Her Name Was Charleena Lyles

Her Name Was Charleena Lyles
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We’ve read this script a thousand times before.

“She was mentally ill”
“There was trouble in the past”
“We feared for our lives”
“There was no other choice”

And another family, another community, is left to pick up the pieces of a life broken by a system that has fought at every turn, every effort of the people to reform it. To make it better. To turn it into something that gives instead of takes. There is no solace for the stolen innocence of children forced to watch their parent murdered. There are no prayers to bridge the gap between empty public apologies and unfulfilled promises of better training. There is no reprieve for the weary souls that are the marginalized and disadvantaged in this country fighting to be recognized as deserving of their humanity.

I know Magnuson Park well. I often pack a water bottle in to my wheelchair and take the short 10-minute bus ride from my place to the open fields near Charleena Lyles’s apartment. You could lose yourself in the beauty if it weren’t fractured by the understanding that the people living there are among the most at risk for something like this to happen. It doesn’t “look” like a ghetto of Chicago or New York. But if these last three years have reminded us of anything, it is that the neighborhood doesn’t matter. How well intentioned you are does not matter. What is caught on video will not always matter and what the people say could have been done differently does not matter. What matters is that a mentally ill person, a black woman, fell outside of the capabilities of a prejudicial state to protect her. She fell between the cracks of a system that could not help her. And she landed in the sights of those who were unprepared and perhaps worse, unwilling, to serve her with anything more than a violent end.

We know this story so well because it is the story of us. It is the story of a country that has continually turned it’s back on those who have loved and needed it the most. It is the story of remorseful officers, judges and politicians who still hang their heads in public performance yet stand in the way of change. It is the story, told in sorrow filled chapters by those who lean on the hope of a tomorrow that Charleena Lyles won’t see. A tomorrow that her children will face without her and one that we all venture into with fear, uncertainty, and a hurt that has buried itself so deep into our bones I fear we will never know peace because we have never seen justice.

We live in the shadows of a life promised by a flag still dripping with our blood and tears. We have stood in strength. We have argued with eloquence. We have rioted with the rage of every “not guilty” that reminds us we are less than, and still we face those who refuse to see us ― those who ask for more proof and would require that we fill out proper paperwork and submit our grief to be judged as real or fake ― and this is perhaps the greatest betrayal: That a people so steeped in the tragedies a nation has heaped upon them for centuries must beg to be believed.

But you will find no begging in the streets of Seattle this week. Or next week. Or next year. We can no longer afford to kneel before a system that would rather leave us grasping for answers it has no intention of providing. Until our schools are funded, until our social systems are supported in substantial and sustainable ways, until we acknowledge the inequity and hold accountable the foundations that have led us here, this story will not end.

So we say her name for everyone to hear, we leave it on our lips and wear it across our hearts because tomorrow a change must come.

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