My Untold Story of Racism & Injustice
The year of the 2008 presidential election I was an 18-year-old sophomore at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN and a proud member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), passionate about the initiative to get as many folks registered to vote and to the polls as possible. So when the day came, I was overjoyed to cast my vote. The night of the election, many Black students, including myself gathered in the Black Cultural Center* (BCC) to watch the results on the big screen. I still remember the electricity and excitement that pierced the room when we saw Barack Obama announced as the 44th President of the United States. I’m not sure how I made it back to my dorm so quickly, but I met my two best friends and we piled into one of their cars, cranked up Young Jeezy’s, “My President is Black,” and drove down “the strip” with the windows down and music blasting. We were headed to a set of campus apartments to do more celebrating with friends. And, I remember seeing some White students walking down the strip not looking quite as happy as we were. But in that moment, if only for that moment in time, it felt good to not be the minority, because “we” won when he won.
To this day, I’m sure that’s the sentiment that happened throughout America in Black communities – that the first Black man to hold the Presidential title meant our country was not only thinking and speaking about change but making changes. With an embedded history of police brutality, racism, injustice, and discrimination within the fabric of America, it seemed as though the systems of oppression were finally beginning to dismantle.
The morning after the results, cotton balls lined the courtyard of the BCC - the same coveted place Black students had to call “ours.” Ironically, this wasn’t the first or last racial attack on the center. Bananas replaced cotton balls in another instance.
When I first moved to East Tennessee for school, I thought my family was just being paranoid when they cautioned me to be careful, even though my friends’ parents warned the same. As a naïve teenager, I shrugged it off. And honestly, besides those few incidents on campus, I was oblivious to overt racial discrimination. Although I’d attended a predominantly Black high school, adjusting to the “diversity” of college wasn’t difficult for me. In many of my classes I was typically 1 of 2 or 3 Black students, or 1 of 3 or 5 ethnic minority students, but it didn’t bother me, because I had a community of peers that I could lean on after class. I guess you can say there was a cloud of oblivion over me, not for racism, but its existence in and around my life specifically, that remained there for quite some time.
On June 5, 2015, a video of teens being accosted by police in McKinney, TX went viral.
Apparently, African American teens in the neighborhood hosted a pool party for friends that some would say got out of hand, and the crowd was unwelcomed by the predominantly White neighbors. After the group was repeatedly asked to leave, the police were called and once they arrived most of the children were able to run away, but some of them were not as fortunate. One interaction captured stood out the most.
One of the officers was seen running through the crowd, grabbing children, yanking at them and ordering them to stay on the ground. A small framed 14 or 15-year-old girl dared to defy this officer and what happened next still seems unbelievable. He is seen on camera pressing her head down in attempt to restrain her and as her friends run up screaming for him to stop, he pulls out his gun on the group. After they flee, he continues to accost her and then, literally sits on her. The child looks as if she weighs 90-100 lbs. and he sits on her until his partners come and cuff her.
Attempting to make sense of the situation I could only think of myself as a teenager and all of the mischief I got into – the summer fun with friends, the trouble with parents for not obeying curfew – typical experiences of adolescents, quite like these young folks. But the extent of this situation, a pool party that got out of control, with weaponless, harmless children that could have been deescalated, instead turned into another example of racial discrimination marked with police brutality ignited a spark of rage within me.
In that moment of anger and frustration, an eruption of emotions spilled out into a letter written as a poem, addressed to our Commander-in-Chief at the time, President Barack Obama. And this is what it said:
Pardon me Mr. Commander-in-Chief
Even though I know you’re about to leave
There’s an issue in the country
That keeps getting skirted over
I need your ear for a moment
Please listen to me
What say ye
About this matter of the police
Getting away with murder
But punishing me
For petty crimes like noise nuisances
And unpaid parking meters
While kids get beat and killed
On National TV
But no one understands the public outcry
That is “Fuck the Police”
And this isn’t a letter to bash you
Or downplay the changes you’ve made
But what about the parents who stand on the sidewalk
And can’t get to their children whose bodies have been laid
Out on the pavement for the whole world to see
Killed by law enforcement “mistakenly”
And what is this subtle war that can’t be contained?
