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Royson James: ‘I’m a privileged Black guy ... and I can’t breathe’: A younger generation searches for hope amid the George Floyd protests

Royson James: ‘I’m a privileged Black guy ... and I can’t breathe’: A younger generation searches for hope amid the George Floyd protests
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I’m a privileged Black guy living in one of the most blessed nations on Earth, in a middle-class, predominantly Jewish, Toronto neighbourhood, under COVID lockdown with my lawyer son, student daughter and teacher wife.

Insulated, yes — but always visible. And I can’t breathe.

The older I get the deeper it hurts to breathe — to free myself from this daily grinding down of Black bodies and African souls.

It’s expected, recurring and debilitating: it’s an excruciatingly familiar nightmare of a sunken place from which, despite protest and riots, and medical school and Princeton valedictorians, and “We Shall Overcome” choruses, the Black bodies are unable to get out.

A half a century in this land where my parents brought me up on a domestic maid’s wage and an hospital orderly’s salary, and I still can’t breathe.

A lot of people are marching, talking, venting, apologizing, listening, asking questions, trying to comprehend a story arcing back to 1619 in the West, with a 2020 Minneapolis climax. The moment feels different, but didn’t the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr.? Didn’t Rodney King, Eric Garner?

It feels like a different time and a different season. But I’m jaded, exhausted, prone to bouts of despair. I’ve lived through too many promising moments, forgotten, broken. So I ask my sons how they see their place in the world, circa COVID 2020.

“There is progress, dad. These protests are different than Ferguson or the civil rights movement.” That’s Sheldon, the elder of the boys. “Look at the protest crowds, the mix, people taking a knee like Colin Kaepernick and cops taking a knee as a peace sign and turning in their officers. This is different. Black Lives Matter was viewed as a terrorist organization and now protesters are taking a knee holding a #BLM sign. It’s the perfect storm — and you have Donald Trump throwing gasoline on the fire.”

Darnell is less sure. “Time will tell. It’s a perfect storm and it creates opportunity for people to make some changes, but what I do see is that some of the outrage is convenient outrage that will disappear soon.

“We are in the minority. Until the majority care about the injustice, there is little hope for sweeping changes. Until they actually look at the video and become educated because it tugs at their heartstrings or tugs at their wallets for fear of their businesses being burned down, nothing will change.”

Both think it will take a deep, broad, massive, concerted effort — activists, protesters, organizers, allies, voters, disrupters who burn and create havoc — to keep people’s attention on the injustice of anti-Black racism.

Ending carding in Toronto was so easy, once white people got embarrassed by it, hopped up to city hall, confronted the mayor and demanded an end. Why did the police board, Mayor John Tory present, ignore the cries of Black citizens who literally shed tears begging for its end? Because they did not value the messengers, until the messengers looked like them.

“For me personally, it is not enough for my non-Black friends to simply not be racist. If you’re my friend you need to be ANTI-Racism. To get rid of weeds you have to root it out completely. You don’t treat weeds by cutting the grass,” said Darnell.

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The key action will be global focus and government legislation — on the level of the climate change movement, for example — that pours money and police reforms and tax credits and political energy and research and education into an unrelenting push to slay this dragon.

“This whole thing needs to lead to reparations — the dreaded ‘R’ word,” Sheldon posits. That’s a mountain to scale another day.

“This horror sets us up to tackle this historic wrong. It’s a perfect storm of events, but it’s still a house of cards. If any one of these things don’t happen, we are stalled where we are. But this must unite us. My job is to build on the fight of the people who came before — a fight that may last 50 lifetimes. My role is to carry the baton and to leave the place better than the one left me.”
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