I like to think that I’ve always been anti-racist in my life. I’ve been aware of how privileged I am and how my complexion and parents’ wealth have caused my life to be easy. A short drive from the suburban neighbourhood in which I was raised takes me to Philadelphia. It’s a city that I have a lot of pride for, however my sheltered childhood allowed me to escape the realities of poverty and violence in its neighbourhoods. The shocking wealth disparity and contrast in the quality of life from my neighbourhood is something I have always been aware of but certainly haven’t experienced. My upbringing has allowed me to never really be scared.
When George Floyd was tragically killed by a Minneapolis Police officer, like many other cities, mine erupted in protest against police brutality and for justice for the black community. Of course, I felt I needed to be a part of the movement, as the colour of my skin allows me to protest without fear of being hurt by the police and to be an ally to those who could. However, I by no means expected to be so afraid at these rallies; my mind has truly opened to the experiences of black Americans and people of colour throughout the world.
These protests have been for the most part peaceful, but I’ve also witnessed violence. I’ve watched police cars be destroyed and erupt into flames. I’ve stood next to a Starbucks that was smashed and lit up like a bonfire. I’ve watched police beat protesters with batons, mace some in the eyes. I’ve seen blood drip from a young boy’s head and people collapse onto the ground in agony after being tear-gassed. Many of the shops I always visit in the city were smashed and looted.
I’ve also seen thousands of community members come together in complete peace and solidarity. In fact, every day I attend the protests, I walk alongside people with insanely kind hearts, and together everyone fights for a future that won’t be marked with fear and violence.
At an extremely peaceful and empowering protest I attended, we walked throughout the city and up to Philly’s art museum. It seemed that out of nowhere there were sirens everywhere and dozens of police cars sped past the crowd. We attempted to join the rest of the protesters who had gone onto a main road, but the police blocked us in, and armoured state trooper cars kept us from moving.
In response to this, every single protester knelt to the ground, arms up, saying “don’t shoot!”. Suddenly, I heard the loudest sounds I felt I’d ever heard, and the streets were covered in tear gas. Everyone ran, bumping into one another. We poured water in people’s eyes. They gagged and vomited, and before I knew it, my throat had filled with an itchy sensation and I couldn’t breathe. My eyes were streaming, and I felt blind.
Helicopters flew low and dropped more gas. Just down from where we were many people were sitting peacefully on a hill next to the expressway in protest. The police tear gassed them too, causing the protesters to fall and slip down the hill. People were scrambling to grip onto one another; the only way off the main road was to climb over a fence. A peaceful protest turned to utter chaos.
My friends and I were approached and asked if we could form a barricade between police and black protesters. Of course, we said yes, and headed over to a line of police, knelt down with our hands in the air, as black community members sang and spoke. This experience for me was beautiful in a big way, but my hands wouldn’t stop shaking as I knelt before the police officers. I was absolutely terrified; I had just watched people scramble through gas and get shot with rubber bullets; fall down because they had been pepper sprayed. All I could think about in those moments was how sheltered my life was and how I’ve never truly felt the fear of a police officer hurting me.
So many people experience police violence every day, and the colour of my skin has allowed me to bypass all of that. There have been peaceful protests in the suburbs too, met with much less police presence and absolutely no violence. I feel so much pride for Philly in its unity and that so many are standing up to be part of such an important movement. I’ve realised until I felt the fear of being attacked by the police, I’ve never truly understood what it’s like to be black in America. And of course, that’s only a fraction of the injustice that black Americans face in everyday life. Being at these protests has taught me that I can’t truly be anti-racist unless I am actively part of the movement.
One of the primary targets of the protests was a statue of former racist mayor Frank Rizzo. This statue has highlighted the racist past of the city since its erection. I stood in front of it and watched people deface and burn the statue, while police pepper-sprayed and beat them with batons. While the police response to the destruction of this statue was heavy and violent, a few days later, the mayor ruled to rid the statue and it was taken down. This has proven that when citizens come together in solidarity, as they are doing both nationally and internationally, change will happen. It may start with something seemingly small, such as taking down a statue, but it has proven to me that real change comes from unrest. And real, systematic change is what the United States needs.
People shouldn’t have to fear for their lives based solely upon the colour of their skin. As the days have gone on, the protests have become more and more peaceful. There hasn’t been looting or rioting, and the police have escorted protesters rather than violently dispersing them. This has proven to me that we are headed in the right direction, at least in my city, but that there is so much more that still needs to be changed.
Emma Mernagh – UCD Student