We are three young black men living in City Heights. This is why we protest.

Protesters kneel down as they block Midway Dr. during a Black Lives Matter protest Wednesday, June 3, 2020 in San Diego.
Protesters kneel down as they block Midway Dr. during a Black Lives Matter protest Wednesday, June 3, 2020 in San Diego.
(Photo by Denis Poroy)

We are young black men from the East African community of City Heights in San Diego. Because of our immigrant backgrounds, we have a different perspective from many of our African American peers. Some of us were born in East Africa and came to the United States as kids, and some of us are the children of refugees who fled to the U.S. from war-torn countries.

We talk the same way, act the same way and dress the same way as African American youth. That’s who we are when we go into the outside world. But at home, we’re Somalian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Sudanese and Congolese. Many of us are Muslim. We also identify as immigrants and feel the sting of anti-immigrant hatred. That’s a lot of identities to handle.

For our families, adjusting to life in the United States has meant adjusting to the realities of racism here. We get a lot of mixed messages — our parents tell us we should be able to call the police when we need help, but we know better. We learn in school that everybody is equal before the law, but we see with our own eyes that the law is enforced unequally when a black man dies under a policeman’s knee, begging for his life.

We’re careful when we go to the store or walk around our neighborhoods. But this past weekend, we had to go out into the streets and march for justice. Over the last five years, as a result of the growth of social media we’ve witnessed more instances of police brutality and murder of innocent people who look like us than anyone should have to bear. Watching the video of George Floyd being killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis was just the final straw.

Young people in our community are afraid, anxious and depressed, because it doesn’t seem to matter when a police officer takes the life of an innocent black person. And we’re being forced to live the trauma of George Floyd’s killing over and over again when we see it on television and social media.

In these hard times, the protests gave us hope and inspiration. Young people are taking the lead with the organizing. We’re the ones who can achieve the kind of change that’s so badly needed.

During less extraordinary times, we serve our community through our work with organizations like the United Women of East Africa (UWEAST) and Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA). We help organize spoken word events and workshops about career development, provide mentorship to our peers, attend leadership trainings and advocate with local policymakers to make San Diego’s mental health services more culturally responsive.

Right now, we can best serve our community by protesting. We want justice for George Floyd, but our demands also go way beyond that. We want to see police officers held accountable in all instances of police brutality the way they should be and haven’t been up until now. We want to change the culture of law enforcement so that community members are treated with dignity and respect and seen as partners and equals. We want the officers who police our community to live in or be from our community so that they understand and care about us. We want police departments to work alongside communities to rethink their use of force policies.

Most importantly, we don’t want more money to be poured into policing. Our city and county budgets have been bankrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, but even in that context, policymakers are asking for more money for police. That is not what we need. We need those resources to go to coronavirus testing and health care, support for small businesses, support for people who can’t afford their rent, and other community needs. In fact, we should take money out of the current police department budget and put it into community improvements that will keep our neighborhoods healthy and safe.

This is what we spoke out for at the protests in San Diego this past weekend. Most people marched and made their points peacefully most of the day. But in the late afternoon, in response to a small number of people throwing water bottles and rocks at the police, the police responded with overwhelming and unnecessary force. A young man we were with was hit with a rubber bullet, fell to the ground, and started bleeding. Another scene that reminded us of how easy it is to be brutal to people you don’t see as human beings.

We want to break the cycle. Will you join us?

Abdi, Haji and Mahmuod are youth activists in City Heights.