By Osman Benk Sankoh
Dear OBS Jr,
On Memorial Day, Monday, 25 May 2020, a 46-year-old Minnesota man, George Floyd, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer—one who took an oath to serve and to protect—by kneeling on his neck for almost eight minutes. Even though Floyd had been restrained, on the ground and his hands cuffed behind his back, the officer knelt on his neck, his hands in his pockets as the victim cried “I can’t breathe.”
Floyd’s death has sparked violent protests across the United States. Unfortunately, with our own eyes, while the TV cameras were rolling, Omar Jimenez, a black CNN reporter, was arrested and cuffed. We have also seen images of another police officer kneeling on the neck of a protester doing the same thing that has sparked nationwide demonstrations.
Since Floyd’s death, I have had sleepless nights. I often wake up in the dead of night to listen to your heartbeat and see if you are still breathing. Graphic and horrible Images of the last minutes of Floyd’s life have been played on TV. You may have seen these images while criss-crossing the living room playing with your toys and singing “A is for apple, ah- ah- ap-ple”. But your young mind is yet to discern the full ramifications of the incident.
During some of those nights, I cried, thinking, what if George Floyd were you. But George, your mum and I belong to the same generation. In that sense, he could not be my son. Like you, he is a black man, and because of the colour of his skin, he was judged— not by the content of his character.
It was late in the afternoon. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you were tired of being locked up at home. You wanted fresh air, and I could sense you needed to go out for a walk. We used a path that was surrounded by high-rise office buildings. It was eerily quiet as if the world was just for you and me. I was paying attention to you bla-bla-bla-ing, “Johnny Johnny, yes papa”. You were laughing and opening your mouth widely and saying “ha ha ha” to where the song requires Johnny to do so. A black son and father were enjoying a precious moment that was suddenly disrupted by the flash of a police vehicle. We kept walking. Then, the police officer came down, walked towards us, and ordered us to halt. I was told to move away from the trolley and to put my hands up in the air with a gun pointed at my back. We were both separated, and at this point, I could not protect you. As innocent as you were, you may have sensed something was up. Then you started crying. I was jolted. I woke up from my dream to see you still sleeping.
Several things raced through my mind. I said a little prayer and went back to sleep. It was a mean dream, but unfortunately, in the society where you are born, such a dream could not be farfetched. It could happen to you. I pray it doesn’t come to pass, but how do I guarantee that it does not when, repeatedly, we have seen unarmed Black men killed by the police?
On August 2014, Michael Brown Jr. was shot to death by a white police officer in Fergusson, Missouri. Before that, in that same year, Eric Gardner died after being placed in a chokehold by police officers in New York. 31- year-old Dontre Hamilton was fatally shot fourteen times in a Milwaukee park. Tanisha Anderson died after a police officer allegedly slammed her head on the pavement while taking her into custody. Tamir Rice was just 12 when police officers shot and killed him claiming they mistook his toy gun for a real weapon. Both incidents happened in Cleveland in November 2014. In 2015, Freddie Gray died of spinal cord injury a week after Baltimore police arrested him.
I can go on and on. Unfortunately, in most, if not all these deaths, the police officers involved walked away free after snuffing the life out of those they had vowed to protect.
Even at your tender age, I am beginning to get worried. How do I begin to have that race relations in America conversation when the time comes? Where do I start? How do I begin? How many sleepless nights will your mother and I get when you leave the house to go to the mall, to play with your friends, to take part in sports or just to do things that young people do? I fear that when you walk into an office or a store, and you are not smiling, someone might call the police at you, describing you as an angry Black man. I think of the day you would want to go to the park or a different neighbourhood, and somebody picks up the phone to say a suspicious-looking Black kid is perambulating. What if you grow up to like jogging, and while doing so, someone calls the cops suspecting you of being a robber? This gives me sleepless nights. I am sure other black parents do, as well.
Sadly, it is a legitimate worry. That is not all. Your name, Osman (meaning a faithful servant of God or God’s protection) in America, worries me a whole lot. You may come to realize that as you get older, and you call your name, some may associate you with being a Muslim, and rightly so. I am a Muslim, but your mother is a catholic, and she is more religious. But for them, being a Muslim is synonymous with being a terrorist.
I hope to tell you of how the late Senator John McCain, then a presidential aspirant, took the microphone from someone and defended Barack Obama because that person feared that due to his Muslim-sounding name, candidate Obama, a Black man, was a terrorist. These are stereotypes. And despite decades of the emancipation of freed slaves, blacks continue to be treated differently.
This is the society you have been born into. Your mother and I have had our own fair challenges of survival, but never have we been so worried about protecting a 17-month-old kid who took his first footsteps just as the word quid pro quo was gaining currency and who would one day become a man in America. As migrants from Sierra Leone in West Africa, we both survived a brutal civil war of the 90s even though we were caught up behind rebel lines and our houses razed to the ground when rebels invaded the capital, Freetown, on 6 January 1999. Some 50, 000 civilians lost their lives during the war, and the rebels amputated thousands more. Your mum came to America as a refugee, and I followed years later.
Tonight, I may go back to sleep, but I will not sleep. I may wake up in tears, thinking and praying for justice to be served for George Floyd and all those who have lost their lives to police brutality. But more importantly, for it not to be you, or any other black child, man, or woman.
And one more thing: not all cops are bad cops.
I love you my son
From daddy, Osman Benk Sankoh Snr