"I can't breathe." These are some of the last words of George Floyd, and they haunt me.
I've struggled to find the words. That's not a normal phenomenon for me. Anyone who knows me personally or has interacted with me much knows this to be true. I rarely find myself unable or unwilling to speak. But I don't know the right way to articulate how I've been feeling the last week.
I live nearly equidistant from downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, in a quiet suburb with tree lined streets and a view of a public lake from my office window. We moved here for the excellent schools and amazing combination of access to green space and city life. It's a dream my wife and I worked and saved for since we graduated college over a decade ago.
It also means that I could hear the sirens and see the smoke from both cities on my back patio as the communities we call home descended into a violent release of grief and rage over the murder of George Floyd while in police custody. Like many others I felt so many emotions so rapidly I didn't know what to do.
I cycled between rage, sadness, helplessness, guilt, and despair. I read articles and listened to the news, but refused to watch the video because doing so felt wrong like I would be feeding into a murder porn fetish if I watched it.
I am still struggling today as I reflect on my privilege, and what I can do to effect some change. I struggle with how to reconcile my respect and admiration for the men and women of law enforcement with my formal education in sociology and my personal experiences working with exceptional, under resourced high schoolers from some of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago, and coaching football on the South Side.
I know that institutional racism exists and the inertia of generations of inequality permeate the experience of black and brown people in America in a way I can only try to understand but never fully grasp. I also know that most police officers are brave, honorable civil servants doing an incredibly difficult job to the best of their ability with the tools and training they have at their disposal while trying to deal with the eroded trust from policy decisions and practices that in many cases far pre-date their time in uniform. We need the many good police officers out there to hold bad officers accountable, speak out when they see wrongs, and leadership that is willing to root out any that do not meet the standards.
It is a quagmire and one that we will find no simple answers to. It will require honest and deep introspection of our history, and the consequences of that history. We will need to embrace focused labor and discomfort at a level we have largely avoided as individuals (myself included) and as a nation. We are going to have to talk to one another with open hearts and minds to hear the perspective of the other person.
This will not be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever was.
To my black and brown friends: I see you, I hear you, I mourn with you, and I am committed to standing beside you to fight for equality for as long as it takes. I am sorry for any negative interactions we've had if I ever made you feel less than, not doing more sooner, not speaking up every time I heard a racist sentiment uttered whether overtly or veiled as a joke, for quietly ignoring issues that could be plainly seen, and sitting in the comfort of my privilege.
To my white friends: I challenge you to educate yourself on the realities of systemic racism, the history of race relations, and earnestly reflect on your own history and biases. We all have them, it's part of human evolution to notice those who are different than ourselves and view them with greater caution. However, we also have the amazing capacity to reason and reflect, to make note of our own inherent biases and move past them. Get out of your bubble, get out of your comfort zone and make the effort to grow. Frankly, it's incumbent on us to take on the majority of this labor. Most importantly, now is the time to FIGHT FOR CHANGE.
We must no longer accept being passively not racist as good enough, and must take up the call of being ANTI-RACIST. We must challenge the status quo and seek to tear down institutions and policies that have been engineered to suppress and hold back people of color in America.
This will not happen over night, but it can happen a lot faster than we think if we UNITE against institutionalized racism. We can and we must.
Grow or die-
Photo credit: Andy Witchger