We Grew Up With an Officer Involved in Rayshard Brooks’ Murder. We’re Not Surprised.
We rode the school bus with Devin Brosnan. The news made all too much sense.
One of the many sickening things about videos of Black people dying at the hands of police officers is that we all more or less know exactly how they will end. There is an eerie familiarity with every single one. Yet we still played that video of Rayshard Brooks. On cue, the insidious feeling we’ve become so accustomed to crept in. Even before the confrontation, even before the gunfire, we knew his fate.
As details emerged, so too did another horrifying feeling. We learned that we knew one of the officers involved in Brooks’ murder, Devin Brosnan. Devin came from our hometown of Southborough, Massachusetts. We rode the school bus with him. But our horror came not from his terrifying proximity; it came from something far more sinister — another eerie familiarity.
In August 2017, white supremacists and neo-Nazis stormed into Charlottesville, Virginia, leading the infamous “Unite the Right” rally. The hateful gathering ended in racist taunting and deadly violence, a clear reminder that white supremacy still pulses through the veins of this country. From that rally came the infamous photo — a sea of white nationalists marching along the University of Virginia lawn carrying lit tiki torches. Front and center in that photograph, eyes filled with hatred, is Matt Colligan. He was also from our hometown of Southborough, Massachusetts; we rode the school bus with him as well.
We find ourselves in a pivotal moment in history, where people around the world demand justice for the murder of Black people at the hands of police. It’s happening all during a pandemic, which is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown Americans. Since the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25 by a white officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, millions of people across the U.S. and the world have hit the streets to protest.
Last Friday, a scene that began with Rayshard Brooks sleeping in a Wendy’s parking lot somehow ended with cops shooting him multiple times in the back as he ran away. Brooks — father of three, stepfather of one, beloved husband, son, sibling, and friend — is dead. By contrast, after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black parishioners in a Charleston congregation, police not only escorted him safely to custody, but served him Burger King.
Unlike many of our white Southborough peers, we are not surprised that two public figures of racial violence were raised within a square mile of our home. We cannot separate our upbringing from the white silence that continually perpetuates the racist systems built by white people.
Brooks’ killing was so egregious that it prompted the immediate termination of the white officer who pulled the trigger, Garrett Rolfe, and the resignation of Atlanta Police Chief, Erika Shields. (Rolfe has since been charged with murder.) The other white officer implicated in Brooks’ death was charged with aggravated assault and violations of oath for standing on Brooks’ shoulder as he was lying on the ground after being shot and failing to render aid. That cop is Devin Brosnan. Friends of Brosnan expressed shock that someone like him would be involved in this incident, describing him as “nice,” “polite,” and “reserved.”
We grew up as two cisgender, mixed Black girls with light-skinned privilege in Southborough. We are sisters. Southborough is a small town in Worcester County with a population of about 10,000 people and 3,500 households. The racial makeup of the town is over 80% white and under 2% Black. The overwhelming whiteness of Southborough is due to long-term institutional segregation policies. There are countless reasons why towns like Southborough are seemingly off-limits and undesirable for Black people.
Southborough may look like a pleasant town populated with tidy lawns and white-fenced homes. “Nice people” live in Southborough, and their children enjoy a well-funded public school system. Southborough is where people come to cash in on their American dream. For many white people who grew up alongside us in, this description probably checks out. This “utopia” was their lived reality.
Not so for anyone who does not fit suburbia’s default whiteness. The truth is that Southborough, like many white suburbs, is shrouded in the lie of white neutrality. This façade conceals the inescapable whiteness of the residents, their social and political beliefs, and their conviction. Despite being unconcerned with racism and inactive in the fight to dismantle it, they are still “nice people.” There, the term “racist” is a dirty word, representing a villainous individual personality trait, rather than a culturally enforced set of practices, beliefs, and systems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness — systems that took hold of our consciousness as young children. Indeed, for white people in Southborough, an accusation of racism would likely be met with a blast of incredulity, fragility, and defensiveness. It is wholly unsurprising that the white people raised in this town go on to perpetuate and replicate racist systems of oppression, much like Brosnan and Colligan have.
