This article was published as an Op-ed on on June 5, 2020.

For 30 years I have been a witness to manipulation, gaslighting, physical abuse, murderous threats, strangulation, and sexual violence in the context of intimate partner abuse.

I have heard thousands of survivors’ stories about praying and begging for their lives. I understand the challenges of intimate partner abuse and the services to help survivors break free from violence. In the most dangerous situations, I can guide the process for changing names and social security numbers, and if it feels safer for a survivor and their children, I can help relocate them. I know how to help.

But last week’s brutality left me feeling helpless. It laid bare the institutionalized racism that spawned the officers’ belief that they could do whatever they wanted–even get away with murder. Although this racism is familiar and intrinsically intertwined with my, and with all, lives of privilege, the witnessing of yet another human being begging for his life was more than I could bare.

All the questions and confusion expressed by intimate partner abuse survivors resonated as I listened to Mr. Floyd. The stories about not being believed, not being heard, not being protected by those who are charged to support and protect resonated as I witnessed him repeatedly exclaim “I can’t breathe.” All of the tears shed by abuse survivors struggling to understand why they were not worthy of love and safety resonated as I witnessed the murder of Mr. Floyd.

As an advocate for intimate partner abuse survivors, I know how to answer the “why” questions. I know how to connect the shared pain of survivors. I am an expert at safety planning. With a survivor’s direction, advocates like me can formulate a plan because we know the perpetrator. The abuser is identifiable. We know their name and can recognize the face. I can help advocate within the construct of what is known.

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others experienced an existence wrought with racially motivated threats and violence. They couldn’t call for help because those charged to protect were their perpetrators. No safety plan could change the outcome. The risk for people of color to be victimized exists all around. Their perpetrators are anywhere and everywhere, and too often in uniform.

There is no respite. There is no safe space, in homes or while trying to watch birds in the park. Despite all of the safety planning tools taught to black children by their acutely aware parents, black lives continue to be at risk.

Perpetrators of intimate partner abuse assert power over their victims, often say they are “sorry” as a means to falsely promise that they will no longer do harm. When working with survivors it is often discussed that the word sorry means nothing if the violence continues. The same is true of our society. We (individual and systems) offer apologies, but these empty words change nothing for our black neighbors. The words are fraught with inaction and offer no accountability for the pain, fear and suffering that racism continues to cause.

Empathy without action perpetuates violence and racism. This racism and racist violence hurts all of us but only kills people of color.

Friends and family of survivors often tell them to move on, get over it, stop being so damaged by the pain. The same rhetoric is told to our black and brown neighbors. My white community, please know healing requires safety. Cumulative trauma forebodes healing and becomes survival—an exhausted desire to just to be able to live and have your children live, forgoing the rest of their hopes and dreams. The final insult to injury is that most every attempt to heal, recapture self-power, or move forward is met with judgement. The victim is blamed — whether peaceful protests, taking a knee, raising a fist, or burning buildings.

No matter the fear, the trauma, the cries, the screams, the pleading and begging, their voices go unheard. Sorry means nothing. Our prayers are not enough. Solidarity in action and voice is the only path forward for justice and healing. 

Image credit: Jalani Morgan, Toronto, 2015