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This is now

Feeling safe and valuing life are at the heart of these protests

By Genevieve Oswald
Posted 6/12/20

On Wednesday (June 3) just after 2 p.m. hundreds of protestors lay down in the street and stopped traffic for nearly nine minutes at the intersection of U.S. Highway 64 and State Road 68.

The demonstration was the second of the week, protesting for the Black Lives Matter cause and against the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Both protests were spearheaded by local Taoseña Salman Lee.

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Tempo

This is now

Feeling safe and valuing life are at the heart of these protests

Posted

On Wednesday (June 3) just after 2 p.m. hundreds of protestors lay down in the street and stopped traffic for nearly nine minutes at the intersection of U.S. Highway 64 and State Road 68.

The demonstration was the second of the week, protesting for the Black Lives Matter cause and against the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Both protests were spearheaded by local Taoseña Salman Lee.

Lee doesn't necessarily consider herself an activist saying, "The only way I would consider myself [an activist] is just by existing. I guess if you can consider that activism then, yeah, I'm an activist. But this is the first time in my life that I've really done anything of this magnitude."

Lee is an openly queer black transitioning female - her struggle for basic dignity is fought every day. Black trans women are often the victims of violent crime; from this perspective Lee's life is an act of courage and revolution.

When I asked her what life was like for her in Taos compared to that of a black person living elsewhere in America, she told me that it was hard for her "as somebody who is a conglomerate of a lot of minority things, to be able to weigh out and separate exactly what people are judging me for. But hate is hate, judgment is judgment, and bigotry is bigotry. I'm not actively worrying about why you're hating me in those moments - I'm just trying to get to my car to feel safe."

Feeling safe is a basic human need and human right. Not feeling safe in the care of those paid to protect you is a daily experience for many Americans for good reason. They are not safe, nor are they white.

Feeling safe and valuing life is at the heart of these protests. In the view of Nikesha Breeze, a local black artist (recently the winner of The Paseo Project's first artist residency), longtime resident and mother, "Black bodies and brown bodies have been devalued and not valued in this society since they arrived 400 years ago - since white colonialism, white settling and white supremacy - since they arrived in this place and started killing indigenous people."

The death of George Floyd is only one death in a long list of black Americans killed unjustifiably and with brutal and unnecessary force; his death was the match that lit the nation on fire.

The protest was underway for over an hour before the protestors lay face down in the street. Hundreds of people lined the streets and chanted, waving signs and mostly wearing masks. Passersby honked, cheered and stuck their fists out their windows into the air.

The black fist of power, the symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, is meant as a reminder that the struggle is not over and the power to overcome the struggle is real. In Taos we have seen many fists of color rise up in the face of colonialism and say no to subjugation and yes to freedom. Fists up in the air have long indicated rising in the face of adversity.

The lie-in was led by Breeze, who unlike Lee, does consider herself an activist. Breeze remarked, "My whole life I have been involved in protest. All of my work is about embodied social and spiritual action."

Breeze was inspired by protestors in Portland to lead the lie-in. "When I saw all of those bodies on the ground it made me think of how many black people have felt the feeling of being shoved down to the ground with a knee on their neck," Breeze said. "In [leading the lie-in] I was thinking two things: one the necessary disruption. To actually disrupt people's lives for those nine minutes, I felt that was really necessary. Even if people got angry.

"And the second thing was that it was nonviolent protest. That we weren't violent. There was no way to see that action as violence," said Breeze. Some people did get angry and others got out of their cars and joined in. One protestor who lay in the street face down spoke of how moving it was, how she was crying and looking to both sides and seeing others she knew crying, too. The experience was visceral as Beeze intended.

This protest is about more than police violence; it's about systemic injustice to black America and by proxy the systemic injustice to all the people of color and economically oppressed of America, which likely means you or your neighbor or both. The spectrum of injustice is broad and only starts with police brutality.

Breeze said of the matter "This is a problem that is about more than a bad apple [in a police department]. I think it is time for the police departments and the governments to realize that. This is a widespread systemic issue of racial injustice that has gone on for a long time and is deeply embedded within our systems, and particularly within our judicial and policing systems. The system has been set up as a way of oppressing black bodies. And so, I ask our government and our police to look at what kind of education they need, and directly at anti-racist education."

There is currently no Black Lives Matter chapter in Taos or in New Mexico. Lee and Breeze are in conversation with other New Mexico communities and Black Lives Matter main offices regarding the creation of one. There is also a formal request out to Mayor Dan Barrone and the town of Taos to pledge to become a My Brother's Keeper Community and enact the Eight Can't Wait Policies.

Because this conversation is an old one it is easy to be complacent about it, to be apathetic to the cause or even disgruntled by it. But this fight is worth knowing about, educating yourself about and fighting in - especially as outlier Americans.

It is like Lee says, that "in order for anything to happen or for any change to be effective white people are going to have to be equally as outraged as we are. And I think that is why this moment is so palpable. And that is why I decided to do [a protest] here in Taos. We have never had this amount of attention on the injustice of our justice system - specifically toward black people. It's amazing. How amazing for black people would it be if this was the last time we had to be so angry and take into the streets like this?"

This worldwide protest invites us to change our perspectives.

Since the protest a quote has been posted on the marquee of the Taos Center for the Arts reminding us of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It reads: "The time is always right to do what is right."

An excellent reminder to our already strong and brave community. The time is now.

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