Comment: What 526 horrible seconds of video brought to mind

For a black man in Washington state, George Floyd’s death is a disturbing reminder of racism’s legacy.

By John Lovick / For The Herald

My name is John Lovick. I am the former acting speaker of the Washington state House of Representatives, Snohomish County Executive, sheriff, state trooper, and Coast Guard veteran. I am a husband, father, and grandfather. I am a black man.

The first time I saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, I cried like a baby. It reminded me of everything I’ve left behind and everything I continue to carry with me in memory and nightmare: segregation, silent lynchings in the night, the hopelessness and anger of being treated as less than human. And in those 526 seconds that drag on forever, I remembered my life, the life of a black man who escaped, a life that just as easily could have ended under a police officer’s knee or shot while sitting at home or walking in a park.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s outside Natchitoches, in segregated Louisiana, every day was about survival. Making it from home to school to the cotton fields and back home; in one piece, that was the tricky part. You didn’t look at a white person. You didn’t speak to a white person. And you definitely didn’t touch a white person; they made that crystal clear.

Natchitoches was the type of forgotten backwater where police officers wore blue in the day and white at night. You could sit down with your uncle, your cousin, your dad for lunch on Monday and be at his funeral the following Sunday. Without electricity and hardly a TV in the neighborhood, I often didn’t hear Martin Luther King Jr., but we all knew the name Emmett Till.

I remember the first time I felt — really felt, in my bones and in my stomach — what it meant to be black in America. Sitting in the back row of Allen High School for Negroes, I saw the boxes of school books wheeled in. The oldest, stained, pages-missing, hand-me-down books charitably “donated” by the white school across town. Packed into boxes marked as “N****** books,” “These books for the n******s,” and in big, bold capital letters: “NEGRO.”

That kind of thing stays with a 7-year-old kid. The hurt. The fear. The knowledge that you are different and unwelcome and only deserving of the oldest, rattiest books because of the blackness of your skin, and there is not one thing in this world that can change that.

As I watched George Floyd’s life slip away, I thought about police brutality and the nearly four decades I spent in a law enforcement uniform. I loved going to work every day for the Washington State Patrol. Behind the wheel of that patrol car, I felt invincible. I felt powerful in a way that only someone who knows profound powerlessness can truly feel. But it was also a challenge to be at work.

This was at the height of the War on Drugs and I saw horrible things. The callousness with which human lives were treated — especially those humans who were poor and black — will haunt me til the day I die. Since then, I have had the great honor of serving our communities as a lawmaker and sheriff. I’ve experienced moments of the deepest sorrow and others of total redemption, but I only thought of one when I watched George Floyd’s death: Jan. 11, 1999. I was being sworn into the Legislature and my almost 90-year-old grandma was coming to see the ceremony; it was her first time ever at a state Capitol, she hadn’t been allowed into the capitol building back in Louisiana.

When I parked my car in front of those big Capitol steps, she asked, “But where are we going to go in?” To a person used to sitting at the back of the bus and shunted through side doors, those steps splayed out in front of Grecian columns each bigger than the house I grew up in, I understood her doubts. I said “Grandma, we’re going in right there in the front.”

And we did. Up all 45 stairs, tears streaming down her face. A woman who spent her whole life as a sharecropper, working like a dog in someone else’s cotton fields, the granddaughter of a Louisiana slave, walked up those 45 gleaming, white marble steps of the Capitol to watch her grandson sworn into the state Legislature. That is what our nation is all about.

But when the video ended, I was still crying. I was crying for George Floyd. I was crying for Breonna Taylor. I was crying for Emmett Till and Martin Luther King and my 5-year-old self, picking cotton under the baking Louisiana sun for two cents a pound, stubbornly praying for “one day…” I was crying for my children who will never know segregation, but are still forced to internalize oppression from the moment they can talk.

And I was crying for my grandma who missed out on so much but never stopped believing that one day, that long arc of the moral universe would finally bend all the way toward a world of peace and justice and common understanding. I have just one more thing to say before we get back to the mountain of work ahead of us: Black Lives Matter.

State Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, represents the 44th Legislative District.

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