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It starts with the tightening of my chest. Then, the quickening of my pulse, the tensing of my shoulders, the welling of my eyes and, finally, the airless scream that intends to be a roar but amounts only to a whimper. It’s a paralysis like no other.
This is how I’ve felt since the senseless killing of George Floyd, by police, in Minneapolis on May 25.
Despite rightful fits of rage, grief and intense hopelessness that black people are experiencing in response, we are still being told how to feel. How to react. How to wait. How to respond to our own oppression, by the very oppressors who are complicit in it. This is why American cities are burning in the summer heat.
For centuries, black people have been told we can’t feel. That we are not allowed to feel. That’s why we have been maimed, poked and prodded, used as guinea pigs, denied necessary treatment and medications. We’ve died in childbirth or lost children at alarming rates, and we’ve lost our children in the street. The most revolutionary thing we can do right now is the one thing we have always been denied: to feel, act and react as a whole human being.
In Atlanta, the city I call home, a peaceful protest last week devolved into chaos when police, dressed in riot gear, cornered the sizable crowd of largely peaceful protesters, demanding that marchers leave, then throwing tear gas. Friends recounted the smell of the smoke, the sound of the screaming and the sight of police officers brutalizing demonstrators. The next night, a black man and woman, both college students like me, were stopped in their car by police and subsequently tased and beaten for trying to get home just minutes after curfew.
Since then, six officers have been charged. This is exactly why we’re fighting, but we are nowhere near done.
At Yale University, I’m majoring in the History of Science, Medicine and Public Health. Courses I’ve taken have informed me of the social and public health disparities that black Americans have faced — ones that persist. However, the same rich and powerful institutions like the one I attend have in many cases perpetuated these injustices for hundreds of years. They have yet to disarm their campus police and have fostered an environment that questions whether black students like me are smart enough to be there.
“Each and every day I am reminded that this country doesn’t care about me or value black life — that no amount of education, achievement or money will spare me or any black person from that violence. I share in the collective hurt and harm.”
As a black woman, I am not just a college student but a student of the black community. Each and every day I am reminded that this country doesn’t care about me or value black life — that no amount of education, achievement or money will spare me or any black person from that violence. I share in the collective hurt and harm.
Young black people all around the country share in it. It is students like me who are speaking out, holding others accountable, signing petitions, donating money. My cousin and I created a fund for first-aid and medical supplies for protesters called The Resistance Fund, and managed to raise $6,000 in the first two days. We are shipping first-aid kits to three cities so far.
As protests have erupted in every one of the 50 states, it is clear that entities of law enforcement and criminal justice were never situated to protect and provide justice for black people. We are calling for an end to police brutality, an end to the institutionalized remnants of slavery and the reform of American law enforcement.
Yet, despite the critical work being done, despite our rightful reaction to state-sanctioned violence, the focus of both the media and racist agitators has been the defacement of property and the looting of stores, all of which will be promptly fixed. Minneapolis went up in flames, mirroring the heat and ferocity of the anger that we have been harboring for far too long, and all we heard from detractors was, “Violence is never the answer” and “This is not what MLK would have wanted.”
“This is my generation’s Civil Rights Movement.”
As if they truly know what Dr. King wanted. As if Dr. King wasn’t also hated and condemned — murdered — for peacefully protesting. As if being complacent and waiting for justice have ever worked for us. If that were the case, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many black men and women to name would be alive right now, and their killers wouldn’t be walking free.
No matter how we protest, no matter how many of us die, no matter how gruesome our deaths, our reactions to the violence will always be contested, while many cops continue to perpetuate the very behaviors we are calling out.
In the midst of the atrocities playing out before our eyes, though, I am consoled by the beautiful embrace of community, the urgent resistance and organizing that black people and allies have displayed in response to social terror. We have cried together, shouted together, marched together, sung together and patched one another up. We are putting in real work to envision a country void of the police state. This is my generation’s Civil Rights Movement.
No amount of education could prepare us for this, but we instinctively know what we have to do — and that we have to do it. It has already been written into our livelihoods, our experiences, into our memories by our ancestors.
They knew, just as we all know now, that we can hurt. We can feel. By any means necessary, we are human.
This story about the new Civil Rights Movement of current college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Mari Chiles is a student at Yale University. She is from Atlanta.