And we thought it was over. Thought it was the end of days. That a new virus had finally made us face our worst fears. The apocalypse of 19. COVID. A global lockdown. Confinement. Solitary. A world forced to deal with its demons on a virus’ terms. And America got the worst of it.
But then something else happened. Something worse. Something, like the virus that preceded it, America wasn’t prepared for. This virus was called Racism. Another apocalypse. COVERT. 1619. And there were way more infected with this virus, way more than the almost two million amassed over the first five months of the arrival of the new virus on this soil. The other virus had a 400-year head start. And while the coronavirus death toll climbed, it couldn’t compete with one on-camera death of a Black man at the knee of a white police officer. Too many other deaths were attached to it. Reaffirming, viruses do segregate.
Finally the alarm clock—the one that had been sounding for years, decades and centuries—was heard. Or—finally—the snooze button stopped working. And that part of America, the one that treats self-abnegation as a badge of honor, finally woke the fuck up. Only to ask the alarm clock: What do I do now?
White America, this is for you. Specifically. Directly. Personally. Intently. You finally got an unfiltered, uncontrolled-by-you look at things through our eyes, minds, hearts, souls and emotions. A phase of the pandemic rollout that wasn’t expected. After being held hostage by a disease that disproportionately affected us through both infection and death, we were welcomed back in the slow reentry to your society with video reminders: May 5, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia (more than two months after the murder occurred); May 25, the “potential murder” attempt Amy Cooper put on Christian Cooper in Central Park by falsifying a call to the police identifying that “an African-American man is threatening my life;” followed the same day by the callous, cold-hearted, merciless, Generation W public horizontal lynching of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin (and three “in blue” accomplices). Reminders of who we are, where we are and how the value of our lives on your land remains the same. (Add to that the March 13 video-less murder of Breonna Taylor who in her own apartment was shot eight times by unidentified, plainclothes police in an “Oops—wrong house, wrong person” drug raid in Louisville.)
The camel’s back broke, the pill too large to swallow, enough had finally surpassed enough. Then, to further demonstrate your authority while at the same time disregard every syllable coming from our screams in the initial stages of our protests, on live TV, on CNN, in Minnesota, on the morning of May 29, we watched ground-zero reporter Omar Jimenez (Black and Latino), in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, be handcuffed and arrested with no explanation by members of the same police force that killed Floyd while his CNN colleague Josh Campbell (white), in the same area, covering the same protest, was “approached by police but allowed to remain” doing his job, maintaining his freedom. Enough had nowhere left to go.
We know you don’t see it that way. At least, in the past, you didn’t. But now it seems as if an awakening has taken place. One that feels different than the so-called ones before. More of you this time seem not only to hear us, but want to hear us. This time, it seems, you want to share some of our pain. Part of the answer to our struggle in your country has been empathy, the inexistence of it. But this latest uprising gave glimpses of optimism that this time the walk might not be so monochromatic, that a few generations of you—this time—will stay the course, not venture off, not venture back.
That invisible line between protest and progress, methods and message, will determine how committed you are this time. While the powerful passive nature of peaceful demonstrations fits neatly into your comfort zone, the anger part in the form of property destruction and resisting authority is hard to accept, harder to understand. Most times we don’t understand it, either. But we know where it comes from. As misdirected as it often is, we also know why. More importantly, even though it too often misses the intended target, we know who it is directed at. You.
And what you don’t understand is how it feels not to be in this moment but to have had to wait for it. The wait is different than the weight. It’s something you will never have to experience, never have to go through. This is where the pain is.
When denial is in the DNA of the majority, this is the result. We are protesting to this extent and extreme because if we are going to die, we’d rather die by way of COVID-19 than continue by way of a white person’s gun or a white police officer’s knee. These protests, with total disregard for the risk of contacting the coronavirus, are our way of dying on our own terms.
Suicide is the honor that you gave us.
Most of you don’t get the connection between the two, between The Corona and The Protests. You don’t bookend those two while interlinking what sits in between. To you they are separate, to us they are continual. One followed the other while still living inside of the other. Coexisting. Costrangulating.
