Saikou Speaks: If You Don’t Know, Now You Know
By Saikou Camara
In modern history, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has emerged as the most visible and sustained collective mobilization for racial justice in the United States and arguably in the Global West. The movement keeps growing while unequivocally centering the social, economic, and political experiences of black communities on its agendas and actions. It has also explored a commitment to working in political solidarity with other groups facing injustice in the U.S. These groups consist of all minorities, people of color, whites and or non-whites, demonstrating the movement’s potential to advance cross-racial/cultural coalitions on issues ranging from immigrant rights to environmental justice to Islamophobia. I have marched alongside BLM movement protesters on multicultural issues such as with the American Indian communities during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. I have marched with them to protest for women’s rights. And I have marched with them against anti-immigration bills by the Trump Administration (Muslim and refugee bans). The BLM movement has proven to be larger than a single agenda entity even though the genesis of the movement is fighting for racial justice for African Americans.
Black Lives Matter has arguably become the most prominent racial and social justice movement since the civil rights and black power movements of the mid-twentieth century. And recently, anyone not living under a rock will notice that there is a huge public outcry for justice following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the hands of four Minnesota police officers. This incident was preceded by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by a father and son neighborhood vigilante duo. And the murder of Breonna Taylor by police officers in Kentucky in a mistaken “no knock” drug raid into her apartment in the middle of the night. This chain of violent killings of black lives triggered a series of nation-wide protests. I must also disclose that even though these were the most recent incidents, the protests were equally inspired by other social and racial injustices, largely of police brutality, which made all people of good conscience and of all races and backgrounds come together to condemn inequality and demand justice for all; especially for black lives. As usual, since 2016, I too participated in multiple marches in multiple cities. I received commendations, but also a lot of condemnations in many forms, especially coming from my African brothers and sisters in the diaspora. They came in all fashions. Some came in the form of cautionary statements. And some were just blatantly mean spirited and foul. I have been called a hypocrite for fighting for black lives in America when black lives are suffering and dying in Africa. Some challenged me that I should be focusing on advising the African American community to stop “black on black crimes”.
I am just going to go outright and say this. Since I am the author of this article, and I have a say in what goes in it and what doesn’t, I won’t talk about “black on black crimes”, at least not today. Crime is a legitimate concern in the black community, but it is often used as a distraction and abrasive tactic by white supremacy propagandists and sympathizers to sway conversations away from focusing on social injustice and police brutality.
Allow me the latitude to give you a brief personal experience and my emotional attachment to the Black Lives Matter movement.
I attended Rust College (HBCU in Holly Springs, MS). One day, while visiting Memphis, Tennessee (the same city Martin Luther King was assassinated in), I was driving my friend’s older sister’s car. My friend was with me sitting on the front passenger seat. As we were driving, we saw the blue and red lights flashing behind us. I pulled over wondering what I did wrong. Is it a broken taillight? Did I miss a stop sign? Did I fail to signal at a turning lane? Did I drive past a red light? Am I driving over the speed limit? I thought of many things, but not once did I imagine what was to come next.
The officer walked up to me and asked for my driver’s license, insurance, and vehicle registration. I provided him with all the documents he requested. He then asked if we were smoking drugs (weed) and I told him no. He said our vehicle smelled like weed and then sarcastically said it must be my cologne then. At this point I didn’t know what to say because I don’t smoke, and the owner of the car does not smoke any form of narcotics. And last I checked, Sean John “Unforgivable” cologne does not smell like weed. I have been wearing that same cologne since I came to America. And the officer walked to his vehicle.
Moments later, backup police cars arrived on the scene. One of the officers asked me and my friend to step outside of the car. He said our vehicle fits a car involved in armed robbery that took place earlier. At this point we were scared out of our minds. By the way the officer was black. He asked me my name and I told him. He asked my friend his name and he told him “Muhammed”. This is where things took a turn.
He put handcuffs on me and sat me at the back of his patrol car. He sat my friend on the street pavement. At this point people were standing across from the street watching us get harassed along the busy Winchester road. This was before people started recording cell phone videos, they were just watching. I was so embarrassed and shaking in fear even though I did nothing wrong. That was my first encounter with the police in my life. The first time I had handcuffs put on me. And the first time I was put in a police car. I didn’t know if I was getting arrested or going to jail for a crime I know nothing about. Moments later after interrogating my friend, the officer came back to me and said I’ll give you one more chance, lie to me again and I’ll turn this camera off and “fuck you up” (referring to the police dashboard camera). I’m getting emotional just writing this. He then asked, “now, where did you get this fake driver’s license from and what is your real name?”. I told him my name and that the license is not fake. He said I don’t look African and I’m disguising under a fake African accent. Yes, he said I don’t look African and I gave him a fake name and using a fake accent. I thought maybe it was the baggy white Tee’s (t-shirt), baggy pants, and Air Force One sneakers I had on. But how could that possibly make me an armed robbery suspect? I started second guessing myself like every black man would have in the same situation. Maybe if I was dressed more appropriately, whatever that means, they would have let us go.
He did a similar thing with my friend. He accused him of using a fake name and accent and threatened to “fuck him up” if he doesn’t come clean.
He went back and spoke to the other fellow white officers and a few moments later they said we are free to go, it’s a mistaken identity. No apologies and no other explanations. I didn’t understand my rights as a person in the U.S.A at the time. I didn’t think about getting their badge numbers and making a complaint against the officers. I was just relieved and glad that they let us go.
We got back into our car and drove away. We stayed in silence without speaking a word to each other. We never discussed or talked about it again. We didn’t know what had happened, but we both knew deep down in our souls that that was not right. In retrospect, we were profiled, harassed, and verbally abused just like many young African American males’ experience daily in America. That day I knew my name, my accent, my culture, my religion, my nationality, my education status, means nothing in this country. To some people I’m black, a young black male for that matter and that’s enough reason for them. I fit their description and profile. I have learned that as a Muslim African immigrant in America, I can conceal my nationality, religion, and even sexuality if need be, but one thing I will never be able to conceal is my blackness.
Other police officers were present. They didn’t intervene or stop him. If he had physically harmed us, it would have been our words against theirs. This is one of many reasons why I stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement!
But that was a one-off situation for me as an African in America. However, that is the daily reality of many young African American men. I am privileged to understand that that was not my everyday reality. I immigrated to the U.S.A in 2004 from West Africa, The Gambia, the birth country of arguably the most famous slave in history, Kunta Kinteh. I earned both of my college degrees from Historical Black Colleges (Rust College and Jackson State University). This is because someone fought for blacks to have the right to be educated, but not only that, they went further to establish institutions I benefited from. I now have a very nice coveted job in Corporate America. I get paid well for what I do, and I am very good at what I do. Maybe partly because somebody fought for affirmative action. I am not naïve; I understand that left to some people alone, people with my skin color will never see a day in Corporate America. Affirmative action was initiated by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson (1963–69) in order to improve opportunities for African Americans while civil rights legislation was dismantling the legal basis for discrimination. I now live in a very nice “safe neighborhood” with many amenities. Largely thanks to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (influenced by Bernard Garrett & Joseph Morris), a federal law that “makes it unlawful to refuse to sell, rent to, or negotiate with someone because of their race, gender, religion, etc.” The Act passed a week after Martin Luther King’s assassination. I travel around America freely and get invited to speak at very important places, sleep in very posh hotels, and dine in the best restaurants with the finest cuisines. Largely thanks to The Civil Rights Act of 1964 that hastened the end of legal Jim Crow of segregation (whites only privileges) to all social, commercial, and public amenities and services.
Allow me to digress here for a moment. Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Dubois Pan African movement were very prominent during the fight for the liberation and independence of Africa. The 5th Pan African Congress held in the United Kingdom, in 1945, were attended by prominent African freedom fighters such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jumo Kenyatta, among others. And the issue of all African countries becoming independent was an integral part of the gathering (agenda). Moreover, W.E.B Dubois and his wife, Shirley Graham Dubois, participated in fighting for Ghana’s independence and eventually moved to Ghana by renouncing their U.S. citizenship when Ghana finally attained her independence in 1957, making her the first African country to gain her independence from the British. African Americans as a community have always been allies to Africa. Even when they were fighting against Jim Crow for their own rights, they never missed an opportunity to stand in solidarity with colonized Africa and our struggle for independence.
I understand that my freedom and success today in America didn’t just come to me because of my intelligence and hard work. I am very aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of the African American community who paved the way for people like me to come to this country and live freely and in abundance. And many, if not all of the things they fought for came through the bitter labor of hard-fought protests in various cities and states across America. The African American had to fight to end slavery, they had to fight to end Jim Crow, they had to fight for the rights of minorities to vote, they had to fight with their blood, sweat, and tears for every single right I enjoy today. They marched when they had the barrel of the gun pointed (and still pointing) at them. They marched when they were being shot at. They marched when they were sprayed with hoses and water tanks. They marched when they were chased with police dogs. They marched when they were lynched and hanging down from tree branches. They marched when they were beaten and firebombed. They marched when they were being killed for marching. They never stopped marching and because they didn’t despair, I am here today. I therefore not only have the responsibility, but also a duty, to march hand in hand with my African American brothers and sisters today. I may march scared, afraid, and tired, but nonetheless, I will keep marching with the Black Lives Matter movement.
But for many Africans, especially those in the diaspora, who are privileged by virtue of education, status, class, caste, or immigration status, my personal experience and emotional attachment with the Black Lives Matter movement may not resonate. African Immigrants have the highest level of degree attainment in the United States (mostly thanks to the highly educated Nigerian community). Many have climbed the social ladder in the American classism/social structure. They live in nicely gated communities. They sit in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. They acquire very nice coveted jobs in Corporate America. They attend some of the best Predominantly White Institutions (colleges and universities). And are often told by their Caucasian friends and colleagues that they are “different”. I applaud them for their very deserving accomplishments. I admire their intelligence and exemplification of true black excellence. However, I have also heard and seen some of them calling protesters “looters/rioters” and differentiating themselves as model blacks and not one of this violent crime loving African Americans. And some who remain silent about the plight of the African American in America remain indifferent to understanding the history of Black liberation struggles that paved the way for their own families to immigrate and enjoy benefits in America. Some are silent and apathetic, seemingly oblivious to the civil unrest happening around them. Getting more Africans to understand the importance of dismantling the systems of white supremacy is not going to be an easy task, especially when some actively support the current Trump Administration despite its anti-immigrant policies.
I am not expecting everyone to go out in the streets to protest (like I do), but I expect every African in the diaspora to stand in solidarity with the African American community even if they themselves have never been impacted/affected by racial injustice. We must continue to amplify the importance of solidarity with African American communities and undo anti-Blackness (here means African Africans) within our own people. That means explaining how white supremacy and racism are devastating all people of color including (Africans). It means acknowledging that the full liberation of the African American communities and the success of the BLM movements leads to the freedom of all people. It means explaining that when we perpetuate anti-Blackness, that we are being complicit ourselves in reinforcing systems of oppression that harm our own people too. And it means coming from a place of love and compassion. It means our freedom and liberty as Black Africans are directly tied to the freedom of all blacks. Unless black lives matter everywhere, black lives won’t matter anywhere.
And that my friends, in the words of Notorious B.I.G aka Biggy Smalls, “if you don’t know, now you know”.
Black Lives Matter, now, and forever!