Activist and Writer Prince Shakur On Physical and Emotional Resiliency During Protest
Two years after racial justice protests rocked the city, an activist discovers that self-care is part of the struggle.
The first nights of protest in Columbus in the spring and summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd were jarring but exciting. Short North traffic was slowed by men pointing rifles into the air. The broken glass; the ripped flags; the wet graffiti; the tear gas canisters; the crowd scattering as rubber bullets came showering down. The police jumping out from alleyways to snatch people from the frontlines.
I remember my feet pounding asphalt. My heart jack-hammering against my chest as my friend and comrade, Calvin, and I flew deeper down some side street and screams floated up from the distance. We stopped at a dead end and looked at each other. I could feel my pulse throbbing in my face. A wave of fear moved through us.
“Left or right?” Calvin asked, but in actuality, I heard the other question, the real question: “Do you run into the hog pen to save others, or burst out of it?”
On another night, my friend and I were kettled into the Columbus Bicentennial Pavilion by police, then forced to run from the clouds of gas. Over the next days and nights, police fired at protesters from close range with rubber bullets, knocked a protester out of a wheelchair, and unleashed their rage, like a mob of their own.
As a child, I realized the brutality that the world could lavish on queer people for being themselves. Then I learned the violence that Black people could face. Both are conundrums that can make the world a very volatile place. You learn to try and realize your fullest self each time you leave the house, because there is always the chance you may not make it home. You learn to play along with the system for your survival or to barrel against it with other people who cannot accept harm.
Columbus Monthly's May 20221:Black Life in Columbus
In the riot, at some point, an adjacent lesson is learned. You forget about making it home. The goal becomes surviving a once-familiar terrain now littered with dumpster fires and National Guardsmen in tanks ready to aim and fire rubber bullets upon command. Instead of a citizen, you become part of a larger oppositional force combating the very thing killing your people. In my Black humanity, I become worthy of destruction to the police. And when fighting for your life in the path of destruction, it is your community that you need to trust.
But what happens to our alliances when the harm is all around us and we are under attack?
By the summer of 2020, I had roughly half a decade of experience as a social justice organizer, ranging from student organizing in Athens at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement to labor organizing in Seattle to organizing in solidarity with movements abroad. Starting college at 17, and trying to find my chosen family as an adult, made deep and loving community necessary. Without good people, the world could be violent, but with “people are my religion,” as AJJ, a folk punk band, once sang, another world becomes possible.
Before the summer of 2020, I’d seen my fair share of conflict play out in my Columbus community, sometimes with disastrous effects, but my local organizing world was mostly unscathed. At the height of the 2020 protests, I went to roughly two to four organizing meetings a week. I fielded emails, helped manage emergency funds, organized book clubs and so much more. The work and the strain around it became more necessary than ever.
During any political upheaval, people, old and new to social justice spaces, flock to the frontlines—which can be good or bad. During one July rally, I followed a large crowd led by a haphazard group of new organizers to a blocked-off side street filled with police officers and news cameras ready to record what I could see were intended to be civilized interviews between curious residents and the Columbus Division of Police.
“It’s a photo opp,” I grumbled later to my friend after leaving the march in disgust. “These people are basically counterinsurgents.”
At another protest, a miscommunication between the event organizers, the family of a slain Columbus resident and some of the invited speakers led to a split in my organizing circle. Letters with demands for accountability were traded from one group to the other. In the fallout, I found myself in hushed conversations with people that I once assumed saw each other as friends or allies, only to realize the thread holding them together was far thinner than I imagined.
Every other week, some new segment of my organizing network seemed to be imploding. People didn’t trust each other. The water under the bridge had turned to blood, and with all the trauma heaping down on us, there wasn’t enough time to work through the rage and the conflict. Frustrated, I began to realize that my faith in the people around me could only go so far. By the fall of 2020, I remember speaking to a friend in another city and saying, “How can I organize with people that don’t seem to really trust each other?”
My friend thought, then replied, “Maybe you trust yourself more than you trust the people around you and that’s fine.”
In my friend’s response, I found another pathway. Needing a break from the bedlam within the social justice community did not mean that I wasn’t dedicated to liberation, but rather that I needed a different context for resolving conflict to fully commit myself. Knowing this and doing something about it was also a form of self-care.
It was the nights of rushing home shortly after curfew that saved me, the wrangled packs of beer and porch hangouts as the trains barreled by on the tracks near my house. On hot summer nights, my roommates and I set up an amp, speakers and laptop in our living room and belted out countless songs into a microphone.
With the world on its way to pandemonium, all I wanted to do was sing about redemption with Bob Marley. I found my voice by traipsing around my living room with my whole heart on my sleeve and by the fall, I had decided to take a formal break from organizing for the first time in my life.
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The organizing spaces I’d been a part of dissolved or changed after my departure, but much of the conflict remained not far beneath the surface. Everyone, in their own way, needed a break. After some time and distance, I hoped people could come to the same table to reckon with the harm and hurt of the past. Sometimes loving your community is holding out hope, from a distance, that the broken parts of it will find each other again. It’s knowing that there is always more work and worry in the intimacy of getting to know people, whether the state is attacking your community or not.
Though I had immersed myself in the possibility of revolution versus reform in my city, I always knew that deep, political change, like abolition, takes time. And to be the best revolutionary I could be, I needed the energy, love and trust of my community to be able to commit myself to the act of self-care––because the struggle toward freedom is for both myself and my community.
This story is from the June 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.