When I was a little kid, maybe in third grade, my mother and grandparents took me to my first protests, gatherings against the Iraq War. It must have been around then that I first heard the quote from Dr. King that has impacted and guided my life since:
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I believe freedom is gained through organizing, building community and, yes, sometimes protest. Lately, I’ve been asked about the protest that occurred at the Columbus, Ohio, 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast on January 20, during which I and a fellow attendee were dragged from the room across the floor and handcuffed while passing out information and speaking out about the police-involved shooting of Julius Tate Jr. We were thrown out from the event, to which both of us had tickets, and subsequently arrested.
Dr. King, as noted by the Congressional Black Caucus, was a freedom fighter. I aspire to be so, too. I am doing my best to do the work necessary for all of our marginalized communities to be free, alongside my comrades in the Columbus Freedom Coalition.
Protesting might be what is seen most often on TV — watching people stand up for what they know to be true is important to see — but it comes with being in relationship with your community and understanding what needs must be met in order for us to survive in a country that oftentimes doesn’t value our lives at all.
I am Black, queer and nonbinary. These are identities that come with inherent risks. But I am also a graduate student on a stipend. I have a safety net. I have a mother, grandparents and extended family who have been unwavering in their support of me. I have my community standing with me. These are privileges that must be acknowledged, and more than that, they are tools to be used in the name of justice.
Though we were arrested, I believe me and my comrade were honoring Dr. King’s legacy in the peaceful passing out of information that took place at the Columbus 2020 MLK Breakfast ceremony. Still, I had the security in knowing that no matter what the police did in response — no matter how unexpected or painful — I had a community that supports and works together to help each other. I am asking you to help us, too; I am asking you to sign this petition calling on Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginter, whose speech we were arrested during, to drop all charges against me and my comrade.
Before being dragged from the room, we disseminated information about Julius Tate Jr., a 16-year-old boy who was killed by the Columbus Police Department in December of 2018. He was shot multiple times, including in his face once he was already on the ground, during a “sting operation.” Police then charged Julius’ teenaged girlfriend using felony-murder laws, despite the fact that SWAT officer, Eric Richards, pulled the trigger, killing Julius in the street. A few months later, Officer Richards was awarded SWAT officer of the year by the city.
In 2016, Columbus Police Department Officer Bryan Mason killed another child, 13-year-old Tyre King, while the young boy held a toy. Also in 2016, two Columbus police officers, Jason Bare and Zachary Rosen, killed Henry Green as he walked down the street. They were dressed in plain clothes and did not identify themselves, yet when Green defended himself, his killing at their hands was deemed justified.
In 2014, Ohio police Officer Sean Williams killed John Crawford III in a Walmart near Dayton as Crawford shopped. After the shooting he was quoted as saying, “If I had the same circumstances over again, I wouldn’t have changed a thing, knowing what I knew then.”
And that statement right there, is the problem.
Keep in mind when remembering John Crawford III that he was killed in a Walmart for holding an air rifle sold there, while Patrick Crusius, a white terrorist who killed 22 people in 2019 using an AK-47 in a different Walmart, was apprehended by police and brought out alive.
Police in the U.S., and the justice system as a whole, must begin to value our lives — the lives of our Black boys and men and the Black community in general, because if they don’t, they will continue to kill us.
I may have been silenced at the Columbus breakfast honoring Dr. King, but if you are reading this outside of a jail cell, then there’s a chance you haven’t been. We need everyone to speak up, to uplift those killed by police, to call for justice, so that our voices are not drowned out.
Dr. King is often paraphrased as saying, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We cannot afford to stay silent.
Dr. King also said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
If you believe yourself to be a good person, and I hope you do, now is the time to work to protect Black lives and end police violence.