Opinion Piece Published in The Guardian by Shanita Hubbard on October 1, 2020
The Breonna Taylor verdict is demoralizing and painful. Yet history is a reminder that in the long run, activists will make a more just world
On 24 September, a Kentucky grand jury delivered an unsurprising verdict: Breonna Taylor’s killers would walk free. The frequency of Black killings at the hands of police does not lessen the severity of the pain, it deepens the wound.
I thought that justice – some form of “justice”, however flawed – might be possible. After the global outcry and collective organizing this summer, I felt hope. People marched in the streets risking their health to declare that Black lives – Breonna’s life – mattered. I thought it might be possible to change this system. So, when the grand jury pretty much decided that yet another Black woman’s life doesn’t deserve justice, I wondered: was I wrong to have had hope?
The killing of Breonna Taylor and subsequent lack of justice speak volumes about the value this country places on Black women’s lives. When a Black woman working on the frontlines in the midst of a pandemic can be killed without consequence, what hope is there for a Black woman like me?
As the writer Vann Newkirk stated: “A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect.” But hope requires you to continue to believe in the possibility of change.
Today I find hope in history. History tells us that radical social change was never delivered by systems; it was delivered by people fighting for change.
I remember the history of school segregation and the Little Rock Nine. Only 63 years ago, nine Black students attempted to attend school in peace. Instead they were met by a large white mob spitting, screaming and fighting against their very presence. People marched in the streets to make the president take action. Facing resistance from local organizing, President Dwight D Eisenhower finally intervened by requiring federal troops to escort the children to classes.
I remember the history of the freedom riders. On 4 May 1961, Black and white activists boarded a bus in Washington DC to tour the southern United States to protest segregated bus terminals. They were met with violence from police and white protesters. Blood was shed, buses were burnt, protesters were arrested, drivers were terrified; but the movement continued. In the fall of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals.
I remember the history of the fight for voting rights when John Lewis and Hosea Williams led the first 600-person march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery despite police violently attacking peaceful protesters. I remember the subsequent solidarity marches that erupted all over the United States, and the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that summer.
And I remember the history of the fight for fair housing in America. It was a fight to prohibit housing discrimination (rental and sales) based on race, religion or sex. The law was signed on 11 April 1968, but not before there was organizing, attacks on peaceful non-violent demonstrators, fights in the courts and protests on the local level.
And I reflect on the recent protests that erupted in June. According to reports, Black Lives Matter may be the largest mass political movement in US history, with an estimated 15-26 million people protesting police violence throughout the States. People in at least 20 other countries held protests in solidarity. It may not always feel like it, but the protests are having an effect. The mayor of New York City pledged to move funding from police to social service programs. At least three states have banned police from using chokeholds. Furthermore, the demonstrations have forced the media and cultural world to reckon with how they have contributed to structural racism.
The fight for justice has not stopped in June, and it continues beyond the streets. Organizations such as the Fair Fight initiative are working for election reform and fighting voter suppression – key factors to ensure that American communities can, for example, elect district attorneys who will prioritize police reform. Then there are initiatives such as the Black Girl Freedom Fund. One of the few organizations created for Black girls specifically, its goal is to fight for a better world by investing in “the brain trust, innovation, health, safety, education, artistic visions, research and joy of Black girls and their families”.
So for Breonna, for Sandra and the names we don’t know, I put my hope in the people.