This Friday, we celebrate Juneteenth --- a holiday that receives little attention but holds special significance for me as a black man in America this year.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 when the last remaining slaves in America --- those enslaved in Texas --- learned of their freedom. It took nearly two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed for news to reach Texas.
I spent my early childhood in Texas before moving to Arizona. Throughout my childhood we never celebrated or even learned about Juneteenth. As an adult, I honor Juneteenth knowing not only the painful history of enslaved black people in America but having experienced the legacy of slavery that still exists in this country today.
I was formerly incarcerated in the Arizona Department of Corrections. As a juvenile locked up in the Durango Jail, I watched as mostly black kids were given a toothbrush and instructed to use it to scrub down the compound.
I experienced how the state relies on cheap prison labor to build highways, beautify government buildings, and cultivate agricultural products. I experienced how once a person has paid their debt to society, they continue to be punished by losing the right to vote and facing incredible barriers to gaining housing and employment.
And in the free world, although the City of Phoenix was integrated, black Arizonans didn’t dare go north of McDowell or Thomas Roads. We didn’t know roads like Camelback even existed. Because the minute we traveled out of south Phoenix, we were going to get pulled over by police or harassed by police.
They called south Phoenix the “inner city” because it quite literally meant “Stay In Your City.”
It is no surprise then why white Americans today might have never heard of Juneteenth. It is no surprise why some white Americans are unaware of, or refuse to believe, the stories of police violence that black people have been decrying since slavery ended.
I’ve seen police shoot and beat black people most of my life. I experienced it at the hands of corrections officers during my incarceration. People would be surprised how many black folks are in their graves right now at the hands of police. Their deaths were not caught-on-camera.
But George Floyd’s death was caught-on-camera. The world watched the horrific scene as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
The protests that have sparked across the nation since Mr. Floyd’s death are something I could never have imagined.
I lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I marched through the streets then, and I am watching the marching in the streets now. The crowds at today’s protests are the most diverse I’ve ever seen. It is one of the greatest acts of resistance and unity I have ever known.
I hate it had to happen the way it did. I hate the way it’s come about. I hate that George Floyd was killed by police and that other black folks are dying at the hands of police in the wake of these protests.
When I watch the marches in the streets and when I hear people demanding justice for George Floyd and Dion Johnson, a black man killed here in Arizona by a DPS trooper, I feel the tides turning.
Juneteenth celebrates the ending of slavery, but I want white America to know the legacy of slavery is still very much alive. We’ve never stopped being beaten. We’ve never stopped having three police officers on one, unarmed black man. We’ve never stopped feeling officers putting their knees in our backs and our faces in the hot pavement.
The unrest happening right now is going to change that. At 76 years old, I am now seeing the change in real-time. I am living to see it. I know it’s going to happen. It has to happen. Or the United States will fall because its people are not united.
Americans must start realizing that people are people. Human beings are human beings. We all live. We all die. We all have the same things going on in our lives.
To say Black Lives Matter does not mean that all lives do not matter. It means black lives never have mattered to America.
If black lives mattered to America, police would not be shooting and killing black people and facing no accountability for it. If black lives mattered to America, homicides that have a black victim would not have a much higher likelihood of going cold. If black lives mattered to America, black mothers wouldn’t die of pregnancy-related deaths at a rate of three times that of white mothers. If black lives mattered to America, black people wouldn’t be dying of COVID-19 at a much higher rate than their share of the U.S. population.
This Juneteenth, black Americans need people of all races to stand in solidarity with them. To listen, to learn, to sit in silence and reflect on how one’s own privileges and biases are causing harm to black people and the entire community.
To have the uncomfortable conversations with friends and family. To get involved with or donate to community organizations doing the work to dismantle white supremacy.
We must stand up and say, “Black Lives Matter” in every aspect of American society. From policing, to the underfunded education system, to the broken healthcare system.
Black lives matter. They do. And from now on, they always will in the minds of tens-of-thousands of people who never saw it the way they see it now. But let’s not forget how far we still have to go. And let’s not stop working toward true equity in America.
Editor’s Note: David Sheppard is the founder of Arizona Advocates for Ex-Offenders and an ACLU of Arizona Smart Justice Volunteer.