Her Story & His Story - One in a Collective of Many

In the summer following our first year of college, my best friend was told that her cousin, living in her home state of Colorado at the time, had been killed. He was a young, kind, and innocent young man with a life filled with so much promise and one that was just beginning. That all ended when he was murdered in the most horrific way because he was racially profiled as a dangerous, black man - when in reality, he was a seventeen year old looking for a ride home after his friends deserted him. I watched my best friend and her family try to understand why this had happened. The truth is, they never did and still to this day can not because there was no answer, no justice, no indictment and no closure - just a family with a missing family member who otherwise would have been alive if not for the racist individuals who took his life in their hands and decided that he was a threat - when they ended up being a bigger threat than he ever could have been to them.

It’s been a couple of years now and similar headlines have run rampant in our media since the day she found out. Her cousin’s name falls alongside so many other innocent lives - Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and now George Floyd among so many others that have faced brutality and death for no reason other than their skin color deeming them as a threat to those around them in our society - our law enforcement especially. 

In these past years and in these past weeks, I have had to ask myself what it truly means to be an ally and how to use my space and voice in this world as means to help those around me who are not on the same equal footing and never have been. How can I as a young and white female use my platforms and my privilege for good and most importantly - to join the chorus of voices in all states that are demanding change? This same privilege has given me an advantage in this world and in our society that has not been gifted to everyone and I know that I can never understand what it feels to be on the other side of the spectrum - and that in itself is my privilege. However, I am constantly educating and informing myself as well as having conversations with those around me to shape my understanding so that I know what I can do to add to the movement rather than take up space within it. 

I am grateful that I have people in my life like Sydney who have been so deeply affected not just by that one event but with constant reminders of the family members they have lost when they see the same headlines with a different name and when they hear of brutality that is not different in its display and cruelty. Now, I’ve seen her take this anger and sadness and use it in one of the most powerful displays of encouraging empathy. Be it through adding his name to posters she hand drew and hand wrote for protesting or taking the time to participate in hard conversations to aid in the informing and educating of those around her - myself included, she’s found a voice in this ongoing fight and a place in the conversation that we as a country should have had a long time ago. She’s been a welcome resource as I can never understand what she’s been through, but I can stand with her, her family, and the community of those affected by this occurrence in our society - year after year. 

I was disheartened when she said she wanted to make a post about her cousin yet felt as though it would be brushed over because it wasn’t “trending” or “repostable” and if she was going to share something so close to her, she wants it to be received by those who deem it just as important as she does. I realized that even being across the country with her in California and myself in Maine, I could share her insight with a compassionate and larger audience so I asked her if she would be willing to let me interview her for a piece because I never want her to feel as though she doesn’t have a place in these conversations or in this movement. Not only that, I want her to utilize the platforms available to her to share information that not only I have valued but I know others would as well. Thankfully, she agreed and so via Facetime, I asked her questions about our current events, the role of social media, protesting in Palo Alto, California and others of the like - because I feel as though it’s important these responses and this information is shared outside of the two of us.

Beginning of the Interview

Notably, one of the first questions I asked Sydney was simply “how have these past weeks been?” As she went on to answer that question, we discussed the topic of social media and it’s place in this movement as well as what it means to truly be an ally and an activist not just within this movement but in our communities. We covered a number of topics that branch off of this conversation diving into Colorado’s new legislation aimed at holding law enforcement accountable in their actions, protesting in Palo Alto and the role educating the youth around us plays into changing the overall narrative.

On Being an Ally and an Activist

As she puts it, “Being a true ally isn’t just being angry about what has happened in these past weeks. For those who have lost family members in the way that I and my family have as well as George Flloyd’s and others, they are going to be angry every day for the rest of time until there is a [systematic] change.” She goes on to state how she’s been angry for two years - from the time she and her family were first notified to the present as details surrounding her cousin’s death are still coming to light. She admits that she’s still angry - but with her anger, she has found a voice and an opportunity to educate those around her who are not as informed as she is. She has tried to not only speak out amongst those she knows and her surrounding community but also contact others she doesn’t know - especially those who have had family affected by police brutality that resulted in the unnecessary murders of their black family members. 

