Explaining Black Lives
I’m taking the shortcut in the underground tunnels that lead from the train station to an exit that opens a couple of blocks from my home. I see them before I hear them. About five people. Red hats with white lettering, camouflage fatigues. I’m always aware of walking in these tunnels alone—particularly on the weekends when the usual weekday influx of federal workers dashing for a morning coffee, a quick stop at the drugstore, or a pickup at the cleaners has quieted. But the afternoon is warm because the DC summer refuses to relent, so I take the tunnels. I see them walking ahead of me and dread fills me, as I know I will have to pass them soon. It is late 2016 and I’m feeling unmoored.
This man in the tunnels, recounting this story about three years later, invokes in me pain that is still raw. I have been mourning without even realizing it. As the late Audre Lorde said of Black death, “I have died too many deaths that were not mine.”
I keep walking towards them with my head held high. I hear a middle-aged man, who I assume is the father—for now it seems that it’s a family—a mother, a father, and a couple of teenagers. He glances back, sees me, and raises his voice for my benefit. “It’s all about compliance,” he pronounces. “I teach my children to be compliant,” he says proudly, glancing back in my direction and past the teenagers. “That’s why that kid was killed,” he concludes. That kid is Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old high school student—a baby to me—who was wrestled to the ground, clutching Skittles and fruit juice in his hands, as he was shot at point-blank range, the bullet piercing his chest. His killer was a white vigilante, George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in 2013 of his killing by invoking a “stand your ground defense.” Zimmerman found Trayvon’s blackness and his hoodie to be “suspicious” and took it upon himself to pursue him and wrestle him to the ground and to his death, even as a 911 operator pleaded with him to leave Martin alone. Although he attacked Trayvon, his claims of self-defense were successful—as though his whiteness alone deputized him with authority to hunt and kill an unarmed Black child.
This man in the tunnels, recounting this story about three years later, invokes in me pain that is still raw. I have been mourning without even realizing it. As the late Audre Lorde said of Black death, “I have died too many deaths that were not mine.” I would later learn about the details of Trayvon’s killing—how one of Trayvon’s legs was twisted and folded beneath him as he struggled to free himself from Zimmerman. I can’t shake the thought of the bullet in Trayvon’s young chest that stopped his breath. I shudder to think of his parents (who I would meet sometime later and see the sadness still palpable in their haunted eyes and posture) viewing photos of his bloody and broken body to confirm his identity.
This boisterous man in the tunnel is impervious to the reality that blackness itself is deemed criminal and suspicious in this country. He ignores the reality that no one—myself included—is under any obligation to yield to someone who is not a law enforcement official simply because that person finds one’s blackness “suspicious.” And even when Black people do “comply” with law enforcement, we are still brutalized and killed.
I think back to the second semester of my first year of law school. After making a left turn and hearing the telltale police siren, I pull my car to the side of the road and roll down my window. It is campus police. Up until that point, my encounters with law enforcement have been benign. A couple of stops that didn’t result in tickets. Not even a parking ticket. In my work before law school, I even trained police officers to respond to domestic violence calls—the most dangerous and lethal calls they receive. It is from that perspective that I greet the officer with collegiality. But, something signals to me right away that this officer is different. He is enraged. “Why didn’t you yield back there?” he spits, his contorted red face leaning into my face. I instinctively pull back. He shines his flashlight in my face. “What is wrong with you?” he sneers. I am shaking now, unsure of what to say. “Why do I smell alcohol on your breath?” he demands. Stunned—I seldom drink. The lawyer I will become somehow aids me in finding my voice—“I’m returning home from my civil procedure class. I’m a law student. I haven’t been drinking. I don’t drink.” I respond/plead, motioning back towards the law school. I argue my case—trying to legitimize my presence and assuage him. I’m not a criminal, my eyes plead. At this, he stands up straight and seems to pause. He heads back to his car, still visibly angry. He returns and rips off a ticket—“failure to yield,” and shoves it at me. I’m left shaking and crying. I cannot reconcile his rage—his conviction that I was drinking and that I must have committed some kind of infraction. It seems that my identification as a law student somehow seemed to stop whatever trajectory he was on. I haven’t yet completed criminal procedure, a course in which I’ll learn that there must be “reasonable articulable suspicion” to believe that someone has committed a crime and that “pre-textual” stops are often used to detain Black drivers.
