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Although we find ourselves in this new normal of social distancing, wearing masks, and battling this coronavirus pandemic, we must not forget the other problems that have been masked, that still plague America, like homelessness, joblessness, mass incarceration, and the fact that people of color in this country are still being prevented from breathing.

It’s disheartening to see all the riots and unrest happening around the country. But I also feel the pain of those marching in the streets after the killing of George Floyd. Watching that police officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes until Floyd cried out for his mother — “I can’t breathe!” I also feel enough is enough.

I believe the current system of structural violence in this country should take its knee off of all of our necks and allow us all to breath because we are human beings. But right now people are just hurting people and this is not the answer to obtaining justice and putting an end to the structural violence being perpetrated upon communities of color across the country.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “a riot is the language of the unheard.” It medicates the pain people feel from not being heard. But he didn’t condone rioting and in the end, the medicative qualities of riots are only temporary. The question is, how can we create the dialogue and the space for healing, so that people can be heard without rioting?

I was in South Central Los Angeles in 1992 when four white police officers were acquitted of charges of excessively beating a black motorist named Rodney King. I remember the shock I felt as the verdicts were read. I wondered how they could get away with that even though, in my mind, the tape clearly showed officers beating the hell out of King. I was angry, sad, and frustrated. I wanted justice. The whole city wanted justice. It felt like people of color across the country wanted justice. But justice was denied. So the people rioted.

The sentiment that day was simple. “It’s us against them” — the people of the city versus the police. I think everyone felt if the law didn’t apply to police, then why respect the law. The riots, in my mind, were a demonstration that if you don’t respect us, we don’t respect you. I don’t think we have ever gotten over this sentiment on either side of the isle.

Today many police officers, who are sworn to protect and serve the public, are not respected by the people in the communities they serve, and they don’t respect these communities. Many officers have taken on a sort of gang mentality. Many have become thugs in uniform who act as if people in the community are enemy combatants. In many cases officers are being trained to act hostile toward the community when they’re trained to participate in special gang or terrorist task force units. They are trained to think “it‘s us against them,” and it’s not supposed to be this way.

Police officers are public servants and many of them need to be reminded of the role they play in the communities they serve. They should be taught to be the bigger person and make every effort to heal their broken relationships with communities of color across America.

Violence is not gonna make this world better. It’s not gonna change the structure of the system to weed out the sort of behavior being exhibited by officers in cases like George Floyd’s. Violence is only going to exacerbate problems we already face and add to an increase in the millions of people already incarcerated in America’s prisons. In fact America itself will become a prison unless the people stop destroying their cities and use the power of their voice, ideas and actions to make positive changes in a peaceful manner.

The people should engage in nonviolent peaceful protests and demonstrations. But they must also get actively involved in their communities in the same manner we would expect other public servants to do. People must understand that they need the owners of the businesses they are looting and destroying to bring about positive change. We have to use peaceful means to uplift communities and help them heal.

Our greatest struggle right now seems to be that we are blind to each other’s humanity. We need that miracle that can cause us to see. I think it will have to come in the form of restorative justice. We have to come together and unmask that hurt, pain, and trauma we have all endured. We must try to get to know and understand one another. I believe that this is the only way these false social constructs will begin to dissipate and release the plague that has been placed upon our imaginations.

In 1948 the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a statement of principles for the natural human rights of all people. Article 5 asserts that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment or punishment.” This might be a fitting time to revisit that document and use it as a sort of moral guide.

My perception has evolved over the years to a point where I now recognize everybody’s humanity. I now understand that my violent antisocial behavior was symptomatic of my need for greater human connection. I believe we can grow into more emotionally mature people who are easily able to choose nonviolence over violence when we understand our need for human connection.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned during my time of incarceration is that all the hurt and pain and trauma I endured in my life was not to make me cruel, inhumane, or violent. It was meant to bring out the best in me as a human being. And I know now that in order to change the world I have to first be willing to be the reflection of the change that I want to see in the world.

Therefore, I believe we could honor the memory of George Floyd by seizing this moment as a call to action to become more actively involved in creating the changes that we want to see in our society, and by actively trying to help mend broken relationships between communities and police — a relationship that is in need of a ventilator.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Steve Brooks is a writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns published by PJP.