I thought of this unspoken understanding that black people share recently when I heard the former NBA player Stephen Jackson’s speech about his friend, George Floyd, who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. At a rally in Floyd’s honor he said, “I’m here because they’re not gonna demean the character of George Floyd, my twin … You can’t tell me that [the officer] didn’t feel that it was his duty to murder my brother, and that he knew he was gonna get away with it.” Jackson and Floyd had known each other for years. Shared experiences, laughter, and history made them friends. But when the officer killed Floyd, Jackson mourned his “twin” and his “brother.”
Read: Minneapolis had this coming
One of the last things that the 46-year-old Floyd did as he was being killed was call out to his deceased mother. “Mama … I’m through,” he can be heard saying in video that captured the incident. The protests that followed picked up that cry. One person carried a sign that read “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd cried out for his mama.”
Notions of family saturate the black freedom struggle in all of its aspects, especially the threat of police brutality. Under the constant surveillance, suspicion, and violence of law enforcement in America, black people share a kinship of calamity. A brotherhood and sisterhood of suffering. Like any family, it is not something we choose. This sense of solidarity through hardship is forced on us by the oppression we endure in a white-supremacist society.
Even with people we do not know or whom we barely know, black people can generally relate to the experience of being policed not just by law enforcement, but by anyone deemed white. Police brutality feels like a problem that is both very old and freshly personal every time it happens. We feel the pain and loss of black life as if it were our very own blood that had been brutalized—because it easily could have been.
In July 2013, shortly after a jury found Trayvon Martin’s killer not guilty, President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son.”
Obama used the language of family to convey why, even as president of the United States, he felt the verdict so personally. Obama, along with countless other black people, mourned Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer as if Martin had been our own son or sibling.
I remember the death of Philando Castile hitting me particularly hard. In 2016, a police officer killed Castile during a routine traffic stop. Castile told the officer that he had a lawfully registered gun in the car. In his testimony, the officer said he was “in fear for my life” when he fired seven bullets into the vehicle. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, caught the aftermath on her cellphone camera, all while her 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat.