In 1955, Emmett Till was lynched after being accused of whistling at a White woman. Sixty-five years later, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered for jogging near his own neighborhood. Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her home, and George Floyd struggled against a knee on his neck, begging for his life as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”

Calling the names of our lost brothers and sisters, people have poured into the streets, protesting in the midst of a pandemic and shouting “Black Lives Matter.” Like me, they are also asking, “Why does this keep happening?”

The truth is, the systemic injustices that Black men and women face have persisted for centuries. Black people are continually seen as suspects; and in many cases, we are judged guilty before we can even mount a defense. Our skin is the charge against us.

I know all too well about what it’s like to be convicted of a crime you did not commit—having been charged and imprisoned alongside four other innocent Black and Brown brothers. I know the rage, anger and frustration that come when people assume you’re guilty because you’re Black. I know the feeling of hopelessness at seeing Black people brutalized again and again for doing nothing more than simply living their lives.

How do we ensure this moment is different? By being loud, unafraid, unapologetic and unified. We must occupy every space possible, channeling our rage into a voice that echoes from the streets to the voting booth. We must also continue to work together as a community—because only unity can sustain us in the face of so much that can divide us.

We’re all hurting, but one lesson I learned while wrongfully incarcerated was that instead of going through something, we can grow through something. Together we can remake this criminal system of injustice into one that truly protects and serves.

This essay originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now. Punching the Air hits bookshelves Tuesday.

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