Four Years After Ferguson: Linking Depression And Racism
I had just awoken from a nap on August 9, 2014. It was a hot summer day, and after spending the hottest part of it outside with children at an amusement park the rest was needed.
I plugged my phone in on the other side of my room, far from my bed. Had it lit up next to my face while I was trying nap I would’ve never gone to sleep. I should’ve left it there when I woke up.
When I picked up my phone I had numerous texts from my friends:
“You see this sh*t?”
“They f*cking hate us.”
“They killed someone else for no f*cking reason.”
“Get on Twitter.”
“Go on Twitter.”
“Look at my last retweet.”
And I did.
My entire timeline was filled with pictures of the body of a Black kid lying on the street. His name, Mike Brown. He was dead and an officer killed him. It was only a few weeks before that videos of Eric Garner’s murder were shared across the Internet. And I knew about Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and so many more. Our deaths at the hands of police officers was something I had understood to be a part of the Black experience in America. What else would one expect from a system that wasn’t set up to protect us from the beginning? Certainly not “justice.”
I was glued to my phone over the next few days, watching intensely as more details of the shooting emerged. And as they did, the protests grew. Hurt, rightfully angry people were met with tear gas, smoke bombs, flash grenades, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds. The media vilified Mike Brown, calling him a “thug” and “no angel.” People I thought were friends spewed respectability politics about what he “should have done” and that he “got what he deserved.” I was enraged, I was disappointed, and for the first time I felt like I could do something.
I joined an activist group created by a few friends and organizers I met on Twitter, and within a few months helped found Black Lives Matter-Rutgers. From helping organize sit-ins to shutting down highways to standing in front of a crowd with a megaphone, I felt empowered.
But I’ll never forget the first time I got called the N-word at a protest, the first time I stood directly across from a cop with his hand on his holster fearing for my life, or the first time I was sent a death threat. I’ll never forget because it made me a different person.
At the age of 20 sound mental health wasn’t something I completely understood. And if I was maintaining great grades and still going out, certainly nothing was wrong.
But I had trouble sleeping, I was anxious, I was irritable, I felt guilty and I felt helpless. I wasn’t only battling a system, but also depression.
Trauma is real, and it's even realer when you are on the front lines of a movement attempting to dismantle 400+ years of oppression. I had become so immersed in my activism that all I thought about was liberation. I would go to a party with my friends and we'd come home afterwards and stay up until the sun rose talking about systemic racism. If we weren't all together at the same time we were sending each other articles in the group chat about the latest instance of injustice. And if I was asleep I was having nightmares about turning into a hashtag.
So when I removed myself from the groups that had been integral to my life, activism, and growth as a young adult my senior year of college I felt guilty as hell. I wanted to tell my friends and colleagues the truth, but instead declared that I was “too busy” with internships and schoolwork. The last thing I was going to do was show the people who looked up to me that I was “weak.” Because at the time I only understood depression as weakness, especially as a Black woman. I mean come on Nadirah, look at everything we've been through.
Four years later I understand how important it is to prioritize my mental health in everything that I do. In my quest to become the next Angela Davis I stopped taking care of me. And if Black Lives Matter, that certainly means mine does too.
It is important for us to break down systems of oppression, but it is equally as important to take care of ourselves. To pour the same amount of time into our wellbeing as we do our activism. To know when to unplug when you've taken in too much, because opening up one app can send you into a world filled with images, videos and comments that are traumatizing. To remain steadfast and hardworking while also recognizing that liberation doesn't happen overnight. And to know that if you do feel depressed in the midst of organizing, it is a natural reaction to injustice that you should never be ashamed of.
I wish someone would have told 20-year-old me this, but now I know. So I'm telling you.