I stand with George Floyd because I almost became him 28 years ago

Why We Wrote This

George Floyd’s death jolted many Americans awake to a pattern of injustice that has been fully apparent to black Americans for decades. In this essay, Jabari Butler, an Atlanta father, husband, and minister, shares how this pattern has been woven into his own life. And why he is cautiously optimistic that change will come.

Courtesy of Rev. Jabari Butler
The Rev. Jabari Butler leads worship in January 2020 at Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, where he serves as associate minister.

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For the Rev. Jabari Butler, the unrest roiling the United States right now feels very familiar.

“I may be a media technology entrepreneur, husband, minister, and father to a precious 8-year-old daughter today,” he tells our reporter. “But in 1991, I was an 18-year-old young black man in Oakland, California, already well acquainted with police brutality.”

“You see, what happened to George Floyd is not new to me or America for that matter – having a video recording displaying it in such graphic detail is. What we’re witnessing in this moment, people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds speaking in support of the humanity of black people, is new, too.”

“I am cautiously optimistic that this will be the much-needed turning point that America so desperately needs to begin reaching her full potential,” he says. “It’s time for our national and local leaders and regular American citizens to step up and lead the change that so many around the globe are now demanding in the streets. Policing in America needs to be reformed, and so do any and all laws and public policies that don’t reflect, illuminate, or affirm that black lives matter too.”

The explosion of protests across the country may feel sudden to some, but for many black Americans it is a reckoning for which they have waited their entire lives. For Jabari Butler, an Atlanta father, husband, and minister, this moment feels very familiar. But he is “cautiously optimistic” this time will be different and ignite true change. This is his story, as told to Chandra Thomas Whitfield.

The racial unrest unfolding on American streets may be surprising for many, but for me as an African American man, it almost feels like too little, too late.

I may be a media technology entrepreneur, husband, minister, and father to a precious 8-year-old daughter today, but in 1991, I was an 18-year-old young black man in Oakland, California, already well acquainted with police brutality.

Courtesy of Rev. Jabari Butler
Jabari Butler poses as a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1991, months after his violent run-in with police officers in his hometown of Oakland, California.

Watching that video of George Floyd sprawled on the ground, his face pressed into the pavement as he suffocated under the weight of a Minneapolis police officer’s knee atop his neck, always brings me back to a place that, to this day, crushes the very depths of my soul. See, if it were not for the grace of God, I might have faced a similar fate.

One summer evening, my two friends and I were driving through downtown Oakland, when we came upon a commotion. There had been a shootout and pandemonium had broken out in the streets. People were running in every direction and sounds of gunfire, glass breaking, and screaming echoed loudly in our ears.

We began circling the area frantically searching for my then-girlfriend, who’d been partying nearby. Suddenly, about seven Oakland police officers descended upon my burgundy ’80s-era T-top Monte Carlo with guns drawn. They ordered us to stop and one reached inside my driver’s side window. For as long as I live, I will never forget the sight of the steel glistening off his gun aimed at my temple, so close I could only make out the cop’s milky white knuckles. His finger was on the trigger without the safety engaged. I remember thinking: If I move one inch, my life will likely end right here.

One cop yelled out: “Don’t move or I’ll shoot.” Another threatened to shoot if I didn’t turn off my car. I froze, overwhelmed by the conflicting directions. My buddy Bakari broke me out of my shocked state: “Just think, don’t react,” he shrieked, as one officer beat him with a nightstick in the back seat. I slowly lifted my hands and rested them atop the steering wheel. The officer who’d pointed his weapon handcuffed me while I was still seated, my car still in drive.

All three of us were yanked from the car and our faces shoved into the pavement, much like Mr. Floyd’s had been, while they searched the car for a nonexistent weapon. Nothing was found, but we were still loaded into a squad car. I believe one or all of us might have ended up shot that night, if it weren’t for a former classmate, a black girl, who’d begun crying loudly nearby. She had witnessed everything and they knew it.

