Michelle Martin

We cannot be silent

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

I was thinking I would write about ending the school year at home this week, about how grateful I am to the teachers who worked harder than ever to help their students learn under circumstances that no one ever imagined or planned for.

Or maybe how the pandemic has changed the rhythm of my neighborhood, with more people out walking dogs during the day and the way the empty parking lot across the street has been used by people for everything from hitting a tennis ball against the wall to teaching their kids how to ride a bike. So many kids are going to come out of this riding on two wheels.

Or even about how where I live, the pandemic is a private crisis. The most visible sign of the pandemic in my neighborhood, besides the people wearing masks, is a van with a notice painted on its windows. “21 days on a ventilator. 12 days in recovery. Our dad came home today. Hope is greater than fear.”

But I can’t do that, because to not address the crisis of racial violence — of violence against black people, in particular, violence perpetrated by those sworn to serve and protect, in particular — is to be complicit.

I will not say the crisis was caused by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, because the crisis existed long before that. Nor was it created by the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor or here in Chicago, Bettie Jones, Quintonio LeGrier or Laquan McDonald. The list goes on and on and on.

George Floyd’s death was only the latest flashpoint in a crisis not years but centuries in the making.

I cannot condone the damage to property and theft that has occurred, or violence perpetrated against first responders. But neither can I condone police driving cars into crowds of people, kicking people who are sitting on the ground, shooting tear gas at people with their hands up. I cannot condone the deliberate targeting — shooting with rubber bullets and gas or arresting journalists who are there to show the world what is happening.

And while I cannot condone the violence, I wonder if the journalists would be there if the protests were entirely peaceful, or if they were expected to stay that way.

I wonder why police have managed to not overreact to provocation from white protesters brandishing guns, carrying signs demanding to be allowed to get a haircut. Would black protesters carrying weapons be met the same way?

That’s the root of it, and it goes back to the pandemic. At my child’s mostly white Catholic school, students have been engaged in distance learning from the first day the doors of the school building were closed. Teachers have worked with families to figure out how to do this, and while it’s not the same as having school, it has been productive.

That hasn’t necessarily been the case for families who do not have the same resources we and most of Teresa’s classmates have.

Neither has the COVID-19 pandemic been so invisible in the Chicago area’s black and Latino communities, which have been hit much harder. Infection and death rates in black and brown neighborhoods have far outstripped those in white neighborhoods, exposing and exacerbating the deadly effects of structural and institutional racism on communities.

If I am going to say that all lives matter, I must also say that black lives matter. There is no other choice.


  • racism
  • family life