A couple of nights ago, I was scrolling through my social media accounts and shamelessly sharing several posts that I saw as helpful or informational about the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (among many others), as well as the protests that had started around the country. I have always been very loud and proud about the things I believe in, especially when it comes to educating my friends about issues in the world that they should take the time to consider. I was glad to see that so many of my friends had shared posts on their Instagram Stories highlighting the current events, but I realized that that action alone would never be enough.
Something clicked in me. I sat up, grabbed a small white poster that had been long forgotten in a corner of my desk, and did my best to portray how I felt. I settled on the phrase, “Respect existence or expect resistance." I texted a good friend who had gone to a protest earlier that day to see if she was planning on going the next night.
Although I have a mother whose political views very much align with my own, I was a bit nervous to tell her I was going. I knew she was absolutely supportive of the protests going on and the meaning behind them, but I also knew that she might be worried about my safety. So, in true college kid fashion, I didn't directly tell her. I just sent her a picture of the sign I was making, with no other explanation. I was right, she was a bit concerned. But she also knows me and knows how deeply my desire to change the world for the better runs.
All she said in response was, “Be safe, be strong."
Once I got to the protest with my friends, I was relieved to find that safety was going to be the largest priority of the night. The few hundred people outside the Lexington Courthouse in my hometown of Lexington, KY when we arrived were almost all wearing masks. Given the space available, it was understandably difficult to practice complete social distancing, but everyone was very much respectful of others' health given this pandemic we are currently in.
The protest organizers spoke over a megaphone, telling us that violence was not acceptable that night.
Everyone in the crowd seemed to be in understanding that, for as fed up as many of us were with the broken system we live in, we could not risk anyone getting hurt. The head organizer made sure to emphasize to the white members of the protest that we were there as allies to the black community, and as such, we should not start any violence. If we did, the consequences of such actions would almost certainly fall on the black protestors
My friends and I met up with some of my sorority sisters and their other friends, and we wrote each other's phone numbers on our arms in sharpie, should any of us be injured or arrested and need a local number to call. The downtown streets were still open at the beginning of the night, and almost every car that passed by honked in support of us. Many fists were raised up out of open car windows to stand in solidarity with our own.
As we began marching to the front of the downtown police station, I could not help but notice all of the officers in riot gear standing nearby. At one point, I looked up and saw a few of them hiding in the parking garage next to the station, and a friend of mine commented that they were most likely posted up on the roofs of the buildings around us. Despite this slightly unnerving display, the officers did not end up using any violence toward any protestors during the night.
After I had left and the protest had “officially" dispersed, a large group of officers knelt alongside the protestors who stayed. There were even accounts of them praying together, embracing, and sharing fist-bumps. Finding this out later in the night let me breathe a sigh of relief. I was so glad that nobody had been hurt.
However, other cities in Kentucky have not been so lucky.
Last night, when the peaceful protest in my city went smoothly, national guard and police in Louisville (where Breonna Taylor was murdered in her home by police this March) shot and killed an unarmed man. Not many details of this shooting have been released yet, but it seems as though the shooting occurred in a neighborhood separate from the main protest. Accounts so far have said that the officers shot in response to fire opened, but it seems as though the man they killed, David McAtee, was not the one who fired.
Charles Booker, who is running against Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the U.S. Senate, Tweeted, “I knew they would kill someone. Absolutely devastated."
Only a few days ago, Louisville police officers fired pepper balls on journalists reporting at the scene of protests.
The violence occurring at so many protests across the country is disheartening and often goes against what the families of victims want their deceased loved ones to be honored by. However, there have been several cases where officers have initiated the violence toward peaceful protestors.
This is all very reminiscent of past protests against police brutality, such as the Stonewall Riots of 1969 involving LGBTQ people that eventually led to positive change. America has the resources to enact the changes that the people want to see but often turns a blind eye to those peacefully protesting— such as Colin Kaepernick kneeling— unless things escalate. Even our president has been threatening and encouraging violence toward the American people, which is absolutely disgraceful.
As a white person in this country, I am doing my best to face the privileges I inherently have as a result of my skin color.
I am not shying away from discussions and realizations that make me uncomfortable. I am doing my best to keep evolving into the best ally I can be. I recognize that this will be a long journey and that I am far from perfect.
My advice to anyone seeking to be a better ally is to most importantly never put words into the mouth of the people you are standing with. If you are not black, you do not get a say in how black people should be feeling or responding to the events taking place.
Secondly, educate yourself on performative activism and how it may be hurting more than helping. If you reposted the Black Lives Matter “chain" on Instagram, you took part in this kind of activism. Take the time to consider why you took part in this rather than other types of activism. Was it because it was easy — even thoughtless, in a way? Was it, deep down, an effort to make you feel better about yourself and to prove to yourself that you took part?
Lastly, recognize that your job as an ally is to listen and to not be afraid of admitting your mistakes. Go a step (or five) further than you initially think to in your activism. Don't stop at reposting encouraging Bible verses on your Instagram story. Donate whatever you are able to organizations such as the Louisville Community Bail Fund and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Make a sign or two and join in on your local protest (or, if you are unable, put together aid bags for those who are protesting).
Whatever you do, don't sit by idly, and don't lie to yourself by saying you've done all you can. You haven't. There is always more to be done and there is always space for you to change the world.