Black men dying by the hands of justice
Never created to be of any assistance
To those of you and your family’s color
Or any others’ existence
Cute ideas being thrown out about mandatory body cams
Home videos popping up every week
Showing details of murderous cops in action
Yet they still get off scot-free
Able to keep their jobs and go home to their families
Knowing if he had no badge, he’d be sentenced to prison
Well, that’s probably
Young man killed with skittles and tea in his hands
By the neighborhood “watchman”
Who walked away from the murder as if he hadn’t done anything
And ever since has been caught up in violent drama
But I won’t digress on that subject
Let’s get back to the matter of this unwritten police crime dogma
Everyone wonders why there is no respect for the law
“If you just did what they said, you wouldn’t have to worry”
But riddle me this
Why are men being killed at routine traffic stops?
You mean because my taillight is out, I have to die
Why are weaponless civilians being killed by trained cops
You mean because I ran away that made me dangerous
Reread that last line and help me understand how that makes any sense
And I guess we’re supposed to be dumb enough to believe
That a speech saying we all should change before there can be any
Will make a difference in the amount of lives taken at the hands of your militant and oh so diligent police
Who find pleasure in “protecting” themselves in the name of the law
If someone doesn’t “Respect” their badge or their authoritative tone
So, they reach for their gun to subdue a 100lb teen
Whose resistant attitude and body language resulted in her getting thrown on the lawn
With a uniformed officer sitting on her back pressing her side with his knees
Or taking a young man on a “rough ride”
Because it took him too long to settle down or subside
To do what he was told
Oh, I’m not saying he wasn’t wrong
I’m just asking, why did he have to die??
And everyone wants to make a hissy fit
When riots break out
As if we’re supposed to lay back and watch people continue to die for no reason
With no resistance
Oh, no, kind sir, please tell me you’ve seen these things
And aren’t so caught up in almost being finished
That you’ve found a plan of action for these police driven homicide scenes
Tell me you’ve at least thought of another way arrests can be handled
Because this matter isn’t a 45 min episode of Scandal
This is real life and we all have brothers and fathers and uncles
Whose lives are being taken over a pack of gum and cigarillos
By the hands of justice that we look to protect and serve us
Yes, against criminals
But these officers are not judges
And the last I’ve known
Being shot to death wasn’t considered constitutional punishment
But who am I?
Just a concerned citizen in her feelings after waking up seeing yet another video of racial discrimination by the people we’re supposed to trust
And what can I do?
So, I’m reaching out to you
Wondering if there can be a solution to this matter
Or that you can at least get something started before you pass the mantle
If something can be done soon
Because the patience in our minds, like the bridles to our tongues and the graveyards of our beloved are running out of room
Dear Mr. President,
Pardon me, I mean Commander-in-Chief
We want Justice, we want Answers
And even though you’re about to leave
Can you do something about this police brutality, please?
- Elizabeth Antoinette
The poem which specifically stemmed from the McKinney, TX incident, but included references to the lives taken too soon, referenced 25-year-old Freddie Gray, 43-year-old Eric Garner, 18-year-old Michael Brown, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and others, was met with a response letter from the White House a few weeks letter. This is what is read:
Thank you for writing. Our Nation has made enormous progress in race relations over the past few decades. I’ve witnessed it in my own life. However, distrust still exists between too many police departments and communities of color. When any part of our American family doesn’t feel fairly treated, that’s a problem for all of us – it means we are not as strong a country as we can be.
Without commenting on incidents where there may still be an investigation, I recognize the fears and frustrations I hear about are deeply felt; they are rooted in realities that have existed for a long time. That’s why we need to uphold a system committed to the principle of equal justice for all.
Law enforcement officials have incredibly difficult jobs and put their lives at risk to protect us. And they are most effective when people have confidence in the system. That is why my Administration is working to enhance community policing, and also to strengthen trust and accountability between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. We will take concrete steps to implement commonsense, pragmatic recommendations my Task Force on 21st Policing put forward at the beginning of March – based on input from criminal justice experts, community leaders, law enforcement personnel, and civil liberties advocates. We are advancing the use of body-worn cameras and promoting community-policing initiatives, and we are reforming how the Federal Government equips state and local law enforcement, particularly with military-style equipment.
