PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice

By Joelle Goldstein
August 14, 2020 11:45 AM
Advertisement
Lauren E. Banks
Nathan Johnson

Lauren E. Banks currently stars on Showtime's crime drama, City on a Hill, alongside Kevin Bacon. A graduate of Howard University and the Yale School of Drama, Banks, 29, has dedicated her life to storytelling — whether that be on the screen or behind the picket lines. In June, Banks flew from Los Angeles to Louisville to participate in a protest over Breonna Taylor's death with social justice organization, Until Freedom. There, she became one of 87 people who were arrested and held in a cell for close to 20 hours. Here, Banks talks to PEOPLE about her experience and why, despite being arrested and facing charges for the first time in her life, she considers the experience to be "incredibly humbling."

Breonna Taylor's mother said she was alone for two months after her daughter's death and no action was being taken. Hearing that she was alone, pursuing justice for her daughter, believing that no one cared, resonated with me highly. Because I knew that people did.

I knew that I had talked to other women — particularly Black women — who woke up in the middle of the night, imagining what happened to Breonna. Imagining that same interaction for themselves: somebody breaking down their door, fearing for their life, their boyfriend looking to defend them, and having their life taken.

Understanding how necessary protest is to bring light onto situations that are not getting the attention they need, I knew that I could not stay in my house, and I knew that I needed to enact the organizing tools that I had at my discretion.

The national conversation was being had with Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, but Breonna Taylor was only on the back end of that conversation. The protests weren't centering on Breonna in the way that I thought they needed to.

So the minute that Until Freedom and [co-founder] Tamika Mallory said, "We're going to do this thing," I knew that I needed to be a part of it.

Lauren E. Banks
Nathan Johnson

At the march, there were people from all over the country. It really represented the diversity and the melting pot that is America. Nobody was an outsider. We're all American citizens, and we're all concerned about what happened to Breonna Taylor.

As soon as we started, there were cars driving by, blowing their horns in rhythmic support of our chant. Outside of every car window we passed, it felt like there was a Black fist, a white fist, a brown fist, hanging in solidarity.

Once we rounded into the neighborhood where the Kentucky attorney general [Daniel Cameron] lives, it was just us sitting on his lawn in our matching shirts chanting. The shift came when the first group of police officers arrived and surrounded us.

You start thinking, "Oh, that is a gun. Oh, there are multiple guns." Then, another group of officers came in their riot gear. But everybody, for the most part, still remained calm.

Eventually, all 87 of us who stayed on the lawn were arrested. As it was happening, I surprisingly did not flinch. I think that was because of the example that had been set by images of Angela Davis, or John Lewis or anybody else who was a civil rights activist getting arrested.

Breonna Taylor
Breonna Taylor/instagram

They were calm because they were holding the courage of their convictions. Knowing that they did it and would've done it again, I knew that I could do it in that moment. And I truly believe this is true of everyone else who sat on that lawn.

We were not intimidated and didn't feel any kind of anxiety towards the display of force that came in the presence of the police because we weren't there to oppose the individual police officers. We weren't there to act violently or destructively. Our presence was grounded in our belief that Breonna deserved our courage.

That kind of calmness, however, was starkly jolted by being in the paddy wagon. That was an experience that I didn't have any visual association or mental preparation for. It was essentially a torture device. I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a space so small and dark. Even though we were only in there for about 20 minutes, the ride was probably one of the most disturbing experiences of my life.

When we finally made it to the Louisville Metro Police Correctional facility, we had our temperature checked for COVID-19 and then were put in a holding cell.

Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, who are two of the four co-founders of Until Freedom, had the presence of mind to say, "Hey, let's go around the room, introduce ourselves and share where we're from and why we came here."

This was one of the more divine experiences of 2020 for me. It was different women and people speaking from the heart, speaking from where they were coming from, and why they felt the way they did.

Protesters on the lawn of Attorney General Daniel Cameron
Lauren E. Banks

A lot of mothers were in the room, which blew my mind. People left their children to come protest. That's a different level of sacrifice. One woman said had a three-year-old child, whose father was killed a year earlier by police.

The fact that she had the strength to get up, bring herself there, stay on the lawn — knowing that she would be potentially arrested that day — and be in this cell with us for 18-plus hours, not being able to be in touch with her family. It was just so much to take in.

We also laughed a lot, believe it or not, and we saw each other. We truly saw each other's hearts. It was incredibly humbling.

When we were released the next day at 11 a.m., we were met by a crowd of people who came to show their support. We also learned of our charges, which included a Criminal Trespass 3rd Degree (Violation), Disorderly Conduct 2nd Degree (Class B misdemeanor), and Intimidating a Participant in a Legal Process (Class D felony).

Potentially facing one to five years in prison (if convicted) was a scary proposition, for a couple of days. But nothing was or is more frightening than living in a world where people are allowed to take the lives of Black citizens with impunity.

Two days after we were released, John Lewis and C.T. Vivian passed away — the same day the felony charges against us were dropped. The energy and enduring spirit that those two left behind felt like a passing of a baton that represents an unrelenting fight of justice for all.

RELATED VIDEO: Meet 5 Inspiring People Charting the Path Forward as America Fights Racism

There's a difference between seeing something on TV or social media, and actually being there. I think that gap can get convoluted sometimes. Being involved in the actual thing furthered my belief that this is the time, the time to get into good trouble for what is right.

By all accounts, it was a successful protest. Nobody was hurt. Nobody was killed. No one suffered any traumatic experiences. And it called for action on behalf of the entire country in response to 87 people — 67 of them women — being arrested and charged with felonies.

Then more people said, "OK, what is happening over there in Louisville with Breonna Taylor?" And in the immediate wake of that came protests from the NBA, the WNBA, and now, Breonna Taylor being the only other person [besides Oprah Winfrey] to appear solo on the cover of O Magazine.

It's essential to this country, particularly now, that we all engage as best we can in direct action and carry that same spirit of non-violent, direct action that got so much done in the '60s.

We are at a crossroads and reckoning right now where that kind of direct action is necessary, from the participation of myself, my friends, and my peers, to my fellow citizens, artists, and other leaders. It's go time.

At the time of publication, Banks is currently on her way back to Louisville to join local activists and Until Freedom in their pursuit of justice for Breonna Taylor.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.

• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.