I don’t remember when my innocence died as a Black person. I’m from St. Louis, and I grew up hearing about people killed at the hands of the police my entire life: of Black people dying under suspicious circumstances, of hangings that allegedly weren’t hangings, but suicides. These things didn’t make sense, but if you pointed that out, you were the crazy one, the “real racist,” because you might have hurt someone’s feelings.
There are a lot of things stolen from you when you are not born innocent. All things that people who are allowed to be children ― sometimes well into their 30s ― take for granted. In the third grade, I was taught I should be grateful I was brought to this country, in chains, because didn’t it work out fine in the end? Didn’t we save you? Didn’t Western civilization save you? By denying you your innocence?
It’s an interesting notion. If your parent is abusive, a rapist, a criminal, but one day you get to grow up, leave and try to make a life in a society where they control all the levers, I guess that’s a type of liberation, but that’s not freedom. That’s not innocence.
Does a police state have feelings? Does a government weep?
Growing up, my whole goal, from age 6 on, was to avoid being “a statistic.” I didn’t curse. I didn’t get into fights. I denied myself joy. I shrank myself. I didn’t retaliate when I was bullied. I didn’t fight back. Because nobody cares about statistics. People hear numbers and problems seem insurmountable, so why do anything?
But it’s in the silence that they destroy you. Zora Neale Hurston told me so. “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
I must have liked it.
Reportedly, 1,127 people died at the hands of the police in 2020. But do you remember them? Even if you’re encouraged to “say their names”? You might remember George Floyd because he was the one you couldn’t escape. He was murdered in a pandemic when, for most of us, our only friends were our TV sets, and the images were relentless.
For more than nine minutes, for a summer, for an eternity, we watched a man die. Over and over. We heard him cry out for his mother. We heard others try to intervene. Try to appeal to humanity for someone whose killer clearly did not see him as human. And yet, no matter how many times you watched this proof of murder, the ending was always the same. Floyd died and the man who killed him, Derek Chauvin, was as immovable as the systems he represented.
What is justice?
Chauvin will go to prison for what he did. He will be punished. But is this justice? Or is this a type of liberation that still isn’t freedom? Because as I cry tears of relief, I still mourn. What of George Floyd’s freedom? What of George Floyd’s innocence? Did he ever truly have it, experience it before he died?
What is freedom?
I come from a place of privilege. I grew up in the suburbs when they were at their height as a symbol of segregation and elitism. My family did well, and could shield me from some of the worst of it, but not all the horrors. They could not protect my innocence.
Because whatever semblance or shape or form of innocence I had, it died before I even knew what it was. It was dead before I was born. Dead like Emmett Till. Dead like Mike Brown. Dead like Sandra Bland. Dead like Breonna Taylor.
Freedom is not freedom until everyone is free. Justice is not justice until it is accessible to all. While I am grateful justice was delivered in Floyd’s case, so many more injustices remain delayed or denied, both visible and invisible to the public eye.
I want something bigger than freedom. I want peace. I want love. And I want for those young and still wide-eyed, with skin the color of mine, to have what I was denied.
Black people want our innocence. We demand our humanity. Let this justice be the next step after generations of steps toward true equality.