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“Hey Joseph what do you think about all of those people rioting out in south central LA?”, one of my Football coaches asked me. After a few moments of awkward silence, I shrugged my shoulders and just said “I don’t know”. He then said, “Well, I think they are a bunch of thugs acting like animals. What idiots burn down their own community?” I wanted to say to him, “people who feel like they have nothing to lose, people who do not feel like they are a part of this country, people who others view and treat like animals and who are expected to take their oppression silently. People like me.” But I said nothing. All I could do was listen to him and then walk away. Because I knew my livelihood as a black athlete looking to escape from this 93 percent white High School to go to college depended on me making him and the people who I was surrounded by, feel comfortable by remaining silent.
I was just a young teenager growing up in the Oklahoma when the LAPD was caught on tape beating Rodney King and found not guilty. For 6 nights straight I ran home as fast as I could after track practice to sit on my bed and watch the news coverage. I could not help but to go through a range of emotions as I saw young people who looked like me, had suffered police harassment like me and were hurting like me, protest and riot in the streets of South Central. Given the fact that I had grown up in a very racist and conservative state like Oklahoma, I understood all too well the negative run-ins with police and the overall inequities that ravaged so many black communities that sparked the fires. In many ways the plight of Black kids living in Oklahoma was no different than that of those living in the much larger and more well-known cities of the US.
Like them we suffered the same ills like Police harassment, poverty, gangs, drugs and brokenness. But in many other ways our suffering was very different. Unlike urban America where millions of black people live, and in some areas are the majority. Black people in rural America are small in numbers like my home state of Oklahoma where black people only make up 6 percent of the entire population and are surrounded by extreme conservatism and racism, so we suffer silently. We suffer from the lack of media coverage of the injustices we experience. We suffer from the lack of culture that helps one develop knowledge and love of oneself, and we still continue to suffer from the effects of The Black Wall Street massacre which resulted in thousands losing their homes, families and lives, but never received a dime in reparations. We are not allowed to be happy about black progress as my family and friends experienced the day after our first black President was elected. They were forced to remain silent at work or face the prospect of termination if they gloated, while their conservative white coworkers had free reign to outwardly express their anger over President Obama’s election. Nor can we outwardly express our pain from oppression as we currently see today in the lack of protest and silence in the more rural areas of America, just as I longed to express the same anger, outrage, and pain that the kids in LA expressed back then as a teen. I know that there are many in rural America today who feel the same way, but are forced to remain silent as their lively hoods are at stake.
It is my hope that the movements that are happening around the country in the more populated areas eventually make their way down to the places where some of the greatest acts of police brutality and racial oppression are happening. Where the people have no voice and many are afraid to speak up. Where the only right we have is the right to remain silent.
As I now share time between DC and NYC and stand in solidarity with those who march in the fight for justice, I also stand with my brethren in middle and rural America who are not yet able to stand publicly. I stand with those who have no one around willing to march with them, with those who see the injustices ravaging their communities but have no recourse. I stand with those who live in states like mine where your votes for progress means very little as you are heavily outnumbered. I stand with those who see the rallies on TV like I did as a kid but feel so distant and invisible.
Long gone are the days of many of my white childhood friends feeling comfortable with me. As is evident on my Facebook comments after I speak out on injustices or anything race related. But to my family, friends, loved ones and those who I do not know, I will not remain silent until the spotlight is shined on your struggle to breathe freely, we stand with you, and one day we will all breathe freely together.