I’ll be turning 90 this month, and in celebration, I’ve been going to Black Lives Matter protests and breaking curfew.
I’m well aware of the risks COVID-19 presents to someone my age, but when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a curfew on demonstrators protesting police violence, I acted as any conscionable citizen would: I affixed my Black Lives Matter sign to my walker, put on my PPE and wheeled out into the streets.
The crowd cheered my arrival; I was pretty much the only gray-haired person in the sea engulfing Central Park West.
This is not to disregard nor underplay the significant threat posed by COVID-19. As a nurse for 47 years, I worked closely with patients with AIDS, and personally witnessed a mounting toll of death. I know all too well the importance of doing everything we can to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
But quite simply, the risk of not taking action is far greater. The police brutalize and kill too many Black people for me to remain on the sidelines. Like our signs say, “White silence is violence.”
In addition to being a longtime nurse, I am also a lifelong activist. It’s clear we cannot confront the twin public health crises of COVID-19 and police violence without addressing the root of systemic racism that plagues our society. It’s the sort of reckoning only a social movement can force upon us.
As the great-granddaughter of Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, organizing is in my blood. As a white person, I’ve fought against the redlining of Black communities in Long Island. As a Jew, I’ve organized for Palestinian freedom. As a lesbian and a daughter of a lesbian, I’ve struggled against patriarchy and war.
I’ve personally witnessed the power of people coming together to take collective action that truly changed the world. And still, I haven’t seen anything quite like these past few weeks. The incredible Black-led uprisings and multiracial collective actions calling to disarm, defund and disband the police from coast to coast are profoundly historic.
Decades ago, when I sold newspapers advocating prison abolition on the streets of our city, I was written off as left of Left. Now, thanks to this movement, police abolition is on the front page of The New York Times.
Since retiring from nursing and full-time organizing, I’ve become a death educator. I support people in creating their ideal dying processes through “Art of Dying” workshops and death cafes. Central to my practice is the belief that people have the right to die as they wish. Prisons and police do the opposite. They cruelly kill Black and brown people prematurely and with impunity, stealing them from their loved ones.
The only way all people will ever be able to live and die as they wish is if we pursue abolition. As the Black feminist tradition teaches us, this is not only about dismantling the current “criminal punishment system” ― it’s about building up a society with equal access to education, health care and housing, as well as investing in transformative ways of addressing harm.
The most basic history lesson shows that police in this country were set up to return runaway slaves, protect private property and enforce racist policies. The young people of today know this history, and that is why they are not chanting for “friendlier, kinder” police. They know that policing in this country is not broken, but is functioning exactly as intended: to terrorize Black communities.
Mayor de Blasio responded to calls for an end to police brutality by leveling even harsher measures against demonstrators, proving what protesters from Minneapolis to New York have been chanting since the killing of George Floyd: “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!”
Although my 90th birthday celebrations were foiled by COVID-19, they were transformed by the uprisings. We must create a world beyond police and a world beyond prisons, where Black people, too, might hope to see their 90th birthdays.
Shatzi Weisberger is a death educator, former nurse and lifelong activist. She is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.