Our education in Southborough did not help our town’s “unconscious” racism. While very well-funded, the town’s school system actively erases narratives of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. At the elementary school, fifth-graders still celebrate “Colonial Day,” donning white colonial garb and yelling, “the British are coming!” Our high school, Algonquin Regional High School in the nearby Northborough, Massachusetts, had a tomahawk as its mascot, perpetuating negative and hurtful stereotypes of Indigenous people. We never learned about the history of the Algonquin people, yet we were encouraged, in the name of school spirit, to wear inappropriate war paint and headdresses and repeat demeaning racist chants.
From first grade through high school, there were swaths of stories, voices, and perspectives missing from our curricula. Our teachers both implicitly and explicitly taught us that racism is a problem of the past, solved by the white-palatable version of docile and peaceful Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “noble white folks” who supported him. We learned that this version of history consisted of objective facts. The white-centered lens Southborough socialized us in had lasting and dangerous implications. The racist toxicity we were taught to normalize lives on in the seemingly “exceptional” details of our present — in men like Matt or Devin, and their blatant racism. But there was nothing remarkable about Colligan or Brosnan, and therein lies the issue.
In towns like Southborough, insidious racism is like oxygen in the air. It may stand out in extreme cases — but we grew up breathing it.
We have not had the luxury of the willful, comfortable, tidy ignorance of white people in Southborough. Through both overt and covert aggression, we learned to believe that our Blackness was aberrant, shameful, and something to be silenced. The simultaneous veneer of politeness and the dismissal of present-day racism stood in fragmenting dissonance with the town’s stunning lack of diversity and active racist aggressions. We remember the gnawing, nagging feeling of being othered, through uses of the N-word from white students, being called “blackie,” and being told to wear our hair in a natural style for “crazy hair day.” We remember jokes about Black stereotypes, being one of the only Black people in our classrooms, cafeterias, and auditoriums, and never having teachers who looked like us. Each affront added to the thick, oppressive weaving of anti-Blackness. We had these experiences even with light-skinned privilege. The reality is, dark-skinned Black people face more racist aggression and violence.
We were moved to write this essay as our present history reopens wounds of racial trauma — wounds first cut in Southborough. Unlike many of our white peers, we were not surprised that two public figures of racial violence were raised within a square mile of our home. We cannot separate our upbringing from the white silence that continually perpetuates the racist systems built by white people.
After some white people we grew up with posted their black squares on Instagram with notes like, “Black lives matter,” Blackout Tuesday,” or some simply just “Vote,” most of them decided that was enough activism for now. They promptly regressed to posting pictures of their meals, sunsets, white significant others, and their peace. While they praised themselves for doing enough, like so many Black people in this country, we struggled to sleep, eat, or function in any way.
White people, consider this moment your call to action. This is your violence, your history, and your responsibility. Racism is not a “cause” to consider donating to or learning about — it is the original sin of this nation, and your safety is predicated on its strength. You cannot hide behind the masks of your white progressive towns. Your liberal votes won’t protect you from your complicity in racism, just like it hasn’t protected us from the effects of your racism. Your white inaction is violence; it manifests in people like Brosnan and Colligan, and eventually in the killings of people like Brooks and countless others. The scars of these environments are deep and long-lasting for Black people. It is not our responsibility to educate you. You must realize your complicit behavior and do something about it, right now. Your indifference to a system you actively participate in is appalling. Your silence not only disgusts us — it endangers our lives.
Towns like Southborough, mostly white and shrouded in New England’s “progressive” veneer, are places where white supremacy grows and feeds. Matt Colligan and Devin Brosnan made the national news — but what else is happening outside of the public gaze?