I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe. It’s time we acknowledge our collective trauma.


By Marissa Kizer

“A reformation means that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values. They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless. The time is then ripe for revolution.”—Saul Alinsky

For most of my life I have lived under the assumption that the government is ultimately on our sideI’ve thought sure, maybe it’s messed up, bureaucracy is exhausting, and there are policies that need to be changed, but ultimately, we’ll come out on top. 

I lost my corporate marketing job at the beginning of quarantine. There is always grief and fear around losing a job, but this one felt particularly painful. It wasn’t just a matter of poor performance or budget cuts; it was a product of an economy that is fundamentally fragile and volatile for all but the few at the top. My deepest grief came from seeing all the capitalist notions of just go to college, just get a degree, just network and hustle and grind laid bare in the face of the reality that our economy could not handle even two weeks of people staying home and not participating in constant consumption.

But as the weeks went on after filing for unemployment, as my bank account steadily went down, as one week turned into nine weeks of waiting for unemployment benefits, that individual grief and anxiety turned into a deep sense of collective political abandonment. As the news came out about corporations getting bailouts while we’re trying to stretch our last $20 until unemployment finally comes through, as millions of families nationwide faced worsening food insecurities, and with a gaping hole in leadership handling the pandemic, the only reasonable conclusion I could come to is that the government is not for the people at all.

Before this season of Covid, perhaps we did not have a collective movement against this increasingly oligarchic government because we didn’t believe we could ever be touched by the oppression it creates. We have believed if we have any measure of financial stability right now, then we’ll be fine forever. We have been teased into thinking we’re always just a few investments and seminars away from being millionaires. Sometimes we truly think our privileges make us impervious, and other times we think it’s unfair to acknowledge our own hardships when there are others who are suffering in arguably deeper ways. 

But except for the one-percenters, the virus and economic shutdown hurts everyone. And every day throughout the height of quarantine I complained that I could not be out protesting in the streets over this level of governmental abandonment. The social upheaval was overwhelming – at any other time people would be taking to the streets – but the most socially conscious thing we could do was stay at home, bake our bread, and watch TV. My frustration filled me with rage.

Then the news about George Floyd’s murder came out. 

In our collective conscience we decided that the risk of continuing to live under this callous government and brutalizing police force was greater than the risk of contracting Covid. With society in such shambles we determined that revolution was worth the risk. 

Activism involving direct action is only one part of political organizing. Much of the work is done quietly, underground, on the ground. I knew direct action was a vital strategy, but it’s taken me a few years to feel prepared to engage in it. I’ve researched, read books, and attended trainings. I’ve asked a billion questions and worked to understand the real impact of actions like marches, blockades, and sit-ins. I’ve scrapped my religious, social, and political beliefs and built them back up. I fell in love with liberation theology and the way spirituality could create a narrative framework to sustain the pursuit of justice. I debated about violence and non-violence, learned what turning the other cheek really meant, and I rejected the peace-and-love hippie approaches and came to revere the Black Panthers and others who fought to take their birthright freedom by any means necessary. 

I knew about community policing. I knew not to call the police on Black people. I knew about police brutality, I’d witnessed friends getting racially profiled by the police and I’d heard their stories of terror over traffic stops. I knew how to pull over and record when I saw someone getting pulled over. I’d taken classes on de-escalation strategies so I could be equipped to step into situations without calling the cops. 

But on a deep level I still believed the police would help me and protect me. I believed with absolute certainty that my white skin would always protect me from cops and anyone who disagreed was a right-wing conspiracy theorist bent on invalidating the experiences of Black and Brown people. 

But when I took to the streets, my preparations were put to the test, and my beliefs were violently turned upside down. 

I was prepared deep in my soul, but still, the visceral, embodied experience of my first brutal encounter with cops is difficult to describe. Being face to face with rows of cops in riot gear, the constant sound of the surveillance chopper circling us, the search light oscillating from one group of people to the next, the thirst, the heat, running from cop cars, running from horses. It was nothing I had ever experienced before. It was bizarre and exhausting and exhilarating. And then I found myself face to face with a horde of cops in riot gear. I grabbed onto the people beside me, unsure what was happening, people screaming about what to do, the crowd behind us pushing against us. And then it all disappeared. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe. All I could do was crawl on the ground and scream until my friend took hold of me. I got you, just breathe, you can breathe, I got you. Just breathe.

