6 She Would’ve Been 27 Today; I’m 18

Created by Lynese Cammack 

 

Black Lives Matter protestors assemble in Washington, D.C. at Washington Monument
Photo Credit: Lynese Cammack, March in Washington, D.C., 2020

 

I attended my first protest the day I was supposed to have my high school graduation ceremony but it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The day was June 5, 2020, the same day as Breonna Taylor’s birthday. Instead of turning a tassel, throwing my cap, and receiving my diploma, I held a sign that said, “She would’ve been 27 today.” I gathered with my community to mourn her, Ahmuad Aubury, and George Floyd as news of their deaths appeared in the media rapidly, one after another. I remember how it felt to stand in the grass, hearing surveillance helicopters hover overhead louder than the speakers at the rally, smothering the voices as we tried to tell the truth. The moment resembled the way we have been silenced by a false narrative about who we are as a people. The city assumed that there was a need to have the police on standby in anticipation of a violent riot, when in fact, we came together to hold a peaceful and accepting public gathering, to mourn and grieve, while still holding righteous anger just underneath. It took a lot for me to attend the protest that day. I didn’t understand the impact it would have. Going there and standing with my community pushed me to acknowledge a very uncomfortable part of this world I had not fully faced before. The pain of racism never felt so real and so urgent as it did in that moment.

Initially, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder. Finally I had to in a zoom call for a NAACP youth council meeting, where we watched together in silence. There are not many moments where I find myself at a loss of words but I can distinctly remember being speechless. I didn’t know how to explain all the emotions I felt, how enraged I was that here we are here in the year 2020 witnessing state sanctioned violence against unarmed Black people. I did not get to celebrate one of my biggest milestones like high school graduation due to a deadly pandemic but I did have to gather and take a stance to tell the system it should not be legal to kill us. I was hurt by society and even more than that, I was paralyzed with fear. A few weeks later, driving home from a protest I was pulled over on 19th street. As two officers approached my car I was frozen again and overcome with fear before anything had even happened. I rolled down my window in tears to face an officer, who smiled and told me that my passenger headlight was out. As I drove away without a ticket, I was deeply saddened that my first impulse was to panic but it was warranted. People of color should not be afraid of officials who are supposed to protect us and we shouldn’t feel the need to be robotically over compliant to desperately save our own lives. Thankfully, the officer who approached my car didn’t hide behind his badge as an excuse for excessive force and violence. But “getting lucky” because I was approached by an ethical cop isn’t social justice. What if my “luck” runs out? After this moment, the uncertainty of what I was personally fighting for became even clearer to me. There are so many parts of the system that need reform, reconciliation and accountability. I was determined to be a part of the movement that demanded change.

The next day I led and spoke at a protest for the first time, as my high school teachers stood in the crowd and listened to me talk about how their system had failed me. I shared what it was like to be a Black kid in America boldly being as honest as a could be. After I felt anxious, expecting my teachers to be angry about what I said, but instead they expressed a desire to be part of the solution. It was reassuring to know that they heard my truth and used it as an opportunity for them to reflect on what they could do to make a positive impact on the system instead of being personally offended by my claims. I remember thinking, if these teachers who are part of a system that wasn’t built for me, can promise that they will make a difference, then maybe there is real hope. Hope because they are no different than all the other parts of the system. They are no different than police officers, elected officials, judges, or anyone else with power in institutions that will decide our fate. This was another pivotal moment for me. It reminded me that there is so much to fight for but I’m not alone in this battle, and that there is a chance to be the change we want to see.

After that protest with my teachers I spent the rest of the summer marching and rallying in my free time. Protesting when I had the chance whether it was in person, up and down the streets of Tacoma, or using my platform online to educate my peers and advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Then I was given the opportunity to travel to the anniversary of the March on Washington in August of this year. During my time in DC, I represented our Pierce County NAACP youth council, and an organization called United Advocates for Justice. My experience was very different than protesting in Tacoma. DC is one of the few places in the United States where the population is majority Black. I had never felt more empowered in my life than when I looked around to see so many people who looked like me, who were fighting like me, and who felt like me. Whether they were aware of my presence or not, I knew that they were supporting me, just as much as I was supporting them. We stood and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr. III, and his daughter give us words of encouragement about why we needed to fight this fight, standing in the same place their father and grandfather did before. To be where others stood in 1968 to hear the “I Have a Dream” speech, and still see signs over 50 years later with dreadful lists of the names of our deceased, and to listen to parents talk about how they lost their kids to police brutality, I saw the grave truth of this movement. Sadly, it’s hard to feel empowered when you’re fighting an uphill battle and you know what your end goal is but you have no idea how to get there. It takes a lot of reflection and time to understand that we are not the first to rise up, and we will not be the last, but we don’t ever get the choice to stop fighting. It’s our inheritance in this country. This realization left me with a heavy feeling in my heart about my responsibilities. Two months after returning from DC, the devastating verdict of the Breonna Taylor case was announced. I sat in the living room of the first black mayor of Tacoma, a room filled with prestigious Black council members, commissioners, and public leaders; Black people who, in my eyes have “made it,” sat around the TV where they observed that the system, in which they had advanced, still worked against them and was failing them too.

The last protest that I joined this year was a march to a council member’s house. Motivated by the unjust verdict, we wanted the council member’s attention so we could talk about police reform in our community. I went from grieving in a room with leaders who looked like me and understood my plight, to the next night where I was faced with a white council member who met me with arrogant anger. It felt just like the first protest where the helicopters drowned out our voices. He assumed that we intended to do harm to his family even though we came in peace, marching with music. Instead of hearing our cry for help he was defensive. We eventually came to a tenuous agreement and had productive conversation. However, the next day his wife wrote a letter to the local newspaper to denigrate our character and imply criminal intent. She purposely reinforced the same damaging narrative about us that we had tried to dispel at our first protest. Ironically, she had nothing to fear but we do.

Now while the future of this movement is still unknown, and while there is still so much work to be done, I’m here to tell you that I know it’s hard. Since I’ve been involved that’s all I’ve heard, that it’s hard but we have to keep moving; we cannot afford to be stagnant because our lives literally depend on it. I understand that as time passes and we feel like we’re not seeing the changes we want, it becomes easy to lose hope. But I am still telling you that we must keep fighting, just like our ancestors over the last 400 years, until we achieve equality and freedom. It’s our turn to be good ancestors.

With that, I have another truth to tell you. Yes, it is incredibly hard and exhausting to stay dedicated, but there is some real power behind all this pain, if we simply believe. As I said, it was hard for me to show up to that first protest. Yet somewhere deep down, I knew I needed to be there regardless of the outcome. As I reflect on my 18th year, I realize that my people would not be here in this moment, if those before us didn’t believe in something to begin with. Their resistance and their voices mattered and they spoke up loud enough to get the attention of the world. Now we must believe that we deserve the same attention in our fight for justice. When it’s hard to carry the load on your shoulders or you find yourself feeling hopeless because it seems like the violence won’t end, remember that Dr. King told us, the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. After all this hard work one day, and I don’t know when that day is going to come, we will get there and our collective suffering will end.

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Black Lives Matter Collective Storytelling Project by A University of Washington Tacoma cross-course collaboration between TSOC 265 and TCOM 347 courses. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.