Jha’asryel-Akquil Bishop, 24, was born and raised in Guyana, where they were an ambassador for the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. In 2015, they attended the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama City. The following year they sought asylum in the U.S.
A prolific activist and organizer now living in New York City, they are active with several local and national groups working to end homelessness, including Streetlives, the Coalition for Homeless Youth, Point Source Youth, A Way Home America and the National Youth Forum on Homelessness. A research consultant with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, they also participate with the Guyana Cultural Association, Gay Men Against Discrimination and Vocal New York. Bishop works at Apple and enjoys exploring different cultures, arts and crafts.
This is a first-person essay with light editing approved by the author.
When I came to America in 2016, I realized I had left one demon for a bigger one. I was seeking the freedom to express my whole self without the fear of prosecution, to heal the wounds of a damaged childhood and to be the best person I could possibly be.
Here I saw a different kind of discrimination: a war against blackness and those impacted by social adversities. I too have been reminded of my blackness, I too have been angry, and I too was not given the justice I deserved.
I think of my status as an asylum seeker as a privilege. As an outsider looking in, it’s easier to see what’s going on and to say that your Constitution is not being lived.
Our laws and public policies cannot be stagnant – they must be actively revised to reflect the people’s values. As a young person, I have observed the damaging effects of archaic laws and policies. And my reminder to system leaders is that they have the power to change these effects, to ensure that the law serves all, equally. We know there are still laws that defend the way police treat minorities and that are used in courts to justify killing someone.
Now that people are saying, “We are going to take action and we are going to break shit because you are not doing what is just,” cities are enforcing curfews. But that’s what happens when you fail to be proactive and responsive. If systematic racism and designed oppression are not removed by the root, they will destroy the United States. America’s oppression of black people is by design. This was written into law and this is being maintained by law and by complacent whiteness and racism.
People are expressing pain in the hope that you will see it and it will effect change, because justice has not responded to them being peaceful, to writing letters, to everything they’ve done in the last 60-some years since segregation. Black Americans have tried everything. They’ve been trying to inform you that there’s gonna come a time when people will get frustrated, and no matter how much force you use, they will decide death is better than oppression, than living in fear, and they will react with that mindset.
We’re seeing cities full of people who saw the film “Black Panther.” We saw the message: “I’d rather walk into the ocean and die than live a life where I’m oppressed.” Now they’re willing to walk into the sea of militarized violence by the government, and they’re saying, “Kill me now. At least I know I’m dying for what’s right.”
They’re protesting the smirks and grins of the police when they say, “I can’t breathe.” My peers fear the police, some to the point that they will say “Fuck the police.” What that means is actually, “Bro, I can’t trust you, bro, I’m afraid if I step outside y’all will randomly attack me on the corner.” That’s where that comes from: It’s fear – internalized and channeled wrong – but at the end of the day, it’s fear.
We don’t need police officers that are not from the community. It’s easy for them to stomp and curse and shoot at people because they didn’t go to school with them, they didn’t grow up with their cousins, they don’t know their family, they were never friends. We have too many officers who serve not as people, not as police, but as weapons to instill fear and domination over people who are just really trying to live their best lives.
When you’re an officer dealing with another human being, you have combat training, you have weapons, you have a history of violence on your side. You should have no need to be violent or aggressive because you have all the instruments of the system working on your behalf already.
Officers should be trained to de-escalate, to be trauma-informed, to understand that when you’re wearing that badge and uniform, you do not have the right to feel anger and frustration and take it out on people. You may feel it, but you have to remain calm.
In the end, there are really just simple decisions we have to make to ensure we all have the best experience with the limited life we have on this earth.
Today, we are experiencing a critical first step: the change that needs to happen requires dismantling the system. Like your body, it will heal the part that was wounded. You can deconstruct it in a peaceful, proper, strategic manner, or you can deconstruct it with big fires and ashes and then you have to build from the dust – “from the ashes we shall rise.”
It’s the leaders that get to choose. They need to be the ones saying we need to change this and minimize the damage. If they don’t do that, then they’re leaving it to the destruction and burning, because they’re not making the conscious decision to identify issues at their root, to assure the community that they’re aware and will take necessary actions to address it.
To build trust, the very first thing I would have done as mayor or commissioner of the New York Police Department would have been to bring the black community together to talk about how we can address the police brutality and injustice that we’ve been a part of and want to change. To say: We know it is painful, we see your pain and we hear it, and we know it’s important for all people to receive equal rights and justice – so let’s figure out how we as a city will move forward. Maybe the entire city could demonstrate support for George Floyd and his family and for the families of countless African American lives taken, especially those who are LGBT.
This phone notification about a curfew should have been a public service announcement to say, “Let’s stop for a second and rewind. Let’s acknowledge that our response may not have been empathetic to the situation, let’s acknowledge the harm caused in the last few days, the pain that has been amplified by our behaviors, the injustice against innocent protesters, the damage to the city and businesses burned and lives affected – all that is happening because of injustice.”
Then, with the community, you develop a plan for how, in 100 days, we will address the system changes that need to happen in NYPD and how, in 100 days, we will be in solidarity with George Floyd and every black person lost to police brutality and unnecessary violence and injustice and racism in New York and across America. And you spend 100 days showing the community that you are fulfilling that plan every day and bridging the divide between the community and law enforcement.
You can have people from the neighborhood serve on community leadership boards and as community mentors. They don’t put on a suit and tie, they’re the same guys chilling on the corner or at the store when a young person comes in. You can give them the proper resources to facilitate conversations, they can be trained to be trauma-informed and to de-escalate situations.
New York City is beautiful, and I believe we have the potential to come out of this as the pioneer. New York has historically been the leading city of this nation – a lot of cities respect us and look at us. If our response is no different, we will lose that respect. It’s not a status that’s given, but one that’s earned through hard work and collaboration.
Jha’asryel-Akquil Bishop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Megan Conn can be reached at email@example.com.