Open ears, open eyes, closed mouths: The duties of white America after police brutality protests

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Graham Hughes

A protester holds up a sign during a demonstration calling for justice in the death of George Floyd and victims of police brutality in Montreal, Sunday, May 31, 2020.

James Krause, Contributor

Every time I visit my family in Georgia, we take the long and often tedious trip from Athens to Atlanta for a day to see the city. Every time, without fail, I’ll want to go to two places on Marietta Street: the CNN Center and the College Football Hall of Fame.

Marietta Street gets thousands of people driving and walking along its concrete canvas almost every day. To me, a foreigner to the city, Marietta Street is the epicenter of the two things in my college years that I’ve grown to appreciate so much: journalism and sports.

Last night I watched as firecrackers were thrown into the CNN Center — on CNN’s live broadcast no less. When I woke up Saturday morning, I saw windows taken out at the College Football Hall of Fame down the street. It is those two locations that stuck out to me, simply based on my love for both, in a flood of destruction from protests gone sour and violent.

There’s one thing for people, particularly white people, to remember when they see the images of a destroyed restaurant or store: the College Football Hall of Fame and CNN Centers can come back. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery can’t.

There’s not going to be a consensus from everybody on what the meaning of the protests of the last few days is, but the root of it all comes down to one thing. 

George Floyd was killed, and the former officers who killed him should be charged and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The same goes for the officers who killed Breonna Taylor and the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery. 

The pain of knowing the details of Floyd’s death made me so sick at heart that I can still feel it sink when it comes to mind. It’s rarely not been on my mind these past few days.

What white people need to do is imagine the pain black people feel for Floyd, measure that fear of it happening to their friend or colleague and then imagine that pain put through a loudspeaker for someone who has it in their bloodline and family tree. 

For black people in America, this has been reality every day since enslaved Africans were first brought to this country.

The destruction by white people of Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921 over an alleged assault by a black man on a white woman wasn’t about justice. It was about killing black people. 

The bombing by the Philadelphia Police Department of the MOVE building in 1985, that also destroyed 65 other predominantly black homes over alleged gun violence and gang activity, wasn’t about justice. It was about killing black people.

When President Donald Trump tweeted out “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” Friday, a phrase originally coined by Miami Chief of Police Walter Headly in 1967 when talking about civil unrest, it’s not about bringing protesters and looters to justice. It’s about killing black people.

When news broke that former officer Derek Chauvin had been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaugther, I found a small semblence of relief as a white person, and thought hopefully things from there would sort themselves out. 

In that moment, the tragedy of Floyd’s death was progressing toward something that resembled peace of mind. As a white person, I viewed this as victory. I was very wrong and naive to think this.

The protests are, in part, calling out the issue of police brutality that escalates fears and unrest in black communities while going unnoticed or unpunished. Officers across the country this week, whether they were throwing women to the ground or shooting rubber bullets at journalists, proved that point.

It’s not enough for one cop to go to jail for murder; it needs to be a standard for all cases like it. In that same context, it is not for white people to speak up for justice when it’s convenient or inescapable. 

We need to grow the courage to first acknowledge our privilege, then ask how we can help in order to make up for the hundreds of years of generations of white people who haven’t acknowledged their privilege or the systemic racism and oppression of black people.

There’s no one right answer or one magic step everyone can take to suddenly make hundreds of years of oppression fade away. It starts with listening to black people and trying to understand how we can make them more comfortable and safe in this country their ancestors helped build. 

The steps that can be taken from there are plenty: educating yourself on black history and oppression in America, supporting black business and black workers, voting in politicians that will work with the black community and voting out those who discard it. These are things we can do every day.

The simplest thing is something most of us already do for our loved ones. We can show compassion, concern and the courage to stand up and say “enough.” Ask someone if they’re okay, if they need help or speak up when you see something that’s wrong.

Planning to take action now will hopefully prevent more black people from dying in police custody, and hopefully learning will help us move to a point where we can solve the issues beyond that.