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Updated: Oct 12, 2020

A guest essay by a second-generation Black American activist

September 7, 2020

The last time Black Americans rose up en masse to protest racial inequality and police brutality, my parents were the ones marching.

We are living in a breathtaking time in history. In the beginning of 2020 came the coronavirus. In February, we had a President who repeatedly labeled it a hoax, but reality kept contradicting him. While some states shut down their economies in response to the threat, others followed Donald Trump’s lead, insisting the virus was no big deal. It became a tale of two Americas, with the virus increasingly appearing under a "red" or "blue" political banner. By early spring, New York City and the northeast states were already being hit hard, while in the south and midwest, the virus still had not really shown its face.

Then in late May, George Floyd was killed, and our nation seemed to explode overnight. The outpouring of shock at the brutality of his murder by police proved to be a tipping point in the Black Lives Matter movement that began in 2013. This year's pandemic revealed the terrifying risks faced by blacks as a result of our system's glaring inequalities in health care, income opportunity and employment. Many people took to the streets where for weeks they marched, chanted and sang in response to seeing yet another black man being needlessly killed by the police, this time caught on video. Floyd's death came on the heels of others, for instance Ahmad Aubrey's and Breonna Taylor's, whose killers (cops) remained on the city payroll.

People were fed up. Many people were marching by day, while others were looting and rioting by night. Cops turned up in riot gear, turning tear gas and rubber bullets on mostly nonviolent protesters. Meanwhile, so-called leaders in Washington seemed to add fuel to the fire by declaring that our cities were drowning in flames of anarchy.

They say history repeats itself, and I think immediately of 1968 when my parents were young activists marching and organizing for change. That year, civil unrest erupted in response to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, the Vietnam War, and Nixon's campaign for President.

On the night that Dr. King died, and for several nights afterward, cities burned. There was rioting and there were peaceful marches. Young people asked themselves, what's the use of protesting? Will we ever make real progress? But there had been progress. The landmark case that ended school segregation, Brown vs. the Board of Education, had beebn passed by the Supreme Court in 1954. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, had also been passed. But what good was legislation if black leaders like Malcolm X and Dr. King continued to be killed? Robert F. Kennedy, who was running for President and was a supporter of racial equality, was then killed in the summer of 1968.

But along with despair, there was also hope rising from the ashes of America's burning cities. Organizations like the Black Panthers were formed, with fast-growing numbers and an increasingly wide sphere of influence. Many black citizens began to arm themselves for protection against police, who were all too willing to assault them. Back then, there were no cell phones or personal video cameras to record the daily harassment in neighborhoods where black and brown people lived.

Mwezi (background) with her sister, Taadhimika, and brother, Mtu. Members of the Congress of African People often gave their children traditional African names.

My activist parents joined their own young militant group, the Congress of African People. Based in Newark, New Jersey, they were led by a man by the name of Amiri Baraka. The group was comitted to protesting the injustices and inequalities of black life in America. They were determined to raise awareness about the brutality and harassment that black and brown people faced on a regular basis, not just in the south, but in the north also.

They were also about organizing. They realized that the black vote had great political power. After all, marching is great, but in the end, people need to get elected, and laws need to be passed. So they started to strategize. They started campaigning for black officials to be elected, and with their help, the first black mayor of Newark, Ken Gibson, was elected. Now in 2020, Ras Baraka (son of Amiri) is Newark's current mayor.

Nineteen sixty-eight was also a Presidential election year. Richard Nixon was running for President for the second time, after a narrow loss in 1960 to John F. Kennedy. This time he was determined to win by calling himself the “law and order “ president. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the public, he was peddling backdoor deals to extend the turmoil in Vietnam in order benefit his own agenda.

Today we have Donald Trump insisting that northern cities run by Democratic governors are ablaze with lawlessness and anarchy, and only he alone can put out the fires. The fact that neither anarchy nor lawlessness are happening does not much matter. He is desperate to position himself as the savior of a nation victimized by the dark (black) forces that need to be kept in check. Trump is trying frantically to change the narrative from the coronavirus and the monumental toll it’s taking on the country (187,000 deaths and counting). After a summer of social unrest, he seems to believe that painting a picture of a nation in chaos will propel him to re-election. But will it?

So everything that is old, is new again....and yet it’s ....different this time.

Mwezi, right, with fellow NYC teachers during her school's Black Lives Matter Week this fall.

During the civil unrest of 50 years ago, black people were protesting police brutality, while most white people stayed home and watched on TV. But now it’s blacks, whites, and other groups protesting together. Black Lives Matter is a term we now hear almost on a daily basis. Because of technology, anyone with a cell phone today can watch the repeated, vicious attacks by police on unarmed black men and women. Fifty years ago victims were faceless, just a name in the paper, if that. Now the people chant “Say Her Name." In the era of the internet, we have a torrent of information at our fingertips. With a couple of taps on our cell phones, we can watch the interactions between black civilans and cops in real time, with the ability to identify exactly the times, dates, and places where these interactions occurred.

Back when my parents were protesting, thousands of young people were being killed in the Vietnam War, and there were daily demonstrations. Today we have millions of people who have been infected with a virus that has wreaked havoc with life as we know it. Then and now the social inequalities in this nation have been stripped bare by national disasters for everyone to see. Then and now we have people who are fed up with the mistreatment of a particular group based on the color of their skin. Then and now black people have cried out at the injustices that have been done by the police -- supported, condoned and inflamed by governmental cynicism and systemic racism.

Black Americans have been sounding the alarm for years, certainly all of my lifetime. But is America finally ready to listen? We are at a tipping point in our nation’s history. Only time will tell if this is the end of our country as we know it. Or will this be a new beginning that will finally fulfill the promise of equality that the United States of America was founded on?

Thank you to my friend, Mwezi, a NYC teacher and second-generation activist.

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