While connecting with those who have a shared experience with her and her family, she also has found herself connecting with those who have not. She has had a number of conversations with individuals who are uneducated on this movement and its foundation and alternatively, has shed light on current events for friends and family who don’t necessarily realize that our law enforcement and the way in which they handle minorities while they are in their custody is the problem - alongside the overall racism harbored so deeply in our country and its history.

These conversations, as hard as they may be, are effective - in educating those around you be it family members and friends or neighbors and coworkers, in doing so starts a necessary conversation about the lives of those who are people of color in our communities and how those who are not of color can play an instrumental role by standing alongside with them in demanding our system and our society change. Because at the heart of all of this is an important question - how many more innocent lives have to be taken for there to finally be a change in a system built to protect us even when guilty but not them when they are innocent?

She brought to my attention a powerful example of exactly this that is being displayed in a number of protests in various states across the country where cis white women are asked to step in front of protesters shielding them from law enforcement because they are the least likely to be shot at with rubber bullets as they are seen as “fragile.” Additionally, they are being asked to wear blouses when they come to protest and look “suburban” because they are less likely to provoke police. This, she says, is what it means to be a white ally - by using that privilege to, in all sense of the word, protect people of color in their speaking out and calling for systematic change because they innately are not born with the same privilege and the protection of not being deemed a threat to law enforcement. 

On the Role of Social Media

When I asked her about how she feels about social media, she told me that one of the most frustrating things has been someone who actually made a comment intended to point out how [she] wasn’t posting. The way she described it to me was that “Social media is an amazing outlet - there are Instagram live feeds of protests along with Snapchats and TikToks in real-time. [Social Media has become a vital platform in] sharing pertinent information, but just because you make a post that you are with the allies doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s so easy to post something and say you’ve done your part then continue on with your day.” For her, if she does post on her story, it’s vital information that centers back to her goal to educate and inform those around her as an ally but it’s more important for her to physically turn those words into action and be an activist.

For Sydney, it is never going to be enough to repost on her story or post onto her feed no matter how many times she does it, it’s the physical acts - be it through conversations with those around her, protesting, voting when it comes time and other actions alike that are true demonstrations of being an ally and activist because that is when those words go beyond social media and generate tangible change. This is what will generate permanent change for years and generations to come which considerably lasts a lot longer and holds a much larger impact compared to temporary twenty-four-hour Instagram stories.

On Protesting in Palo Alto, California

Due to COVID-19 and her being in the high-risk category, she has been unable to attend the larger protests that have taken place in Palo Alto and the neighboring city of East Palo Alto this week due to their large numbers. However, she has been attending smaller protests organized by a fellow Palo Alto High School (Paly) Alumni that have taken place on Embarcadero, a busy and well-known road, close to the high school that goes up towards Stanford University. These little protests have taken place Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and they are prioritizing and encouraging wearing masks and practicing social distancing among those in attendance. Their group is a small one however they have had a number of people passing ask if they can stand with them for some time and even had a Palo Alto Councilman join at one time.

She said that Monday while she was with the smaller group protesting, there were two larger protests that occurred in other parts of Palo Alto that same day. One occurred on another busy road, Oregon, that goes through one side of Palo Alto and leads to the 101 Freeway and was organized by current Paly students. Another took place on the 101 blocking all lanes of traffic heading northbound towards San Francisco. Hundreds of peaceful protesters were present at both as well as police officers who offered guidance off the streets and blocked necessary exits to maintain the safety of those on foot protesting who safely and eventually made their way to City Hall.

In tandem with the protests around Palo Alto whose attendants were predominantly white, there was one that occurred in the neighboring city of East Palo Alto by those who are predominantly people of color that same day. This demonstration was met with violence after a group, not with the peaceful protesters, threw a firecracker at a police squad car alongside incidents of the looting of local businesses that occurred shortly thereafter by similar groups. This resulted in a citywide mandated curfew which sparked outrage among residents in Palo Alto who felt as though their civil liberties were being encroached on which ultimately led to the curfew being lifted not even forty-eight hours after its initial implementation.

Sydney says that the different responses to these peaceful protests and the reaction of law enforcement is in itself a clear demonstration of white privilege and only proves to be a testament as to why these protests are necessary.