We were released that night and nothing became of the complaints that our parents later filed with police. My church, Allen Temple, shared our story with the congregation and even hosted a community forum. I later found out that the late rapper Tupac Shakur had sued and won following a similar encounter with Oakland police officers. That would have to be my vindication.

So for me, this moment is about George Floyd, but at the same time it’s not. It’s also about the thousands, dare I say millions, of nameless and faceless black men and women, American citizens, who do not have a video to “prove” to the world the abusive and violent treatment we regularly endure at the hands of police sworn to “protect and serve” us. 

The parallels of these historic times don’t end there for me. Less than an hour after wrapping up business meetings in downtown Atlanta just over a week ago, I turned on the television at home to learn that protesters, angry over Mr. Floyd’s murder, had begun storming the same streets I had just left. A horde of demonstrators began aggressively pushing on the glass entrance to CNN, until it shattered. Cars were burning, people were shouting, and the smoky remnants of tear gas hung heavy in the air. Those raw images immediately transported me back to a similar scene in the area more than 20 years earlier. 

It was 1992, not even a full year after my run-in with Oakland Police, and I was a freshman at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. This time our outrage was over the not-guilty verdicts handed down to the Los Angeles police officers who’d beaten a handcuffed Rodney King within an inch of his life. A video, rare for that time, had captured the entire incident. Naively, many of us thought video evidence would make a difference. Their acquittals felt like yet another slap in the face, and we were furious. 

Instead of studying for our final exams as planned, we Morehouse students, along with students from the other nearby historically black schools – Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, and Interdenominational Theological Center – planned and carried out a peaceful protest. Marching across all of our campuses belting out “We Shall Overcome” alongside some civil rights-era Freedom Riders felt empowering and comforting.

Courtesy of Rev. Jabari Butler
The Rev. Jabari Butler poses with his sister Ayana Butler at his 2009 master of divinity graduation from Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

Once we reached nearby downtown Atlanta, though, the tone changed dramatically. As others joined in, the demonstration turned violent. Looting, fires, overturned cars – total chaos – ensued.

I didn’t – and still don’t – agree with such tumultuous responses, but I understand. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (an alum of Morehouse) said in a television interview three years after his famed “I Have a Dream” speech: A “riot is the language of the unheard.”

You see, what happened to Mr. Floyd is not new to me or America for that matter – having a video recording displaying it in such graphic detail is. What we’re witnessing in this moment, people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds speaking in support of the humanity of black people, is new, too.

I am cautiously optimistic that this will be the much-needed turning point that America so desperately needs to begin reaching her full potential. As Dr. King also put it: “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.” Police brutality and the violence that American citizens regularly impose upon black citizens with little or no consequence is an injustice that must stop. Look no further than the Ahmaud Arbery case in Georgia as an example.

What happened to me in Oakland was traumatic, and watching videos of the modern-day lynchings of Mr. Floyd and others like Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile are often triggering. But the real trauma is that nearly 30 years later, such treatment persists. Only justice and substantive change can provide me and the black community with some much-deserved relief.

What many Americans are seeing now, mostly on television screens from the cushy comforts of their homes, is the result of black Americans being fed up and tired of being told directly and indirectly that our humanity does not equal that of a white person. When exactly do we deserve to enjoy the benefits – the full benefits – the United States Constitution purportedly guarantees all Americans?

It’s time for our national and local leaders and regular American citizens to step up and lead the change that so many around the globe are now demanding in the streets. Policing in America needs to be reformed, and so do any and all laws and public policies that don’t reflect, illuminate, or affirm that black lives matter too.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning multimedia journalist and a 2019-20 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. She is the host and producer of “In the Gap,” a forthcoming podcast for In These Times Magazine about how the gender pay gap adversely impacts the lives of black women in the American workforce. You may follow her work at Chandra Writes on Facebook.

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