'We are still trying to get free': Black Americans continue fight for equality on Juneteenth
Givionne "Gee" Jordan Jr. kneeled before a line of police officers in tactical gear as fellow protesters kneeled at his side, some stretching their arms out to touch his back in solidarity.
“I am not your enemy, you are not my enemy,” Jordan yelled to the officers at Marion Square in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 31. "You are my family, I love you and I respect you. And I want to understand y'all."
Seconds later, several officers stepped forward and arrested Jordan, sparking outrage from protesters who shouted: "What are you doing?" "Freedom of speech!"
Jordan, a 23-year-old Black man, said he hoped his message would promote peace and unity between protesters and police after several local businesses were looted the night before.
Instead, police held him in the county jail for one night and charged him with disobeying a lawful order. Jordan said authorities told him he did not have a permit to host a large public gathering, though he says he never planned for the protestors to join him.
“I’m tired of people saying you have rights, but then they violate your rights," Jordan said. "I just wanted to have a conversation.”
On Friday, the country commemorates Juneteenth — a holiday that celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln to free enslaved people in Confederate states. But while historically Juneteenth has been a day for Black people to celebrate freedom, over time, many viewed it as a day to mobilize and gain the liberties they are denied.
“We are still trying to get free from many things,” said Karlos Hill, professor of African American studies at the University of Oklahoma. “But the principal thing we are trying to get free from is random racist violence in the form of private killings, like with Ahmaud Arbery, and state-sanctioned violence, like in the case with George Floyd.”
According to a study from the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Washington University, about 100 in 100,000 Black males will be killed by police during their lives. In contrast, 39 in 100,000 white males will die at the hands of police.
Despite slavery being outlawed for 155 years under the Thirteenth Amendment, Black Americans are still racially profiled and disproportionately killed by police, encounter voter suppression, are blocked from peacefully protesting, and face a long list of injustices in health care, housing, education and mass incarceration.
These inequities have come to the forefront in recent weeks, with protesters across the country decrying the recent police killings of Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor. Demonstrators also decry the death of Arbery who was chased by three white men and fatally shot in February.
On Monday, freedom was a major theme of the Georgia NAACP's March on Georgia where hundreds of demonstrators of all races marched to the State Capitol.
"These are people who want to be free and believe the Constitution ought to represent all of America," Rev. Jamal Bryant, of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, said at the event. "We had to choose whether we would fight COVID or corruption. And we came out and said if we perish let us perish, but we are going to die trying to be free."
More than 10,000 people were arrested in the protests across the country after Floyd's death, according to the Associated Press.
Many of them were Black people, such as Jordan, who protested peacefully and are seen on videos being tackled, tear gassed and arrested by police.
Some of those detained were Black journalists reporting on the protests.
First Amendment: Freedom of religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly and petitioning the government
Keith Boykin, a freelance journalist and CNN commentator, said he was filming a protest in New York City on May 30 when police officers asked him to move out the way.
Boykin, 54, said he alerted the police that he was the press. Moments later, officers arrested him, placing zip ties around his wrist. Boykin said police transported him to a New York jail where he sat for four hours. He was cited for blocking traffic and disorderly conduct.
“They never gave me an opportunity to prove that I was with the press,” Boykin said.
Boykin said he believes the police targeted him because he's a Black man.
“This is part of the experience of being an African American," Boykin said. “It doesn’t matter for a lot for us what our backgrounds are, we are still treated the same way."
Fifteenth Amendment: The right to vote shall not be denied or abridged based on race
Black Americans are also still fighting for equal voter protections.
In Georgia's primary election on June 9, voting rights groups accused the state of voter suppression saying polling places in predominately Black neighborhoods suffered long lines, voting machine issues and hours-long waits to vote.
Some of these same issues were reported in the November 2018 election.
A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found that Black and Latino citizens were more likely than white people to face barriers to voting. Some of the biggest barriers reported were voters who had trouble finding their polling place or were told they lacked the proper identification.
Zakiya Mims, a Black woman from Atlanta, said she waited in line for more than three hours at a predominately Black polling place after poll workers reported an issue with voting machines in November 2018. This polling place in Fulton County, she said, had been combined with another precinct yet there were fewer voting machines.
When Mims got to the front of the line, there appeared to be a mix-up with her polling location and she was forced to go vote in eastern Cobb County — an affluent white community where she grew up and voted in previous years. She waited one hour to vote at that polling place which had "phenomenal voting conditions" and plenty of machines, Mims said.
Mims said elected officials need to be held accountable for this.
“Regardless of whose fault it is, let’s all say it’s not been equal because it hasn’t,” Mims said. “An unwillingness to acknowledge the inequality in voter access, to me it’s hard to not say there’s some racism.”
Racial profiling by and beyond law enforcement
Black Americans say they are often racially profiled and threatened in public parks, restaurants, malls and hotels — often by other citizens.
For example, a video went viral last month of Amy Cooper, a white woman, calling the police on Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, because he told her to put her dog on a leash in Central Park in New York. When she refused, Christian Cooper pulled out dog treats.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” Amy Cooper is heard saying in the video.
Some incidents have sparked racial discrimination lawsuits.
Richard Willock is suing the Hilton after a stay at Hampton Inn and Suites in Nashville in October 2018 where he says a white female employee racially profiled him.
Willock, a Black man from Madison, Mississippi, said he was eating pizza and chicken wings in the hotel lobby while watching a football game and using his iPad when the employee asked if he was sleeping and demanded he prove that he was a guest at the hotel. When Willock asked why he was being singled out, the employee called a security guard to remove him from the hotel and then called police, according to the lawsuit.
Willock said he felt profiled because there were several white people in the lobby who did not get approached.
“I automatically thought it’s only because I’m Black that she came up and approached me," said Willock, who was in Nashville for a baseball recruiting visit with his teenage son.
It was also alarming because Willock said many Black people fear encounters with the police.
"I knew what she was doing," Willock said. "In our history, the police are called as a lethal weapon."
Hill said the nation's current racial climate will make this Friday a "Juneteenth like no other."
He expects there will be more celebrations and more efforts to promote equality for Black people across the country.
“There’s a big difference between freedom from something and freedom to do something,” Hill said. “So the freedom to do something is what I think we are in the streets about today.”
Reach USA TODAY national correspondent Nicquel Terry Ellis at email@example.com