Staten Island, New York, USA
It wasn’t that long ago that I was teaching in Canarsie, Brooklyn. All of my students were black, Latino, Caribbean Islanders, and other minority identities. Many lived in Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie, Flatbush and other designated high crime neighborhoods where police presence was strong and stop-and-frisk was a fact of life. Any one of my boys could have been Ramarley Graham. Many lived in low-income housing where armed NYPD are authorized to walk the halls of high rise buildings seeking out infractions. We didn’t talk about it, but I knew that, statistically speaking, most of them had been stopped-and-frisked multiple times. They all distrusted the police.
Even at school, all students were subjected to full-body scanning each morning as they entered the building, and school safety officers in the hallways who are employees of the NYPD. Even excelling, well-behaved students were not exempt from these indignities. I know how insulted and degraded I feel taking my shoes and belt off for screening at the airport. As a white woman speaking in an educated register, I know that I will never be profiled and chosen for “random” additional inspections, even with 20 pages of Arabic in my passport. I could only imagine what it felt like for my students to know that they were subject to this treatment every day, in school and on the streets, regardless of their academic, athletic or other achievements.
For this and for so many other indignities to the inherent worth and dignity of people of color in this country, I marched. I listened to this group and that chant, bearing witness to their anger and needs. We carried signs from SEIU 1199, the health workers union of which Eric Garner’s mother is a member and organizer.
Kelly was interviewed on camera about why a white person would march for black lives. In part she said that, as a school social worker, these are her children who are being stopped-and-frisked, profiled and harmed. She acquitted herself with exceeding grace, and made the cut for the evening news.
At the end of the march, there was a rally hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton and the extended family of Eric Garner. I was very impressed that every speaker began by thanking the NYPD for the graciousness with which they greeted and shepherded this march, and for the important service they do for our city. And then they all called for reform of the bad apples in the service, and for legal action against officers who take a life like Eric Garner’s. Every member of Eric Garner’s family spoke, and they all encouraged us to make our voices heard, but urged us to do so without violence. We also heard from city officials, religious leaders, the Nation of Islam, and my hero/girl-crush Debbie Almontaser of the Arab American Association of New York.
It was a powerful day. A beautiful day for a march, a powerful crowd to march with, an important message to tell.
And we all got our picture in the Village Voice online and on Facebook.