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

By People Staff
July 23, 2020 01:59 PM
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Jason Duaine Hahn

DeMar DeRozan is an 11-year NBA veteran and plays for the San Antonio Spurs. For years, the Southern California native has been an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness after revealing his battles with depression and anxiety. Following George Floyd's death on May 25, DeRozan protested against systemic racism and police brutality in his hometown of Compton. Here, DeRozan talks about when he first realized what it meant to be Black in America — and his hopes for a better tomorrow.

Growing up, I often wondered why it was so hard for my close family friends and relatives to land a job. Many were simply trying to do the right thing after getting into trouble, so why wouldn't anyone hire them? It wasn't until years later as a teenager that the answer became evident to me through the way I was treated by law enforcement.

As a student at Compton High School, my friends and I were regular targets of the police. They assumed we were gang members just because we were in a group, or did things just to mess with us. Once, a cousin of mine who did nothing wrong was arrested after the police said, "Well, somebody has to go to jail today." I still remember an older friend who was killed when the police shot him through the window of his car as he slept.

The stories of harassment and brutality were endless, and with each one, we feared the police even more. We did everything in our power to stay as far from them as possible. At the time, I thought people everywhere were going through the same things we did, that this type of behavior was typical for everyone. It's scary to think about how normalized it was for us.

In time, I realized this treatment couldn't just be attributed to "the police doing their jobs," it was something more. I better understood the struggles my loved ones faced when I was younger — in America, things were more difficult for us just because we were Black.

This gave me the motivation to do everything I could to make a better life. But for other people I grew up with, it made them rebellious, hateful and aggressive toward any type of authority. I completely understand why.

DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook at a BLM protest in Compton
Jason Duaine Hahn

These types of experiences lead you to suppress a lot of pain. You pack away your feelings and make yourself forget about them, then try to convince yourself that it's "just life." So, long after the police have gone, you're left to cope with the damage done to your mental health.

When I first heard about George Floyd's murder, all I could think was, "Here we go again." I've felt that each time another story of a Black person killed by law enforcement made it into the headlines. I absolutely hate that you can wake up on any given morning to see another unarmed person killed or innocent person in handcuffs.

But I also find myself thinking about all those people who we don't see, those who didn't get the crime committed against them by police caught on camera. When I take that into account, it just heightens my frustration.

That's why it was vital for me to return to Compton after George Floyd's death to participate in the Black Lives Matters protests with my people. It was the most comfortable, most peaceful, most joyful time I could have experienced during this period in our country.

That city is my family, and I will always rep Compton every step of the way and give the next generation inspiration to do something greater than me.

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That's what we all have to do now when it comes to social justice — hold on to this inspiration, this momentum — and keep it going. The change we want to see isn't going to happen overnight, in a month or a year. We have to be committed to working far past that point to expose everything that has been used to keep us down if we really want to see a change.

My message is this: Don't let this moment pass. Don't let this opportunity pass. Apply pressure to the whole system to make a lasting change to systematic racism, oppression and everything that we've gone through for decades and decades, over and over.

I would hate to live through — or let my kids live through — another experience like this to fix the future.

  • As told to Jason Duaine Hahn

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 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.