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Being Black in America: Christopher Span

In his own words, an African American community resident shares a first-person story about what it looks, feels and sounds like to be black in America.

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Continuing a conversation we were privileged to host Sunday, and will keep up in the weeks ahead, The News-Gazette asked African American community members to share their stories and solutions in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

Featured today: the CHRISTOPHER SPAN, a professor and associate dean for graduate programs in the College of Education at the University of Illinois.

If you’d like to share your story, email jdalessio@news-gazette.com. To view the entire series, click here.

My Turn: Christopher Span

Christopher Span, UI Professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership

 ‘Protesters, know that I not only see you ... I am you’

By CHRISTOPHER M. SPAN

Our nation is at the crossroads. We face a crisis in national leadership, a viral pandemic that has led to a health and economic catastrophe unparalleled in the nation’s history, and uncurtailed, unrelenting racial injustice.

In less than three months, more than 100,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19, more than 40 million Americans are unemployed, and everyone feels unsettled. The lives lost to this pandemic are unequal. They disproportionately consist of the most vulnerable in our nation — family members with compromised immune systems, our elders in nursing homes, and African American, Latinx and Indigenous citizens forced to reside and work in high-density, impoverished, segregated spaces.

On top of all this uncertainty and disruption, and for nearly two weeks now, we have watched people take to the streets and march in protest because of the senseless death of Minneapolis citizen George Floyd, who died from asphyxiation because of the sustained compressed pressure police officers placed on his neck and back for nearly nine minutes.

Mr. Floyd died on May 25th, apparently over a dispute regarding the legitimacy of a $20 bill. He wasn’t the first African American to be harassed, targeted or die over something so trivial. The list of trivial affronts toward African Americans, unfortunately, is unending in the history of America.

A false allegation, supposedly whistling at a White woman, reckless eyeballing Whites, a toy gun, a cigarette, a soda pop, a lemonade stand, a barbeque grill, a traffic light, no turn signal, a broken taillight, speeding, jogging, bird watching, walking home, talking back, loud music, congregating on a street corner, a hoodie, a mask. All should be seen as maddeningly senseless reasons to target and kill people, but for far too long and for far too many people in our nation — as demonstrated through prolonged silence or public sanctioning — these everyday considerations are seemingly normal and acceptable reasons for Black people to be harassed and killed.

Had there not been a courageous teenager willing to share the entirety of the incident she recorded with her cell phone, it is almost certain none of the four officers would have lost their jobs, or been arrested and charged for the death of Mr. Floyd. In fact, the day after Mr. Floyd’s murder, a police statement was released describing him as a “suspected forger” who “appeared to be under the influence” who “physically resisted officers," and who appeared to be “suffering medical distress."

'This nation’s most uncomfortable longstanding unacknowledged and painful truths'

Aside from repeatedly declaring that he could not breathe to the officers assaulting him — perhaps this is what the statement meant by “suffering medical distress” — the rest of the police statement was a complete misrepresentation of what happened when the video footage was released, and the general public viewed it with horrification. The statement seems to be an intentionally fabricated lie. Notwithstanding, much of America — before the video and subsequent protests — was ready to willingly accept it as unquestionable truth.

The police statement sharply contrasts the accounts of the bystanders heard on the video who witnessed Mr. Floyd’s senseless death; it omitted their pleas for the officers to ease or end the assault on Mr. Floyd; it failed to mention their shouts of “he can’t breathe” or “you’re killing him”; it intentionally left out the collective discretionary actions these officers undertook as they violently assaulted Mr. Floyd to the point of unconsciousness and death.

The testimonials, recounting, presence, frustrations, pains, angst and pleas of Mr. Floyd’s community and people were ignored, never asked for, or silenced. They went unheard. They weren’t present in the police statement justifying the violent death of Mr. Floyd; a statement incontestably accepted as factual by state and local authorities, and a general public believing George Floyd must have done something wrong and the police were simply there to arrest Floyd to make a bad situation right.

After all, weren’t the police called to apprehend a potential forger? Bystanders witnessing Floyd’s murder knew better, but still they went unheard.

It wasn’t until days later, after the 10-minute video of this teenage bystander was released, and people started protesting because of what they saw in this video, that all the officers were fired, and the officer who knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck and killed him, was charged and arrested for third-degree manslaughter. Only days ago were all the offending officers charged with second-degree manslaughter, but many in the nation don’t believe they will be convicted.

Rarely are police convicted of assault and murder. As mass organization and protests continue in every state of the Union, many wonder if the officers culpable in the death of Mr. Floyd will ever be truly held accountable for their actions and blatant abuse of power and public trust.

The videoing of the tortured death of Mr. Floyd, to me, stands apart from previous recordings capturing the senseless death of African Americans at the hands of the police, or from someone White deputizing themselves as the police of Black people. The knee on the neck of this Black man metaphorically defined America’s domineering oppressive history and relationship with Black people.

It compressed and captured 400-plus years of unacknowledged history, and triggered stressors of the unadulterated anxiety, trauma, pain, even powerlessness, of what life is like as a Black person in America. The video thrust forward one of this nation’s most uncomfortable longstanding unacknowledged and painful truths.

'A wakeup call to upend the normalcy of systemic racism'

The truth that regardless of circumstance or persona, Black life does not matter, not equally at least, in America. The truth that America has had an extremely difficult time fully accepting and treating African Americans as equals in society.

Not amid five decades of “freedom” for Black people following 35 decades of slavery and segregation by law. Not amid countless videos and photographs capturing the violent history Black people have had with White supremacy, slavery, segregation (by law and cultural practice), mass incarceration, systemic racism and the police. Not amid electing and reelecting this nation’s first Black President. Not even amid a viral contagion disproportionately impacting and killing African Americans, and denying them a chance to grieve and mourn the loss of loved ones together as family.

