Millions of people know your name now, and like most of us I first found out who you were a few days after your father’s murder. In that time between, the people of the United States erupted on your dad’s behalf. Even though we are still braving a global pandemic, Americans flooded the streets with their cries promising no peace without justice, proving that they would not tolerate your father’s death at the hands of the state under literally any circumstances.
I say “they” because I’m not in the States right now. I’m as American as your dad and yourself, but I’m currently quarantined in Johannesburg, South Africa, and I’m feeling helpless that for the first time since Mike Brown I’m not there to march with all of you.
Maybe your mom has told you about Mike. He was days away from starting his first year of college when he was murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, MO. That was back in 2014, nearly as long ago as you are old.
We swore to ourselves, way back then, that we weren’t going to let this happen again, and there were days of protests and candlelit vigils. That’s when I first heard of Black Lives Matter, now the largest civil rights movement in human history, but then just a year old.
When I was your age, they taught us about the American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century in school. That might seem ancient to you now, but at the time it had been less than 20 years since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered by the United States government at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, TN.
When I was six, they gathered us all up together — our precocious class of multiculti school children — and taught us the Black National Anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” like we already had. Our white teachers preached the gospel of the great Reverend Doctor as if his death had already fixed everything, like racism was over. And it took me years to figure out exactly how to begin to articulate why I never quite believed them.
Four years, actually.
That was the number of years between the time I was your age and when Rodney King narrowly survived the unwarranted beating he received from police officers in Los Angeles. We didn’t have cell phones back then, so we had never really seen an act of police brutality be filmed like that before. And it seemed like I had watched the attack thousands of times on the news over the next year while we waited for the four officers involved to be tried.
Even to me, at 11, it seemed obvious. The footage showed they had beat him mercilessly. They clubbed him with batons and broke his bones; he was bludgeoned nearly 60 times and we had it on tape.
And when all four of those cops walked away from that courtroom as if nothing had happened at all, is when what many Americans simply call The Riots began.
They lasted six days. Sixty-three people died, and there were thousands of injuries. Though they began in Los Angeles, they spread all over the nation as outraged Americans found their outlet in the streets.
But inside what now gets characterized as merely a riot was a protest against the injustices that people just like me and you and your mom and your dad have been enduring for generations at the hands of the LAPD and police departments across the nation and beyond.
I lived in Austin, TX, when Mike Brown’s murderer was made to sit before a grand jury to decide if he should sit trial. I thought that surely in the 20 years since The Riots we had found a way to hold cops like him accountable.
Except that apparently we hadn’t.
Because Mike Brown’s murderer walked free and remains unpunished today.
So we marched again.
That night I marched on the Texas capital, and people all over the nation filled the streets out of desperation. We screamed and chanted. We lit candles. We wrapped our shaky hands around bullhorns and we let our voices and tears fall into them.
We thrust our hands to the sky, and with the steely determination that we have learned from years of pain and trauma, we demanded that our lives finally fucking matter.
I went to my first protest when I was 10 years old — it was against the first Gulf War — and by the time I was a teenager, I was co-organizing actions within my cohort of queer radicals in the Pacific Northwest. But after damn near 30 years of fighting, it’s hard to keep sight of that proverbial “someday” like they say in the song they taught us all as kids.
After Mike there was Tamir. And then there was Freddie and Alton and Sandra.
There was also Eric.
And there was Philando. He worked at an elementary school where he was beloved by the kids who attended. After he was murdered by a police officer right in front of his girlfriend and her daughter that he had treated as his own, one little girl who knew him from school, in her grief, described him as having had rainbows in his heart.
There were so many more, too, and we tried to remember all of their names until there were too many to remember all at once; until the years had taken their toll and so much joy was already lost that it got hard to keep telling ourselves to keep fighting.
Sometimes I think that part of me has given up. That years of defeats have left me too broken to fix. But Gianna, I can tell you that whether I believe that our efforts will eventually prevail or not that my resolve to remain in this fight is still the same.
Because even when it feels like this struggle is insurmountable, black women, like you will one day become, still show up. We still mourn those we’ve lost and we comfort the grieving. We still stand in the streets, we still raise our hands to the sky, and we even still stand for those of us that are too tired to stand anymore because that’s just what we do.
We wanted to leave you a nation that you’d be proud to inherit. We tried to fix it before you paid a price so high; we didn’t want you to have to know about how the government has been taking away our fathers since this country began. And now our hope for you is that you’ll be able to hold on to that optimism about what this world will become, and hopefully by the time you too become a black woman, we will have secured a few more victories for you to wrap around that hope.
I don’t know exactly what will happen but I can promise you this: I will never stop fighting for you, Gianna. And always know that there are millions of black women that feel the exact same way.
And though it may not be in my lifetime, deep in my heart, I do believe.
That we shall overcome someday.
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