I was 11 years old — a few years younger than you are now — when the protests in Tiananmen Square took place. That moment in history is my first vivid political memory, and I remember feeling quite inspired by the young men and women who were risking everything to demand greater freedom.
I also remember feeling very fortunate to live in a country where people can exercise their right to assemble without risking militaristic reprisals. I felt that way when I was 11, and still when I was 21, and still when I was 31.
Now I am 41, and on the 30th anniversary of the liùsì shìjiàn, I no longer believe that my nation is much different than the nation that quashed those protests in Beijing, all those years ago, for it is happening here, too.
Our president has threatened to use the military to quash nationwide protests — the vast majority of which have been very peaceful. He has, in fact, already used military police officers to clear peaceful protesters from the streets in Washington, D.C., so that he could stage a photo op in front of a church that he doesn't attend.
Even before this, though — and even before this president came to power, our nation's police forces had been militarizing for many years, to the point that it is becoming difficult to see the difference between warfighters and law enforcement officers. Wearing kevlar helmets, decked out in fatigues, holding assault rifles, and riding in mine-resistant armored vehicles, the men and women who are supposed to protect our communities increasingly look like occupiers.
There are good people in these uniforms. There are some damn good ones. This is true. Yet there do not appear to be enough good ones to stand up to the bad ones — a fact painfully revealed in the video that ignited these recent protests, in which three police officers stand by as a fourth kneels on a man's neck. The man begged for his life. "I can't breathe" he cried.
Nine minutes later, he was dead.
They stood by. I cannot get over that they just stood by.
But this is not surprising. Just a few weeks ago, in our hometown, it was revealed that an officer who was supposed to help a young woman who came to his department seeking protection instead exploited her. Other officers knew, and they did nothing. They stood by. The young woman, who used to attend church with your grandparents, was later murdered by the man she had begged police to protect her from.
And so it goes. The videos are endless. Police pushing protesters. Police hitting protesters. Police pepper spraying protesters. Police shooting at protesters.
In one video, from Florida, a police officer violently shoves a woman who was kneeling nearby him. Kneeling.
That one is different, though. In it, the officer is immediately and angrily confronted by another officer.
Her name is Krystal Smith. And she would not stand by. She screamed after the officer, chasing after him to dress him down — a strong black woman confronting a pathetic white man.
We don't have to accept brutality and militarization as the cost of doing law enforcement. We don't have to accept that the blue wall of silence is an inevitable and immoveable force. We don't have to live in a world in which what happened in Tiananmen Square, in the capital of China, is repeated in Lafayette Square, in the capital of the United States.
We don't have to stand by.