Twenty-two. That's how old I was when Yusef Hawkins was killed by a bat-wielding, gun-toting mob of white men because he dared to come into their neighborhood. Eleven years later, it would be Amadou Diallo, who reached for his wallet and was met with a hail of 41 bullets from New York City police, 19 of which destroyed his body.
As a native New Yorker, those two incidents were stark reminders of the dangers of being black. Sure, my mother had taught me about Emmett Till and George Stinney, Malcolm, Martin and Medgar, but that was back in the day, and things were supposed to be different now.
As the decades passed and my daughter grew up, the names would continue to compile - Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland - and these are just a few of the ones that have prompted mass protests. Every time, police reform is promised. Every time, slowly but surely, the world goes back to normal. Until the next time - Ahmaud, Breonna, Rayshard ...
In the wake of George Floyd's death, I have seen signs of change, both in the news and as a black person. White police officers go out of their way to say hello, ask how I'm doing. Neighbors who didn't seem to recognize me outside of our condo in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, now say hello on the street. I am no longer the Invisible Woman - just some Black person that crossed their paths. They see me now, I suppose. Or, they're just more keenly aware that Black people are around them, and they have no idea what we're thinking. I'd like to believe it's the former.
But it's also how I felt when Philando Castile - in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter - bled out on my news feed four years ago. I was convinced once people literally saw what we black people knew already, that encounters with law enforcement very often differed starkly from the norm, that things would change.
Yet here we are.
I desperately want to believe that George Floyd's death, which has prompted protests not only across the country but across the globe, will be the catalyst for change. Maybe it was because they realized just how long eight minutes and 46 seconds is when you're watching someone die. Maybe it was the way Derek Chauvin kneeled so cavalierly on Floyd's neck, hands in his pockets as if he was waiting for roll call. Maybe it was that in his last breaths, Floyd called for his mother, like most of us did as kids when we were terrified. Except his mother had passed away years before. The fleeting hope in me wants to think he saw her reaching out for her son to join her.
As the wife of a law enforcement officer, I cannot indict the police writ large. My husband has a double mandate: to be vigilant as an officer and as a black man, for both roles bring judgment that could put his life in danger. He is viewed as the enemy by some, whether he is in or out of uniform, even though he pursued a career in law enforcement in the hopes of changing the system from within.
He is painfully aware that even when he is in blue, some of his fellow officers view him in the uniform he cannot remove at the end of a long day. He carries this Catch-22 with him everywhere, yet he manages to give grace to those who look like us, those who see him as part of the problem rather than his deep desire to find a solution.
He also gives a level of grace to those who can't see beyond the color of his skin, but he's tired. And I'm afraid. So we cling tightly to one another, each doing our best to shoulder the other's emotional carry-on.
I wonder why the same grace he extends cannot be given to him, why he cannot just be seen as a man whether he's in his blue uniform or just his black skin, because in either iteration he's a father, a husband, a brother, a friend. Even more, I wish that grace could have been extended to the men and women whose hearts stopped beating because of a bullet, a chokehold, or a knee.
After all, isn't grace what we all want - the grace to be seen, to breathe, to live?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andrea Comer is the executive director of Educators for Excellence.
Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com
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