When people my age think of the Black Lives Matter uprising, many picture young people taking to the streets and marching for change.
But there’s also another story: the story of people like me, aged 73, sitting at the table with young people and spending hours to develop strategies, draft legislation like the BREATHE Act and turn the momentum of the streets into a plan for the future of our dreams.
In 2003, my youngest son was sentenced to 66 years to life in California for a crime he did not commit, under the Three Strikes law. In 2011, my grandson was murdered, and to this day, the police have refused to fully investigate his death. In March of this year, my middle son was hospitalized with COVID-19 and spent almost a month in the I.C.U. Released to a homeless shelter against our family’s wishes, he was attacked by four people and arrested for fighting back. Now, he’s in county jail being held on a no-bail warrant.
For two decades, I have been fighting for my babies. But my advocacy is not just for my own family—it’s for all Black people because too many of us share similarly devastating stories.
We are haunted by the pain and anguish we hear in our loved ones’ voices when they call from prison. We endure the violence and trauma of living in a country that is staunchly anti-Black and so afraid of Black people having power that it will do whatever it takes to control and oppress us.
Today’s system of mass incarceration—comprised of so much more than prisons and jails, including electronic surveillance and an unjust juvenile justice system—is no different than the carceral system that enslaved our ancestors. A different name and a different time but with the same intended outcome: to keep the engine of white supremacy going while trampling Black dignity and rights.
But my ancestors like Bayard Rustin, an architect of the civil rights movement, did not stop fighting. I can feel him, my mother, and all of our ancestors extending their arms out to this generation’s freedom fighters and whispering in our ears to let us know we can and must go on.
We come from generations of revolutionary people who did not back down or give up the fight to free our people. As an oral storyteller and historian, I’ve been delighted to see the Movement for Black Lives draw on the rich legacy that’s been passed on by our ancestors.
We honor this connection to our past when we make a point to commemorate Black August, a movement started in the 1970s by and for Black political prisoners that is now an enduring tradition because of groups like Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. For me and my family, it is a reminder that my fight to free my sons is part of the long arc of the struggle for freedom in and outside the racist penal system.
This Black August, I am emboldened by the new generation of freedom fighters. I’d like to believe I’ve done the same for them. I believe together we can dismantle this racist system by holding elected leaders accountable to our demands and by making change feel so irresistible that millions of people here and around the world will continue to act in defense of Black Lives.
I’ve been with the Movement for Black Lives for three years now and this past year I was selected to be a fellow of the Movement’s Electoral Justice Project (EJP). EJP is committed to using the Black vote as a tool for justice and an opportunity for co-governance with elected officials.
Together as an intergenerational force for electoral justice, we have been working hard over the past couple of months to channel the energy of the streets into the 2020 Black National Convention on Friday, Aug. 28. The BNC will be followed by the Black August hip-hop concert on Sunday, Aug. 30, which will raise funds to free all political prisoners, some of whom have been behind bars for decades.
I believe we are well on our way to freedom because of the heart and intelligence of young people today, the wisdom of elders, and the guiding light of our ancestors. This community of activists that found me reminds me of the intergenerational care and love that I experienced growing up. How wonderful it’s been to feel that community of love again, on the road to Black liberation.
I hope you will join the Movement for Black Lives so you too can experience the energy of change coursing through my veins, offering a balm of hope after years of heartache for my children.
Anita Wills is an Activist with Essie Justice Group, Fair Chance for Housing, and is a Electoral Justice Project Roundtable Fellow with the Movement For Black Lives. She is the Author of 6 books including A Nation of Flaws JustUS in the Homeland which details the systematic racism in America’s Justice System. Ms. Wills advocated for Senate Bill 1421 which overturned the Peace Officers Bill of Rights and bills that struck down Three Strikes and disparate sentences in California.