The video reminded everyday Americans — regardless of background — of how uncompassionate this nation can be when a people are stamped as property (or less than), or a deficit, or a problem from the very day they arrived or were born in this country. Protests to the murder of George Floyd reveal everyday people’s frustrations to this reality. They know America can be better, and African Americans deserve better.

The protesters come from generations of Americans who have given their all to progressing this nation; whose parents and grandparents fought in wars to preserve democracy. The protestors are people who still show up to work despite the risks this viral pandemic plaguing humanity poses to their health and safety. They’re people historically forced to accept racism and denial as everyday facts of life. They are people who care about the well-being of others when the same is not afforded to them and theirs.

They live in communities under-resourced, undernourished, under-educated, underemployed, under siege, underfunded, under surveillance and under the knee of generations of policies and expectations that cared more about preserving slavery and segregation than promoting freedom and equality. They are people who, as children, learned with pride to recite the words of the Preamble of the Constitution in their elementary classrooms, but who, as adults, don’t feel like these words apply or belong to them.

The protesters are people who feel betrayed every time a senseless death happens in their communities and no one comes to their aid, speaks up or feels the need to remedy their pain. They are people who feel unwanted, unseen, and unheard ... but so desperately want to be seen and heard, without having to resort to the language of riots or confrontations with the police to simply have a conversation about justice and why their lives matter.

This truth, that Black life, regardless of circumstance, matters less (or not at all) is why people are marching and protesting and shouting "Black Lives Matter," in mass frustration worldwide. This truth forces everyday people out of their homes — even amid a deadly viral pandemic. Their protest — a broad coalition of people from every facet of life — serves as a wakeup call to upend the normalcy of systemic racism, which requires us to continue to silently accept and sanction the beliefs and policies that guarantee Black lives don’t matter.

'You have no idea how much America needs you'

COVID-19 has further exposed and exacerbated the deep structural inequities and ugly uncomfortable truths that we as Americans continue to silently accept and normalize. So I ask of only one thing from those currently protesting.

Keep organizing and keep protesting. Keep demanding equality and a seat at the table. Know that if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. Keep demanding to be acknowledged, not just for George Floyd and the countless others whose lives were unnecessarily and senselessly cut short, but for yourselves, and your futures.

Don’t stop short in your pursuit of happiness. Continue demanding to be seen and heard, not only in protest, but in life, politics and policy. Keep demanding something better. Keep demanding this nation be better.

In the days and years ahead, keep mobilizing and protesting for a better tomorrow. As you protest, be sure to structure time and space to practice self-care, introspection and mental well-being so you can continue your fight against American injustice. Be empowered to learn and know your fundamental rights. Know that you are not only wanted, but absolutely needed. You are the generation of Americans our nation has been waiting for — a multiracial, multicultural, intergenerational coalition of people demanding equality, in belief and practice, for everyone.

You have no idea how much America needs you.

Continue being the generation of Americans we need, regardless of public sentiment. Public sentiment is a double-edged sword, and, when tied to power, has rarely been on the right side of history. Instead, heed the sage advice of President Obama, particularly when he stated in his initial reaction to the pointless death of Mr. Floyd that protest and politics must go hand-in-hand. I agree, and humbly ask that you add policies to this consideration as well.

We are a nation of policies born from protest and politics. For centuries, policies determined whether a person would be enslaved or free, privileged or subjugated, protected or harmed. It determined educational access and outcomes, who could vote, be a citizen, who you could marry, and how the police could arrest you or administer force. These policies were shaped and reshaped by generations of American protest and politics. Tomorrow’s policies — demanding equity, equality and racial justice — are being shaped by your protests today.

The most progressive politics and policies to democratize America were born from years of protest. In the late 1860s, it was newly freed African Americans, alongside freeborn Black and White abolitionists, who envisioned and wrote the policies and laws that reconstructed an America without slavery. Despite their best efforts, racism unfortunately remained virtually untouched.

A century later, it would be the great and great great grandchildren of these formerly enslaved Americans, and activists from all walks of life, who protested and marched for freedom, jobs and equality throughout the nation. For nearly two decades, they protested and marched to be heard and seen, for equality and inclusion, to dismantle segregation laws, sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and unfair labor practices.

They demanded this nation include them and live up to its highest aspirations and creed. Their protests led to new laws and policies to ensure Black lives mattered more in the years ahead than they ever had in yesteryears. These protesters forced a second reconstruction of America.

'I am a child born of these struggles and hardships'

If sustained and combined with progressive politics and policies, the protests you are leading today have the potential to launch a third important reconstruction of the United States.

One that monitors and holds accountable elected officials, police and leaders entrusted to govern and protect us.

One that is inclusive and protective of the most vulnerable in our society.

One that immediately addresses the senseless deaths of our fellow citizens without the need for protests or riots.

One that develops the policies and behaviors that teach everyday Americans the knowledge, skills and disposition to systematically identify and eradicate racism alongside coronavirus, and ensure Black lives matter equally in America.

So protesters, know that I not only see you … I am you. I am a child born of these struggles and hardships aforementioned, a member of the first generation of Americans born when slavery and segregation did not exist by law, who come from proud people far too often ignored or cast aside in America because of their race and poverty, who first protested as a first-generation college student in 1992 because of what happened to Rodney King, and who, like our ancestors, strives to be an example of what democracy should look like in thought, persona and action every day.

Thank you for keeping the struggle for American democracy, and the names of our fallen, alive. Thank you for striving to make this nation “a more perfect Union."

If you’d like to share your story, email Editor Jeff D’Alessio at jdalessio@news-gazette.com.

Christopher M. Span is a professor and associate dean for graduate programs in the College of Education at the University of Illinois.