You’ve now made it a point to ask for help. This moment has made you comfortable enough to seek us out and ask, “What can we do?” Most of the time prefixed by, “As a white person…” You’ve heard many answers, many responses. Most answers are ones you want to hear instead of ones you need to hear. The “start a conversation,” “be empathetic,” “treat us as equals,” “participate,” “donate,” “give,” “open your minds and hearts,” “support our calls and causes,” “be more engaged,” “stop only thinking of yourself and your people when you vote,” “defund the police,” “get on your knees and say ‘Black Lives Matter!’” answers you’ve encountered are all as pointless as you all still asking the question fifty-two years after the aftermath of the civil rights movement was supposed to be the answer. No more town halls, no more meetings or Zoom calls with your Black friends, no more Sesame Street talks about race on CNN, no more white mothers having “the talk” with their white children, no more Allure or Self or Highsnobiety articles on “How You Can Be Helpful Right Now,” no more liberal-conservativism or conservative-liberalism, no more “We feel you, brother,” or “We’re with you, sister.” The only answer to your safe, superficial, remedial and vaguely condescending question comes in the form of a single word: “Change.”
When you ask us now what you can do, you are asking us to reduce a centuries-long answer into a thirty-minute conversation. So, we’ll shorten that conversation: Change. Step one of that change: Start seeing us differently so that… Step two: We can start seeing you differently. And that’s a very auspicious request to a people who have historically proven they don’t respect anything before money. Holy calamafuck. Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollars. Change.
That is where you start, that is what you do, that is where you finish, that is where you stay. You know what that change looks like, you know what that change means, you know all that has to happen within for that change—that change that you seem to be so concerned with now, that change that has been in your power and control since we asked for it at the beginning of the seventeenth century—to be present. Reform and Reckoning. Words you all love to say but hate to hear.
If you, your race, your people, your culture, your mentality, your practice, your lives and livelihoods, can do that one thing, change, without us telling you what that change should look like or be, just by you looking deep within and doing the most uncomfortable thing most white Americans have never had to do, recognizing the true difference in right and wrong, then there’s a strong chance that you will never have to ask that question again. And, equally meaningful, we will no longer have to minimize ourselves in searching for an answer that you already know but want someone else to do the work and provide for you.
This is not about white “superpremacy” or white privilege. This isn’t just about police, brutality and our deaths and treatment at the hands of biased trained murderers. That’s just surface. This isn’t about the minds and motives of judges who give police officers who wrongfully kill us fractions of the sentences that non-white, non-officers get for killing us or the inferior education you systemically make sure is our primary, sometimes only, educational option or about redlining and home loans or controlled underemployment or generalized segregation or about when Trump had his conversation with the governors about the protests and riots, there was not one of us on the other line or about how in neighborhoods where we predominate the bank and food ratio-to-people often starts at zero-to-. This is about you actually looking at someone who doesn’t look like you and one, seeing a human being and two, you acting like one. So the more pertinent question should be us asking you: “What can we do?” What can we non-white people in this country who you once, not long ago, had in your Constitution as three-fifths of whole humans, who had to fight in a war and in the courts for the right to equally drink water like you, have to do to get you to recognize, respect, treat and accept us as…?
Equals would be too much. Literally in a place where fairness has never been preordained; where Constitutional rights have never applied to us; where accountability goes two ways: Your way and whatever way you decide is the other.
The medical-dictionary definition of pain is as such: “Pain is an unpleasant feeling that is conveyed to the brain by sensory neurons. The discomfort signals actual or potential injury to the body. However, pain is more than a sensation, or the physical awareness of pain; it also includes perception, the subjective interpretation of the discomfort. Perception gives information on the pain’s location, intensity, and something about its nature. The various conscious and unconscious responses to both sensation and perception, including the emotional response, add further definition to the overall concept of pain.”
There’s acute pain and chronic pain; inside of those there’s visceral pain, neuropathic pain, nociceptive pain, unremitting pain, intermittent pain, somatic pain, paroxysmal pain, phantom pain, refractory pain, referred pain and central pain; outside of those there’s emotional and psychological pain. Then there’s the pain you’ve been witnessing unfold, on your TV, computer, tablet and phone screens; in your hometowns, outside of your homes. The pain that includes all of the pains above. Unending pain. Racial pain. Systemic pain. The pain of inequality. Generational pain. Transformative pain. American pain.
