Every Black person living in the United States has a story involving the police. I’d like to share one of mine.
My best friends and I moved in a pack during high school. Our favorite spot was the local QuickChek on the corner of Valley Road and Van Vleck Street. Every day, my order was the same—bacon, egg, and cheese on a croissant with salt, pepper, or oregano or some ungodly customized sub. We usually got our food and dipped to a friend’s house, but one day we took our food up the street and sat on a grassy corner, eating and talking about the latest chapter of One Piece.
Several bites into our meal, a cop car drove up the street and stopped in the middle of the intersection. As a small group of Black boys, we tensed up. The car sat for about five seconds before turning on its lights and siren and turning to go back down the hill. We shrugged and kept the conversation moving. Five minutes later, the same cop car pulled back up, sat for five seconds, put on its lights and siren, and turned back down the hill. This behavior was no mere coincidence; we needed to be the fuck gone.
By this time, my father had already given me The Talk about police: Never leave home without I.D.; if an officer pulls you over, don’t make any sudden movements; always make sure to answer “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” My story may seem mild compared to others, but that afternoon gave credence to all of my father’s lectures. To the police, there’s no such thing as minding your business when you’re Black; merely taking up space is enough to raise suspicion. Much like my fellow DJBooth writer Yoh Phillips, I had received my first taste of the badge.
In 2014, I watched as tensions, which began with the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, boiled over into the fiery revolt of Black Lives Matter in the wake of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. After a day of recaps and barely contained anger, I hopped on the phone with a family member to catch up. As the Ferguson protests came up, we found ourselves on opposing sides.
They used every buzzword in the book to push back against the protestors: “All Lives Matter,” “Think about the police,” “What do they accomplish by burning down their communities?” Our conversation was a misinformed Twitter thread come to life; a life-or-death scenario for me was little more than senseless outrage for them. In a country born from violent rebellion, literally, this ignorance felt sacrilegious.
“The history of the police in America is the history of black people being violently prevented from threatening white people’s property rights,” Vicky Osterweil wrote in her excellent 2014 piece, “In Defense of Looting.” “When, in the midst of an anti-police protest movement, people loot, they aren’t acting non-politically, they aren’t distracting from the issue of police violence and domination, nor are they fanning the flames of an always-already racist media discourse. Instead, they are getting straight to the heart of the problem of the police, property, and white supremacy.”
To Osterweil’s point, being stolen and living on stolen land is inherently traumatic. Black Americans have made a home out of a country only fit to exploit, deconstruct, and work us to death. Even in relatively calm moments, there isn’t a day where you can turn on the news or scroll down your timeline without seeing Black death in some form. To paraphrase James Baldwin, to be Black and self-aware is to be angry at all times.
I watched as my rage was reflected in the eyes of millions of Black Americans across the country last week. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and, most recently, George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have resulted in nationwide protests. I’ve seen people use the word “riot,” but let’s call these demonstrations by their real name: uprisings.
How else would you describe people taking over and burning down police stations and statehouses? The nearly week-long protests happening across the country amid the still-raging coronavirus stem from the grief and anger of watching officer after officer go free for strangling, shooting, and otherwise brutalizing Black bodies across the spectrum. This isn’t anarchy; it’s a reckoning.
And yet, so many of us are feeling helpless, sitting on the sidelines. In my home state of New Jersey, I sat in awe of my brothers and sisters taking to the streets in Newark this past Saturday, protesting with an energy I couldn’t find. I’ve protested and demonstrated a handful of times in my life, and I can say from experience that it’s exhausting. The spirit is willing, but the body can only handle moving at 100 percent power for so long.
To this day, at this very moment, I still harbor the fear I felt when the police encroached on my friends and me all those years ago. I still feel the frustration of arguing with my family about the value of my life. All Black Americans walk around with these scars every single day. But I’m here to tell every Black person reading this that no matter your shade, your gender, or your sexual identity, you don’t have to feel helpless. We aren’t helpless. There’s more to fighting the good fight than just being in the streets.
The good fight is also providing food, water, and support to those on the ground. The good fight is donating money and time to organizations devoted to the cause. The good fight is reading literature and staying informed. The good fight is putting your money where your mouth is and standing up for your own. The good fight starts with taking care of yourself. Find solace in music, film, games, and television without detaching from reality completely. Call your cousin and tell them you love them. We cannot fight without our mental strength.
Maintaining is an act of defiance. Don’t be afraid to be angry; don’t be afraid to rest. Don’t be afraid to check out. Don’t be afraid not to know the answer. Don’t be afraid to cry. Don’t be afraid to find joy where you can. The days and weeks to come will be arduous. The world is coming undone, but that doesn’t mean we have to unravel with it. We won’t.