“We’ve been risking our lives for freedom since you brought us here.”
– Eddie Gaulet, PhD, Princeton University, Chair of the Department of African American Studies
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
– Archbishop Desmond Tutu, OMSG, CH, GCStJ, Theologian and Human Rights Advocate, Noble Peace Prize recipient
This has been a heart wrenching week. As the worldwide death toll from coronavirus soars close to 400,000, with more than one-third occurring in the United States, global attention has turned to a cancerous pandemic that has infested our country for centuries. In the midst of the devastating reality of health, economic, and social inequities highlighted by the viral pandemic, we’ve all witnessed barbaric, fatal outcomes fueled by racism in the last several weeks.
The systemic oppression is not new. George Floyd’s words hark back to an equally horrific, racist act a few years ago when Eric Garner also pleaded with police officers perpetrating the crime. “I cannot breathe,” each man cried while being stripped of his life.
George and Eric should still be alive. As should Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and countless other black people who have been killed because of racism, racial injustice, and inexplicable indignities.
We are facing two public health crises: an acute one from a novel virus that has required intense intervention to stop its spread. And a deep-rooted, metastatic disease that has existed since our country’s inception.
The death of George Floyd and all that it represents has taken precedence right now over the coronavirus pandemic. One is chronic and ubiquitous. The other is an acute infection that will last a long time with many terrible outcomes and possible long-term sequela. But vaccines and treatment for coronavirus will ultimately be discovered, tested, and distributed. In cities throughout the world, hundreds-of-thousands have decided that the potential risk of contracting the virus in large crowds is necessary in order to disrupt the noxious pandemic of systemic racism and police brutality.
When we launched this website, we wanted to provide a sense of hope and possibility. We wanted to share stories of real people experiencing real recovery from COVID-19. Through their stories, we want to help each of you see yourselves in everyday people – experiences that you, too, may have had related to the virus and other experiences that may come as a surprise. However, in the wake of George Floyd’s death with the universally heightened grief, pain, anger, and outrage, in the setting of layers of countless societal ills already exposed by the virus, how do we have a sense of hope right now? How do we foster optimism?
One glimmer that I try to hang on to is that, given the despicable ways in which the undeniable toxicity of police brutality against black Americans has triggered collective rage this time, perhaps all of us will finally commit to and work for cultural change. That may sound naive, since generations of equally deplorable acts should have evoked this level of widespread outrage, no matter your race. But others, too, are noticing a shift. In a New York Times article covering the recent protests, a participant named Sharhonda Bossier was quoted as saying, “What feels different about right now is people are angry for themselves in a way that we did not see outside of black people four years ago.”
Perhaps the backdrop of the infectious pandemic is contributing to a palpable change? The virus itself unearthed the glaring disparities in our health, economic, and social structures. Maybe everyone is finally recognizing that the status quo is wrong, harmful, and deadly. Even before the murder of George Floyd, COVID-19 rendered it crystal clear that once the cure and safe, preventative immunization are established, complacently slipping back to work and life as “usual” should not be an option. We must revamp and revitalize, not return and restore. The demonstrations across the nation and the globe emphasize that given the combination of simultaneous pandemics – one chronic and cancerous, the other acute and infectious – recovery should mean change, righting the wrongs of every type of injustice.
If we, the human race of researchers, scientists, healthcare workers, and system organizers, are smart and resourceful enough to develop a vaccine at rapid speed, and distribute it to everyone, then we can also design a country and a world that live up to our ideals of equity, justice, and fairness. We can, and we should, address every single indignity and indiscretion head on, not only those caught on camera.
The time, perhaps the reckoning, has come. Not one of us has the luxury to deny our roles in this extremely complicated system and history that is founded on inhumane oppression.
A few pieces this week that have touched me deeply: (1) Trevor Noah’s monologue. (2) A poem shared with me by a newfound friend originally from Chile. (3) A slam poem delivered by Playon Patrick.
There is a tremendous amount to be done and it can feel overwhelming to know where to begin, especially while the acute viral pandemic is a current reality. A few concrete steps to consider, particularly if you are, understandably, worried and uncomfortable about protesting during the COVID-19 pandemic but you still want to exercise your support and make strides toward change:
- Learn the history to understand structural racism and white privilege:
- Law enforcement and the criminal justice system
- Anti-racist reading list
- Listen to 1619
- Books on Voter suppression: One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson and
- Say it Louder! by Tiffany Cross, which also offers promise to change the dynamic
- Red lining and Housing discrimination
- White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
- Know the data and the facts – e.g. Mapping Police Violence about police killings and brutality in America. As well as the reality, Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler, a former Federal prosecutor and law school professor.
- Discover and support organizations dedicated to changing the systems: NAACP; Black Lives Matter; Equal Justice Initiative; Campaign Zero; Color of Change; Know Your Rights Camp;
- Use your voice with your political leaders; demand change in legislation and policing. Ask your mayors to sign the pledge of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and hold them accountable. Advocate for change in police culture and approach through community policing. #8Can’tWait is a campaign initiated by Campaign Zero that highlights eight specific actions that, if taken by police departments across the country, will reduce killings by 72%.
- Vote and #GOTV (get out the vote), as George Floyd’s brother Terrence and Malcolm Brogden of the National Basketball Association (NBA) encouraged; including local elections which have the greatest impact on voter rights and criminal justice. Vote and encourage others to do so like lives depend on it because they do.