Protesters march along the streets to protest the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C., Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) North Carolina Protests Andrew Brown Jr. Shooting
Protesters march along the streets to protest the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C., Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

We can’t talk about police reform in North Carolina without talking about the racist origins of policing in America and in the South.

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new series of Cardinal & Pine pieces from North Carolinians called “Cardinal Voices.” We’ll feature North Carolinians from different backgrounds talking about the kitchen-table issues that matter directly to you, before they’re fodder in the state or federal legislature. Look for more of “Cardinal Voices” in the coming weeks and months.]

Hours after a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty for the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, Andrew Brown Jr.’s killing in Elizabeth City pushed North Carolina into the center of the racial justice conversation. Now, with footage finally emerging from the brutal arrest and killing of Ronald Greene in Louisiana, America grapples with the extinguishing of another Black life. 

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Just like Minneapolis police officers in the case of George Floyd, the Louisiana State Police lied in their 2019 reporting of Greene’s death, claiming he died when he crashed his car at the conclusion of a high-speed police chase. New video shows Greene was dragged from his vehicle by officers before being beaten, tased, and mocked as he pleaded for mercy.

Shortly following instances of police brutality against Black Americans, we often hear the phrase—”this was just the case of a bad apple!” 

That saying is derived from the old adage: “One bad apple spoils the bunch.” In America, however, the bunch was spoiled long before the recent rise in police violence against Black citizens caught on video. The injustices of today exist in a much broader, historical context, and that context matters.

Many Americans are learning more about how the system of policing in the United States, and particularly in the South, got its start in slave patrols. These patrol groups consisted mainly of Southern white men tasked with returning enslaved Black people to the plantations of bondage they desperately sought to escape. Many times, this method of capture and return included torture meant to discourage other enslaved Black people from leaving their plantations. 

There is no question that from police brutality, to environmental racism, to America’s racial wealth gap and more, there is both a necessity and desire for tangible change in this country. Acknowledging that each system currently existing in America was established under a white supremacy ideology, and being willing to have conversations about uprooting and transforming these structures to work for every American today is only one step along the path to change. 

The Big Three

To effect true change in this country, Americans must be willing to continually engage in what I refer to as “The Big Three”—education, protest, and policy change. The tenets of “The Big Three” are not meant to be tackled alone, but by communities willing to lift their voices together. By working with our colleagues, family members, neighbors, and friends, each of us can play our part in the “good trouble” necessary for systemic transformation. 

The reason education must be the foundation for change is because in working toward any solution, we must first understand why a solution is needed. Protesting injustice is the next pillar in the equation of true change, and is critical, as those unfairly wielding power must realize that there are people determined to hold them accountable. 

The third and final step—policy change—is the most essential. Codifying policies that uplift and protect Americans of all backgrounds is the only way to ensure lasting equitable treatment of our nation’s most marginalized. Only by cycling through “The Big Three” each time we witness injustice can America begin a true trek toward the “promised land” so often spoken about. 

As a young Black man in America, it pains me each and every time I observe an act of discrimination or brutalization against someone in my community.

It seems as though every time Black Americans take a breath, another Black American is assaulted, dehumanized, or murdered by people sworn to protect and serve us. The truth is, Black America has never had the luxury of operating in full comfort and security.

Since 1619, Black Americans have had to constantly watch our backs, be twice as good as white Americans, and be overly polite to diminish the chance that our lives could be instantly put in danger. 

When stories like Andrew Brown and Ronald Greene come to light, people often ask me, “Do you think America has progressed since the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s?” 

I respond by saying that while some aspects of the struggles endured by Black Americans in that time may have been alleviated due directly to the continued challenging of the oppressors by the oppressed, America hasn’t reconciled with the modern impacts stemming from its original sin of slavery. I say that the movement for civil rights never ended.

I say that the movement continues today and as long as a modicum of racism exists in America, we must unify to comprehend it, protest it, and change policies so that the racism is stomped out and its legacy cut short.