“It’s not like this hasn’t happened before,” my brother remarked in a recent conversation. Both of our timelines were filled with protests and outrage and we wanted to know why now? Why has the murder of George Floyd convicted the hearts of so many Americans when previous instances of Black people getting killed barely grabbed their attention?
Trayvon Martin was killed after being confronted by a neighborhood watchman. Tamir Rice was killed within two seconds of police arriving on scene. Atatiana Jefferson was killed in the presence of her eight-year-old nephew after cops failed to identify themselves in her backyard. Melissa Williams and Timothy Russell were killed after one hundred bullets were fired into their car and one officer, prompted by a fear for his life, jumped on the hood of their car to shoot directly into the windshield. Emantic Fitzgerald Jr. Walter Scott. Stephon Clark. Freddie Grey. Sandra Bland. Botham Jean. John Crawford. Laquan McDonald. Breonna Taylor. There have been countless reports of fatal police encounters and public response has been widely indifferent.
My brother also suggested that the graphic nature of the video is what angered people. I am not convinced. The video of Philando Castile’s murder is extremely graphic as blood soaks through his shirt and his eyes gloss over as he dies in the presence of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. In the recording of Eric Garner’s death, a person can hear him gasp that he can’t breathe as an officer restrains him in a chokehold.
I wonder if the outrage has less to do with a graphic killing as much as the reality that a man was killed. Floyd’s death occurred at the height of stay-at-home orders that had many people restless; millions of people had nothing better to do than scroll through social media waiting for the next news story. And beyond slowing down to take notice of what happened, they slowed down long enough to realize that George Floyd—a Black man—was, in fact, human. His distressed cries for his mama during the last few seconds of his life struck a chord. What person does not recall crying out to their mom in moments of need? Even those who have less than amicable relationships with their mothers can probably recall a time when they had the need to be comforted by her.
For far too long, Black people—and especially Black males—have been dehumanized into villainous thugs who always seek opportunities to cause harm to the innocent citizens around them. But Floyd seems to have shattered that perception for a lot of people. Seems. Therein lies the unease I have regarding America’s response. Yes, like my brother I wonder why now, but I also want to know how long? How long will society care? How long will they call for justice? How long will they listen? How long will they be willing to do the work to make change? How long will Black suffering be visible?
I have carried this pain in solitude for so long that the sudden attention towards my grief is as unnerving as it is unexpected. I have repeatedly processed the trauma of watching a Black person die without any condolence from the rest of society; not one of my friends—white or otherwise—tried to reach out to me after Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. Not one knows the numbness and anxiety I carried for months afterward. Not one of my white brothers and sisters from church tried to console me or lend an ear to my perspective. The first friend to reach out concerning Floyd was a Pilipino friend from college; I was relieved that someone—finally—realized that the murder of Black people would affect me and cared enough about my wellbeing to ask how I was doing. I have since had a handful of other white coworkers and friends reach out to offer apologies for not being more aware; some of them even went a step further by pointedly asking questions so they can be better advocates against racism and prejudice. However, I am still uneasy. Will the concern for my life disappear as quickly as it arrived?
I told my brother that at any moment I feel like someone will jump out and say “gotcha,”and that the support for Black life and against systemic racism will vanish. And why not? History has repeatedly taught the Black community that support for our lives only lasts the duration of an election campaign or the next news story. As our society tries to settle back into the pace we moved at before Covid-19 slowed us down, I cannot help but wonder if that also means settling back into silence and inaction. As I read post after post of Americans and various companies vowing to change and be more outspoken against racism, I cannot help but wonder if the attention towards Black life has an expiration date.
Cover image by Clay Banks.