For the past few days, I constantly checked and re-checked my Facebook and Twitter feeds for updates on Ferguson. The grand jury would be handing down their decision on an indictment very soon, and everyone was on edge.
For good reason. The images and events that we all collectively witnessed in Ferguson, New York, and Los Angeles this summer have only confirmed what I already knew: Racism is not dead.
I have always tried to remain as optimistic as possible about race relations in America. I found solace in the thought that at least things are not as bad as they were 50 years ago, but the images and reports from Ferguson, MO this past August hauntingly resembled Selma, AL circa 1965.
Like the demonstrations in Ferguson, the one in Selma was organized to protest the killing of a young unarmed black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by a state trooper. Almost fifty years later we are still marching and protesting because one of our children has been murdered at the hands of law enforcement. Almost fifty years later, the police response is still the same—military-grade crackdown, tear gas and demands for dispersal directed at American citizens exercising their Constitutional rights.
Almost fifty years later, I wonder: How far has America come with its issues of racial injustice? How much longer do we have to wait until we see real progress and we are not just repeating our grisly past?
As a black woman who attended college in St. Louis, I was shocked by the racial segregation and tension that existed over 10 years ago when I started school there, and still exists today. I had my own run-ins with the police and was pulled over three times in less than one school year for, basically, driving while black.
The summer before my senior year in college my parents allowed me to drive my car up to St. Louis, since I would be living off-campus. I had a deep turquoise blue 1997 Nissan Altima that I had received as a gift my senior year in high school (“Lola” was her name). I kept my Texas license plates on the car. Twice the police claimed their reasoning for pulling me over was that there were a lot of drugs coming out of Texas into Missouri, so they needed to check it out, despite the fact that I was always driving to or from campus.
The third incident led to me being arrested by six white cops—yes, it took six cops to take me down. At that point I was annoyed and irritated by the police due to my own personal interactions with them, and I back-talked the initial cop that pulled me over. When he pulled me over he started out by asking me a lot of unnecessary questions like: Where was I going; where did I live; and how long had I been in St. Louis. With every question, my response was, “Why are you pulling me over?”
He never answered my question, instead he just kept on asking me questions, and he even asked me about the diet pills on my passenger side seat. Finally, I just asked him, “Are you pulling me over because I’m black? Because I haven’t heard a reason so far.”
His partner had also stepped out of the car, and was on the other side looking into it with a flashlight. He then asked me to step out of the car, and I responded with another “why?” When I finally stepped out, he said that they were going to tow my car because of some parking tickets that were not even outstanding yet. I told him he could not do that, and that he was harassing me for no reason.
By this time, another police car had pulled up and two more officers stepped out. Standing outside with four cops, I became a bit overwhelmed and I screamed: “This is total bullshit!” He told me that I had to step away from my vehicle and when I refused again, he told me to turn around, telling me that I was under arrest. I took a step back and he said that I was resisting arrest. He turned me around and placed the handcuffs on me. I continued asking them why they were arresting me, and what right did they have to do this?
I am not sure when the third cop car arrived, but by then I was bent over the trunk of my car, and at this point very irate, promising to sue every single one of them. One of the cops responded by telling his colleagues to mace me if I said another word.
When I got to the holding cell a black officer at the front told me that if I were white, I would have never been arrested. We had a lengthy conversation, while he let me make as many phone calls as I desired to family and friends. He told me that often, these same cops would pull over white women who cursed, screamed, hit, and spit at them, but they were never taken into custody. I asked him how could he sit back and watch this happen, and his response was simply: “What can I do?” If members of law enforcement feel helpless to right the wrongs of many of their fellow officers, what can I as a civilian do?
I still have some close friends and sorority sisters who live in or around Ferguson and their personal accounts on Facebook gave me an additional window into what was happening on the ground, in addition to my feed on Twitter. I have been closely following these events, as well as the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles and John Crawford III in Ohio, all of which occurred within one month of each other. These are not isolated incidents, and seem to be occurring more frequently—or are at least being reported more frequently thanks to social media. I have read countless articles about police killing unarmed black people at a disproportionately higher rate than other races.
The worst part is that these police officers are continually acquitted for the murders—if they even go to trial—or the deaths are deemed justified by police departments. Ever since I heard about the death of Amadou Diallo, who was shot at 41 times by police for reaching for his wallet, over 15 years ago, I have been in fear for the lives of black men everywhere. (Although as I continue to read and hear about more and more violent police interactions with civilians, my fear has extended to include the general public.) There have been similar incidents involving people of other races, with similar outcomes, where the cop gets a pass and returns to life as usual.
This is a part of a greater issue of policing the police, and the militarization of law enforcement. Missouri’s preparations almost seemed calculated to incite the community as the stated bulked up on riot gear and declared a pre-emptive state of emergency before the grand jury decision even came down. Not entirely comforting to those of us watching! The training of law enforcement in dealing with civilians needs to be reformed, and the demand for change has to come from all of us, regardless of our race or gender. There have been a lot of protests in the past when incidents like these occur but nothing ever changes, and after some time passes, people forget and move on.
I now feel strongly that I must do something to help enact laws that completely reform the practices and training of the police and disciplinary actions for those involved in such incidents. Along with being a part of a Change.org petition that actually calls for a change in laws, I want to use my talents to help. There is also a social initiative, called Black Lives Matter, that took a freedom ride to Ferguson, MO with people from all walks of life to encourage the community there, and to go back to improve their own local communities and community relations with their local police.
Black lives matter. Black lives have always mattered.
I am sure it will be a daunting task—it has been already, for decades and then some—but an open and honest forum must be created to begin the process of change. We can, and must, begin a dialogue with lawmakers to correct the system that has failed to protect its citizens from those whose job it is to “serve and protect.”
My hope is that there will be true justice in the death of Mike Brown and that this will only be the beginning of change that has been a long time coming.
Nono Osuji is a graduate from the New School’s M.A. Media Studies and Film program. She is currently working on launching her website, thelupusdiaries.com, which documents her journey of being diagnosed with the disease. The site also functions as a forum for others to share their experiences, and a resource for those that need information on doctors, support, health and beauty tips, and living with the disease. She is also working on a number of documentary projects that range in topics from those living with lupus to police relations with the community. You can follow her and all her endeavors on twitter @vote4nono.
This article originally appeared on Medium and has been reprinted with permission.