I was 16 years old, living in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. I was in the car with my mother, on a dark road, on our way to pick up my father from his second-shift job. Two police officers pulled us over for a trumped-up traffic violation.
The stop quickly escalated to guns being drawn on us for simply questioning the nature of the stop. Officers stood on either side of the car, yelling contradictory instructions.
What enraged the police most was that we knew our rights and had the audacity to want them respected. I remember my mother’s palpable terror that I was going to watch her die protecting me, or worse, that we would both die on a dark street simply for being black.
Through a mix of rage-fueled adrenaline and mortal fear, I thought this was the moment to use everything I had learned about the oppressed and oppressors from the writings of Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and H. Rap Brown. If I was going to die at the hands of racist police, it would be with truth dripping from my lips.
I thought we would be killed that night. Instead, we ended up handcuffed, in the back of a police car, taken to the station.
What moves me to write about this 30-year-old experience is not the current moment of national reckoning with police violence. I write because of something unexpected — suppression. For days, months, and even years at a time, I have completely forgotten that night.
My entire life’s work is committed to rooting out the racism and bias that underpins police misconduct. You would think my experience of guns aimed at us would always be in the forefront of my mind, driving my work.
But strangely, it is not. I believe that I, along with millions of other black people in America, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes it difficult to recover after a terrifying event. For my own sanity, I did what millions of black people do with untreated trauma created by state-sanctioned terror. I put it in a box in my mind and buried it deep in the recesses of my subconscious. Then I built a wall around it to protect me from the pain.
Until something seismic happens to crumble the wall. Elijah McClain was the earthquake that crumbled my coping mechanism. As I read an account of his dying words, I began to cry. That cry led to an hour of uncontrolled sobbing. It was the first time, since this most recent rash of state-sanctioned murders of black people, that my mind allowed me to feel the full weight of the moment. Tears are streaming down my face as I type.
Our pain is too much to bear in isolation. The anger is too strong. The ball in our chest takes up too much space, making it hard to breathe. Our mental health demands that we stand shoulder to shoulder with people who know and respect our trauma. Any one of us could be the next to die.
White America is finally acknowledging the terror that law enforcement has waged upon black and brown communities, even though the evidence has been there for decades, for centuries. A few months after my terrifying experience in 1990, video of Rodney King’s brutal beating flashed across America — but the police officers were acquitted, sending a clear message: Black lives do not matter.
We are demanding that America reckon with the trauma caused by institutionalized racism and brutality. Our fight to defund the police is part of a fight to live free of physical and mental trauma. Oversized police budgets are buying armor, tear gas, riot gear, even tanks. This spending reflects a conscious decision to prioritize use-of-force strategies that terrorize people.
Localities don’t have to choose to fund terror. Instead, they can use those funds for healing and opportunity, for social workers, substance abuse counselors and conflict mediators, for affordable housing, job training programs and schools.
Defund the police. Defund racist, aggressive and inhumane systems. Defund everything that continues to traumatize people like me. Fund compassion, love, hope and opportunity instead.
Dawn Blagrove leads Emancipate NC, a criminal justice advocacy organization founded in 1975 that helps North Carolina’s people free themselves from mass incarceration and structural racism.