And because pain itself in any and every form is so difficult to define, pinpoint or predict, it becomes impossible to dictate how one reacts when in pain. Even more impossible to rationalize. It’s been as if America had no idea, impervious, to how much pain we were in.
Self-evident, what does that really mean? What truths do you really hold true? And, more exactly, who are they true to? Common suggested love can be the last word, our pain commands it, damn sure can’t be the final one.
Think of how it must feel to us to go through this entire coronavirus outbreak and barely see one Black person of national authority—elected government official or task-force scientist or medical infectious disease expert or epidemiologist—instructing and advising us on how to survive during this pandemic? Once again, our survival is in your hands, at your disposal. Helluva time to have trust issues with white people, you think? Pain.
Yet, you wonder why we cry? Why we destroy, why we disrupt? Why we continue in these situations to turn on ourselves before we turn on you? Why we so often hate on ourselves more than we hate you? Why we mess up our overall message and allow you the gratification of saying, “See…”? Why we sometimes bite the hand that feeds us and chew on the ones that hug us? Empty answers, hollow reasonings and rational. Pain be our reaction. Displaying our continuing marginalization by our own misguided emotional behavior. Madness over meaning. But peaceful doesn’t work when it comes to getting your attention. You’ve proven that. To see us we have to seek and destroy. Ourselves. Our blocks. Our hoods. Our cities. Then you ask, “What can we do?” See.
Pain relief 2020 circa 2011 looks like this: Occupy White Men. Occupy White Power. Occupy White Control. Occupy America. It’s not the same as before and it might not ever be. Things returning back to “as was” might not be a guarantee this time. This could be the bullet you might not be able to dodge. The knee you might not be able to remove.
Life is all we got. To us, you got or own or control everything else. So it’s kind of a problem—ours, apparently not yours until recently—when you decide to take the one thing we do have, from us. Pain.
As John Boyega said during his impassioned cry during a protest march in London: “I need you to understand how painful this shit is. I need you to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing…” And he ain’t even American.
Or more honestly, as Kimberly Jones on Instagram so masterfully put it, “(You all) are lucky what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”
Hope. That one word you all keep bringing up, the one concept we keep telling ourselves is all we have left to hang on to. Your guilt remover, our life preserver.
And even the most liberal of liberal, open-minded of open-minded, wokest of woke white people in America, the “best of you all,” who after fifty-two years of life in this country finally (sorta) gets it. We hope. That person would be anti-discriminatory, anti-racist, Trump-hating late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, who in the opening of his June 2 show spoke about his awakening.
“Imagine how frustrating it must be to get handcuffed, or frisked, or pulled over, just because you’re Black. Even if the cop looks in the car and goes, ‘Okay, everything’s fine, have a nice day.’ How do you swallow that and move on with your day?” Kimmel said.
Imagine every time going through that scenario there is a strong chance that one time you won’t come out of that situation alive? Then imagine that if you do die and someone doesn’t have video evidence of your murder that, one, most of the country won’t believe your death was for no reason and, two, your murderer and his/her people will more than likely strategically lie and, three, even if there is video evidence against the police, the chances of them being found guilty is infinitesimal and, four, if there is that small miracle that they are found guilty of murdering you the sentencing will be a fraction (closer to one-quarter than four-fifths) of what is applicable by law on this land.
Kimmel continued. “What happened to George Floyd was on video, how often does this happen without a camera recording the whole thing? It sounds to me like it happens all the time. We just don’t see it unless it gets posted online. Then we’re shocked and Black people are like, ‘Why are you shocked? We’ve been telling you this has been happening over and over again.’”
And over and over and over and over some more.
He finished with this revelation: “I read something last night that I think makes a lot of sense. It’s this: ‘White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.’”
Again, only a fraction of the law of this land.
