Hope and Change in the Time of Police Violence: From Obama's Inauguration to Trayvon Martin’s Murder
“Euphoric. It was unbelievable to really see that we could do anything we put our minds to. I never had a plan to go to an inauguration before that day.” Dr. Omekongo Dibinga’s eyes lit up as he shared his feelings on President Obama’s 2008 inauguration. He claims it is one of his happiest memories from any public event, one which “sparks something in his heart.” Dibinga is not alone in this sentiment. For so many Americans, Obama’s election seemed to represent the beginning of a new era. As he stood in the freezing cold that January night at the National Mall, he held his little toddler on his shoulders. It was as though, for just one moment, he was holding her up higher than the scourge of a country whose legacy was rooted in slavery, eugenics, and mass incarceration. She would be hurt by these injustices later, but tonight she would witness her father's joy. An eternity of oppression and despair, seemed for just a moment, to fade in the triumph of a new narrative of hope we can believe in.
At the time, Dibinga was a motivational speaker and diversity counselor in schools that served predominantly low income youth of color. The morning after Obama was elected, he believes his students arrived to class with a new light in their eyes, a new sense of pride and belonging. “I saw my students show up to my class wearing Obama t-shirts. I had never seen my students choose to represent a politician on their clothing before. I had seen rappers and musicians, but never a president.” Dibinga recalls that Wednesday in the classroom with a Jay-Z quote: “The day Obama won the election, the gangster became less relevant.” His students were able to see themselves in a new light, one where they finally saw a representation of themselves beyond entertainers and athletes, a president who looked like them. “I saw black people stand and pledge allegiance to the flag for the first time in their lives. To be alive and witness that moment, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. People finally felt like they were part of this country after being on the outskirts for so long.”
Dibinga was very careful with his word choice. This was just a moment in time. A powerful moment, but far from the end of a nation fueled by white supremacy. Maybe it felt like the start of an era where a man of color could lead the free world, but it did not feel like the end of an era where white supremacy remains as prevalent as the air we breathe. It wasn’t until a black man could sit in the Oval Office that we heard proud utterances of a “post-racial United States.” Nevermind the photoshopped images of a lynched Obama with the phrase “hope” replaced with the phrase “rope,” or the fact that congress seemed completely unwilling to get anything passed under his watch. At first these messages were whispered on our social media, and later they became more and more confident, even self-righteous shouts of “Your president is black, so what are you people so upset about?” So many, including Dibinga, feared this narrative. We only needed to look at the worn faces of those in the ultra-segregated communities in our home city of Boston, the crumbling state of Boston’s public schools, the hopelessness of our voter turnout, the clearly inequitable way the “T” subway system skipped over our black and brown neighborhoods, and the way communities lived in an inescapable state of chaos and poverty. “It was projected that people like me wouldn’t live past the age of 25, that if we weren’t killed by them we would be incarcerated,” said Dibinga. These realities proved to us that regardless of how our president lived, we were very much living in a harsh and unforgivingly racist society.
This has become particularly clear in the recent resurgence of a new civil rights movement which has been sparked in part by the death and subsequent lack of justice for Trayvon Martin. Patrisse Cullors coined the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter after Mike Brown's death, and it has needed to be used countless times since when we face yet another pointless act of police brutality. After Trayvon's death, President Obama stated “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” This emotive sentiment was one of the first times Obama had been so vulnerable about his position as a person of color for the whole nation to hear. While Dibinga and many others felt affirmed by these words, many others felt threatened by having the president make a statement that connected him exclusively with other Americans of color. The president who Dibinga celebrated had just claimed something Dibinga also felt; this representation from a president was a new experience.
“I see myself in everyone of these guys who is killed.” Dibinga is referring to his reactions to the recent deaths of young black and brown men and women. In 2015, 1205 people were killed by the police in the United States. Black men and boys are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by the police than their white male counterparts. He carries the memory of Obama’s election deeply on his conscience, but says that the media coverage of those killed by police is “always on [his] mind.” Dibinga is somber as he shares how he is scared and sad to hear media “come up with all these theories about why a kid deserved to die. You can’t help but wonder, what story will be told if it happens to you?” As state-sanctioned violence against people of color increases, how can we return to that feeling of unlimited possibility on November 4, 2008 without it being tainted? How can we believe in the hope Obama promised without feeling a sense of fatalism or frustration? Dibinga quietly shares “you feel like you are being minimized at every step… I wonder if people even care about who I am here...”
The media didn’t help to dispel this sense of being one dimensional. For the media, these murders are shown as must see TV. “Why is it in America we have to see proof of a black man being killed? Why do people have to see us get slaughtered in order for us to believe it?” Over the summer a twitter hashtag, #iftheygunnedmedown, began to gain traction. The hashtag showed two pictures side-by-side of a man in a suit, and that same man dressed in clothes where he would be perceived as a “thug.” “When we die they show us at our worst, if I get killed by police tonight they won’t show the picture of me getting my diploma… To the media at the end of the day your accomplishments aren’t going to mean anything if you are killed by police.”
Dibinga began to share negative interactions with the Boston police that further fuel how much he saw himself in each man who had been lost. “My Congolese mother [with a Ph. D.] who didn’t learn English until she was 29 was in the train station and a white girl told the cops she was selling drugs. Without question my mother was arrested and when my father came to pick her up in jail, she only had her shirt on.” These stories are so common that they sometimes feel inevitable. If this is the reality, how can we believe in any hope or change? Even for Black and Latino Americans without stories quite as intense as this one, many more did wonder why there were no train stops, grocery stores, or decent schools in our neighborhoods. Each individual's story is unique, but they also include patterns caused and upheld by a legacy of racism. Today, Dibinga’s daughter is nine years old, and she doesn’t remember being present for Obama's original inauguration. Although she was born in a time characterized by hope and change, she is now being raised in an era of heightened cynicism and mistrust. Will she grow up to live a life more boldly stamped by a Black president or by the mindless state sanctioned violence her grandmother experienced?