After sharing this encounter with a couple of fellow law students, I’m encouraged to talk to one of the law school’s Deans, with whom I have a good relationship. Her response confirms that something was wrong about his behavior. She calls in the head of campus police and the officer for a meeting. “We recruit phenomenal Black students from all around this country! You can’t treat our law students like this!” she rails. She later relays snippets of her conversation with them back to me. Years later, after she moved to California to work at another law school and I was an attorney working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), we would laugh about this in a restaurant in San Diego. “Oh yeah, I told them,” she would say. “I think there were even tears (on their part),” she recalled. That encounter with campus police was years before #BlackLivesMatter was conceived or cell phones even had the capability to capture police encounters, but her response and the response of the school as a whole (the Dean of Students accompanied me to my court date to contest the ticket), stay with me as exemplars of allyship.
When I depart the spring of my second year of law school to study abroad for a semester in England, it is admittedly with some relief that I store my car. For the remainder of my law school career, I don’t have an encounter quite like the one I had my first year, but I would often be followed for over a mile by police, all the while I would run a quick inventory in my head to confirm that everything was above-board (taillights working, check; lights on, check; license and registration current, check). This would happen several times, police trailing me with their lights bright—I presumed they were running my plates—before finally turning off, failing to find fault or an adequate excuse to pull me over. The whole time I would pray, nervous and unsettled. When I move to Washington, DC, for a fellowship after completing law school, I make a deliberate decision to live close to a metro station, even though it costs more, and the train becomes my primary means of transportation. This decision spares me the stress of those encounters, well worth the cost to me.
* * *
I wonder now about their silence. Maybe they had been ashamed of their parents’ behavior or perhaps their silence was assent to their parents’ arguments.
In the tunnels, although I know far better than to engage, I speak up as I pass the family. I say that Trayvon did not deserve to die to the man. Martin was under no obligation to comply. He was simply a child accosted by a stranger and did not deserve to die. The man mentions that he is a law abiding citizen and he served his country. I scoff—I am a lawyer and respect the rule of law and my father was/is a proud US Marine who has served his country as well. As though Black people have not served and died so long for a country that never really loved us back. At the time, Nikole Hannah-Jones has not yet published the groundbreaking—and heartbreaking—“The 1619 Project” in the New York Times, a searing indictment of America’s racism and the struggle of Black Americans to perfect this democracy. At that time of the encounter in the tunnel, she has not yet won the Pulitzer Prize for that piece. But, as I recall the tunnel encounter now and revisit the 1619 article, I think of how she wrote about Black veterans who returned from war, only to be persecuted and lynched on American soil. I think of how the earliest cases that LDF handled were those of Black veterans, including a Black veteran who was blinded for failing to sit in the back of a bus. His image, his eyes shaded by sunglasses, and his polished uniform, still haunts me. One of the founders of LDF, Thurgood Marshall, traveled the country with this veteran, telling his story. The funds raised from this tour helped to support LDF’s civil rights work.
