Their lives matter, too

Black Student Union club leaders speak out about the Black Lives Matter movement

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Photo courtesy of Jordyn Roberson (11).

AJ Phillips worked at All Chemical Disposal and Stericycle for eight years before his 2015 death. He was preparing to move to Las Vegas to start a new career. He loved his family, especially his siblings, Roberson said.

When junior Nur Ambaw was 15, he was a passenger along with two of his cousins as his older brother drove through downtown San Jose. The Lexus the boys were riding in was a gift to the older Ambaw brother from his mother. Suddenly, blue and red flashing lights appeared behind the car. Both the Ambaw brothers and their cousins were confused because they thought they had been following all the road rules, but they still complied with authority by pulling over.

“Whose car is this?” the police officer asked.

“My mother’s,” the older Ambaw brother replied.

“Oh really? What does your mother do?”

“She’s a nurse.”

“Is this car stolen?”

“No.”

As the questions continued, Ambaw could not help but wonder what any of the questions had to do with why they were pulled over. Perhaps their skin color was the answer.

The older Ambaw brother attends the University of California, Davis, and his two cousins both attend the University of California, Berkeley. 

“It’s crazy because I bet the cop that pulled us over didn’t even know the amount of education that was in that car,” Ambaw pondered retrospectively. “He just probably saw us as four black people.”

After a few minutes of questioning, the officer cited a dim license plate light as the reason they were pulled over.

Ambaw’s second encounter with racial profiling was, in his opinion, worse. 

Only a few weeks after the first encounter, Ambaw rode with four other family members in the same car around downtown. Their car was pulled over for a second time. 

“Have any of you been in jail before?” the officer asked after posing similar questions as before.

“No, we have not been to jail before,” all the young black men in the car responded.

“Write your names down on this piece of paper,” the officer ordered.

The cop walked back to his car, leaving Ambaw and his family to wonder why the cop did not believe their answers and why their car had been pulled over for a second time. 

“Your headlights are not bright enough,” the officer finally said when he walked back to their vehicle. 

“I’ll fix that right away,” the older Ambaw brother responded. “Don’t worry, officer.” 

The Stanford Open Policing Project, conducted by the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab and the Stanford Computational Policy Lab, found that from 2015 to 2020, San Jose saw six stops per 100 black drivers whereas only one stop per 100 white drivers.

“It’s small things like that where you can really see how this is institutionalized in the police system,” Ambaw said. “This isn’t a ‘one bad cop’ type of thing. This is something that is present in almost every police precinct across America. It’s just that type of mindset that black people are doing something wrong.”

This isn’t a ‘one bad cop’ type of thing. This is something that is present in almost every police precinct across America. It’s just that type of mindset that black people are doing something wrong.”

— Nur Ambaw

According to the official Black Lives Matter Movement webpage, the Black Lives Matter movement began on July 13, 2013, when Co-Founder and Strategic Advisor Patrisse Khan-Cullors felt moved to stand up against police brutality and anti-black racism around the world following the death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Almost seven years later, social media support of the movement spiked as a result of the deaths of three African Americans in the span of only a few months: Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23, Breonna Taylor on March 13 and, most recently, George Floyd on May 25. Although these are not the only individuals who have died at the hands of the police during this time period, their names have circulated social media in the form of hashtags and posts.

Ambaw, vice president of UPA’s Black Student Union (BSU), believes that although police brutality and racism have not increased in the past few months, the presence of video evidence has sparked an increase in support. He admits that if he had learned about George Floyd’s homicide from a tweet, even a verified source, he would not have believed it because it was so horrible.

Junior Jordyn Roberson, president of BSU, believes people are now realizing how common police brutality is because all three of these deaths were so close together and highly publicized.

“Of course, these things have been happening for a long time,” Roberson said. “We’ve been oppressed for years. But I think now a lot of people are noticing the struggle because it’s happened consecutively where we lost three people and it was played out by the media.”

Junior Emani Byrd, secretary of BSU, pointed out that although George Floyd is the current face of the Black Lives Matter movement, the movement itself is meant for all the unnamed victims of police brutality and racism.

Byrd felt shock when she first saw the video of the police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck until Floyd took his last breath.

“It was just painful to hear someone’s last words and see someone take their last breath and know that it was not necessary at all,” Byrd said.

Roberson is disappointed and disgusted by Floyd’s death. 

“[His murder] was just complete disgust for me, and I don’t think I really talked to anyone for the rest of the day because, for me, it was a personal attack,” Roberson said. “I think I was just crying for the rest of the day.”

On June 1, two separate coroners officially ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, according to CBS News.

FROM THE SCREEN TO THE STREETS

In cities around the United States, especially in Minneapolis where Floyd died, hashtags turned into protests that turned into riots.

Ambaw sees riots as a natural progression for people who are not being acknowledged, and mentioned the Baltimore riots of 2014. He explained that Martin Luther King Jr. once said riots are the language of people who are unheard.

“I don’t want to give a message that I support violence in general, but if you look back on any revolution, there was no successful revolution that didn’t have violence,” Ambaw said. 

Byrd echoed the sentiments that these reactions are natural for people who have been silenced and want to feel heard again.

“As advocates for freedom and equality, our first choice, of course, of protesting is peaceful protesting,” Byrd said, “and this takes many forms and can be as simple as taking a knee during the national anthem, just as Colin Kaepernick did. However, we believe that these acts are not always recognized or acknowledged by the public or by people in positions of power in the same way that these riots are getting news time and are being recognized.”

