“Go back to your f*cking country.”
I could hear my heart beating in my ears. The man was bald, white, middle-aged with extremely sharp features; he wasn’t too tall, but tall enough to take me down. I had been minding my own business, jamming to a new song by The Valley on my AirPods while taking the N train to Coney Island. Just another Tuesday evening. But he stood there glaring at me, making me anxious, and when I finally looked up, it was to scream those words at me. I haven’t been alone on the subway since.
As a brown woman in America—“the land of the free”—I have never felt safe living alone, and the fact that I cannot turn to “our protectors,” the police, for security scares me. Living in New York, I have faced racism in more forms than I can name. Every day I step out, I feel at risk; despite last year's protest and the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, standing up for yourself still remains out of reach. Seeing women of color throughout history like Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai and Sasha Johnson stand up for themselves inspires me to do the same, but then I remember the price they all had to pay for it and my anger converts back to fear.
People of color all over the United States struggle to feel protected every day. Only 42 percent of Black Americans trust the police compared to 77 percent of white Americans. These numbers reveal the racial chasm within a sense of basic security. Last year the world witnessed turmoil as large swaths of the country united in the Black Lives Matter protests demanding justice for George Floyd and the Black community.
The movement spread to other parts of the world, inspiring people in other countries such as the United Kingdom to demand protection of their Black communities. Although it started formally in 2016, the U.K.’s Black Lives Matter movement was rekindled with renewed attention in 2020 as three thousand protesters gathered in Nottingham, along with similar protests in other parts of the country, such as Birmingham, Manchester and London. Although the American news did cover some of these protests, there wasn’t enough recognition given to them, especially in social media.
This summer, Sasha Johnson, a 27-year-old activist, became the face of the movement in the U.K. She has been a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter as she took part in last year’s U.K. protests. Her role as an activist expanded with the rise in anti-racism protests. Johnson had also participated in the Kill the Bill protests in 2020, demanding to reform the crime bill which gave police more power in handling nonviolent protests. She is also an active member of the Taking The Initiative Party in the U.K. which addresses issues such as education, housing and discrimination. While the group supports the Black Lives Matter movement, it is not officially associated with the BLM organization.
By the time Johnson attended a silent disco in a private residence in Peckham, London, on the night of May 23, 2021, she had been receiving death threats for around one month. At 3 a.m. four men within the Peckham house shot Johnson in the head. Surviving but in critical condition, she was rushed to a hospital where a vigil quickly formed. The trial for Johnson began soon afterward, but no witnesses from the party stepped forward, even when Johnson’s mother begged them to.
Two days after the shooting, five suspects were arrested and one was later charged. The 18-year-old male charged for the shooting was suspected of possessing a dangerous weapon, but current evidence tying him to the shooting is thin. On June 12, another teenager was charged with conspiracy to murder Johnson and on June 17, two more men were charged. All the four men pled not-guilty in court. The trial for Johnson continues and so does her struggle to live. Johnson remains in critical condition after two surgeries to release pressure from her brain. Her team of doctors have classified her injuries as “life-changing.”
The Black activist is a mother of two children, who currently have no idea whether their mother will live or not. She has achieved so much and led an entire movement at the mere age of 27; but at what cost? After all she did for her community, she was brutally shot and seemingly forgotten by the world. And not even one single person of the 30 people who attended the party the night stepped forward to testify.
Is this what she deserved for standing up for her rights? Is that all this world offers women of color?
After one whole year of fighting for basic human rights for the Black community, it feels like we are back to where we started. The support Black Lives Matter received last year has decreased as the movement has lost its spotlight. In June 2020, the support for the BLM movement in the U.S. was at its peak. According to a survey, 60 percent of white Americans and 77 percent of the Hispanic community supported the movement. But these numbers have dropped to 45 percent and 66 percent, respectively. This drop in support is evident in all racial groups outside the Black community. It seems like a never-ending cycle of struggle and suffering; once every few years people get incited and initiate a movement only to resort back to being the oblivious bystanders they were in a prejudiced and racist society.
Being a South Asian woman in America is not easy. Every day someone from my country, my community, is harassed and discriminated against due to the color of their skin. Every other day my friends have some horror story to share. However, not every form of discrimination is obvious and many people are willfully unaware of the fear they are manifesting in others. People casually pass racist comments without being aware of how offensive it is. My first week in college, some guy had the audacity to tell me, “You are pretty for a brown girl.”
Sometimes I get so frustrated and angry that I just can’t take it anymore. How can people be so insensitive? Why does the color of my skin define who I am? But then I think of the terrorizing consequences Sasha Johnson had to face for fighting for herself. All she did was stand up for her basic human rights and she was brutally shot for it. It’s terrifying.
Living in this constant state of fear and anxiety is exhausting. Standing up for yourself still does not seem like an option. They say we live in “the land of the free,” but do we when 40 percent of the population doesn’t have the right to defend that freedom?
Photo: Sasha Johnson at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest; screengrab courtesy of The Telegraph.