In the tunnel, the man struggles to respond to my admission of my father’s service and his wife steps in my face and raises her voice at me. She yells at me to shut up and makes some other unintelligible remarks as she points her finger in my face and comes closer, shaking and enraged in the way that some middle-aged white women (who don’t realize that I’m middle-aged myself) admonish me like I’m a child. She comes even closer; so close, that I instinctively pull out the mace that I’ve recently started to carry (for my own protection, not just when I run solo, but for my defense—a precaution in case I find myself the object of rage and suspicion because of my Blackness). She retreats, mumbling something about why I’m “carrying that.” The two teenagers are silent. I wonder now about their silence. Maybe they had been ashamed of their parents’ behavior or perhaps their silence was assent to their parents’ arguments. I walk fast, almost run, and turn a corner to escape them. I see a Black woman as I turn the corner. A stranger, but I approach her, sputtering out something about them saying that Trayvon deserved to be killed and I dissolve into tears. She embraces me and comforts me. It’s okay, she soothes, rubbing my back. It’s okay. “Yes, they don’t see us as human beings,” she murmurs. She comforts me as I cry, surprised by my own emotions. Surprised that, although I work on civil rights issues and teach about racial justice, I still carry the pain, the disbelief that there is such disregard for Black life. Dismay that a parent could not even muster empathy for the indescribable loss that Trayvon’s parents endured.
She comforts me and I collect myself. I look around and the family is nowhere to be seen. The kind woman gives me her contact information. I make it home thankful that the encounter did not escalate beyond the exchange. My former supervisor at LDF cautions me from engaging in such exchanges when I later share the story of the encounter with her. It’s not worth it she says. I later use some channels to look up the woman who comforted me and discover that she is a decorated Secret Service agent. I wonder then if she had been there all along, observing and listening, ready in case things did escalate. I say another prayer of thanks for her presence and her comfort and I send her a thank you text. I am thankful for the support of other Black people who understand and know all too well the micro-and macro-aggressions that we face every day simply for being.
Later, I read When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Kahn-Cullors and asha bandele. Kahn-Cullors recounts her own disbelief upon hearing the acquittal of George Zimmerman. She writes about how, after Zimmerman’s acquittal is announced, she messages friends Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi who share her dismay and grief. “It’s like we don’t even matter,” she cries to her friends. Alicia, a social media specialist, posts on Facebook: “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.” Patrisse responds, “#BlackLivesMatter.” The hashtag becomes a rallying cry after Zimmerman’s acquittal for those who protest against the lack of accountability for those who kill unarmed Black people with impunity.
About a year after Zimmerman’s acquittal, it is proclaimed in Ferguson, MO, where I travel in the late summer of 2014. I travel to support a service event hosted by Black lawyers to register people to vote in the wake of protests that erupt after the killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown. Passing by boarded up buildings and in the shadow of fires still smoldering that summer, I visit the spot on Florissant Avenue where Mike Brown’s body lay for four hours in the August heat after he was killed. Shortly before the trip, I recall going to the printer at work and accidently picking up a printout of Michael Brown’s autopsy report. One of my colleagues in the criminal justice practice had likely printed it out for her own reference. I couldn’t unsee all of the bullet holes marked in the body sketch. Bullets along the right side of his body and the bullet to the top of his skull. I think of eighteen-year-old Mike, “Big Mike,” as he was known to his friends and family. A box of Frosted Flakes, his favorite cereal, left at the makeshift memorial populated by flowers and teddy bears in the street, marking where his body lay. I can still see the flowers and the verse that someone had printed on a makeshift cardboard black pillar in gold letters, “They tried to bury us, but didn’t know we were seeds.”
* * *
It is not until the summer of 2020 that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag truly goes “viral,” embraced internationally by a public that cannot look away or argue “compliance” as they watch an officer’s knee press into George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds as he calls out for his dead mother. Unlike many of the prior protests, people of all ethnicities are demonstrating in the streets around the world—even during a global pandemic—proclaiming that #BlackLivesMatter.
Later that summer, in part in backlash to such demonstrations, the executive branch denounces curriculum that addresses racism in America. I teach the kind of curriculum that is being denounced as “un-American.” I teach a course examining racism in public education through a Critical Race Theory approach that acknowledges that racism is a normal feature of American society and examines the role of the law in either deepening or eradicating inequality. It recognizes that, while race is not biologically real (as confirmed by the Human Genome Project, we share 99.999% of the same DNA), it is socially real.
Seeing my humanity means seeing me. It means seeing the girl who grew up in Seattle, WA. A woman who likes to run and write and read.
