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Death Around the Corner: Racism, Protest, and Living in Dallas During a Pandemic

This city must reckon with its racist history in order to provide an equitable future for all of its residents.

“I see death around the corner/ any day/

Trying to keep it together/ no one lives forever anyway/

Struggling and striving/ my destiny’s to die…”

Tupac Shakur

What does it mean to live when death is around the corner?

What is life, during one of the worst pandemics in a century, when a police officer can apply brute force to your neck with his knee for nine minutes and kill you in broad daylight with callous impunity? What meaning does life have, in the midst of a national economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression, when police clad in riot gear can enter your home after your shift as an essential frontline worker and murder you as you sleep?

How is life livable, as people perish by the thousands every week, when white vigilantes can follow, stalk, and attack you while you are jogging then film themselves shooting you to your premature death? How do we explain what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery while more than 106,000 Americans have died from a novel coronavirus?

This is my life. This was the life of my parents and their parents before them. This is the life of my children. This is the life of every Black person who lives in the United States of America. This is the life of thousands of your fellow Dallas neighbors. It is a life where premature death is around the corner—around every corner.

Dallas, as well as over 50 cities across this country, are currently in open rebellion. As one watches nightly news shows, it may seem that protesters with raised voices and fists are facing off against a heavily armed militarized police force and the National Guard, but that is a facade. American citizens of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are being led by Black people in an open rebellion against racism. It is a rebellion against racism that has created unhealthy, hyper-segregated communities in which an overwhelmingly disparate exposure to COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death is inevitable. Even testing site placement in Dallas is racist.

Sergio Olmos, a writer and journalist in Portland, interviewed a young Black demonstrator on Saturday and asked him if he feels safe. His response was apropos to the times: “I mean…being Black in America…you are already born dead, so…Do I feel safe? No. Not really.” Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, prison scholar and Professor of Geography at The City University of New York, defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Put another way, racism experienced by Black people and other people of color is “state sanctioned” and the constant “production and exploitation” of that racism by our government creates a “vulnerability to premature death.”

Vulnerability to premature death by police and the state in Dallas-Fort Worth is an unpopular yet prevailing theme for Black people. For every Jane Elkins, an enslaved Black woman who was the first bill of sale in Dallas County and the first women legally executed in the state of Texas, there is an Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman who hoped to attend medical school and was killed in October of last year by a Fort Worth police officer in her home. She was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew.

For every Allen Brooks, a middle-aged Black domestic worker who was dragged by his neck out of the second floor window of the Dallas County Courthouse (now Old Red Museum) by a white militia and hung on a telephone pole in 1910 near the corner of Main and Akard, there is a Botham Jean, a 26-year-old Black immigrant, youth church leader, and accountant, who was killed in his own home in September 2018 while eating ice cream by an off-duty Dallas police officer.

The truth is that the only consistent theme in Dallas since its incorporation has been racism. From the enslavement of African people before Dallas had a name to becoming a bastion of the Confederacy during the Civil War to defend the institution of slavery, this city has provided vulnerability to premature death for its Black residents. Dallas, which became the world’s largest inland cotton port by 1900, subjected Black sharecroppers to shortened lives and Jim Crow violence and had the largest Klu Klux Klan membership of any American city in the 1920s.

This city has to reckon with its racist past and present to get to the equitable future we all deserve to live in. I want to LIVE in a Dallas without racism. Now.

Jerry Hawkins is the Executive Director of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation and cofounder of The Imagining Freedom Institute.

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