This personal essay is part of the Chalkbeat Student Takeover: a weeklong project meant to elevate the voices of students at this pivotal moment in America. Read more from the takeover here.
The first hint of revolution came shrouded in the smoke that rose from a burning police cruiser at the intersection of State and Lake in Downtown Chicago. I saw that same revolution on protesters’ faces after they were beaten by police, and in the glass that spread on the sidewalks beyond storefront windows. I heard it in the frightened, raw laughter that my friends and I shared when we found ourselves stranded Downtown after the 9 p.m. curfew. What were we laughing at? The pain that slinked through our backs and feet; the sweat upon our foreheads; the prospect that justice might spring from the protest.
The story of civil unrest in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is complex, to say the least. The protests against police brutality and racism are happening in the throes of a virus that disproportionately kills Black people. Looting in Chicago centered on Black neighborhoods, endangering the very lives the protests aim to save. Many of these neighborhoods were already service deserts, where places to fill prescriptions and purchase fresh foods can be hard to find in the best of times.
Were the protests — including the damage they caused, and the potential risks they carried of spreading the coronavirus further — worth it? Did looting and violence have to happen in order to replace a system that has so long oppressed Black Americans? In short: What poses a greater threat to Black people, a pandemic or the police?
Some of the actions taken in the wake of the protests give me hope that the damage incurred is a fair price for the prospect of change: the four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have been charged; the city of Los Angeles has moved to cut $150 million in funding from the LAPD; Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was slain by police, has banned no-knock warrants; and the Minneapolis City Council has announced plans to replace the police force with a community-led model. But we have yet to see the institutional change needed to set right the wrongs of history and its progeny.
Here are changes I believe we need to make on a national level: Remove police departments from public schools and reallocate those funds to counselors, librarians, and psychologists; redirect millions of dollars in police funding toward social services to allow for trained professionals to respond to nonviolent calls; and emphasize community policing in officers’ training. Until these kinds of systemic changes happen, we’re relying on hope and patchwork policies, which ultimately fail to address the roots of institutional racism.
Even without knowing the result of this strife, I am proud to have flooded the streets with my contemporaries to destroy an inequitable and racist system. We did so in the hope that we might construct a better one based on our sacred self-evident truths. Regardless of the outcome, I am proud that I and thousands of youth took part in this fight — equal parts joyous and terrifying and maddening and gorgeous. Perhaps that in itself bodes well for the future of our nation.
Finley Williams, 17, is a rising senior at Lane Tech College Prep in Chicago. She has lobbied Chicago Public Schools to change its 2019-20 remote learning grading policy and is the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Warrior.