She goes on to state how San Francisco, the city where she attends college that is less than an hour North from Palo Alto, has had peaceful protests all week along Mission Street and in Dolores Park - a popular area known as the Mission District in San Francisco. She noted that this is an example that peaceful protests work only if you let them and the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) understands the importance of being respectful of the protesters and not meeting them with or inciting violence. 

She adds that “All protests start peacefully until police react in a way that is counter to why these people are protesting - that is when there is an escalation.” It’s important in our society and our legal system that the punishment fits the crime so any actions against a person in custody are warranted and justified based on the crime committed. However, that has clearly not been the case as seen in the many occurrences of these black men and women losing their lives at the murderous hands of our officers and if you have individuals protesting in the name of calling for accountability and change in regards to the horrendous behavior and cruel actions of our law enforcement - when met with more violence by said law enforcement, that is when the protest is no longer peaceful as now these peaceful individuals face tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and more tools utilized by law enforcement to instill fear and inflict violence on those protesting. 

On the Proposed Reform Bill in Colorado 

Because the announcement of this reform bill followed directly after the anniversary of her cousin’s death, I asked Sydney her thoughts on it as it is intended to address concerns regarding  a number of issues presented by the public in how officers operate on the job and execute their authority - and more generally, a lack of transparency when it comes to communication between our law enforcement agencies and the public regarding events that have transpired “on the job.” Some of these reforms include the requirement of all officers to wear body cameras and that those recordings be released to the general public within fourteen days as well as a call for a repeal of the “fleeing felon” statute stating that deadly force may only be used when a suspect presents as an imminent danger to an officer or another individual by using a deadly weapon. Previously, the “fleeing felon” statute had allowed for officers to shoot at any individuals running away from them and are suspected of committing a felony so this would ensure that unless brandishing a weapon intended to inflict bodily harm or to kill either themselves, civilians or any member(s) of law enforcement, officers can not use deadly force in their efforts to detain him or her.

She replied that although she is impressed that this new bill will hold officers accountable when it comes to the actions they deem are justified by the law, it will not stop racism and should not be viewed as a solution that will do so. She went on to say that this is because racism is so embedded in our country and its history - it continues to be an overwhelming presence because there has been no change in our nation’s narrative. She elaborated, “Until we can change the narrative of our nation when it comes down to it, racism [is present and it] won’t just go away. Proposed bills and steps towards reforms are great but we need to educate and inform especially in our school systems starting at a young age.” As a future educator herself, Sydney knows that at some point in these next coming years as she embarks on her teaching career post the completion of her undergraduate degree, she will have to teach our history to her young elementary students. However, there is only so much teaching that herself and other educators can do during the school days as these conversations need to be continued at home and led by parents who not only understand these hard topics but can inform their children on what they truly mean - even if those are hard conversations to have.

She gave a great example of a popular kid’s channel, Nickelodeon, effectively doing just that. For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the network paused all normal broadcasting and placed the words I CAN’T BREATHE” on the black screen in white with the audio of someone attempting to take a breath playing behind it in an attempt to spread awareness to their young viewers on current events. Many white parents were angry, feeling as though their children had been involuntarily scarred and that in doing so, Nickelodeon forced parents to have hard conversations with kids they did not intend to have. Sydney commented that no matter how hard it is, this needs to be a common occurrence as it’s just something that needs to happen because, in reality, it’s the jobs of white parents (and future parents) to ensure their children understand current events, white privilege and topics of the like at a young age so that they grow up with that knowledge ensuring a more aware and tolerant generation to counter racism in our social and political landscapes. As she puts it, “Ignorance is our worst enemy... ignorance is what is making our country continue to have these repeated conversations about BLM and we will continue to have these conversations in the future [if there is no change]” and that change starts with equipping our younger generations with this knowledge and encourage them to not shy away from these difficult topics as they grow up in both our schools and in our homes.

On Conversations in Her Own Household

Sydney is both seeing and participating in a demonstration of this first hand in her own household as both she and her parents have had to explain these concepts and shed light on the significance of current events for her little brother. I asked her how her family went about this and she referenced that their conversation was similar to that of what Ashton Kutcher had shared in his explanation to his own children. 

