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