I used to be afraid to attend protests because I worried that, as a black woman, I was more likely to be killed or targeted by the police. As the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, compounded by years of police brutality against countless brothers and sisters have shown, I wasn’t wrong.
The first protests I participated in were peaceful, but then again, they weren’t focused on black lives. The Wilmington Climate March in 2017, in which I attended as a member of East Yard: Communities for Environmental Justice, was a largely publicized and organized event with activist groups, politicians and security staff who seemed like they genuinely wanted to protect everyone.
Similarly, my experience at the Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles this year felt safe. Although I was frustrated that Black Lives Matter had been deliberately uninvited to speak and hence boycotted the event, I brought my “Black Womxn Matter” sign and was ready to give protesters my black girl magic whether they liked it or not. The performances were exciting, the crowd was bound by solidarity. While there were hate groups and dissidents contesting the march, nothing was remotely out of hand.
When a protest is predicated on universalized social issues like the environment and predominantly white women’s rights, everyone wants to put on a show of unity. However, when a march is centered around black lives, suddenly it’s not considered activism. Trump and some media referring to protesters as “thugs” that just want to riot doesn’t help either. The Women’s March deliberately erased black lives without consequence, but when black people loot from an American capitalist system that was built on the backs of slaves and generational trauma, the world calls them criminals.
Deciding to join the recent Black Lives Matter protests was difficult for me. I’m immunosuppressed and I’ve been living alone for most of the pandemic. The complete isolation, health risks and emotional toll would be heavy. After the first week of watching BLM protests around the world, however, I was restless. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. From being told I was worthless and ugly by society my entire life, being in a relationship in which my ex-boyfriend’s parents were racist and anti-black, being profiled in stores, being treated like I was stupid, seeing my people murdered over and over again with no justice and seeing protesters being attacked by police on social media, it was too much.
My heart and my mind decided that I needed to act. Suddenly, my fear of protesting as a black woman melted away, even though I was about to charge into the mouth of the leviathan. My heart didn’t change because I thought cops were no longer poised with a trigger-happy itch for mass murder against black people. What changed my mind was: I realized it doesn’t matter where I am, my life, just like Breonna Taylor’s life, could be gone in an instant, even if I stayed in my house and minded my own business.
Society has forced black people into a constant state of unbelonging. The warzone can be anywhere, and safety is illusory. So, if I was going to choose my own venue to fight the war for my people, I figured it should be on the frontlines. What more could society take from me when nowhere is safe anyways? The frontline doesn’t have to be for everyone — there are jobs to be done and everyone, even white allies, have a role. If it takes a village, I decided my role is to try my hand at being a warrior.
There’s nothing glamorous about a Black Lives Matter march, there’s no ice cream sold on the side with Caitlyn Jenner on stage to get everyone hyped (as there was at Women’s March). A march for black lives is walking into a warzone and wondering if you’ll get hit with rubber bullets, or tear gassed, attacked by police dogs, arrested or murdered. It’s wondering if it will be your last day on this Earth but shrugging and deciding to keep moving for the greater cause.
It’s knowing that in the blink of an eye things can go from proceeding with caution to desperately making a break for it. It’s constantly weaving in and out of sadness and anger, trepidation and anxiety. It’s a visceral fight or flight that has you ready to defend the other protesters around you in an instant. My entire body felt like it was ready to spring into action if anyone needed me; it was teamwork in the streets.
I attended my first Black Lives Matter protest in Long Beach on Sunday, March 31. I planned to go with my friend, Mexican-American author and activist, Myriam Gurba. Although we couldn’t find each other during the march, she later shared with me that “there were so many emotions. At times, it felt like we were enraged together, mourning together, grieving together… it felt like the best parts of church.” I agreed with her, as marching felt like a roller coaster of collective pain and resolve for change.
My second BLM protest at Long Beach City College, last Friday, June 5, was surrounded by heavily armed police and National Guard members with military-grade rifles. I was scared, but this time I marched with a group of my phenomenal friends. We prepared signs attached to baking pans, in the case of rubber bullets, and brought first-aid supplies; we had two cars and were careful to stick together. I felt grateful, but as we all sang a tearful “Happy Birthday” for Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday, my soul crumbled all over again. Tears ran down my friend’s cheeks; like me, she’s a black woman who felt the insurmountable pain of mourning a murdered sister with the perpetrators still walking free.
I’m 27 years old, sitting in my home behind a locked door as I write this, but I will always know that I am not safe. I’ll be both black and a woman until the day that I die, and I may die because I am both black and a woman. But I refuse to lay down and die a single day before my heart stops beating, because as Maya Angelou once said, “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.” Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, still I will rise.
Danielle Broadway is a social justice activist and an English Literature M.A. student at California State University, Long Beach. She has been published in Black Girl Nerds, L.A. Weekly, Blavity and more. She is a writer for CSULB’s Daily49er; a managing editor for Watermark, her school’s academic literary journal; assistant editor at Angels Flight • literary west and assistant online editor for Dig Mag.