But I didn’t think I could anymore. I thought I might be seeing my final moments right there on the I-40 exit ramp. There was a bright light in my face that I couldn’t make sense of and it only added to the list of things I assumed would happen when I died. But after a few minutes I realized that it was actually just a news reporter with a spotlight on me, capturing my finest moments for the 10 o’clock news.

Once I caught my breath and was sufficiently doused in milk and baking soda, I began to weep from the same hopeless, guttural place in my body that had been holding my grief for months. I was in awe of my lungs and my body for getting me through, I was in awe of the people who supported me, I felt so deeply honored to face even a small amount of suffering for something I believe in. And all at the same time, I was angry, I was crushed, and I felt deeply violated. I’m not a threat, I wasn’t going to hurt anyone, I wasn’t being violent, why did they hurt me? 

The words “I can’t breathe” have been uttered by many Black people as they suffocate under the weight of cops’ feet and knees and chokeholds. And it’s not lost on any of us that we are in the middle of a global respiratory pandemic, and the police are assaulting us with tear gas instead of – “to serve and protect?” – listening to anything we have to say or accepting any ounce of responsibility for the havoc they have wreaked on our streets. 

The night went on. I staggered around with bloodshot eyes and burning skin and baking soda from head to toe. We found out a pregnant woman had been tear gassed, I saw a cop harassing a Black man, some cops chased me and the people beside me with horses for not being far enough along the sidewalk, a cop asked for a hug – some cruel joke – while right behind him his colleague was arresting people for absolutely no reason.

In the days that followed, I began to reckon with the truth about my experiences with cops throughout my life, no longer distorted by my belief that they are on my side. I thought about the times I’ve called the police and they haven’t done anything, or the times they’ve pat down my friends for “fitting the description” or the times I’ve heard from friends about family members getting killed and the murderer walking free. 

The next week a white boy drove into a group of protestors, heading straight toward the mass crowd of protestors, and he and the cops at the scene laughed it off. The same thing happened again that night a few streets over, and then it happened again two weeks later. The instigators  have been charged with virtually nothing, and as the cycle goes, likely won’t be convicted. And if they’re convicted they won’t go to jail. And if they do go to jail it won’t be for long. And that’s the whole point of any of this: that these systems are long broken, that no justice is happening, that it’s not even a matter of longing for “restorative justice.” It’s a question of punishment, inflicted on the wrong people and for the wrong reasons. 

I’ve been shedding the illusions I once had that the police serve and protect anything but property and local governments’ policies, which invariably focus on Order. Gone is the idea that any of these systems even pretend to be about exacting justice. The only power worth having, from the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights Movement to today – is the power that comes from the people banding together and rising up.

Marginalized communities experience oppression first, most deeply. Being poor today is dealt with in criminal fashion – witness the horrors of families being evicted from their homes. And under a capitalistic, oligarchic system – watch as Congress continues to drag their polished shoes on more relief funding – no one except the ruling class is safe forever. Rather than being an admirable recognition of privilege, our refusal to acknowledge our vulnerability is what hinders us from solidarity with one another. We are wired for self-preservation, and no one is selfless enough to make sacrifices for a revolution they don’t truly think is necessary for their own survival.

The crises of capitalism and police brutality cannot be fixed by voting or by asking unjust systems to suddenly reverse and enact justice. We are in active collective trauma. We have been for a long time. Many of us have been insulated enough to not realize it nor feel a need to address it. But now we know, and it’s past time to cast off our aspirations of safety, comfort, and stability and stand in solidarity with everyone experiencing oppression in our country and around the world. 

Marissa Kizer is a writer and creative involved in local activism and social issues. This is her first contribution to StoryBoard Memphis.

Communities’ trust in law enforcement is vital for effective crime prevention and resolution. As a Justice Department task force on policing wrote in 2015, “Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community.”

Related, Continued Reading

“Poisoning Our Police: How the Militarization Mindset Threatens Constitutional Rights and Public Safety” / ACLU Asks Congress to end the 1033 Program

Worsening Food Insecurities, in The New York Times Magazine feature America at Hunger’s Edge

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.