GEORGE FLOYD’S death renewed a movement across the world that has engaged everyone in discussions about racism.
Handcuffed and lying face down in the street, he was pinned to the ground by the knee of a white police officer on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Since his murder on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, protests by Black Lives Matters, a movement started in 2013, resurfaced with a vengeance. Over 200 US cities experienced protests and riots and internationally 50 protests occurred including TT which has held three Black Lives Matter protests to date.
At the centre of Black Lives Matters are activists who work on community organising and demanding reforms of systemic racism in the justice system.
TT national Oneka Roach-Campbell, 42, is an activist who is working to improve the lives of the black community, including her 17-year-old son. Roach-Campbell and her family live in Utica, a city in upstate New York. and she fears her son being a victim of police brutality.
Newsday spoke to Roach-Campbell on June 4.
Every time her son Kerry Campbell leaves home, she cannot rest until he gets back.
“I feel concerned for his safety and it’s one of the reasons that makes me an activist. I have to do this so I can secure a safer future for him.”
The Black Lives Matters protests are a family affair. Kerry is also a community activist who marches with her. Her daughter is too young to go out and march, so she makes signs.
“People are saying, ‘Oh my God, you are endangering his life,’ but the way I feel every day with my son, even before this George Floyd, every time he steps out of the house I feel afraid.
“He recently got his licence and asked to go out with his friends. Every time he gets into the car, I can’t sleep until he gets home. Not just because of general teenagers and safety (issues). He’s a very well-behaved student. But I worry about him, just because of the police brutality out there.”
She is an immigration lawyer who works with refugees and also organises Black Lives Matters protests in upstate New York.
“What people need to understand is this is a sign of trauma. People have been traumatised for years. Every day you wake up and you realise that people can be killed in the streets, after a while, people just lose all sense and okay the system is not going to work for us. So, we’re going to burn it down.”
She said under US President Donald Trump, white supremacists who used to be afraid to spew their hate became comfortable speaking racist rhetoric.
“A lot of tension and division that’s occurring that was not as obvious as before. But what I’m also seeing is that a lot of people of other races are standing up against it and saying enough is enough…we have a lot of white allies who are standing behind us.”
Roach-Campbell works with the Mohawk Valley Frontiers, a community organisation for the development and betterment of African Americans. In her area, she said there were no violent riots or looting, but people are angry.
The violence, looting and destruction of property in some protests have been criticised for detracting from the cause, but Roach-Campbell said those who are unaffected by the issue would criticise and not do anything – but the riots have helped.
Since the Black Lives Matter protests started the police officer who killed Floyd was not only charged for murder but had his charge increased from third-degree to second-degree murder. The officers who witnessed the murder and did nothing were also charged for aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
Roach-Campbell said she feels safe in the protests. The media, she said, are focusing on the violence, leaving people who are not in the US or near the protests to believe they are all violent, but in reality, most are peaceful.
“I feel safe. I see camaraderie, I see all people, communities coming together to say enough is enough.”
Roach-Campbell has lived in the US for 26 years. Originally from Chinapoo Village, Morvant, she went to St Augustine Girls’ High School (SAGHS) and after CXC when she was 16, a family member sponsored her to migrate to the US.
She went to Florida, did her bachelors and master’s in education, then studied law, became an attorney and now has her own law firm.
When asked about race relations in TT, she said when she was home people would judge her on the basis of where she lived.
“I was able to be one of the top scholars in the country to go to SAGHS, but even while I was at SAGHS I felt marginalised. People always say negative things about Morvant, but it is not true.”
When applying for jobs, she said if the address says “Morvant” the person is less likely to be considered because of the stigma.
She is still involved with her community back home, working with a group called Pause for a Cause.
As Black Lives Matter started to be discussed globally, discussions about race happened in TT. Roach-Campbell said TT is divided by race and the people are uncomfortable discussing race.
“We like to believe that we live in Trinidad where ‘Every creed and race find an equal place,’ but it’s not so. I honestly think it goes deeper than just race. We divide by racial lines or allow ourselves to be divided as such when it’s the easiest card to pull.”
Politics and politicians are guilty of playing to a certain racial base, she said.
“If we are honest with ourselves, we have whites, Indians, Syrians and blacks in Trinidad who live in poverty as well as those who are well off. So instead of uniting for a better Trinidad for all, it is easier to sit back and blame what is wrong with our own lives and country on the other racial group.”
The only people who benefit from the racial divide are the affluent in society, while the “have-nots,” she said, are divided, squabble amongst themselves, believe false political promises and end up frustrated.
“What I would say to my fellow Trinidadians, regardless of their race, is that it is time to come together, look beyond our racial differences, and recognise it for what it is. Because what really is race other than a social construct meant to divide persons into subgroups, when all we are is just human?”
If the discussion on race were viewed from that perspective, she said the race conversation would be easier to have, because instead of talking about which group thinks the other is under them, the conversation would switch to how the country as a whole can assure proper opportunities for growth and prosperity for all.
“This will serve as an example to the rest of the world. Because, truth be told, if we were in a binary system the African, Indian and Syrian would all be considered people of colour. We are less different than we think.”
She sees nepotism as the overall problem in TT as most times people rise to positions of authority on the basis of not their qualifications, but on who they are, what their last names are or who they know. This creates a society where a class of privileged people pass that privilege on to their children and children’s children.
“This goes unchecked, creating a situation where certain people continue to have less opportunity than others, regardless of their talents as mentioned above.”
The country, she said, is losing many leaders and scholars to foreign nations, because many people have difficulty with the idea of returning home because of unchecked privilege.
“People avoid race discussions because it is a way to cover the truth and not have to change the system. The privileged in TT have to be able to admit that there is a problem before fruitful conversations and change can occur.”
Echo chambers, generalisations on race and judgment based on preconceived notions on race, she said, cause problems with discussions on race.
“In the media, certain areas and certain people are always painted in the news as savages, gunmen, people to be feared. So others who have never had any direct experiences…already have preconceived notions of them before even meeting them…
“It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You tell them that they are criminals, treat them like criminals, and then they would become that, for lack of opportunity due to oppression.”