One of the best explanations for the coast-to-coast protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others can be encapsulated by Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred.”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet.
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The poem literally suggests that unrealized dreams have the capacity to wreak havoc on our minds, hearts and souls. Unfulfilled dreams can lead to anger, resentment and despair. When you see young people taking to the streets in protest, you are seeing the overflow of dreams deferred. The dream was freedom, equality and justice. The dream was peace. The dream has been tarnished, if not obliterated, by reality. The reality is structural racism bolstered by white supremacy. The reality is a country that continues to devalue Black lives and is set up for our demise.
For years, Black people have not only dreamed of justice but demanded it. We have urged America to live up to all she has promised to be. We have urged the country to provide not even grandiose opportunities, but basic rights that protect our life and liberty. The response has been systemic racism within which we have toiled and suffered through decreased life expectancy rates, health disparities, economic inequality, mass incarceration and more. The country has turned her back on us in arrogance and disregard.
Frederick Douglass once said “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” He was saying that progress is not automatic. When you want change, you must demand it. So, when people ask, “Is change possible and how does it happen,” the response is: “Yes, it is possible, but it can only happen when there is a demand.”
When you see young people in the streets, you are not only seeing protest, you are seeing a demand. You are seeing the outpouring of decades of dreams deferred.
How does change happen? There is usually a triggering event which, while significant, represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the groundswell that has been building for decades. There is a cataclysmic event that explodes. Tragic as it was, George Floyd’s death represented only a small part of Black people’s demands for justice where police and anti-Black racists are concerned. The demand for justice, while long-standing, received renewed energy with the slaying of Emmett Till, whose brutal killing shocked the nation. The demand grew following the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King by police in Los Angeles. The demand swelled with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. With each death of a Black person by police or racist whites, there was a demand for justice. There was a demand for accountability.
You see, Black people have peacefully raised dissent each and every time.
Now, people are so adamant and incensed, they are pursuing every avenue for change. They are out in the streets showing that Black lives do indeed matter. Because of this consistent demand for justice, things that once seemed radical are appearing more palatable. As a woman who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, I never thought I would live to see calls to abolish the police. I never thought I would live to see a city with “Black Lives Matter” painted on the street in front of the White House. I did not ever think calls to defund the police—regardless as to how they are interpreted—would be a seriously considered topic.
While we once spoke of reform, we are now discussing transformation. The blueprint is still being formulated but we will not leave this moment without having been changed. I have been talking about reparations for decades, and for the first time in my life, it is not a conversation isolated to the fringes. It is on the tongues of people from all walks of life.
In the ’70s, we would say the revolution would not be televised. In that era, the nation did not experience the proliferation of media coverage that we have today. The 24/7 news cycle did not exist, and the plethora of social media platforms and a video camera in every hand had yet to be imagined. Today, however, the revolution is being televised. It is being televised via social media, cable network news, affiliate news channels and digital media. The revolution is happening in real time and is on full display for everyone to see. It is in everyone’s living room. It is in everyone’s kitchen. No one can pretend there is not a demand for justice. When people take centuries of pent-up anger, and they get out in the streets, they are exercising their constitutional rights and demanding their rights as human beings. They are resisting injustice, but more importantly, they are making a demand.
These are unprecedented times and they call for unprecedented solutions. That is what we’re witnessing as young people of all races take to the streets—the unprecedented possibility for change. That, and the unprecedented possibility for the dream to expand, not explode.
Nkechi Taifa is President and CEO of The Taifa Group, LLC, a social enterprise consulting firm. She founded, convenes and directs the Justice Roundtable, an advocacy coalition advancing progressive justice system transformation and serves as Senior Fellow for the Center of Justice at Columbia University.