Miguel “Sosa” Myers, of Saint Paul, Minnesota was just a boy, when for the first time, he said, he nearly died at the hands of the police. He and his family had been living in a particularly bad neighborhood at the time, and thought they heard someone sneaking through the backyard, possibly in a home robbery attempt.
Assuming the worst, Myers’ mom dialed 911 in hopes that authorities might be able to help.
“As soon as they seen me, they pulled their guns out so fast,” Myers recalled. “There was so many of them, yelling at me and telling me [to] get on my knees, lay down. I'm young as hell, I'm scared as hell. I thought they was just going to shoot me.”
In that moment, Myers believed he would die.
“I was like, ‘What? I called you here to help me. Now you guys, you want to shoot me?’” he said. “They didn't ask who I was, they just wanted to shoot until my mom had to come running up the stairs, ‘Don't shoot him. Don't shoot him.’
“That was the day I learned I just don’t like the police.”
Even though that experience and plenty others led Myers to understand the police force is quick to draw guns at Black men, he was still caught off guard by the killing of George Floyd. “For George Floyd, I had shed a tear because I was so hurt.”
He said he spent a lot of time with his thoughts at the memorial dedicated to Floyd, just a short 20-minute drive from his home.
Then, Myers felt the call to action.
In the immediate aftermath, Myers took to the streets, joining protest after protest to demand justice. “If you Black, you’ve got to be protesting. You got to do whatever for your community and for the people because nobody else is going to do it for us,” he said.
Myers is just 19 years old, and is looking forward to celebrating his 20th birthday in August. “Hopefully,” he added, grimly aware that Black teenagers don’t always have a chance to reach that milestone.
Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old high school student, growing up in Sanford, Florida when he was seen as a threat to an adult neighborhood watch coordinator. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when a white police officer took his toy gun as a credible threat and shot him dead.
And reaching adulthood doesn’t lessen the weight of threat many Black people in America live under.
Floyd was 46 years old when police responding to a call that he may have attempted to pay with a counterfeit bill eventually placed him in handcuffs and laid him face down in the street. With a white police officer’s knee to his neck, Floyd repeatedly gasped “I can’t breathe” and called for his mother and children. Those would be his last words.
Floyd’s killing was the latest in a spate of deaths of Black people whose lives were taken while simply living, a field already crowded by cases such as that of Breonna Taylor, an EMT killed while asleep in her bed; Ahmaud Arbery, out for a jog when he was chased and gunned down; Elijah McClain, stopped for “looking suspicious” while walking home from a store.
Coupled with the myriad inequalities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the coronavirus, Taylor’s, Arbery’s, McClain’s and Floyd’s are the latest deaths that have reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and have driven home the point Black Americans have been making for decades: being Black in America is an experience unto itself.
“I know that when he walked in the store he was already a suspect,” said Garmunee Phillips, 20, of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. “Because if I was doing the same thing, that's what they would've thought. I experienced it, I have friends that experienced it. Each and every Black man, each and every Black woman, has endured the same.”
Fear of the police is sadly a theme that arises all too often.
“My grandfather was a police officer,” said Summer Brown, a 37-year-old single parent to twins. “When I was little … I was proud of him. I felt I was safe because he was around and as difficult as it is for me to say, I don't think that I feel safe when it comes to police. I don't think I felt safe for a very long time around police.”
Brown continued, “They represent a force that nobody is in control of anymore. … That hides behind a veil of ‘justice’ and ‘serving the people,’ when it's still pretty clear to me that Black people are not considered the people that the police are here to protect.”
That’s why when she heard of the killing of Floyd, Brown said she wasn’t surprised.
“I'm infuriated and disgusted and agitated and activated by the consistent and honestly widespread experiences of pain that Black people have to cope with every day and pretend like everything's okay,” she said. “It's painful and it's triggering to open up social media and see an image of someone being murdered over and over again."
In the wake of Floyd’s killing, Brown said she disconnected from social media. Other than carrying signs on a walk around her neighborhood with her kids, she also didn’t take to the streets in protest – Brown is immunocompromised, and can’t risk getting sick as the coronavirus continues to disproportionately devastate Black and brown communities.
“I’m queer, I’m fat, I’m Black,” Brown said. “My existence and my survival and my thriving is its own protest.”
