The following post was written by Brenda Marrero, CLS’s Deputy Director of Operations and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.
Twenty-eight years ago, I was a 16-year-old kid living in a city in East Los Angeles when the L.A. riots erupted. I recall so well the unbelievable sense of confusion, anger, loss and sadness I felt. I still remember the smell of smoke when I walked outside of my house, from all the fires burning miles and miles away from me.
When Rodney King was beaten and that was caught on video and shown on the news, it was utterly shocking to my 16-year-old self. I remember thinking how police who are supposed to protect people, could beat on a man like that with apparently no consideration for his life, or to their oath to protect others. It was a defining moment for me in my youth, and a moment of many to come where I lost my innocence. This was not right, just, fair—I was at a loss. This man, this Black man, was almost beaten to death and defenseless.
I had some hope when the officers were brought to trial. When they were acquitted, I simply could not understand. When the riots broke out, and I saw my city being looted and going up in flames, I was so heartbroken. Now all we were talking about was the looting, the city being destroyed. What about Rodney King? He was deprived of any justice. The Black community was deprived again of any justice. Why weren’t we still talking about that? As a 16 year old Latina immigrant, I kept wondering if maybe justice was only for those with privilege, and it struck me in a way I will never forget, that being white in the America my family and I immigrated to is in and of itself the strongest privilege. Another moment of lost innocence.
A few years later I was in college sitting in a political science class, and we were talking about the riots. My Black classmates were in tears. Hearing them speak about what they experienced, from their lens, was a transformative moment for me. Growing up, I was mostly around Mexicans, other Nicaraguans, Asian Americans and others of Latinx descent. In college my world diversified more, and in this class, I learned something very impactful—my experience of the riots, and my black classmates’ experiences of the same traumatic event, was different but shared. I know that sounds confusing, but I took it all in.
It taught me to recognize that there is so much value in providing a space for everyone to share their experiences. We all watched Rodney King get beaten, we all experienced the emotions from the acquittal of those officers and the disappointment of our legal system, and we all experienced the same riots, but we did not experience these events in the same way. I remember focusing very much on just listening. I remember crying, I remember thinking about some of the ways in which I judged certain things and had no right to when I was watching the looting and rioting, I remember being taught another level of empathy and understanding of others’ experiences, I remember recognizing fully for the first time that as a light skinned Latina I walked around with more privilege than my own two sisters who were brown skinned…that class was a moment of true learning. And, I recognized in hearing my Black classmates’ stories and experiences how much communities of color have shared pain, shared grief, shared trauma, shared moments of utter dismay. I felt the pain of my Black classmates but recognized immediately that my pain was also different.
Now it is George Floyd. It is Ahmaud Arbery. It is Breonna Taylor. The list is long. The outrage is deep. Now I am 44 years old and have lived much longer, and have experienced much more, and I feel exhausted at times. Why does this list grow, why is there so much hate? I try to find a more solid vessel of hope, and try to shift my thinking, try to move away from the anger and towards some outlet that can promote love, action, empathy. But it’s so difficult. And I immediately recognize that this level of difficulty I have in shifting my emotions and thinking, pales in comparison to the experiences of Black people in America.
Our Black staff are going through something that is sadly all too common in the Black community—the intentional deprivation of justice for inhumane acts of violence and murder. That reality is so enraging, the structural racism that allows this to be a reality is equally enraging, and for all of us who have dedicated our legal careers to fighting against injustice, we feel that rage deeply. What I learned in that political science class from so many years ago is that what I need to do right now to support our Black community—at CLS, in my own personal life, in society at large—is to allow space, allow room, allow time, show love, be vulnerable to my emotions and others’ experiences, and listen when I am asked to listen, and to embrace the shared pain, the shared grief, the shared screams for justice. That is momentum for action. All communities should feel this rage, when this pain and injustice is inflicted on one of us, it is inflicted on all of us. We all should feel it so deeply that we simply can’t tolerate it happening.
There is no easy path, but there is a righteous one, and these most recent events taught us again that either you are part of the solution, or you stand in silence as part of the problem. I hope the leadership at CLS and the staff at CLS know we are all instruments of change poised to be part of the solution.
I will end with this one parting thought, on a very personal note, as I processed so much grief with these most recent events. My older sister sent me an article that spoke of the unimaginable grief of Black mothers who time and again experience this loss and violence and injustice against their children. I will never fully understand what it feels like to be a Black mother who daily truly fears for the lives of your kids, but as a mother I know I can be a source of love and support to my friends and colleagues who grapple with that fear. I can’t take it away, but I can stand by you. We all have to take a stand, and we all have to do better, and we can do that with love, kindness, fierceness of spirit, and with an awareness of our place in this world.