the resource officers from the schools so they can stop policing Black students perpetuating the school-to-prison-pipeline system.
As a writer, actor, director, advocate, I’ve noticed rather I’m on stage with the opera, regional theater or large concert halls, white audience members, white people in general, are always in awe of Black artists and athletes. They are overcome with emotion, sometimes in tears, and are quick to celebrate us. During these times, my family could be sitting in the audience and the same people praising me will sit right next to them, not say a word, not acknowledge their existence.
All week long I encountered well-meaning white people who made posts on social media, participated in protests, sent out newsletters in solidarity with the Black community, asking what can they do to make things better. They want to talk, have conversations. I watched two pastors; one Black, the other white, use their platform and airtime to have a vulnerable conversation about racism, white privilege, and the consistent silence of white evangelicals. All great starts.
You see, I am well-aware of the tendency to jump into whatever is trending. Many have hijacked moments, making the movement about themselves, a way to promote their business or organization, their brand. Corporations and politicians know if they remain silent on matters pertaining to Black lives that Black people will remain silent with our money and votes when it comes time to support them.
Marching for some has become about photo ops, opportunities to gain more followers on social media or be seen by reporters who by-the-way, still practice racial biases, and try to control the narrative during protests. They show images of white or racially ambiguous protestors in support of the movement and try to vilify the dark skin protestors as militant and violent. The ACLU-Oregon and someone running for State Representative were quick to praise the protests in the East while posting white people holding signs.
Here it is white people. Yes, we’re glad you’ve awakened from your sleep and joined us again as you did during the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. We are not trying to make you feel bad or guilty. Likewise, we are not here to sugar-coat anything anymore. We’ve been doing that for so long and it hasn’t worked. We have the right to question your motives, especially if you never spoke up for us in the past. We are tired.
You can no longer march beside us without acknowledging us. You can no longer fight for the cause without checking your own biases and racism at your front door. We are not invisible. You don’t get to pick and choose which parts of us you want to see and romanticize. Educate yourselves, educate one another. We are not here to make you feel comfortable, rub you, pat you on the back, tell you how wonderful you are, what a great job you’re doing, or to pacify you. This is about all Black lives. We’re the ones who need comfort. We’re the ones whose family members are constantly being killed in the streets, in their homes. We are tired.
Do you have land? Do you have houses? Do you have buildings? Do you have money? Do you have resources? Can you help eliminate past, present, and future college debt for Black people? Are you responsible for holding Black brothers or sisters back from being promoted because of the color of our skin while putting less qualified white friends in a position to oversee us?
Have you been stealing Black people’s ideas, recipes, blueprints, making money off of us, forming exclusive clubs (NBA, NFL, Hollywood, Broadway, Music, Tech, Health industry) then changing the rules, forcing us to try to obtain what is already rightfully ours only to continue moving the mark further away, encouraging us to fight against one another to get the coveted spots you’re only going to allow a few into anyway? Can you help eliminate the multifaceted hoops we have to jump through to gain generational wealth?
No, you can’t help that you were born white but, if you’re serious, check your biases, stop being passive, acknowledge your privilege, and use your power to help change the system.
This is bigger than police brutality. This is bigger than a week or two of protests. This is bigger than one, two, or three moments. It’s a movement to burn destructive systems to the ground.