The day is April 4, 1967. The opening lines of a speech delivered by an activist, a man of faith, and public icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remark that “The time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us today... some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.” These words would ring true far beyond his leadership of the Civil Rights Era marked by the organized efforts toward ending racism and targeted violence in a post-Jim Crow segregated America.
The day is January 20, 2009. It is the presidential inauguration. Barack Obama takes office in the White House, the 44th president though the first African American Commander in Chief. Some suggest such as a marker of an apparent solution or paradigm shift toward a post-civil rights era, post-white presidency, post-racially divided society. This is the framework of modern-day “color-blind” white supremacy I, at least, was taught.
The day is July 17, 2014, when 27-year-old Eric Garner is arrested by the NYPD. An officer places him in a choke-hold that suffocates him. A video of his murder circulates like viral wildfire, igniting fury in those who endured violence at the hands of those with privilege and power for centuries. His is certainly not the first public death of a black man at the hands of authorities but precedes a chain of publicized police killings capturing national attention around the long-standing issue of inhumane violence toward those like him at the hands of police. His killer is finally fired in 2019 but not indicted. Garner’s last words gave the officer a choice of saving a life or ending one as he repeatedly stated up until the eleventh recant the now resounding words: “I can’t breathe.”
The day is August 9, 2014, young 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr., unarmed, is spending time with a friend when he is confronted by law enforcement for jaywalking across a local street. They argue with the officer; behavior typical of adolescent development. The dispute over a petty violation escalates to the 28-year-old white male policeman fatally shooting Brown. Two months later a grand jury chose not to indict the officer. The slogan “Hands up, Don’t shoot” echoes Brown’s last words as protesting and rage erupts throughout Ferguson, Missouri, and subsequently, nationally as it broadcasts.
The day is August 11, 2014. Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old black man with Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia diagnoses, found himself in an encounter with police as he walked around his neighborhood, unarmed. Two veteran LAPD officers approached Ford, who allegedly tackled one of them in his dysregulated mental state. He was then shot multiple times and died as a result. However, an eyewitness, a family friend of the Fords’, reports never having seen Ford struggle or pose a threat. This occurs just two days after the killing of Mike Brown, even amidst Ferguson’s unrest at its paralleling scenario — just one of roughly a thousand lives that are taken at the hands of police violence annually.
The day is October 20, 2014. In Chicago, a 17-year-old black boy, Laquan McDonald, is patrolled by police for breaking into cars. The teenager is shot in the back by the officer 16 times. Police reports were forged to state that there was a weapon-related struggle, which dash cam video footage later proved did not actually occur. While the primary officer involved is convicted in 2018, he is only sentenced to 81 months. Reportedly 16 other officers participated in an elaborate cover-up after McDonald’s death.
The day is November 22, 2014. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old-black boy plays at a Cleveland rec center. He carries an Airsoft replica toy gun and is recognized by a male from the neighborhood who calls the police, unsure if the gun is fake, hoping to ensure safety regardless. The police arrive on the scene with a different impression, believing that Rice had been threatening the safety of those who placed the call. He is repeatedly yelled at: “Show me your hands!” before he is given the opportunity to display the replica, he is shot. He died the next day from the fatal gunshot wounds because of a toy he carried as a boy. The officer is fired, not indicted, then allegedly re-hired onto a rural police force in 2018.
The day is July 10, 2015. Activist Sandra Bland, a black woman, is arrested on minor traffic violation charges after an interaction with a State Trooper in Texas escalates. She is held in custody and detained. On July 13, 2015, Bland was found dead in her jail cell, allegedly dying by suicide, yet details surrounding the incident pointed to suspicious involvement of the authorities and loved ones dispute the validity of the claims. Investigations are ultimately silenced. The movement “Say Her Name” is formed in response to a feminist perspective on police brutality and media representations of black violence.
The day is January 20, 2017. It is the presidential inauguration again. A celebrity accused of sexual misconduct and infamous for his obtuse misogynistic, hateful, xenophobic, violence-promoting, white supremacy now sits in the Oval Office. Some are excited for the opportunity to return to a “thriving civilization”, one marked by supposed economic promise, white familiarity, and protestant political ideals, yet ultimately turn a blind eye to inhumane systemic divides. As those are eager to “Make America Great Again,” others are reminded that the nation has not come all that far since 1967, wondering if “great” is an ironic, twisted evolutionary term: slavery into lynching, lynching into segregation, segregation into police brutality and mass incarceration.
