It has become a piece of lore within my family’s history. With our roots in Washington, DC tracing as far back as four generations (at least), the merge of various sociopolitical and cultural climates have often been visible—either peripherally or intimately—through snapshots of my family history. The piece of lore which I am referring to on this occasion occurred on April 4, 1968.
My grandmother was twelve years old at the time. She had only had a half-day at school, so she caught the bus downtown to see the optometrist and to get a new pair of eyeglasses. It is likely that my words cannot fully capture how fortunate she was to have been inside Sterling Optical on F Street NW that afternoon. For when she emerged from the office onto F Street, the scene that she found left a memory so overwhelming that she remembers it today as though it were yesterday and not 46 years ago.
April 4, 1968 was the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That day, when my grandmother exited Sterling Optical, she had unwittingly walked onto the scene of the DC riots, which had erupted in response to that horrifying event. She describes the moment through the onslaught of impact on her senses: the sight and smell of billowing clouds of smoke, the feeling of water running down her cheeks as her eyes reacted to tear gas, and the sound of glass breaking as people threw things through shop windows in anger and despair. Though she made it home safely and without serious incident, it took my grandmother four hours to complete her normal twenty-minute trip home from the melee downtown.
Two weeks ago, this story ran vividly through my mind as I passed F Street while on my way to the National March Against Police Violence. As I stood downtown on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, I could not help but to be conscious of my grandmother’s experience and our cultural history. Walking among the thousands of supporters who peacefully marched to Capitol Hill alongside the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and other slain African-American men and boys, I felt the gravity of the situation and its place within a reoccurring, historical, American narrative. As I marched downtown, I felt the burden of my people. And as I looked around at some of the older, black marchers around me, I carried memories of my grandmother, her parents, and their parents before them. I wondered: What must it feel like for someone who was in this very spot 50 years ago, marching for the same ideal of equality that they are literally still marching for today? It is my hope that our generation can affect society in such a way that we will not have to address these same issues fifty years from now.
As my participation in this peaceful protest illustrates, I do not, in any way, condone violence against police. But I cannot sit idly by as I witness these wrongdoings. I must peacefully, yet forcefully, stand and recognize the injustice that has continually been carried out against black Americans—in this instance, against these fathers, brothers, and sons. While I stood downtown on this occasion, one of the most heartening observations was the presence of thousands of young people like myself. As millennials, we often have a reputation of selfishness, rather than selflessness. Contrary to popular opinions, however, I witnessed compassion and social awareness—I witnessed a multitude of young people standing for what they believe in. Furthermore, the multitude that participated in the National March consisted of many different ethnicities and backgrounds. The importance which lies therein shows a recognition that these instances of police brutality—this injustice—is an American issue, not simply a “black” one. I pray that the story I’ll tell my future granddaughter about this moment will be one of triumph and pride in both my culture and my country.