My Black children have different rules than the ones I had growing up as a white child. They can’t play with toy guns.
Tamir Rice was only twelve years old when the police in Cleveland rolled up and shot and killed him. The police fired their guns before their vehicle had even come to a complete stop. And when Tamir’s sister ran to his aid, they cuffed her and put her in the back of the police vehicle. Because of this story, my kids don’t even play with squirt guns.
The horror of Tamir’s story was my final push away from criminal justice reformism. I used to think if we increased police departments’ budgets with more body cameras, more antibias training, that things would get better. I started to notice, though, that this was more than the individual actions of a minority of officers.
If not all police were bad, why did they consistently elect openly racist white nationalists to represent them as the heads of their unions?
In St. Louis, the police union is so racist that the Black cops have their own union. Why were police with multiple excessive force complaints the ones who were often promoted and given higher positions of authority?
It is important to ask, “Who do cops say are the good cops?” And when we look at the answer to that, we see that people who are promoted, people who are elected to high positions, like the representative of the Fraternal Order of Police, are almost always people who have high levels of excessive force complaints and a record of explicit white supremacy.
This is consistent across many departments and across states. Police are telling us who they are and what they think based on who they elect to represent them. And it is almost always people who are infamously racist like Bob Kroll in Minneapolis, Jeffrey Roorda in St. Louis, or John Catanzara in Chicago.
Once Tamir was killed, I gave up on the idea that this was just “a few bad apples” and started believing Black activists when they told me the entire tree was rotten, from the roots up.
As John the Baptist warned the religious aristocracy in Matthew 3:10, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” I saw the way the police treated Tamir and his sister, and I thought, There is nothing in this system worth saving. It has to be destroyed so we can build something new.
That is when I began to believe in police and prison abolition. I didn’t believe in it all at once. It was so radically different than the things I had grown up believing.
But I started questioning the idea that the same police who shot a child with a toy actually made us safer. I started listening to activists and theorists and experts about what does make us safer, like access to medical care, education, housing, therapy, healthy food, rest, joy, and other basic human rights. Little by little, the vision that abolitionists were casting made more and more sense.
Now that my daughters are teenagers, the stakes feel even higher, and as they progress developmentally, it is even harder to carve out space for them to have the carefree moments they deserve. Trayvon Martin was only a teenager when he went to the store to get some Skittles and tea and was killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Because of this story, my teens don’t wear their hoodies up.
When the stories of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and so many other victims of anti-Blackness and violence unraveled in the media throughout 2020, a feeling of heaviness took over my house.
As teenagers discerning their own identity and place in the world, things hit my daughters much differently than when they were younger. As news of police violence went international, our friends and family in Sierra Leone reached out to me to ask if the girls were safe.
It felt like a punch in the gut to know that there are no guarantees. I had made promises to two countries, to families, to loved ones to take care of these girls. I feel accountable to their ancestors to keep them safe and give them lives full of joy. But even when Black kids and teens do all the “right things,” sometimes they don’t make it home.
Attending protests in 2020 was cathartic for them. It was a place they could chant or hold signs and express the pain and anger they felt at the ways their moments of rest and opportunities for a carefree childhood had been stolen from them.
And perhaps even more important, they got to see in Chicago the thousands and thousands of people coming out for months on end to fight for their freedom, for their right to carefree teenage moments. Those protests helped them know they weren’t alone, that there were people who cared.
If you were in the streets in your town or city during that time, thank you. The news of widespread and sustained protests did a lot to boost the morale in my household.
When police escalated their violence during protests in Chicago, I took a day to discern what my role might
be in this moment. I knew that if there were instances of property damage, the police would respond violently, and I was afraid of what my children would hear from our apartment.
After the initial protest we attended as a family, we made the decision to send my daughters to be with my sister and her family for the week so that they wouldn’t hear the police violence in our neighborhood, and Adam and I could spend the week in the streets.
We texted their teacher, another Black woman, and told her that they were “calling in Black” to school the next day. She affirmed that decision. I told them their only job that week was to focus on joy, comfort, and connection. Any carefree, restful moments they could grab on to for themselves were revolutionary moments.
After picking them up at the end of their week of fun, we planned to do some of their favorite things like making homemade sushi or playing card games. I took the next week off work, and even though we continued to attend protests and actions, I turned off my email and paused other conversations to focus on making sure they were able to breathe.
That grind culture of capitalism is so internalized in me that even in liberation work, it is surprisingly easy to get so wrapped up in activism and neglect real flesh-and-blood people right in front of me. I have to pause sometimes so that I can love my family well and remember why we are in this struggle, because as one of our friends in Sierra Leone said to me, “Their Black lives matter too.”
If you are a white person, maybe antiracism or activism is new for you. Even for those people who have been doing this for a long time, the new challenges we are facing, such as the ongoing pandemic, make this work new again for us too.
We have been forced to figure out how to care for one another and make change in our communities in ways that are different from what we are used to. Maybe you, like me, feel a frantic itch inside you to do something.
All of us need to pause and reflect, not to walk away from the work but to work from a place of health. We must take action, but that action should not be out of our own reactivity or for our own selfish motives in order to assuage our own guilt.
Jesus challenges us to be ready to give up our very lives for the sake of our neighbor. And he also promises us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”Jesus tells us that these things are not at odds with one another but work together. He models both sacrifice and self-care and community care for us. He takes time away alone. He spends time with his closest friends. Jesus knows that for marginalized people, rest is not a break from the revolution; rest is revolutionary.
As a community organizer, I sometimes lead groups in an activity where I ask them to write on sticky notes what they think liberation is. They are invited to think of a moment where they got one of those glimpses of liberation and to describe it or to use their imagination to dream one up.
When we reach liberation for all people, how will we know?
What will it smell like, taste like, look like, sound like, and feel like?
In all of the times I have led or participated in that activity, no one has ever said that liberation looks like constant laboring. They describe eating their grandma’s pie or dance parties on the roof with their friends or the smell of a newborn baby. These are moments of rest and leisure and community care. And they are sacred.
Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days, bit by bit, part by part. And on the seventh day, God rested.
I like to think that on that day, God created rest and established it as one of Her most hallowed creations. We will know we have reached liberation when there is rest, both in body and in spirit. For all people.
Baptized in Tear Gas Book Endorsements from Activists Featured in this Article
“Baptized in Tear Gas is a powerful and honest reflection rooted in equipping others with the skills and tools to engage in transformative change. It’s a necessary read, especially for white people in this time.” – DeRay Mckesson, civil rights activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero.
“If you are a white person of faith wrestling with the state-sanctioned violence you witness in the streets of America, this book is a must read.” – Nathan Roberts, pastor and community organizer in Minneapolis.