It is socially real for me when I am constantly questioned about my credentials or experience. I recall a white woman at the majority-white law school I attended saying to one of my Black classmates, “I know that you belong here, but the rest of them don’t.” It’s funny how at times white people argue that some things are solely about color—like Black people get into graduate school solely because they’re Black (as though we don’t have to take the same entrance exams, complete the same coursework, or sit for the same bar or other licensing exams that they do). Or that Black people get certain jobs solely because of their color. When I assumed a leadership position at one of my recent jobs, white colleagues were outraged. A white woman who wanted the job that I assumed quit the same week that I started. I was constantly questioned and belittled, with white colleagues proclaiming that I was unqualified—often within my earshot. Yet, when Black people are killed by law enforcement, then many white people argue that it is not—it cannot—be about color. “It must be non-compliance!” they argue. They must have said or done something wrong to justify their own killing—but never because they are Black. Even after the killing of Botham Jean—a Black man in Texas who was eating ice cream in his own home when an off-duty police officer broke into his apartment and shot and killed him in cold blood—his killer claimed that he didn’t “yield to her commands.” Or the killing of Breonna Taylor while she slept in her own home. No one comforted her—a paramedic who worked to save others’ lives—as her life was taken from her. It is both maddening and sadly unsurprising.
* * *
Seeing my humanity means seeing me. It means seeing the girl who grew up in Seattle, WA. A woman who likes to run and write and read. A woman who is a loyal friend and a committed educator. A woman who has a family and friends and dreams for her future. It means seeing that I am not one-dimensional.
For example, like a lot of other Black people, I like running. Yet, somehow, my love of running doesn’t fit neatly into some white people’s perceptions of an “appropriate” or fitting activity for a Black woman. When white people ask me incredulously—“did you run the whole marathon?” it astounds me. Why does my color somehow diminish my ability to run marathons or love running? I’m dismayed when some white people are outraged when I pass them on running trails, like the white man who yelled after me, “Go ahead then!” after I passed him, or the white people who, after learning that I am a runner, drill me, “So, what are your finish times?”
I think of Ahmaud Arbery who was gunned down by white vigilantes while running in his own neighborhood. I clicked on the video of his killing—which I usually try to avoid doing—and watched as he stumbled after the first bullet and attempted to keep running, my heart breaking as they gunned him down until he lay still. They didn’t think that he belonged in the neighborhood. I often brace myself on runs. Beforehand, I meticulously pick out the shirts and hats that I wear—silent symbols, knowing that my skin color makes me “hyper-visible” to many. College or graduate school paraphernalia denotes some measure of education, which calms some down when they take note of me running their neighborhoods (although I lived in the area far before the box-like condos they live in—what my mom would disdainfully call “cookie cutter homes”—were even built). I can see the calm set in when the words on the shirt become visible. And, I’ve learned that paraphernalia from the Marine Corps Marathon—one of my favorite marathons—seems to be particularly effective in deflecting hostility. Maybe it’s the ambiguity—is she a Marine or not? At the very least she ran the marathon… Perhaps best not to find out? I can only imagine the debates raging in their minds before I’m out of sight. Most days, I run with a bit of fear. The unsettling sense that someone may approach me or try to hurt me simply because they think I don’t belong. But I run, anyway. Like the other activities that I engage in or the places that I visit that defy stereotypical limitations of what I should do or who I should be, I continue. Just as I continued in law school, in my work as a lawyer, and I continue now.
I recall the Toni Morrison quote in which she observed, “The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” I have explained myself a lot. I have pleaded my reason for being. I have pleaded why killing unarmed Black people is wrong. I have pleaded to avoid violence. It is exhausting. More explanation will always be necessary. It is distracting. It is frightening. I want to do my work. I want to run. I want to write and read. And I want to just be.
Janel George is a recovering attorney, policy advisor, and writer who has spent the last decade-and-a-half living, working, and reading in Washington, DC. She grew up in Seattle, WA, graduated from Spelman College with a BA in English, and earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Through her writing and work, she seeks to expose and help eradicate issues of racial injustice.