Roberson, who attended the May 29 downtown San Jose protests with her mother and sister, takes offense when people question rioting more than the mistreatment and deaths of black individuals. She attended the protests to show her support beyond posting for awareness on social media and signing digital petitions. 

The protest started peacefully at City Hall, where individuals held up signs showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement before they began walking the streets, Roberson said.

As the protests moved toward Highway 280 and people began beating cars, Roberson and her family decided to prioritize their safety and leave the protest. As Roberson watched the rest of the demonstration on her television, she saw the violence escalate, but also noted the number of black protesters at the scene decreased. 

The New York Times reported Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota tweeted on May 31 that extending the curfew in Minneapolis and St. Paul was to minimize white supremacists or out-of-state individuals tampering with demonstrations. 

Despite concerns from friends, Roberson decided to post a picture of herself at the Friday rally.

“I just really admire Jordyn for refusing to be silenced and refusing to be afraid of being targeted because she’s speaking up for a whole group of people,” Byrd said.

Roberson takes this fight personally for her stepbrother, AJ Phillips. Her family believes at 30 years old, Phillips was killed by the San Jose Police Department in his home in 2015. The death was ruled a suicide, but the family still has many unanswered questions.

Roberson was 12 years old when she found out, receiving a hysterical phone call at one in the morning from her younger brother, Jayden Phillips, asking her to tell his dad to answer his phone.

“I rarely speak on it because it is extremely difficult to articulate into words, and I was too young to understand,” Roberson said. “As I am getting older, I realize why this event occurred and was covered up as a suicide. All attacks of police brutality are personal to me. I can’t question ‘when will it happen to someone I know’ because it already has.”

To further nuance the riots, Ambaw said not every individual partaking in looting is black and also that riots are not specific to only civil rights movements, pointing to the 2018 Philadelphia riot after the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl.

President Donald Trump tweeted about the situation in Minneapolis on May 29, calling rioters “THUGS” and breaking Twitter’s policy regarding “glorification of violence” by writing “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” His statement has been contrasted with his May 1 tweet supporting armed white demonstrators in Michigan protesting against COVID-19 precautions in which they stormed a city council building and received no resistance. He called them “very good people.”

“You can’t say rioting is wrong, but then add more violence to the situation,” Roberson said, disappointed with the president’s response. 

The National Guard has since been deployed to Minneapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles, according to National Public Radio, the New York Post and ABC News, respectively.

Roberson holds up a sign with the photos of people who lost their lives to police brutality with the words “stop murdering us” at the May 29 protest. (Photo courtesy of Jordyn Roberson (11).)

THE NON-BLACK RESPONSE

Both Roberson and Byrd have received direct messages from peers condemning the riots on Instagram.

“It’s very difficult to have to grieve for the people that have lost their lives and also have to respond to ignorance,” Roberson said. “That’s the most painful part for me: you have to ask people to care.”

They believe the president’s response to the unrest has invoked some of these messages.

“We understand that non-black people cannot truly understand the daily struggles of being black in America, and they do not feel the same pain that the African American community feels when we see things like the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and numerous others,” Byrd said, “but we ask them to empathize with our cause, at the very least.”

We understand that non-black people cannot truly understand the daily struggles of being black in America, and they do not feel the same pain that the African American community feels when we see things like the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and numerous others, but we ask them to empathize with our cause, at the very least.”

— Emani Byrd

All three BSU leaders agree that non-black allies of the movement should show support through social media or through actions like texting “FLOYD” to 55156 to receive a link to a petition seeking punishment for the officers responsible for Floyd’s death.

“In the beginning, I actually didn’t really think that posting on social media would do anything because I was like, ‘Oh, everyone already knows. Everybody knows about George Floyd. I don’t need to post about it,’” Ambaw said. “But as time went on, I realized that when you post about it, it’s not only about spreading awareness; it’s to show that you’re in support of the people who are being oppressed and on the side of justice.”

Byrd and Ambaw have felt reassured after seeing an influx of support on social media.

“It’s a very painful time for the black community,” Byrd said, “and just seeing someone repost or let them know that they’re supporting me can be very uplifting. Even though it’s a really simple thing to do, it has a big impact.”

When it comes to altering existing legislation and adding new legislation in order to break down institutionalized racism, Ambaw said support needs to come from black and non-black Americans alike, and that if he could say anything to a police officer, he would ask them to call out their peers when they see injustice.

“They need to start holding each other accountable for each individual action,” Ambaw said. “You guys can’t keep on supporting each other in these bad times. If you see a cop doing something bad, you have to call him out on it.”

Roberson echoed the desire for police officers to spark reform from within.

“I’d say stop murdering us,” Roberson said. “The change needs to start in the police department.”

Byrd hopes the outcomes of recent protests will be more extensive training required to become a police officer as well as better enforcement of laws that already exist, specifically duty to act, which is “an individual or organization’s legal requirement to take action to prevent harm to a person or the community as a whole” according to In Public Safety. To Byrd, this is misaligned with the actions of the three police officers present during Floyd’s time in custody who did not intervene.

“Because of all the rioting and the looting that is often associated with the protests, people question why we’re doing this at all,” Byrd said, “and we just want to make it clear that we protest because we know we have to be the change that we want to see in the world. No one is going to stand up for us except for us and our supporters. Black Panther Huey Newton once said, ‘The revolution has always been in the hands of the young,’ and that is us.”