The day is February 23, 2020, when 25-year-old black male Ahmaud Arbery goes for a run in Georgia and stops into an abandoned construction site. He looks around curiously, engages in no illegal activity, then simply leaves. Two white men notice Arbery’s behavior and suspect that he has committed a burglary. The duo chases the jogger with a handgun, and a friend follows. The men shoot him fatally. This news becomes a headline later in May, and sparks outrage when they are only arrested months after the fact of committing a plain-as-day murder.
The day is March 13, 2020. It is the beginning of what will become indefinite quarantine in light of the present pandemic, COVID-19. A 26-year-old black woman, Breonna Taylor, is asleep in her Louisville apartment and awakes to police officers barging in on a no-knock warrant. She is shot and killed in her home with no body-camera footage of the scene. Taylor was an EMT worker, an essential worker to the current global devastation. Meanwhile, the national pandemic of racism is embedded far deeper, and more pervasively than the novel coronavirus, for which we will sooner have a vaccine and treatment.
The day is May 25, 2020. A white woman walks her dog in Central Park, NYC, venturing into a secluded section meant for bird watching where dogs must be leashed but hers is not. Onlooker Christian Cooper, a black male Harvard Graduate, requests she does so to abide by the rules. She instead starts to instigate, so he records her. As if by the flip of a switch, her tone turns from harsh to an emotional cooing as she dials 911, reporting “a black man is threatening my life.” It is unclear if she realizes that calling NYPD at the nonthreatening scene is an obtuse power play that carries a deep history of police brutality for those who look like him or realizes that she was actively weaponizing her privilege to threaten someone without it.
The day is May 25, 2020. In Minneapolis, George Floyd is arrested for suspected use of a counterfeit $20 bill. Upon his arrest, white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while onlookers begged for him to let up and fellow officers watched. Two minutes and fifty-three seconds of this time stamp Floyd was unresponsive and would later be pronounced dead. In the moments before, he cried out “they’re going to kill me” and repeated the chilling, familiar words to be once again ignored: “I can’t breathe.” The video footage is appalling and spreads rapidly.
The day is May 28, 2020. Protests, looting, fires, and riots incite throughout America. President Trump takes to his favorite form of national communication, tweeting from the safety of his bunker, wealth, power and privilege: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a phrase with racist origins dating back to 1967, the very year that MLK took the podium and spoke about the betrayal of silence, first used by Miami police chief Walter Headley in response to similar race riots and protests for civil rights after a black man, Arthur McDuffie, was beaten into a coma by up to a dozen white officers after running a red light on his motorcycle. McDuffie died from the injuries. Half a century later, the response of our nation’s leadership echoes that of a police chief with a long history of racial bigotry during one of the most historic movements of all time. To assume that the president’s recollection and use of Headley’s phrasing is a coincidence is to pretend that the Civil Rights Era fight is one that has already been won.
The day is May 29, 2020. I sleep past my alarm and log on to my virtual classroom. I’m tardy, entering Zoom with a professor wrought with tears in a conversation whose heaviness is palpable even if through a screen. The topic is George Floyd. My white colleagues do not speak. It’s clear they don’t know what to say. As a member of a Counseling program, I assume that their silence can’t mean they don’t care. I believe them to be deeply empathetic people, ones in this field to bring healing into the lives of others. Yet the quiet is deafening. It brings no healing, rather, refuses it to those most wounded by news of Floyd’s death. BIPOC peers are seemingly looked to as beacons of guiding social awareness, demanding that their pain be put on display. I am confounded at the inability of white peers to form simple sentences: “I’m sorry,” “What the hell,” “I’m angry”, or “this is not okay.” Instead feelings of fragile guilt seem to be the only ones from which they know to articulate as if space is something lacking for them, or for me, in the day-to-day. I leave plagued by fury at the injustice and its surrounding silence, moved to action knowing George Floyd and even those above-mentioned are not isolated instances. There remain many, many unnamed more who escape the confines of this article, whose names never are mentioned in classrooms.
The day is May 30, 2020. Mental images of Floyd with Chauvin’s knee on his neck are inescapable. I jog through my northside Chicago neighborhood. It is sunny, the temperature crisp, beautiful outside, but there is an eeriness still in the air. I am revisited by scenes I once watched in grade school of segregation protests of the past and their accompanying police response: water hoses, protective gear, threatening dogs, batons. These scenes don't seem so far from where we find ourselves in the midst of national protests in 2020 as police throw tear gas at protesters and show up to peacefully planned marches in full riot gear. I jog and notice along the way, nobody around me looks perturbed. My neighborhood appears calm. Meanwhile, seven miles south, in the Loop, civilians march united, fed up with threat that it poses them to simply exist. News merely reports on the violence of those enraged; less is said about the country’s legacy of violence, and the trenches of police brutality in the U.S. are kept to a hush. Those whose very lives are daily threatened are instead painted as the perpetrators of wrongdoing despite themselves being unjustly killed at hands sworn to protect. Innocent lives taken by, ironically, the law enforcers.
