Letter to a Loved One — Race, Riots, and Rebirth

Photo Credit to Soul Studios

The letter below was written in response to the following post published by a loved one in the wake of the death of George Floyd:

We have been watching and listening to the folks who have lost everything — not from the dreaded virus but good Americans at the hands of the so-called protesters. This mob is anti-American in every sense of the word. When we see or hear about hard working Americans losing their life savings at the hand of one of these creatures it makes you cry. And the American flag: I almost lost it when I heard about that one. When does this stop and how are we going to survive as a nation. I have discussed this with God and so far there has been no reply.”

Dear Loved One,

To begin, I love you and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me throughout my life. You have been an incredibly supportive force and it has meant a lot to have you cheering me on as I have traversed life’s ups and downs.

And I agree, we have indeed been watching and listening to the folks who have lost everything. For eight minutes and forty-six seconds I watched as a police officer, sworn to protect his community, slowly asphyxiated a Black man repeatedly pleading for his life. I watched as two men accosted and murdered a Black man in Georgia, because he had the audacity to allegedly look at a construction site. I listened as a Black man pleaded for the police to protect him after plain clothes police officers executed a no-knock raid on his home and fatally shot his girlfriend as she lay in bed — a no-knock raid looking for an individual the police already had in custody. In fact, for my entire life I’ve watched and listened as my community has fallen victim again and again to a militarized police department too quick to pull the trigger and too slow to police itself. It is these dead mothers, children, fathers, and grandparents who have lost everything — their very existences — at the hands of those we now call on to change.

The recurring atrocity of police officers killing an unarmed Black American has persisted from the very founding of our Nation to the moment your eyes touch this sentence. At our Nation’s founding, night watches and pattyrollers, the early manifestations of our modern police force, roamed plantations searching for and often killing slaves who had the courage to run from the indignities of slavery. After slavery, police forces continued extrajudicial murders of our Black citizens, in many instances working alongside domestic terrorist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, to lynch Black Americans who dared to speak up against the tyranny of segregation. And even after 1964 and passage of the Civil Rights Act, little has changed.

Black Americans are still killed by the police, and too often our killers are not held accountable for their actions. We face death sentences for allegedly forging a $20 check, for selling cigarettes, for legally owning a gun, for being 12 and like so many other children, playing with a toy gun. The police are given paid time off, and after self-investigation, too often found non-culpable; too often found not guilty; and too often placed right back in our communities where they remain a threat to our very existence. We still speak the names of those unjustifiably killed, of those whose empty, unarmed hands provided little protection from the target painted in melanin across their soon-to-be still bodies.

Loved One, this past weekend, I was the “creature” you spoke of. I was the “so-called protester” who stood with thousands in the street demanding an end to the devaluation of my life and the lives of my community members. We called for action. We called for our government to allocate the resources necessary to fight a pandemic disproportionately affecting the Black community. We called for a more equitable justice system, a more compassionate healthcare system, and for our leaders to put their constituents’ needs before their own. The protesters I stood with called for the end of violence, not its propagation; the strengthening of our community, not its destruction. And as we raised our voices to protest the inequitable conditions that seem to become more and more evident every day, we did so as Americans cloaked in the protection offered by the 1st Amendment to our Nation’s most sacred text. And there, at the intersection of the Constitution and yet another protest decrying an American citizen’s death at the hands of a government agent, we faced tear gas. And flash-bang grenades. And across this Country, we watched as our fellow protesters were met with the very police brutality we were there protesting against.

Please understand, those who are looting, and those who set fire to police cars and engulf buildings in destructive flames, are not representative of the overwhelming majority of protesters who fill our streets. I want to be clear: I do not, and cannot, condone the looting and arson that has hurt so many of our neighbors and fellow Americans. But I understand it. I understand the frustration of my fellow community members. Though Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior did not condone riots, he too understood the fertile ground in which they grew. And now, in this canyon of despair and hurt, the echo of his words is inescapable: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” We have decried police violence for generations, and for generations we have been met with overpolicing, a broken, indifferent, and often pointedly racist justice system, and of course, continued police violence.

You call this “mob” anti-American, yet this “mob” is as American as our country’s very founding. The Revolutionary War was fought in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party — a riot in which soon-to-be Americans destroyed the private property of the world’s then-largest corporation, the East India Company, to protest taxation without representation. In 1913, a riot served as a key catalyst in changing public perception surrounding the 19th Amendment. Seven years later, women were constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote.

In 1968, it was the King Assassination Riots that gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the political capital to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and in 1969, the Stonewall riot paved the way for a gay liberation movement that has created a more inclusive, and better, America. To say that riots are anti-American is to deny the actions made necessary for Americans to enjoy the freedoms we hold inalienable today. And so riots persist against the wanton killings of our community members at the hands of an increasingly militant police force. They represent the dream deferred of an America where calling the police does not risk a death sentence — of an America where the survival of her Black children is not dependent on whether they were given the “talk” soon enough.

But we should also be clear that to decry the loss of economic capital while staying silent about the continued murders and assaults of Black community members at the hands of the police represents a key reason the riots are occurring. A store can be rebuilt. A fire put out. An economic loss regained. However a life, the single most important gift granted to each of us, can never be replaced. There will never be another Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, John T. Williams, Fred Hampton, George Floyd, or the myriad fellow Americans and community members whose blood has fed the great body of citizens — of all colors — now demanding justice. Whether intentional or not, a message

focusing on looting elevates economic damages above the value of a human life. When this is the discourse, my peaceful voice of protest remains unheard.

You ask “when does this stop?” yet surely you know the answer. The reply is etched into every protest sign, every voice crying for equality, and every step upon the stony road to justice. We do not march blithely in the streets, nor randomly erupt in protest. The origins of our discontent come in eight-minute videos and pleading cries of “please, I can’t breathe,” of a history riddled with slavery, Tulsa, and Jim Crow, and stories of Emmett Till, Rodney King, and the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Our protest will end when we no longer have a need to march in the streets to obtain justice for our community. Our protest will end when Black voices and brown voices and women’s voices and LGBTQIA+ voices and disabled voices and immigrant voices and Muslim voices and veteran’s voices, and all the other voices of our subjugated community members are finally heard. I don’t know when that will be and I don’t anticipate I’ll have the good fortune of seeing it in my lifetime. But I do know one thing: It will end sooner if you join us.

With Love,

Thaddaeus

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Thaddeus Gregory
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