Protesting in the streets might kill me. But if you ask America, we were never meant to live anyway.
In 2018, at the age of 23, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia ― a particularly aggressive, rapidly metastasizing form of blood cancer with a high mortality rate. According to Cancer.net, “the 5-year survival rate for people 20 and older with AML is about 25%” and “the average age for diagnosis of AML is 68.” AML makes up only about 1% of all cancers, and, as Cancer.ca notes, without treatment, “survival [for AML patients] is usually measured in days to weeks.”
Clearly, I drew the strange, mangled short straw from a bag of similarly crappy short straws.
But somehow, I’d held on to my life by a thread for three months before anyone even knew what was wrong with me. I was misdiagnosed by three different doctors — tested for HIV, mononucleosis, syphilis, chlamydia and every other sexually transmitted disease that non-Black medical professionals thought a 23-year-old, assumed-to-be woman with brown skin might have picked up somewhere along the way.
I heard every inappropriate, loaded question under the sun. Picture me, sick and traveling with my dog in an old van from my home state of New York to Florida, where my retired parents live. Picture me, driving through the night without rest, hoping that my parents would somehow be able to save me ― like young adults sometimes secretly do — and then dropping into a fever for three days once I’d arrived, just to sit in front of more doctors who didn’t look like me. How many sexual partners have you had? Picture me, terrified. Picture me, bouncing back to New York once this venture had proved fruitless, just to find more blank-faced doctors who had more important things to do than help me ― like go on vacation.
I answered every invasive question and underwent every test imaginable ― other than the simple CBC panel that would have diagnosed me within an hour.
My diagnosis finally came in the ER after those three long months, after I’d reached the point where I was so drained that I had to sit down while taking a shower and crawl up the stairs, where the lymph nodes in my neck were the size of golf balls. I was admitted the same night to start chemotherapy immediately, right after having a Mediport implanted in my chest. Then, over the course of a year, after four high-dose rounds of chemo and a stem cell transplant — a procedure where the stem cells in my body were swapped out for cells donated by my brother — I’ve had to build up my immune system from nonexistence. I’m just now barely coming up on year two of survival.
And, of course, as a 25-year-old cancer patient — a disabled, immunocompromised stem cell transplant recipient — I’ve self-quarantined for the past few months to protect myself from the international devastation of COVID-19.
But over the past week, I’ve been experiencing these bouts of paralyzing indecision. Fear. Agitation. A constant, aching grief, building and swelling in me like a sickness.
George Floyd. A gentle giant like my father.
I’ve watched the news, feeling helpless and small. I’ve seen Black women thrown down in the streets by police officers. I’ve seen a young man of color be arrested right after telling armed riot police that he loved them, that they were still his family no matter what happened. I saw him dragged away on his knees.
They’re risking their lives.
Two more Black men were dead inside of a week: David McAtee and James Scurlock. I felt the agitation of many of the white Long Islanders all around me, on online forums, seemingly prepared to kill in order to protect the status quo — the agitation of a hunt anticipated. In my mind, replaying over and over: Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, and his calm, detached demeanor, like he’d trapped a wild deer underneath him instead of a human being.
This feeling, blowing up like a dark balloon, growing until it burst.
We’ve been risking our lives all along.
Until the pressure inside of me spilled out. Spilled over.
Here, in America, we’ve been risking our lives since birth.
I already lost two years of my relatively short life struggling to keep this Black body from destroying itself from the inside out. Despite that, I will march for George Floyd in the midst of a pandemic.
What is it that could possibly make a cancer patient risk the life they’ve just fought so hard to save and keep?
The truth is, there are two pandemics plaguing America right now. There’s COVID-19, and then there’s the much older, much more established pandemic. It’s the justice system that was designed to ensure that Black Americans would never see justice done. It’s neutrality in the face of oppression. It’s valuing destroyed property over destroyed families. It’s microaggressions. It’s racial profiling. It’s Donald Trump. It’s police brutality. It’s civilian vigilantism against Black people for existing in spaces outside of the boxes that have been forced upon us. It’s the white folk who refused to wear masks in grocery stores last month and cried “Plandemic!” while communities of color were decimated because of inequities in health care. It’s the white folk right now who are crying out “All lives matter!” and urging protesters to spare Target in the middle of a genocide.
Black lives clearly don’t matter within this system and this country. They never have.
Protesting is multifaceted and multilayered. There are ways to contribute aside from taking to the streets, and they’re all necessary and valid. They include donating money, writing letters, cooking meals for protesters and practicing art activism. Any of these might arguably be better suited for immunocompromised people who stay home because of COVID-19. These contributions are no less valuable than physically showing up to protest. But, for me, walking the streets for justice as an immunocompromised person during a pandemic is a political statement in and of itself ― because ultimately, existing as a Black person in America is just as perilous.
The fact is that while I may not be a stranger to quarantine or sickness or risk or death, neither is the rest of Black America. And being disabled doesn’t protect me, or any other Black person, in any meaningful way from police brutality. Consider Laquan McDonald, Dainell Simmons, Charleena Lyles, Philip Coleman, Quintonio LeGrier, Stephon Watts and Jeremy McDole, to name just a few.
George Floyd is important, and his death is a tragedy. But George Floyd is also just the latest victim amid a lengthy history of abuse, trauma and grief, and it’s our duty to ensure that this does not happen again.
So I’ve decided I will step out to fight with my community as a Black American once again. I will step out as a Black American who has protested police brutality in the streets of NYC and Long Island since I was a teenager, long before I was diagnosed with cancer. This time, it’ll be for George Floyd. This time, I’ll do it knowing very well that the consequences may be dire, despite protective gear and social distancing. I’ll step out again, even if this time ends up being the last time.
Because when all is said and done, being Black in America is kind of like being immunocompromised in the middle of a pandemic ― except the pandemic is systemic racism, and it’s been barreling through us, 400 years strong, with no end in sight. The pandemic is the system that hanged our ancestors from trees by their necks for entertainment, that burned us and sold pieces of us to spectators as souvenirs. It’s the system that, these days, allows tax-funded officers of the law to kneel on our necks or put us in chokeholds until we suffocate on camera for the world to see.
I’ve been met with questioning looks by those who know and love me when I mention leaving my home to protest, as if my decision means I don’t wholly value my life.
The truth is, all of our protesters are putting their lives on the line. They’re fighting a system that would rather mace children, mow down those they were sworn to protect, and watch our country burn than yield power.
We were not born to die in the streets under someone’s knee. We love our lives, and that’s why so many of us, me included, would die fighting for the right to live on our own terms, with an upward gaze — hopeful and unchained.
Jacqueline Dyre is a Long Island-based writer, editor, activist and visual artist. In early 2020, they founded Novel Noctule, an independent literary horror magazine.