I am deeply committed to the promise of what our Nation can be, and my Administration will keep pushing for progress through ongoing initiatives, continued engagement with communities and targeted efforts. *redacted*
Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts. We may not solve every problem or tear down every barrier of mistrust overnight, but by working together and addressing our challenges in the open space of democracy, we can make things better.
Rereading this letter dated August 3, 2015, reconciling the McKinney, TX event, considering the course of events that followed and those that have currently led me to sit down and write this chapter, places a heaviness on my heart. The gravity and depth of realization that even the smallest of changes, like our excitement of President Obama being the first Black man elected, feel like pebbles being thrown into the ocean - as if they have no impact. To reflect on the growing list of names of weaponless civilians murdered by police, even after this eloquently developed letter from our former President, and recognizing how much further we have to go is painful to consider as an African American millennial woman.
Nevertheless, after researching Task Force on 21st Policing, there was a seed planted that has continuously grown into curiosity concerning local, state and national community policing initiatives, specifically as it pertains to elected officials. Obama’s letter, the Task Force and other endeavors gave me insight into how my vote determines decisions and policymakers who can implement substantial changes like those I passionately mentioned in my poem. I was always under the notion that the most important election was the presidential election and that the smaller elections didn’t count for much; not realizing that I am most immediately impacted by the election of local officials who I can hold accountable for things like community policing and public safety, as that’s where change starts first. Since I was able to vote, I’ve enjoyed exercising that right. But as I age, I’ve come to value its significance towards the goal of justice and overcoming police brutality.
The cloud of oblivion that was once there slowly removed and things became clearer as I made my way up the corporate ladder, but none clearer than the following years after the 2016 election. Even the mood around the election was different than that of 2008 and 2012. I’ll go as far to say, seeing the display of Make America Great Again signs plastered through East Tennessee next to the Confederate flag in synonymity should’ve been shocking, unfortunately it was not.
Now, I don’t know about you, but to me, the world seemed eerily quiet the morning after the 2016 results… and not an eerily quiet that the candidate you voted for didn’t win, but as if there was a countrywide shock that the results were real. However, as an African American woman, it wasn’t until after this election that I experienced microaggressions in the workplace, and race and gender discrimination. I am not specifically correlating these experiences with the election results, but I do believe there was a certain boldness that some of my White colleagues gained from new President Donald Trump in openly expressing comments and snide remarks that I’d never witnessed prior.
Two years into Trump’s presidency and after a couple of steady jobs that boosted my career, I landed in a role for which all of my previous positions had more than prepared me. This particular position felt different than those former employers, even though they too were in the same region. However, just as in college, once again, no matter my level of intellect, credentials, job title, or stature, I was 1 out of 2 Black women, and 1 out of 5 Black employees in the office of 40. My supervisor, a self-proclaimed internet troll, was an older White male of the Baby Boomer generation. He and I initially got off to a good start. Yet, I began to notice that he’d make small comments that were racist. Having been under that cloud of oblivion so long, the first couple of times I shrugged it off. Then one morning instead of the perfectly pressed tresses or slicked back ponytail I’d wear, I decided to don an afro and was greeted with, “Hey Sparky.” There was nothing funny or subtle about this comment, this was an obvious microaggression. However, because I hadn’t experienced it before or at least not so blatantly, I didn’t react. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you there weren’t more instances that followed or inappropriate political conversations in the workplace that very clearly suggested how the majority felt within that office. I will tell you, however, I was taught early in my life to “go where you’re celebrated, not tolerated,” and my time there was very short lived.
I share these personal anecdotes with you for this purpose: police brutality, racism, injustice, and discrimination are embedded within the very fabric of American history to the point it almost seems inescapable, however, as my poem mentioned and the current state of our nation shows: we are tired. No. We’ve been tired, and are no longer allowing these systems of oppression to reign. As we are constantly reminded, Black Lives Matter is not a moment, it is a movement, for our ancestors, those who died at the hands of the police, those who died fighting for justice passing the mantle onto us, and for the next generation of children who have the right to be children and make mistakes without being treated like criminals. Most importantly, it is our duty in fighting for justice to vote. It is our duty to stay informed and hold our local and state officials accountable. It is also our duty to stay in the fight, not give up and keep rallying for change, step by step, little by little because the patience in our minds and the bridles to our tongues are out of room.
* The Black Cultural Center is now known as the Frieson Black Cultural Center.