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A Minnesotan Weighs In: Is There Hope After the Hashtags?

A Minnesotan Weighs In: Is There Hope After the Hashtags? (A memorial site where George Floyd died while in police custody. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images))

Tuesday May 26th started like any other morning. I woke up and grabbed my phone to get the daily trending topics on Twitter. As I scrolled, I was disappointed to see a video of yet another black man, George Floyd, killed at the hands of a police officer. 

As I watched the first few seconds of the video, I became sick to my stomach while thinking to myself, “again?” I stared into space for a few seconds then attempted to watch the video again. This time, the name on the back of the cop car registered with me —  Minneapolis Police. 

Minnesota was now national breaking news. 

I watched Officer Derek Chauvin, appearing relaxed, with his hands in his pockets, and his knee on Floyd’s neck as he desperately pleaded, “I can’t breathe!”

It reminded me of Philando Castile –– another innocent black man killed in 2016 during a traffic stop in a nearby suburb of Falcon Heights. When the viral video of Castile’s murder filled my feed, it was also too painful for me to watch. It struck the same sick and disgusted nerve of animosity I feel towards police. Watching Floyd’s video and seeing other officers standing there, offering no help, is when it became unbearable to watch.

I grew up in St. Paul, and as an African-American, I know there is racism here, but I rarely see it actively on display. In South Minneapolis, where Floyd died, most of the people I’ve met are super liberal and white people who “care.” The murder happening in this neighborhood, makes me question the Minnesota I know. 

The image of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck keeps replaying in my head. To me, it represents a metaphor for the experiences that African-Americans face daily. Some days I feel like I can’t breathe because it’s hard for black people in this country to catch a break –– from racism, police brutality and COVID-19. I don’t understand why just our existence often seems threatening.

Charging the officers for Floyd’s death is a step in the right direction, but I’m hesitant to get excited. I’ve seen too many times where cops are charged, but there is no conviction, especially here in Minnesota. Will black lives matter in the judicial system this time? We can only hope.

And just when my emotions were high, and I was coping with yet another officer-related shooting in Minnesota, people started busting windows of local businesses, looting and setting fires –– even white people. These actions change the conversation and focus from justice for Floyd to stories about greed and destruction of the community I love. 

Since Floyd’s death, I’ve felt anxious and exhausted by my social feeds full of memorial photos and hashtags like #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd, #Tired, #NoJusticeNoPeace or #BlackOutTuesday. When I drive around, I see memorials everywhere. It’s hard to escape. 

I’ve just had to take a break. It’s too much pressure to deal with my emotions while social media is flooded with opinions from so many other people.  

African-Americans have never stopped fighting for equality, but the response to Floyd’s death feels more inclusive like we now have allies to help tackle systemic racism. Maybe we are at a turning point in our country. Only time will tell. I know racism won’t suddenly fade away or cops instantly erase their racial biases. 

At 22 years old, I know that to see real change in this country, we need all people that don’t look like me to stand up. It’s deeper than showing up to protests with your “Black Lives Matter” sign. What will life look like when the protests end and the hashtags disappear? Will you still be our voice to challenge injustice? Will you urge officers to abide by their oaths and finally protect people that look like me?

The last few weeks have left me questioning my four white roommates. Since the incident, I haven’t heard a word from them. But I have seen a few of them prepare signs to go out to protests. It’s confusing that they can attend rallies and stand up for black lives but can’t check on the one black person they share a house with. While I don’t know Floyd personally, I’m still very affected by his death. It’s personal because that would have easily been my dad or brother.  

I understand this makes for uncomfortable conversations, but it is time. If we don’t start this dialogue, we’ll continue with a generation of police officers like Chauvin or the many Amy Coopers of our society who don’t understand why reporting fake crimes against black people can be deadly. 

Even though I’m tired of tensing up when I’m pulled over by a police officer in Minnesota, exhausted at not getting a fair chance at an equal education and frustrated by my peers’ lack of understanding, I have hope we might be at a crossroads for change. 

This whole experience has inspired me to continue to love myself for everything that I am and represent, but also challenge me never to give up the fight for equality. I’m aware that life isn’t always easy for all white people, but unlike me, their skin color isn’t what’s holding them back. So I am committed to talk to my white friends, peers and now my roommates about how we can create a better understanding of one another and bridge the gap. 

In return, all I ask is that white people engage themselves in conversations, be open-minded to hearing experiences they’ve never had before and not ignore the signs of racism just because it’s easier at the moment.

Ultimately, I can only hope for a society that treats me like my life matters. 

Erianna Jiles is part of a collaboration between YR Media and WNYC’s Radio Rookies called 18-to-29 Now: Young America Speaks Up. It’s an election project that brings together young adults (18-to-29) from around the country to document their lives and what’s at stake for them in 2020. More stories and a project website launch will be coming later this summer.

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