Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge
July 22, 2016—It was 1:00 A.M. in Queens, New York. I was 18 years old. My roommate and I just wanted to buy some juice on our journey home from working night shifts in Manhattan. But as we came up to the busy corner store, a white police officer stopped me. He searched me and asked for my identification. I didn’t understand why.
“I just need to make sure that you’re not a prostitute,” he said, projecting his voice so that all the customers in the store could hear. Their jaws dropped. I was so embarrassed. We went home without the juice.
Would this have happened if I were a white woman? I don’t think so. I wasn’t dressed in a provocative way. You have the right to wear whatever the heck you want—in New York, it’s legal for women to go shirtless—but still: I was wearing a knee-length skirt and a dark blazer. I wasn’t hanging on a corner. My head was not stuck inside a guy’s car.
I had been blinded to the fact that this, and so much worse, was going on in America. That racism, whether subtle or blunt, is systemic.
It is in our neighborhoods, which are structured for the failure of our people. Here is your liquor store; here is your church; here are your overcrowded schools with books stuck together with scotch tape. And very little else.
It is in our media, where the light-skinned Black woman with the green eyes and softer-textured hair is the one all over the billboards. Where there is uproar over a Black man, his white wife and their interracial child featuring in a simple Cheerios commercial.
And it is in the abuse of power, not just by police officers but the entire judicial system, against Black people. Abuse that culminates in the deadly shootings of men like Alton Sterling, whose killing in Baton Rouge drew me to Louisiana earlier this month.
When Ferguson, Baltimore and other protests broke out, I would make selfish excuses. I couldn’t travel. I had to work in my job as a nurse, because I had to pay the bills. I remember the guilt of feeling that I should be there.
This time, enough was enough. I had to do something.
Too many people are being slaughtered by those who are employed to serve and protect us. It is becoming the norm. Our government is not doing anything for us. So we’re going to have to do something for ourselves. Baton Rouge was enlightening. It opened my eyes. I had been sleeping for years. I have been sleeping and now I’m awake.
When the armored officers rushed at me, I had no fear. I wasn’t afraid. I was just wondering: “How do these people sleep at night?” Then they put me in a van and drove me away. Only hours later did someone explain that I was arrested for obstructing a highway.
They took our possessions and fingerprinted us. Then they stuck four of us women in a room together and had four officers strip-search us. We were all ordered to take off everything, to bend over, and to cough. There was no privacy, no dignity. We were treated as if we were murderers or child molesters. It was degrading. It angered me. These were Black female officers, and they were treating us as if we were criminals.
People call us African Americans. But really we are Africans living in America. How can we call ourselves Americans when what is supposed to be our national constitution did not recognize us as human beings? We were not people—we were property. And despite the amendments, things have not really changed.
White Americans told Africans: “We’re going to kidnap you, we’re going to strip away your identity, then slowly give you back the rights you had from birth, and make you feel like they’re something special. We’re going to keep you stupid by making it illegal for you to read, or write, or go to school. So all you’ll know will be the lies we are force-feeding you.” We were force-fed another culture, another religion, other rituals, another language.
Barack Obama being elected president eight years ago was overwhelming. It was my first time voting. “We actually matter now,” I thought. But it was just a setup. And when that reality hits you, it’s harsh.
It is like being a child on a farm. You have this baby piglet and think it is an amazing thing. Then you have a couple of years with it, and grow to love it. And then finally it hits you that this pig is only on this farm to be slaughtered and harvested for its resources.
When you really think about it, what has Obama done for Black people? What laws or rules has he passed for us? When the police kill someone, his first instinct is to try to pacify us. To talk about how we shouldn’t riot, that we should keep the peace, and that it’s a tragedy. Yes, it’s a tragedy, so what are you going to do about it? He’s done so much more for the LGBT community than he has for the Africans living in America.
Obama chose politics over his people, and it’s sad. He has let us down. Where is his uproar? Why isn’t he marching? Why isn’t he protesting? Doesn’t he feel strongly enough about the future of his daughters? Sandra Bland: that could have been one of his children.
I have a six-year-old son, Justin, and I fear more for his life than I do for my own. How should I raise him? To be afraid? To keep his head down and not get in trouble, to not look the police in the eye because they might mess with him? Or do I raise him in strength, to embrace his color, to know his rights and to know that he’s not breaking the law or doing anything unjust, that he’s going to be fine, and that no one should take away any of his civil liberties? Parents have a responsibility to wake the hell up and realize what’s going on.
The presidential election campaign has been disgusting. I won’t be voting; I refuse. It is in Donald Trump that the true colors of much of America are coming out. They hid behind all these veils, inside all these closets, for so long. And now the racism is right there.
And I don’t care what Hillary Clinton does to try to prove that she’s for Black people. We are not going to forget it was her husband, blindly supported by a lot of Black people, who put in place the system that has taken so many Black men from their families and put them in prison for carrying the same weed that states are now legalizing.
Now she wants to disassociate and say, “Well, that was my husband.” Yes, well: you were there in the background, cheering him on.
Justin hasn’t seen the picture of me in Baton Rouge. Explaining what happened was difficult. I told him that Mommy got arrested and he said: “Why? I thought only bad people get arrested?”
I was stumped for a little bit. And then I just said: “You know what? That’s not always the case.”
—The Guardian, July 22, 2016