As Black Philadelphia protests injustice, I’m reclaiming my power

OPINION: In the wake of outrage over George Floyd's death, Tre Johnson writes about revolutionary restoration from his apartment in Philadelphia.

A demonstrator holds his hands up during protest on June 1, 2020 in downtown Washington, DC. Protests and riots continue in cities across America following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, 44, was charged last Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

I’m writing this from my third-floor apartment in South Philly. Helicopters have slow-chopped across the sky with a constant thudding against the air, for what seems like weeks, even though it’s only been a couple of days.

We’re masked and boarded and bombed and fired upon and weary as a Black Philadelphia; the streets flooded with our disdain, our righteous voices, and our bodies. 

I’ve watched an endless loop of videos on Twitter and Instagram, and each time I’ve felt this pang of guilt or shame I’m not out along Broad and Walnut Streets, or outside the Macy’s along Chestnut, or even climbing the steps of the Art Museum and raising my fist and voice.

READ MORE: Why Philadelphia’s George Floyd protests popped differently

2020 George Floyd Protests. Philadelphia, PA (Photo By: Allan Ali/@allanali_)

I’d thought about going out and protesting, but I honestly feel like the entire air is charged differently this time with a mixture of a deadly virus and the frantic, claustrophobic, and angsty conditions that the pandemic has created especially when it comes to the police. I’m still not in a place of trusting large crowds in general right now, but more importantly, I don’t trust the police — especially now. 

Nowadays, it feels like literally anything can happen in the world. During the protests I saw the amazing: scores of young Black kids shining with energy, chanting, walking, and linked in a series of truths that they know about the world. Masked Black people flaunting signs bearing the names of the murdered.

2020 George Floyd Protests. Philadelphia, PA (Photo By: Allan Ali/@allanali_)

And the absurd: a video of a brother awkwardly, defiantly riding a stolen police horse down a city street. A group of kids humorously popping open the trunk of a police cruiser, and one of them donning an extra police cap on his head as they runoff. Or the strangest being seeing a man dressed as Batman striding amongst the protestors outside of City Hall.

On Facebook, there are also endless posts from Black people decrying the murder that’s brought this on or celebrating uprisings happening in what feels like nearly every urban center. A cell. A beautiful Black cell has been brought to life by this moment and we have managed to grasp each other, despite this galling pandemic that’s separated us and is snapping us up like a roving pack of wolves.

“A beautiful Black cell has been brought to life by this moment and has managed to grasp each other…”

It has been a beautiful thing to watch us all rise up, come out of the corners in our cities that we’ve been pushed to, to step out of the various facades that might sometimes hold us back — those “work clothes” or that “white speak” or that zip code — tossing all of that off and there we are, gathered like this magnificent village right into the heart of all these downtowns.

From the canary yellow couch of my third-floor apartment, I am reopening the tools I’ve made before last week that have gotten me through this pandemic so far. I am using them as small pieces, relics of power, and joy that I have stored throughout my small place, things I can pick up and feel the strength in again when I need it. 

READ MORE: White supremacy takes so much already, don’t let it take your grief too

And so I am re-reading Ross Gay’s Book of Delights because in it are all these ingredients to relearning the radicalness of finding small joys in the midst of chaos. Because of Book of Delights, I am thinking about the beauty of growing things, like my Monstera plant or the new tomato plant that I have on my roof deck.

2020 George Floyd Protests. Philadelphia, PA (Photo By: Allan Ali/@allanali_)

I am thinking about all the big and small ways to show love, and how easy it should be to use it in everyday conversation. I am thinking about all the friends that are deep not because of time, but because of commitments. These things, feel joyous and simple as my city feels ripe to burst, and because they are joyous and simple, they feel radicalized right now.

I am re-reading fantasy and sci-fi things too, which I had walked away from years ago, but now I am voraciously picking back up. And so I am reading again The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin because right now it feels right; this novel about marginalized people finding and uniting themselves, despite being scattered across New York City, despite being dormant and forgetting about their own power, and joining together to become something greater and more powerful than if they were alone. They’re battling against something age-old, adaptable, and cold and white in appearance. 

“I am gathering my things and restoring my power…”

I am reading The City We Became and I am being fed the reminder of memory and the power that comes from connecting with others. I am also reading comic books, ones that have stories that are dripping in the righteous retribution that comes with banding together and pushing back.

I am reading X-Force from a couple of years ago; I am reading Wicked+ Divine for its stories of music and beauty, power and sex, and looping time patterns and the artistic alchemy of popular music and culture.

From the large screen TV that sits against the wall across from my canary yellow couch in my third-floor apartment, I watched Black Panther again. As foolish as it sounds, with my devices all reminding me of the feckless white leadership we have in this country, I watched not for the parts of T’Challa’s body moving through the air, or for Killmonger’s ideological speeches, but for this vibrant, Black-only world where all the fates were in their own hands. Of a world literally hidden from the white gaze. 

“Songs In the Key of Life” Stevie Wonder (1976)/”Dirty Computer” Janelle Monae (2018)

I am using my new record player and my memory to play the futurists that I’ve come to love over the years, so I listen to Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monae, some of the Gambino’s 3.15.20. I am listening to their visions and pleas and ideals of a world we deserve and not yet fully seen.

I am listening for their reverberations of liberation and I dance in my third-floor apartment, with its four windows so that I can hear the North and the South heartbeats of the city, and I sing into as many of these windows as possible.

I am using all these things, gathering all these relics and tools to prepare for the work that lies beyond the mayhem we are not causing, but the mayhem visited upon us for 400 ungrateful years from this country.

I am gathering my things and restoring my power to do what the hopeful and diligent of us always also choose to do too: I am using them to begin imagining the world we’ll need to create afterward.

Tre Johnson is a freelance writer on race, culture, and identity with bylines in Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Slate, New York Times, Vanity Fair, and other major publications. He is based in Philadelphia, PA.



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