In an Instagram IGTV, he had commented on the use of the phrase “All Lives Matter” as opposed to “Black Lives Matter.” He shared how at bedtime, his son and daughter both grabbed books to read yet his daughter was told to read hers first. His son then asked why he couldn’t go first stating that although he understands that girls go first, boys can as well. This prompted a conversation between Kutcher and his son in which he stated, “You know why girls go first? For you and me, girls go first, and the reason why is for some boys, girls don’t get to go at all. And so for you and me, girls go first.” This shed light on his stance that when people use the term “All Lives Matter” even with the best intentions, it is important to not negate the fact that for some, black lives don’t matter at all. However, in order to get this message across to his young son, he wanted the example of the widely known and socially accepted concept of girls going before boys to inform the following conversation about the black lives of those in our country.

Sydney stated that when it comes to her little brother, her family has had a similar conversation telling him that in this world and in our society, he is white and a man and because of that, he is already born with more privilege than those in minorities. Yet, as young as he is, that privilege is something he needs to accept and use as a force of good to ensure that those around him are heard because there are always going to be those around him who don’t feel as though everyone should be. With conversations such as these occurring in their home paired with accurate media portrayals, her little brother is an example of the powerful tool of educating our younger generations as they attempt to grow up in a world that is racist - but that doesn’t mean that they have to be or be accepting of those who are. 

Her little brother is a fan of the popular television series, All American, that dives into the mistreatment of teenage boys who are black. She gave an example of an accurate portrayal of this when in the series, the main character, a football player who is a young black teen, is shot and taken to a hospital. Upon his arrival, it was automatically assumed that his injuries were related to gang violence and he was immediately screened for drugs prior to the scheduling of an operation. This was until someone came in and stated that he was in fact an honor roll student who both attended and played football at the nearby private school. Although displayed on television, this was an accurate portrayal of the assumptions placed on those who are of color in our country that deviate from normal protocols and sets of behavior that are awarded to those who are not.

End of Interview

Through not only this conversation but multiple conversations Sydney and I have had over the past week via text messaging and Facetime, it is clear that although on different sides of the country, we are both committed to being allies and turning our supportive words into action and I have learned the most effective way to do so both in having these conversations and in my own personal efforts to inform my understanding. These conversations aren’t ones that are easy by any means as they bring up a number of emotions and remind us that we were raised in a society that continues to accept racism as a problem that doesn’t have a solution. However, in countering this with a statewide call for systematic change, there is hope that we can and will be better - better people, better communities, and a better country. It is individuals like Sydney who have not only experienced what so many of us haven’t firsthand, but have used that anger and sadness as a means to dedicate themselves to this movement. She is among the voices in this chorus calling for change in the name of her cousin and so many more innocent men, women and children who have lost their lives and I know that although she can’t educate everyone, she will continue to educate and inform those around her - myself included, as well as her future students to come until there is a permanent change in both our narrative and our country. 

Author’s Note

I want to thank both my best friend, Sydney and her family for not only allowing me to share everything that I have in this article but granting me the permission to use this platform as a means to do so. It broke my heart that she felt as though she couldn’t share her cousin’s story and although I know it, not enough people do. I always want to stand with her and her family because they are a part of this and they have a voice and a place in this movement that I will do everything in my power to ensure is not overlooked. Although I can’t physically protest with her or even physically be there, it has been a beautiful sight to see her be both a true ally and an activist - be it through her posters and protesting, her continued efforts to have conversations with those around her be it family, friends or strangers, her sharing of her cousin’s story and more of the like. I am so proud and so grateful to have someone in my life who welcomes these conversations - as I know I still have so much to learn from her and others who have experienced the same brutality towards a family member that resulted in an innocent life lost. 

As many have said, we can’t possibly understand but in attempting to, we can learn the actions that are clear demonstrations in our efforts to do so. This includes but is not limited to: voting, protesting (if able to) signing petitions, donating (if you have the means to), encouraging conversations with those around us no matter how hard they may be, staying informed, watching documentaries that are accurate portrayals of these current events and beyond. This is just the start of an uphill battle and I know that we have a long way to go - but we will continue to fight for systematic change day by day even after there are no more mass collective protests and no more reposts on Instagram stories. There are always actions we can undertake as individuals to continue to fight for this upheaval in a widely accepted manner of thinking in our country until the day there is a permanent change in our society that rids our country of racism and ends the loss of innocent lives because although this change won’t happen overnight, it is one we can ensure happens during our lifetime.