Meanwhile, those who look more like Chauvin than Floyd, namely my white peers, family, friends, and myself are met with yet another benefit of privilege: that of compartmentalization. White people are afforded the luxury of ignoring police brutality, of dissociating the perpetuated injustice of Ahmaud, of Breonna, and of George to headlines and news articles that won’t affect them. Others are not afforded this opportunity as it permeates their communities, threatens their safety, and ignores their cries for help. Pleas that, yes, in rage, may in fact look like burning down buildings or shattering windowpanes as media coverage chooses to focus on the destruction of reconcilable property, not the irreconcilable ending of black lives, leaving my white loved ones distracted, not dismantling. I do not condone destruction, but understanding trauma allows me to see past the jarring nature of it when I see it more clearly through the context of what is being protested, and notably, protested almost always peacefully on the part of those involved. It may not be a stretch to suggest that those whose fixation is on unlawful looting or vandalism may also fixate on arguing that “all lives matter,” thus missing the point of the traumatic history entirely, not recognizing what sitting unaffected in their homes perpetuates, failing to eradicate this repetition of history, perhaps debating mask-wearing in a pandemic since they “can’t breathe” whilst disregarding Floyd’s respiratory struggle who spoke those very words as he died. Protest signs read “When you don’t respect existence, Expect resistance.” It is far more destructive to overlook brutality by those whose sworn mission is supposed service and protection of its civilians than to demolish an edifice which, with government funds, will be restored soon again. Floyd’s life cannot be.
The day is June 2, 2020. My peers are no longer silent. It’s hard to be silent when 75 cities in the nation have marched for days on end. It’s hard to be silent when some of those have curfews and restrictions in place similar to those set responsively after the MLK assassination. It’s hard to be silent when headlines and social threads demand attention. I pose these questions to my cohort, myself, and to you, my fellow white colleagues: Will you fall back asleep if George Floyd’s name is ever forgotten? Is your care or concern temporary? Will your activism against the injustice of this country dating back to 1620 cease once there are no longer crowds outside of your apartment chanting “No justice, No peace?" Will you stop donating and posting once images of shattered glass, rubber bullet bruises, and boarded commerce centers on your feed stop frightening you? Will you be quiet after one cop gets charged? When your family argues with you about your desire for justice and equality? Once you no longer feel like it is the “PC” thing to do to make performative commentary, or your colleagues might side-eye you? I ask you to reflect on this honestly, as I also ask it of myself — because it is a privilege to be able to feel the peace and respite around you, to be comfortable again in the calm, to get in some “much-needed self-care” once our country is no longer in wreckage and flames. Such privilege will continue to allow you to re-engage your passivity and quiet once this is no longer in your face because you and I do not live its active, real threats.
So now, stretch your imagination with me. The day is May 25, 2030. Ten years have gone by since Floyd was killed. Statues and shattered glass have long been replaced and Minneapolis has a reconstructed policing establishment. My white counterparts and loved ones and I still wake up and do not know what it is like to fear for our lives just by walking out of our front doors. But if white silence and passivity remains, I do not know if others will be able to say they have the luxury of ever experiencing the same. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words ring in my ears: that there comes a time when silence is betrayal. As a therapist trained into the interpretation of emotions and the meaning of feelings, let me brazenly dissect that for you: It does not propose that a time might come when silence feels likened to the analogous pain of betrayal. It does not suggest that one might interpret white silence as a perceived betrayal. Rather, it was said: silence is betrayal.
The day is today. The time is now. Frankly, “the time” has needed to be “now” for centuries, and it has been for some. The Civil Rights Era has evolved, not ended. I need my fellow white colleagues to continue caring about George Floyd, those before him and those after him. Will you wait for another name to make headlines, or will you be moved? Silence is not a luxury anyone can afford. So, start by listening.
Emily Hellendoorn, M.A., is a recent graduate of the Masters in Counseling program at Northwestern University and resides in Chicago, IL where she plans to practice long-term and pursue licensure. Prior to the Counseling program at Northwestern, she had years of humanitarian work that led to the formation of her therapeutic pursuits as well as prior employment in clinical administration. Accompanying her clients in their narrative exploration is a personal passion, and trauma work is among her chief clinical interests. Her Practicum training was spent at The Bette D. Harris Clinic of The Family Institute working with adults and she completed an Internship at Highland Park High School’s counseling drop-in center doing crisis triage work.