December 2020

When You’re The Only One Watching The World Burn

One former undergraduate explains how Black Lives Matter protests altered their life trajectory.

by Shayla Kerr

On a hot Sunday afternoon in June on a weekend visit home from school, I found myself in front of an ice cream parlor just a short walk from my house in upstate New York. I had been asked to speak at a protest to shut the ice cream parlor down and against its manager, who was a member of the Proud Boys, a national alt-right group that has been growing in numbers in recent years. The manager had previously committed numerous offenses and called Black and brown customers from the community ugly, racist slurs. Looking at the crowd, I saw many familiar faces from all over our small city. Community and tenderness existed among us as we made a safe space for each other, our pain, our voices, and our stories. But that comfort would be shattered forever, when, twenty-four hours later, a white man entered that same space and pointed a gun at that very same crowd.

*****

Before Black Lives Matter ignited the globe, many Americans—including myself—remained inside a comfortable and familiar cocoon. Before COVID there was college, where I would spend nights with my friends ordering food off of the late-night menus. Before COVID, we moved to the consistency of daily life fit to a schedule, a timer, a bell, and a break. Before COVID we were free to roam across campus and dorms with an idea of who we were and who we were supposed to be, surrounded by structures and institutions that we felt nurtured these identities. We were simply students striving for the socioeconomic comfort that would be accessed by our degree. Yet, when these institutions that have given structure to our lives and our world fail to protect and meet the needs of the people, we are thrown out of what we know to be familiar, safe, and true, especially when this failure results in colossal death and violence. Suddenly, we become forced to question the status quo and how we uphold it.

Protestors gather in Buffalo, NY. Photo courtesy of ATO.

After COVID, there was stillness. From March to May, we stayed inside with nowhere to go and, worst of all, we were apart. Connection in isolation was found through a screen, where my friends and educators resided. Facetime calls became more important than zoom calls because the former brought relief, and in a pandemic, relief and human connections were precious things to hold onto in a state of constant uncertainty.

And then, suddenly, there was movement again. On May 25, 2020, a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. Massive protests occurred in all fifty states and in multiple countries across the world. It was unlike anything the Black Lives Matter movement, or any movement, had ever seen. At the time of these protests, I had just arrived on campus to take an anatomy course for an occupational therapy program that required a lab. It was a month prior to speaking at my hometown protest in front of the ice cream parlor in June and it wasn’t long before I realized I was living in a different reality from my white professors and peers. These realizations began after I spent several nights scrolling through twitter with my friend on facetime, together watching reactions, and reacting ourselves to the Minneapolis fires. On our zoom classes the next morning, despite the curfews enacted on our city, there was no acknowledgement of what was happening outside of the university walls. There was small talk, light jokes, business as usual. It was not just bewildering but bizarre, especially since the university was in Buffalo, the same city where a viral video was taken of a police officer shoving a seventy-five-year-old man and continuing walking as the man’s head wound bled out onto the streets.

I was left confused as to why it felt like I was the only one witnessing the world burning. It felt like the ground was shaking beneath my feet, but my white peers and professors didn’t seem to notice the earthquake. The staggering dichotomy illustrated clearly that the reality I was living as a Black person in academia was not the same reality as my White comrades in those same spaces. While this has always been the case, after George Floyd’s murder it heightened and swelled. The pain and loneliness I experienced grew louder with every class, yet the world of my white peers and professors was too quiet.

Protesters demand the firing of Buffalo cops with a history of police brutality. Photo by RJ Red via Workers World.

Although I may have been lonely, I was not alone in my experience. The Black students who remained on campus and in Buffalo started to speak out. My university’s recent history of police brutality surfaced when a former student voiced the violence they encountered with campus police. It ignited a flood of stories of racist encounters between Black and non-Black staff and students. Instagram accounts were made specifically for students to submit stories of their racist experiences. Petitions were started to rename buildings that upheld the legacy of anti-abolitionists. Black-led organizations on campus banded together to advocate for staff and students. Since the university, which boasts of their ever-growing diversity, wasn’t giving students a platform to share their stories about the racism that lingered at the institution, the students made their own.

As all of this was beginning to unfold, my perspective started to change just as rapidly as the world around me. During my time in Buffalo of summer 2020, I had isolated myself and for the most part, only went outside to attend class. I had no one with whom I could attend the protests since my friends were home for the summer and, due to COVID-19 restrictions, on campus I didn’t have any Black friends or classmates to discuss these events with. Seeing humanity from a distance and inside the walls of academia that barely acknowledged this reality made me crave a connection to all of it, one more profound and deep than my studies in occupational therapy. Consequently, I started to travel when I could on the weekends back home to my small city of Schenectady, New York, where I protested alongside friends and many inspiring activists. I finally felt like I was part of the wave of change that everyone seemed to be riding. I could participate in this change and engage in human connections.

*****

My worldview changed when the manager of the ice cream parlor returned to the protest armed with a gun. No one was hurt and no shots were fired, but nothing would ever be the same. The violence that happened in front of my home in our suburban neighborhood shook me into abandoning the safety of a world that no longer exists, and maybe never did. Irreversible trauma had been close to my doorsteps, and though thankfully I had not been there, watching it go down from the protection of my apartment made it all the more eerie. It was a comfort I no longer wanted and realized that, as a Black woman, I could never entirely live in the world as it exists today, no matter where I go or how many degrees I earn.

Protestors gather in Buffalo, NY. Photo courtesy of ATO.

I decided I needed to be a part of changing the way we live and see each other. Occupational therapy was suddenly very unfulfilling. It was difficult to keep working and push through my pain when what I chose to study wasn’t about what brought meaning, but what brought financial security and prestige. I’ve decided to take the fall semester off to assess what is truly meaningful to me and the role I can play in reshaping this country.

The world is changing as the truth continues to show itself in ways we can no longer ignore. As the truth continues to destroy the ideas we once held dear and shift our experienced reality, we are increasingly forced to come to terms with the truth of ourselves, the world we are living in, and how we will dare to go forward in the face of uncertainty.

Shayla Kerr, until recently, was attending the University at Buffalo as a first generation undergraduate student where they were taking an anatomy class to enter their B.S./M.SS Occupational Therapy program. But she recently left to explore writing. She identifies as a young black woman and her interests are writing (particularly narrative), storytelling, poetry, reading, photography, and liberation work.

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