According to the CDC, Black people are five times more likely than their white counterparts to contract COVID-19. Native Americans are also five times more likely to contract COVID-19, while Latino communities are four times as likely to contract COVID-19. “Long-standing systemic health and social inequities” are the reason for the discrepancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Health differences between racial and ethnic groups result from inequities in living, working, health, and social conditions that have persisted across generations,” the CDC wrote. “In public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, these conditions can also isolate people from the resources they need to prepare for and respond to outbreaks.”
Bree Jenkins, a 35-year-old Black therapist in Los Angeles, says those same medical inequalities are prevalent in the mental health world.
“There’s not enough support for Black people or Black patients, and not enough support for Black clinicians,” Jenkins explained.
While rates of mental illness in the Black community is no different than that of the rest of the population, only one-in-three Black Americans who need mental health care receive it, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Black Americans are also more likely to use emergency, inpatient services than their white counterparts, indicating that less of those peoples receive consistent and specialized mental health care, and are less likely to receive good quality care and accessible care, the study reported.
In the wake of Floyd’s killing, Bree said she and her husband took to the streets, but quickly felt the toll of protesting on her own mental health.
“The percussion grenades, and the bullets, and the sirens, and the smoke, and things were broken, and looted, and set on fire. It was a lot,” she recalled. “That was my reality check. ‘Okay, girl, you cannot be out here in these streets, getting shot with the bullets and stuff,' because I have to show up and support people's mental health needs, and I can't do that if I'm additionally traumatized.”
Instead, she looked to her talents and started a fundraiser, helping Black women access therapy for free. So far, The Gathered Fight has raised $45,000 with a goal of $100,000 in order to reach 100 women.
“‘Strong’ is a word used to describe how much you can bear, how much burden you can lift. And we've proven our strength 100 times over, and that's actually hurting us,” she explained. “We collect and hold the trauma stories of our parents and our grandparents and our ancestors, and it all plays a role.”
Bree is well aware of the trauma she’s inherited.
“Being Black in America, I was told to be careful,” Bree’s father, 65-year-old Charles Jenkins, told Inside Edition Digital.
Charles, a Baptist minister. grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and had very little experience with white people in his childhood. He grew up attending a segregated school, then eventually moving on to attend an integrated school.
“There was a general fear of White people, especially us living close to the St. Bernard city lines,” Charles explained.
Southeast New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish in 1868 was home to one of the deadliest massacres in Louisiana’s history. Fearing they’d lose their majority as Black men gained the right to vote, armed white groups violently put down recently emancipated voters to win an election for a candidate in favor of ending Reconstruction and restoring Louisiana to home rule. Between 35 and 135 freedmen were pulled from their homes and slain.
The area appears to still have what some would call a problematic relationship with race: a 2000 census reported a population makeup of 88% white and 7% African American. Elected leadership was heavily criticized for a “blood-relative ordinance,” that, in effect, blocked Black locals from renting property in the days following Hurricane Katrina, according to a 2009 analysis by The Root.
“When I hear about and have reactions to police killings, some of my experience has a lot to do with it,” he said. “I could just imagine it was me or my son or my daughter. And it just caused me, like many other parents, to fear for their children.”
That fear weighs on the children in question, as well, but it’s one that many say is worth carrying while fighting for a better tomorrow. Though she is just 17 years old, Jennifer Pouyo, of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota by the way of West Africa, is acutely aware of what her predecessors have done for her rights today.
That’s why, in the wake of Floyd’s death, Jennifer took to the streets to demand justice, even as crowds around her were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. Even in the midst of a pandemic.
“There have been multiple occasions where I had to sneak out of the house to go protest, because my mom knows how dangerous it is out there. She doesn’t want anything to happen to me,” she explained. “That alone shows why I have to be out here, why I have to protest, because these things are happening to these random Black people just for being Black.”
While Jennifer feels it is her duty to protest, that’s the last thing new dad Marcus Cornelious, of Chicago, wants for his own son.
“What is going on has gone on for such a long time. Hundreds of years, we've been victims to this injustice, this racism,” Cornelious said. “I hope that when he grows up, he’s not still dealing with the same issue.”
Which is exactly why Cornelious took to the street in protest: “I also want to be able to tell this story to my son, who's 15 months old. That his father stood up for what was right.”