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I know heartbreak. I have been waiting for justice for 30 years.
This has been a season of heartbreak, and we’ve all been swirling in the uncertainty of our safety, no matter what we do. But in the hours leading up to the announcement of the jury’s verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, I felt it again—that moment when my heart breathes in the world’s toxicity and breathes out despair. Thirty years ago, in the blush of my twenties, I witnessed with the rest of the nation a bystander’s grainy video of the clenched and brutalized figure of Rodney King, unable to protect himself from the flurry of nightstick blows and kicks by police. He had been driving. He was stopped. He was attacked. We all saw the unmitigated violence of that mob. That was then. And, on Tuesday, in a flash, I found myself back in 1992 again.
I think about who I was in 1992. I’d been working in Chinatown with San Francisco high schoolers to encourage service-learning. I believed in service, that appealing to the moral high ground would lead to grand change. In the weeks leading up to the verdict, I met friends among the crowds for a protest on the campus of San Francisco State, demanding the police officers be held accountable for pulling Rodney King out of his car and beating him nearly to death. Core decency, we thought as we held up signs, could lead to justice and accountability if only we show our heartbreak out loud.
What I couldn’t know then is that I would live another 30 years witnessing so many police killings. Justice denied, over and over again. I did not then, in 1992, fully accept that the laws did not protect someone like Rodney King. Someone like me. I was outraged that King’s character was assassinated to justify the harm. I was broken when I watched him stand up—battered and traumatized—to ask everyone, “Can we all get along?” He spoke with the deepest well of beauty I had seen. As protestors, in our outrage we appealed to the justice system to do the right thing, and in April 1992, I still believed it was possible—that the jurists would come to recognize the injustice inflicted on King, and that the courtroom would serve as a theater for truth.
But I was wrong. The four police officers who beat King were acquitted of the charges brought against them. I couldn’t know then that this would be the script that would play out again and again over the next 30 years. What I felt in 1992, and would continue to feel in the subsequent years, is that my faith was misplaced. The system would betray me and break my heart consistently and constantly.
Heartbreak—crushing grief, anguish, and distress—has been an unwelcome guest these past years as I experience the world through the lens of social media and the news. Every story of pain and violence that touches my people, even if it is physically or geographically far away, cuts that open wound. The distance collapses. With the deaths of Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, and Oscar Grant, and Eric Garner, among others, I felt my wound split again. No matter where in the world they were, they were my people. They were me.
When Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts for murdering George Floyd, I found myself still. After years this was a fresh taste of justice. On my laptop screen, I watched Chauvin’s eyes, how he seemed to be looking for something. I watched him leave the courtroom with hands cuffed behind his back. I felt—or, better yet, my heart felt—a pang that often accompanies a deep stretch or the loosening of a scab. In tears, I held hands in silence with my partner. I took a deep breath. Could this be, finally, the reckoning we have longed for? An end to the trauma and grief and pain in our lifetimes and the lives of those who came before?
Not 10 minutes later, I saw the news that 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant who, family members say, called the police for help was instead shot to death. The old feeling was back. I watched her TikTok video with her darling afro-puffs. She was so, so young.
The heart can break into pieces. Or the heart can break open. In the decades between witnessing the brutality against Rodney King and the murder of George Floyd, I have experienced both. In pieces, our heart withdraws or lashes out. Open, our hearts can be a conduit of faith in a world we have not yet seen. Open hearts can heal ourselves and others, reach out to others, feel part of a greater we. Every day since April 29, 1992 has been a choice for me. On my best days, I choose hope. For it is hope and an open heart that allows me to believe that someday we will be free. To get home safely, to be protected.
Please don’t say the system is working. It isn’t. We watched the crime, felt the certainty of its wrongfulness. And yet we know the verdict is rare—and justice even more so.
The heart is where we hold our deepest questions and question our resolve. And I wonder, Are we on a new path? Can we rely on justice in this nation, can we reimagine safety for our people? Can we constrict the role and power of policing and abuse in our communities? Can we dismantle this system?
Many days, and in the hours of this writing, I wonder if my heart is strong enough for the road ahead. I wonder if the next generation can keep the faith for their 30 years in the struggle for justice.
We must. We've had enough.
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