Then it’s the little shit that America does to us by way of what seems like principle that eats away at both our existence and our dignity. Like in March, how of the first 500 arrests and citations handed out in New York City by cops for social-distancing, ninety-three percent were to Black people. This while videos of cops in New York in white ‘hoods were shown and seen passing out masks. Or in June in Los Angeles, when Black people tried to wave down the police to help stop looters from vandalizing a store on Van Nuys Boulevard, how they—Black citizens—immediately were handcuffed by the cops with one officer on the scene openly saying to a member of the media trying to tell the officer that those aren’t the people they should be handcuffing, “We don’t care about them.”
There is a code that we Black folk live by in America. This is where “hope” for us is rooted. It’s this belief: “Eventually history will get it.” It at times has been the only belief that has kept us alive. Telling ourselves that historically our one day will come, that the world will one day understand everything concerning our American journey; our contributions, our perseverance, our forgiveness, our existence, our story. One day. For every one of those stories that history rights concerning us, will be one story closer to our true acceptance. In your eyes. And, one hopes, your hearts. And while we don’t (ever) expect you to agree with us on our terms, that change that you seem to be interested in now will only happen if you accept who we are on our terms. Accept the reality that you for centuries have chosen and refused not to own and avow why this country is the way it really is, as opposed to how you falsely see it or appallingly expect it to remain. Once you come to the humanistic conclusion that racism is not fringe issue, that it—by your calculated and constant implementation—is an institution, hope is still a problem.
Even George Stephanopoulos had to ask: “How do you have hope in a 400-year old problem?”
So what ends pain?
What does it mean to not be you in the middle of this? What does it mean to be a Black man, a so-called “non-white” American, in the middle of this? When answers and understanding collide with no answers and no understanding?
It’s not so much the laws as it is the rules. And the difference that separates the two. The rules you have in place that favor you and yours against the laws that protect you from us, us from you. There is a difference between being tired and being over. We are no longer tired. Over thinking what you are thinking when it comes to us. Over wondering what you are feeling when it comes to us. Over asking for your permission. That “with liberty and justice for all” thing that ends your Pledge of Allegiance, it is finally on trial. Baptism by outrage. As one of your own wrote in Time, “… —at the end of the day—the battle is over the state of the human heart.” Our final question, this: Do you honestly have one?
George Floyd is not the cause of this—but he is the catalyst. It was the Minnesota rank-and-file’s response to his eight-minute-and-forty-six-second end that is the reason we are here. How shocking that wasn’t. How predictable it was. How this is about the value of our life, not just the loss of it. His death has to come at the expense of a segment of yours.
It doesn’t end with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer introducing a “Justice In Policing Act” bill in the House and the Senate. It doesn’t end with Alexis Ohanian stepping down from the board of a company he founded (Reddit) to fill his seat with a Black candidate. It doesn’t end with the New York Times standing behind Michelle Alexander’s “America, This Is Your Chance” op-ed and not fully supporting Tom Cotton’s “Send in the Troops” op-ed. It ends when a former president does not have to include the word “normal” in a statement about another Black man’s death that is the unmitigated, unquestionable result of the color of his skin.
Know this: There are two other recent blue-on-Black “hate crimes” that we will be paying close attention to that will have powerful implications on what turn this movement takes. One subliminal, the other overt. The Botham Jean case and the Laquan McDonald case. As we hold George Floyd and the symbolism of his death up as high as we possibly can, it will be the sentencing and punishment—not the convictions—of the officers that will determine if this is the beginning of the beginning or the beginning of the end.
Judges have been co-criminals. Juries have been co-criminals. The courts, the system, the structure, the process, the country, co-criminal. Officer Amber Guyger was found guilty of murder in her killing of Jean in Dallas in September of 2018, she got ten years; officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second degree murder in his killing of McDonald in Chicago in 2014, he got six years. Two Black male lives gone, ended at the hands of racially judgmental, trained executioners, are according to the laws of your land in total only worth sixteen years. That’s what it says to us, that’s the message we receive from you. Qualified Immunity.
Those two cases will be the accompaniment of determining whether change is something any of us will ever experience. Human rights should not discriminate. Until then, hold your breath. Anticipate the worst. At least that will give you some idea of what it feels like and what we mean when we scream, “I Can’t Breathe.”