Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am a 20-year-old Asian-American man whose economic and racial privilege has sheltered me from experiencing the discrimination that Black Lives Matter stands against.
Don’t get me wrong. I have experienced and understand racism. I have been called racial slurs. People have followed me in stores. They have crossed the street, locked their car doors, or clutched their purses when they see me approaching. None of it compares to the pain that Black people experience every day.
I have never had a difficult or unreasonable interaction with law enforcement. I’ve never felt like there was a target on my back because of who I am. I don’t have to worry about my life at every moment due to my skin color.
Nonetheless, I became deeply passionate about racial injustice as I grew more receptive to the experiences of those around me.
I became conscious of racial injustice when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. I remember seeing the looks of defeat in the hallways of my Seattle middle school. I assumed most of these Black students were seeing for the first time why their parents had warned them and given them advice about how to deal with the police and other figures of authority.
For someone who had previously been ignorant to society’s injustices, Martin’s death was a sobering wake-up call.
Then, I remember learning in high school that a police officer shot a former student, MiChance Dunlap-Gittens, eight times in his own driveway during an undercover operation. Police were investigating a crime to which he had no connection. The fatal shot struck Gittens in the back of his head. He was 17 years old.
The same mixture of dejection and anger that had been present after Martin’s shooting coursed through the halls again. If Martin’s death was my wake-up call, Gittens’ was what galvanized me to reeducate myself.
Raising my voice
I couldn’t bring myself to watch the tweeted video of George Floyd’s final moments on the morning of May 26. I knew how it would end. I would hear helplessness and fear in his voice. I would see a cold and uncaring look on the officers’ faces.
I expected the response to be the same as any other time a Black life was taken at the hands of law enforcement acting with impunity. I thought there might be a week of protests and some hashtags on social media before people receded back to their comfortable silences. I didn’t think much would be done to change the fact that Black men are about 2.5 times as likely to be killed by the police as white men.
I went to the first protest on May 29 in Columbia with my roommate, Kirubel Mesfin, who photographed the event. It didn’t feel any different from protests I attended in the past, but I still had hope that maybe the movement would last.
As a kid, it was hard to grasp how I could make a difference on such an overwhelming issue. I still don’t know the answer, but what I do know is that I have a newfound confidence in voicing my feelings about racism.
I solidified this confidence when a group of my friends joined the protests at Country Club Plaza, a historically white and privileged shopping district in Kansas City, on May 31.
In the heat of the night
We arrived to the Plaza at about 4 p.m. Protests were expected to continue past the 8 p.m. curfew, and we planned to stay as long as we were safe. The crowd chanted, marched and faced off with law enforcement. According to KCUR, a local radio station, crowds surged to a couple thousand at the peak.
At one point, police unleashed pepper spray on the crowd. I hung back with the group while Kirubel was up front gathering footage. Suddenly, we heard shrieks and shouts.
I called Kirubel, and all I heard were the words “I got hit with pepper spray.” My heart dropped. I asked Kirubel to repeat what he said to make sure I’d heard correctly, and he confirmed what I didn’t want to believe.
I had my doubts throughout the day about how committed I would be if tensions boiled over, but hearing my friend say police pepper-sprayed him crossed a line I didn’t know existed. Kirubel was dragged into it, and now I was all in.
We headed down Kansas City’s Main Street as curfew approached. The sunset painted the sky fiery orange and pink above multiple blocks of protesters. The column of people was a blend of roaring dirt bikes, cars that blasted music, and gas mask-clad protesters who used traffic cones as extinguishers for tear gas canisters. The heat waves that rose off the pavement distorted the red and blue lights of the police cars.
The protestors collectively decided at 8 p.m. to head back toward the J.C. Nichols Fountain. The roles suddenly reversed as police began to close in and nip at our heels. Snipers perched on rooftops watched every inch of pavement and grass. It felt like we were cattle being herded toward a slaughterhouse.
A line of police in riot gear stood shoulder-to-shoulder across all seven lanes of Main Street. We continued to close the distance, and with just over a block remaining, I heard popping sounds. Then chaos ensued.
Screams of terror erupted on a scale I hadn’t heard before. Within seconds, I saw vapor rise from the front line within a hundred feet of the police. Realizing that tear gas was being fired, I grabbed my antacid spray and yelled Kirubel’s name. I eventually saw his head perk up, and we locked eyes. He worked his way to me through the sea of people, who all now moved backward up the hill to escape the gas.
