Over the past several days, America has, yet again, borne witness to how deeply its people are wounded and angered over the disproportionate use of deadly force by police on African Americans.
Protests, the vast majority of them peaceful, have grown more powerful each day since the May 25 killing of a 46-year-old African American man, George Floyd, by a white Minnesota police officer. Veteran Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been fired from the force and charged with Floyd’s murder after video footage captured him grinding his knee into Floyd’s neck, as he lay face down, moaning that he could not breathe.
Across the country, advocates working to transform the juvenile justice system – from its punitive model to profiling that disproportionately sweeps up too many young people from black and brown communities into the justice system – are feeling this historical moment like few others.
To capture that sentiment, The Imprint reached out this week to Youth Advocate Programs, one of the nation’s most expansive organizations working to derail the pipeline of young people who are arrested and incarcerated each day in this country.
The program began in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and has since spread to 29 states, deploying professional advocates, many from the same communities as the youth they are paired with, to help support the health and well-being of young people who might otherwise be locked up.
Youth Advocate Programs CEO Jeff Fleischer worked with The Imprint to gather views from the organization’s staff, after one of the most consequential weeks in the history of American civil rights. Here are some of their powerful voices, which were lightly edited. We close with advocate Jasmine Moré who passes along her message: “Change starts with us.”
— Editor in Chief John Kelly
Stephanie Moore, director of operations, Southern/Central New Jersey
With all due respect, it is not just about George Floyd. It is about all of the decades of human rights being violated on people of color.
This is about bold racism, so bold it keeps on happening, breaks your spirit. Unfortunately, it is an all-too-familiar feeling that people of color feel every day. The weight is heavy.
People of color want and will have their voices heard and respected. As a nation, it is clear that change has to occur. Everyone has to do the work and not be afraid to speak up.
Pamela Smith, assistant director of advocacy
In our profession, we talk a great deal about and even experience vicarious trauma. To be black in America is to live vicarious trauma daily.
One sees the videos or hears the stories of broken black bodies, and it creates a deep and abiding pain in one’s heart, mind and spirit. George Floyd is, unfortunately, not special in that he has been added to a long list of black Americans whose lives were ended by police officers sworn to protect and serve.
I weep for those who have died, and because I know their deaths will go lawfully unavenged. I understand at any moment, it could be my brother, father, sister, cousin or me lying on the cold ground unable to breathe. Our collective trauma is real, and it is palpable, and it is increasingly no longer vicarious.
Nicole Balthazar, administrative manager
The murder of George Floyd and the countless others across the nation is the result of how our elected officials, leaders and community representatives continue to ignore the issues that affect black people in America. This has been going on for decades and has only been highlighted recently because citizens are able to catch these injustices on camera.
We need to revamp our system so that it doesn’t just protect and serve the white Americans but protects and serves all Americans equally just as our Constitution suggests. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
There are many people that are fed up with the continued disregard of black lives, and quite frankly, I am as well. The solution is simple but will take a real plan to implement. There needs to be arrests made of all police officers that have murdered Americans, there needs to be regulations and safeguards put into place to ensure that this will stop immediately, and there needs to be re-educations of all active police staff on how to treat Americans and what will happen to them if they deviate from the laws.
Nichele Wilson, director, Essex/Union Counties
As a black American woman, I am exhausted and terrified. I am angry at the most recent murder of George Floyd, but I am also angry at the deaths of countless others before him, such as Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner, and nothing ever changes.
There is a systematic failure when our black and brown communities are used as “human targets” and not protected by those who took an oath to protect and serve all humans. Never mind feeling safe! There is a caveat to being black that we’re all told about from a young age, and must adhere to or risk losing our lives. The audacity of us to think that we are supposed to have equal rights and be treated as fairly as our white counterparts!
The current protests and mayhem are in direct response to the years of feeling and being abused by the system. The black community is the most marginalized and therefore the most impacted by these atrocious events.
We must vote people in office that will create legislation to change the system. This needs to be on a local level — city and state, not just for presidential elections. This is the only way we will see real systematic change and not be the next hashtag.
Jalaine Peterson, integrated services manager for Florida
It’s not a black issue or white issue. It’s a wrong vs. right issue. It’s wrong to treat a person, any person like these people (hundreds of people of color) the way they have been treated by the police.
It’s wrong to be the judge, the jury and executioner, as some police have been. Every person is innocent until proven guilty. All black people are not right and all white people are not wrong. We as a nation have to stand up for what’s right and against injustice. And we as African Americans cannot be the only ones standing for justice and all the injustices.
We all have to stand up for what’s right as a nation. Praying for our country. And thanks for giving me this platform and opportunity to have a voice.
Jasmine Moré, administrative manager and advocate
As a person of color who works in human services, I see first–hand the power of privilege. Many of the families we serve are not privileged. They don’t have the luxury (yes, luxury) of attending school where they are able to grow and have an abundant amount of resources in order to live a successful life. Unfortunately, it is not a surprise that a majority of the families we serve are people of color.
The system we have in place is not made for people of color to succeed. The country that was built by the hands of enslaved African Americans was never made for their progression. This system that has never been an equal playing field to begin with, continues to be ignorant and refuses to recognize the dehumanizing acts that black folks deal with daily.
Change starts with Us. Every single human being should be speaking up, now more than ever, against the discriminatory acts that have been occurring for over hundreds of years. We, as a society, need to come together and stand with our black brothers and sisters. I will never know what it is like to be in your shoes. But I see you, I hear you, and I will stand with you until justice is served.
To George Floyd, I am sorry the system failed you too.