By Michael Pina
Director of College Guidance
“When they go low, we go high…”
When Michelle Obama unleashed these words during a 2016 election speech, it was a novel phrase that either endured or rang hollow, depending on which candidate or party people supported. It wasn’t new terminology, but rather a reminder of how my parents told me how to deal with racism from a young age. In 1988, when I was 18, I was introduced to my first scholarly education about systemic, institutional racism, and how to defeat it through the Project REACH Scholarship Program’s Efficacy Institute. Some themes that resonate today (just ask any of my children):
1. Smart is not something you “are” — it is something you get.
a. Think you can.
b. Work hard.
c. Get smart.
2. It is not the stimulus; it is the response.
3. Integrity cannot be taken from you. Never give it away.
Back then, I was worried whether or not we Black boys would live past the age of 25.
Back then, I tremored when Charles Stuart falsely accused a Black man of killing his wife, setting off a manhunt where Black men were corralled, accused, and searched simply because of their skin color. Coming home from college for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and visiting my grandparents who were Roxbury residents, was not the same — I had to be wary of the fact that I also “fit the description” of many of the Black men that the Boston Police pulled off public buses, handcuffed, and lined up face down on street corners, pants yanked down, and searched.
I interned with the Honorable Leslie Harris, the public defender tasked with defending the two Black men who were falsely accused in the Stuart murder. With him, I began to understand that the inner workings of the justice system are often unjust.
In the winter of 1989, I knew, intimately, that the police mobilized to humiliate Black men. My whole identity was cast as criminal, and so many of us were treated worse than humans treat animals. No longer could I accept that being stopped by police near my mother’s house and asked if they could see what was in my trunk was, at all, random. If I wanted to live, I needed to be more strategic and measured in every interaction with the police, and be careful about which slights against me I protested.
Today, as a father of four, I still teach the same lessons to my children about race, police, and justice. My concern about being misidentified, mishandled, abused, or killed by police is real. My anger and frustration about Black people’s stories, truths and experiences being ignored, discounted or dismissed, and always being expected to tamp down emotion when the assault is on their existence — whether it’s the school, the workplace, the corner or elsewhere — is real. Racism hits close to home; it is what my family lives with every day. At the dinner table, one of my 12-year-old daughters said to me, “Daddy, I don’t want you to get pulled over by the police because, if you get pulled over, you get shot.” I had no words. That message is what she is seeing and internalizing from what is happening today.
Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Ahmad Arbery, and George Floyd are all Black, all gunned down and murdered by those whose cries, “I feared for my life” overshadowed their unjustified racist executions. BANG! Trigger pulled. Officer continues to pull the trigger, even shooting into your back. The radio call? “Shots fired…” and the beginning of a murder cover-up once again veiled by a badge. Can you imagine being pinned to the ground, jumped by those sworn to protect and serve (you?), and then feeling the muzzle of a pistol put on your chest?
The police — emboldened and rogue with impunity — shot Breonna Taylor through the window of her own home without warning or provocation. Black women are threatened by the scourge of racism, too! Fueled by racism and prejudice, officers made snap decisions to kill Black people. Until today, white society was numb to the agony that preceded their deaths. How can one deny the 4 minutes of anguish and fear that Ahmaud Arbery felt as he was chased, cornered, and killed by a father-and-son team of racists whose connection to the white legal apparatus allowed them to roam free until a video surfaced? In Minnesota: it was 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The police officer who suffocated George Floyd to death knelt on his neck in plain view of his community as George and bystanders begged for his life. The world saw what I knew to be possible and familiar as a Black man. Innocent until proven guilty, and the dignity of justice does not apply equally.
Over the years and indeed, since I was young, my tears have been silent. My rage measured. And now? What do I say to my children, my family, and my friends about the discomfort I feel when the police slow down behind me to the following distance? I KNOW my plates are being run — I’ve ridden along with the police doing routine patrols, observing the neighborhood, and responding to mundane calls. The bias table is already being set by choosing who gets more invasive attention and investigation, even if the citizen is unaware. What I DON’T know is if I will be the next 6’1”, medium-build Black man targeted. Do I look threatening? What narrative will the white officer write? Maybe those who know me well will tell of my goodness and shortcomings. NOOO. I don’t want any more senseless killing and abuse of Black people at the hands of police. Jail is not justice for the police officers (although they deserve it) — for nothing resuscitates the lives of the Black men, women and children who they have killed, or makes their families’ whole again. I am glad that Colin Kaepernick protested. He knelt. He was willing to sacrifice everything. I am delighted that Lebron James refuses to “…just shut up and dribble…” I am proud that my daughters decided to stand up with me in protest and lead in this struggle for equality.
My tears can’t be silent. Our collective rage must be unmasked and purposed for more change. We must acknowledge the reality of the insidious impact that racism (overt, covert, and systemic) has in harming Black students. Not confronting racism stunts our collective community’s growth and power. Until recently (with the murder of George Floyd), much of America that often said they wanted to care, and wanted equality, could not condemn racism in institutions and behaviors that enabled unequal privilege, and habitually treated rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness differently for Black people. I am asking: “How can Black people change our community and country to be better and fairer?” “How can white people, who do not want to identify with the racism and privilege that has allowed the creation of so many recent Black martyrs, begin to clear obstacles that prevent us from living and relating as human beings?”
Unfortunately, I don’t know the answers to those questions. We have not adequately addressed racism in our institutions and communities. It is time for us to live our motto: “Each for All,” and demand justice, equal treatment, and the destruction of racism in all its forms — beginning right here at home in this community.