Suddenly, I felt a burning sensation in my eyes. We approached the police line again after waiting several minutes for the chemicals to dissipate. But the gas canisters had already released their contents into the night air.
I felt the sting of the gas creep up again as I started to push Kirubel up the hill. Unlike before, the sting intensified as we trudged away. I wanted to run, but I knew that would only lead to more panic, so I tried to remain calm.
I heard someone behind me beg for water to wash his eyes. Kirubel was gone when I turned to help them. I frantically looked for Kirubel in the crowd, but the gas had ramped up and overwhelmed me. I don’t remember too much of what happened next.
After at least three or four minutes of blindly stumbling around, I opened my eyes again to find myself in a crowd at the top of a hill. My face and shirt were stained with a mixture of tears and antacid spray. I was unable to wipe away the crust around my eyes because traces of gas clung to my hands. My mask was soaked from choking and coughing.
Once I reconnected with my friends, Kirubel recounted the moment of our separation. He had closed his eyes because of the gas and grabbed a nearby shoulder thinking it was me. When he reopened his eyes, Kirubel realized he had grabbed the shoulder of a stranger and was lost among a crowd of people.
I don’t know if there is a way to truly explain the panic I felt in those few minutes, but Kirubel managed to find some words for it.
“Do you know what kind of fear you have when you’re in a crowd of 10,000, and you came with five other people, and you don’t know where they are?” Kirubel asked later while speaking to the crowd at a protest on June 9 in Columbia. “That fear that I had at that moment I know is nothing compared to being on the pavement for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and not being able to breathe.”
He’s absolutely correct. What we, and thousands of people across the world, have experienced during these protests will never compare to the terror Floyd felt as Derek Chauvin’s knee pressed into his neck. What he felt is real terror, the primal instincts that cause a grown man to call out for his deceased mother.
Other than the occasional rogue protesters throwing empty water bottles, I didn’t see anything throughout the night that would’ve provoked the police. Yet they indiscriminately fired tear gas at us and also used rubber bullets later on. They responded to cries to end police brutality with violence. They sowed terror through a crowd that resulted in mass stampedes of people half-blinded by tear gas.
Days later on June 4, we went back to Kansas City to protest. The police remained at least a block away from the crowd throughout the entirety of the night. There were no incidents or escalations, proving that police were the initial provocateurs that first night. The previous protests would have remained peaceful without their intervention.
Anyone who thinks systemic racism will somehow dissolve or be completely wiped away is living in a fantasy world. In that world, we somehow magically come up with an absolute cure for centuries of injustice. In that world, there is no way Jacob Blake gets shot seven times in the back after months of protests across the globe. In that world, Kyle Rittenhouse doesn’t kill two Kenosha protesters and injure another for believing Black lives matter.
But that world doesn’t exist. Instead, we have to face the reality of Blake being demonized and having his criminal history brought up as if that somehow justifies the police firing shots. We have to absorb the infuriating juxtaposition of Tamir Rice being gunned down for holding a toy gun while Rittenhouse got to walk past police officers carrying the weapon he used to spill more blood on streets that have been soaked with death this summer.
You might think my outlook is cynical. You would be right, I am. I am cynical that this country actually wants change. When peaceful protesters are met with violence and a loud opposition looking to discredit their every move, it is hard to be optimistic.
Asking for a complete dismantling of the racist systems that make up our society may seem like asking for the impossible, but it will be what forces progress. Even if that progress is painfully slow and incremental, I tried to step up.
I’m not a big talker, but this summer I was challenged to have conversations about systemic racism. In the middle of the summer, those discussions and the protests felt like the baby steps that would propel us toward change. Now I’m unsure.
There is value in public dialogue and protest because they can alter the mindset of individuals, though they might not affect the system that is changing at a glacial pace.
It’s horrifying that it took so long for the country to reach what appears to be a breaking point, but I think everyone involved can take some solace in knowing we are, at the very least, keeping the ball rolling.
Ian Laird is a junior at MU studying economics and journalism with an emphasis in multimedia reporting.
Editor’s note: Laird was charged with second-degree property damage related to sidewalk graffiti in July near the Thomas Jefferson statue on the MU campus. ￼