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Writing against police brutality, then and now

While a lot has changed since 2014, too much has remained the same

Hundreds of protesters made their way toward Barclays Center in Brooklyn to demonstrate against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis. May 29th, 2020 in Brooklyn, NY.
Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

I haven’t done this in a while. Then again, neither has our country — at least not really. It has been a long seven years since Trayvon Martin’s death, and a longer six since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, brought the movement for civil rights home to a younger generation. This isn’t to say there haven’t been other protests for murdered Black people in the last decade — there have — but none have been so nationally recognized as the killing of George Floyd. In a manner of speaking, the brutality we saw in Missouri was the dry tinder that Floyd’s death sparked into open flame.

And it is a clarifying fire. The current conflagration in America — the movement for Black lives and the concurrent uprising against police brutality — has been a radicalizing event for everyone who lives within its borders. It might feel like forever ago now, but you have to remember it’s only been three months since the entire world saw George Floyd suffocate to death under Derek Chauvin’s knee. For all its downsides social media is still the place the marginalized go for justice, because it’s avenue that’s still democratic. It is the place a lot of the work gets done; it is the place where people find themselves learning and then radicalized. It is fuel.

According to the paper of record, this latest moment is the largest in American history, and millions are participating in what will be remembered as the start of the New Civil Rights Movement. Which is funny. History is never very far from us, but this is about as close as it’s ever been, and the internet is documenting everyone’s behavior in real time. The historians who’ll eventually sift through the petabytes of data we’ve generated will have an extremely granular picture of what it was like to be alive right now and how we met our moment. Your political commitments will be judged by future generations even if you like to imagine yourself a hero, which means the black square you’ve posted probably won’t escape their notice.

It’s like that fun hypothetical asks: if you were alive during the last World War and the last genocide, whose side would you be on? Would you go Nazi? If you engage with the question as a matter of history, it feels easy enough to answer. But when the question is posed again by the present — posed again by the moment we find ourselves in — the answers can seem less than forthcoming, even though its moral stakes haven’t changed.

The last time I was writing about Black lives and police brutality, the world was different. 2014 was the summer I turned 24, and my birthday was a week before Michael Brown was shot to death by an officer who was oath-bound to protect him. Brown was 18. We were kin in the American way, peculiarly linked by the history of the peculiar institution, as it used to be called. I can’t remember my birthday that year, but I can remember crying at my desk after work while I wrote about my feelings in a fugue state. I remember going to a protest march for Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York City cop; I remember the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, Brown’s murderer, and what I did that night. I know because I wrote about those nights. Writing has always been a form of memory.

At the end of 2014, I published a short diary of my feelings. It had been a hard year. As I put it then, “2014 was also the year I broke my promise to myself and started writing about race. To be a beat reporter for your own skin is exhausting, and vaguely humiliating.” That is still true. And then I continued:

This year  —  the year of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, of uncountable smaller indignities, of many thousands still gone  —  wasn’t really different than any from the decade before it or from the ones before that. We’re still wrestling with the same issues. Progress came in the form of imperfect salves, too little and too late.

For me, 2014 was the year I was most aware of the world in ways my younger self couldn’t have conceived. That there would be a firehose of news, an irresistible torrent of information, and that I would be a part of the cycle, was (and, for me, still sort of is) beyond imagining. I know a little bit more now, and I realize that in this moment, right here, right now, I am alive and living and things are real. I realize that this experience isn’t fake, and nobody’s behind the curtain. No one’s off-screen pulling strings.

In other words: 2014 was the year I realized I was alive. Watching so many people who looked like me die and then watching white people largely ignore the uprising that followed awakened me to a deep well of despair for this country that I’d been successfully suppressing for all my life. I am an atheist, and yet I had still managed to find hell.

If this sounds depressing, I’m glad. I think it was Ta-Nehisi Coates, a former mentor and fellow godless person, who wrote in his book Between the World and Me that no person born into slavery thought they might one day be free. There’s no arc that bends toward justice, in other words, while you’re trapped in the present. And again, the moral stakes are infuriatingly unchanged. There aren’t any extenuating circumstances. At the time when there was slavery in America, which wasn’t very long ago, many people realized that it was a fundamentally evil thing to keep humans in bondage.

People raise their hands and shout slogans as they protest at the makeshift memorial in honor of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Of course, most of the founding fathers of this country didn’t care. From this distance, it’s easy to see how they failed the moral test of their time. They punted on the question and sent it flying forward through history. The eventual end of slavery was part of the answer to the American Question, but the informal mechanisms of structural racism that sprang up in response mean that there’s more left to answer, and to answer for.

The uprising that began in 2014 is now capital-H History. To put it biblically, it was society beginning yet again to answer for the original sin. It’s now 2020, a year with a global pandemic, massive job loss, an economic recession, and an unimaginable amount of death. There are understandably many things on people’s minds. And yet, millions across America have figured out what history will judge them for; they’re from every race, and they’re in the streets every night, risking their bodies to agitate for Black liberation.

Dr. King knew just as well then as we do now that the moral arc of the universe has to be bent by human hands toward justice. Those protesting limbs have been beaten bloody by the repressive forces of a state that simply doesn’t care about Black life. And yet, still, they grasp. This year will be History soon. I hope this time we succeed at the test because we still owe the future an answer.