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Optimism from Oppression

Thoughts on the other pandemic - systemic racial injustice.

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Over the month, we have seen the pent up anger and frustration (to say the least) around ongoing systemic racism erupt in protests in all 50 states and all over the world. This, after the senseless death of George Floyd (amongst others) at the hands of police officers. The majority of these protests have been peaceful, but some have been met with acts of police brutality or excessive force. And still courageous people worldwide, take to the streets in solidarity and with passion for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Thanks to social media, the amount of information shared has been phenomenal. I’ve watched individuals like Trevor Noah and Amber Ruffin share their own experience and use their own platform to educate others.  I’ve followed the Conscious Kid to understand how to educate early and bring up these conversations with young people. I’ve learned what it means to be an ally and the meaning of the term micro aggressions, something that I have experienced first hand.

Watching everything unfold, I want to believe this time the conversations we are having, as a society, are different. There is a huge amount of action happening and it’s nothing short of inspiring. But I don’t want to be naïve from my POC POV either. As we know, to date, Breonna Taylor’s killers still walk free. So, I decided to invite a few Black American friends to share their thoughts and feelings on the current events.

Shanelle Gabriel is a poet, singer, educator, and lupus warrior from Brooklyn, NY who is widely known for featuring on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. I met Shanelle as she captivated an audience with her talent at the Gucci Headquarters in Milan. 

Andre Joseph is an award-winning independent filmmaker from Staten Island, NY. Andre watched me do take, after take talking about my issues with eczema for a commercial in New York. 

Ansley Brown is a Luxury Fashion and Beauty Public Relations executive living and working in New York City. Ansley brought me on an adventure-filled press trip to the Dominican Republic in 2018 – my most memorable to date.

Jason Francis is a father, writer, speaker and manager who specializes in communications and social media. I met Jason on my very first press trip to Loreto, Mexico. 

As the weeks have passed, I realized that I wanted to concentrate on optimism. I wanted to do this, because if we don’t have hope during this time – what do we have? With the pandemic still playing a part in the background of our lives, we have had time to contemplate the social injustice that has plagued our society long before the pandemic. So I asked my friends: “How (if at all) do you see change for the future? Are you optimistic?” Here are their unedited responses:

Shanelle: “I hate to admit that I thought so little of our country’s relation to race that I never thought I’d see the day where all of these people from various walks of life would open their hearts and unite to say specifically that Black lives matter. Optimism is hope. It’s faith, and I have to have that to continue believing that breath is worth taking, that change is inevitable, and that one person’s abhorrent death at a particular moment in time right after the entire world was completely shaken, could lead to progress in our society. I watched a video of young people the other day dancing to a popular rap song with fists in the air in protest. It brought tears to my eyes as I marvelled at their joy amidst this painful condition they’ve been thrust into. This younger generation seeks to find their place in the world earlier than I remember doing. They force the world to accept their fullest selves, very different than our generation, which sometimes obsesses with appropriateness and politics to our own detriment. Our youth leading the charge for change, makes me most hopeful for our future.”

Andre’: “When it comes to the current climate, I’m afraid to guarantee anything. However, something feels different this time. There is a real movement happening with a generation that has come to realize that their voices do matter in the grand scheme of things. It is not about picking “a chosen one” to solve our problems, but instead a collective of voices looking to make a difference in their communities and throughout the world.”

Ansley: “I am very optimistic for the future. People of the African Diaspora are survivors and from a historical context, the descendants of people who not only survived a holocaust called the Middle Passage, but also centuries of torture and oppression through slavery, Jim Crow and now systemic racism. Let me be clear: We are going to survive and thrive regardless. I think what makes this period in time so inspiring is that there is a collective voice of human consciousness across all races, genders and age groups saying, “Enough!” It is somewhat a sigh of relief to not have to carry the load and fight the fight by yourself. Allyship makes me optimistic in systemic change and a change in human consciousness too.”

Jason: “I’m one of those people that prepares for the worst but hopes for the best. If the people are heard in their cries and rallies, there can be a ton of change to the way society operates. Police power has gone unchecked for so long that if that can be levelled it’s a major victory. I’m hopeful for the right and justice to finally prevail.”

Although this is a small sampling of opinions, I want to be optimistic that this is the underlying feeling felt by many. As news resurfaces about past injustice like the unjust behaviour around Elijah McClain’s death, it would be easy to be frustrated and outraged with the constant ‘developments’ or lack there of. How many cases have turned cold because no one was filming it? Too many to count. 

As June went by, I realized that power really stems from the people. In the wake of protests, Derek Chauvin was eventually charged with the second-degree murder of George Floyd. NY lawmakers have passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, where the new crime of aggravated strangulation is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Rhode Island is dropping their official State name that includes ‘Plantation’. NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag at their races. Confederate Monuments are being removed in many states, the latest being Delaware’s whipping post.  The conversation is changing. It’s raw and honest.

People continue to rally together even when things still go awry. The peaceful memorial complete with violinists held for Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado was shut down when police in riot gear and sprayed pepper spray and tear gas on the crowd. It’s confusing for me (and maybe others as well) when this is the police response to a peaceful gathering. It does not help the public opinion of police law enforcement. 

As we head into July, which marks 6 months into the year, about 4 months into the pandemic, and a month of steady protests, we should check in with ourselves. Do we feel optimistic in the fight for equality amongst racial injustice? Like Shanelle, Andre’, Ansley and Jason have all described, optimism can also be laced with a slight trepidation.  Especially when it has to do with large-scale oppression spanning multi generations. However, I stay positive that change is happening for the better. I received an email from the Reclaim the Block organization this week, stating that after 153 years, the Minneapolis City Council began the legal process to eliminate Minneapolis Police Department. That huge step shows us that not only is change possible, but it also takes time. It requires us to listen to those around us, be open, and hold onto our optimism in the face of oppression. 

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