waco protest

Protesters rally on May 31 against police brutality at the Suspension Bridge. A crowd, estimated at more than 450 people, gathered peacefully and listened to speakers.

Before George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis a week ago, African Americans were already reeling at the shooting of Breonna Taylor in her own bed by police in Kentucky, the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by a white former police officer and his son in Georgia and the attempt by a white woman to weaponize the New York Police Department against Christian Cooper. Simultaneously, African Americans were dealing with these events in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately killing them. The murder of Floyd was not an isolated incident; it was the latest in a string of horrible anti-black violence. It is directly related to the systemic racism that plagues our country at an even more alarming rate than the coronavirus.

The African-American community — which is defined by people, not by geographical borders — has been in a state of emergency long before the first COVID-19 case was brought to light. While we are heartbroken by the violence that we are witnessing and by no means condone looting and destruction of property, we must focus on the precipitating cause. Americans have taken to the streets across this country out of rage at longstanding police brutality and despair that nothing is being done to end it.

The victims in these cases of anti-black violence represent an African-American Everyman in that every African American knows that he or she could easily be caught up in identical circumstances on any given day. Texas has recently dealt with its own case of an African-American man, Botham Jean, being shot and killed in his own home. The Arbery case, especially, hit home with me because every day my own 25-year-old son jogs in a predominantly white neighborhood — his own neighborhood. Each morning I hold my breath as he walks out our front door and only exhale when the door opens to reveal that he has survived his daily jog. Until he returned home because of the pandemic, my son could have encountered the white woman in Central Park because he is a law student in New York.

When Amy Cooper attempted to weaponize the New York Police Department against Christian Cooper (no relation), she knew exactly what she was doing. When Christian Cooper insisted that Amy Cooper leash her dog according to the ordinances of Central Park, she refused and deployed her white privilege to subjugate him. Outraged by his refusal to submit (to the point of forgetting that she was being videotaped), she married her racism to the systemic racism that she depended on to suppress this African-American man who refused to bow to her privilege. Her threat — “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life” — encapsulates the state of race in America. She reveled in the racial power that she leveraged against that black man. She had no doubt that her racist call identifying her “attacker” as an African American would receive a corresponding response from law enforcement. This situation could have ended in the death of Christian Cooper, and Amy Cooper knew that. Thus, Floyd’s murder was salt poured on an already open and festering wound for African Americans.

It was the latest piece in the patchwork quilt of African Americans brutalized or killed by law enforcement officers who rarely face consequences for their actions. The brutality displayed by Derek Chauvin as George Floyd pleaded for relief is heart-wrenching to watch. To hear that man wail for his mother was so deeply disturbing. Whether or not you are an African-American mother, you can respond to the call of a child for his mother in all desperation. That call should have touched every mother’s heart. The disregard for Floyd’s life present in the demeanor of not only Chauvin but all officers present should enrage every American. What is more maddening is that Chauvin had received 18 complaints and was still on the job. This is the injustice that drives African Americans to despair, rage and the streets. Chauvin and the other officers should be charged, convicted and sentenced for the wanton killing of Floyd. However, these officers are only a part of the greater problem we must acknowledge and rectify. We must redress the systemic racism that led to this tragedy.

I was pleased to see the multi-generational, multi-racial group that peacefully protested in Waco on Sunday afternoon. De’Viar Woodson organized and led a powerful event. I am proud of him and the other young Wacoans who helped him. Protests are a necessary starting point for change, but they cannot be the only action that individuals take. Personally, I have pledged to no longer participate in such events which provide an acceptable veneer for participants to assuage their feelings without requiring them to engage in the hard work of challenging and changing our society. This latest grave injustice must result in more than protests, rallies and vigils.

However, the burden of destroying racism cannot be placed on the shoulders of people of color alone. After the riots of the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission wrote of inequality in America: “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.” All these many decades later, those conclusions continue to be true. African Americans have been screaming from the top of our lungs about police brutality and the systemic racism from which it grows. Until White America acknowledges these evils and commits to fighting them, they will persist.

Since the country erupted in uprisings about George Floyd’s murder, my phone has been ringing with calls from white individuals asking what they can do to help at this moment. I welcome those callers as allies. I have told them and I tell all who are reading my words: If you are an ally, here’s what you can do. Stand with African Americans. To stand with us means to acknowledge that individual and systemic racism are pervasive forces in our country. Stop voting for racist candidates. Refuse to accept racism in your circle. Talk about race among your white friends and family. If you are not equipped to discuss race, there are organizations in Waco that can facilitate such conversations. The Community Race Relations Coalition is one. The Cooper and Waco Foundations’ Race Equity Institute training is another. Join and work in organizations such as your local NAACP, whose mission is to ensure racial justice.

Further, support the enactment of laws and policies that address police brutality, hold law enforcement officers accountable for their actions, establish citizen review boards, discourage contracts that make it difficult to discipline officers with documented histories of bad behavior and develop appropriate and transparent use-of-force policies. Advocate for the hiring of law enforcement leaders of color through social media, letters to the editor, phone calls and attendance at city council meetings. Waco is about to hire a new police chief. The city has the opportunity to hire a person of color to head the Waco Police Department. Hiring an African-American chief of police would send a powerful message about equity. An African-American chief would have the potential of attracting minority candidates to the force who could progress through the ranks, creating a critical pool of possible future leaders.

Above all, people of color and our white allies must all vote in local, state and national elections. Our vote is the single most powerful weapon we have to combat police brutality and systemic racism. It is our vote that causes politicians to act. It is crucial that every Wacoan who participated in last Sunday’s rally also vote in upcoming elections. If they do not, the rally will have been an empty gesture.

The chaos we are experiencing might lead some to believe that we will not come through this moment. I wholeheartedly disagree with that premise. If we can begin to see each other as collaborators in this vast struggle for the soul of America that has been going on since its founding, we can transform this country. Rather than allow this moment in our country’s life to drive us to hopelessness, let it be the catalyst for a renewed commitment to justice.

Peaches Henry is president of the NAACP’s Waco chapter, founded in 1936.

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